Bernard Johanson grew up on a farm on the northern coast of Zululand, South Africa. Born to Swedish missionaries, Karl and Ingeborg Johanson, Johanson was able to speak English, Swedish, Zulu, and Afrikaans. His early schooling was completed at a rural “farm school” and a nearby town, and he later attended the Weston School of Trades and Agriculture. After completing his education, he took on a position as a Zulu interpreter at the Amatikulu Leper Institution.
Hearing God’s call for ministry, Johanson began to study by correspondence with Moody Bible Institute, a higher learning institute in the United States, while becoming involved with ministries of other missionaries. In 1923 he decided to move to Chicago to complete his studies. Upon his return, Johanson became a full-time missionary with the Holiness Union Mission.
Johanson’s first assignment was at The Mission Press, a publishing company printing Christian material in the Zulu language. He also taught Bible classes, preached in both Zulu and English, and was involved in building churches. Many of these skills would later be used in the establishment of Union Bible Institute. Johanson continued to study in his spare time and was eventually accredited as a Baptist minister through the Baptist Union.
Union Bible Institute
In 1941, Johanson, along with his wife, Petra, and his children, moved to Sweetwaters, a township just outside of Pietermaritzburg to help establish Union Bible Institute. Prior to their move, a number of missionaries had planned to establish an interdenominational Bible school. By the grace of God, Swedish Holiness Union Mission donated land in Sweetwaters for the establishment of the school. Having much experience in construction, Johanson was appointed deputy principal and given the task of building Union Bible Institute (UBI). Six months later, he took over as principal.
For the next 30 years, Johanson served at UBI. He was an excellent teacher, both in the classroom and out, who lived out the message he taught. He fostered both the English and isiZulu streams and wrote many textbooks, commentaries, and church histories in Zulu, texts which are still being published and sold in bookstores today. He was not just a teacher, but was also involved in physically building the school. He created vegetable gardens and everyday he put his men to work before going to classes and went back to work after class. The students called him “Madolo,” which means “knees” in isiZulu, because he would often go to class with muddy knees from bricklaying. Although Johanson retired as principal in 1971, he continued teaching for two more years.
During his time at The Mission Press, Johanson had taken over the responsibility in overseeing the Chritian magazine, UBAWA. He also wrote a number of Gospel tracts in Zulu. Johanson contributed greatly to the production of Zulu texts and was known for preparing notes for his students in Zulu. Due to the limited number of Zulu resources, a demand for these texts arose, so he edited and published them, officially beginning the ministry of the UBI Literature Department. At the time of his retirement in 1971, he had written 21 titles, ten of which were used as textbooks in the classroom. As of 2015, many of his titles are still in print and UBI Publishing remains the largest publisher of Zulu Christian literature in South Africa.
Johanson was often invited to preach at different churches and conventions, in both Zulu and English. During the Christmas of 1945, he began to minister to the youth and started Sweetwater Camps. These camps were known for their emphasis on Bible study and were run for the next 26 years. Even today, alumni who attended the camps will visit UBI and recall Johanson’s powerful teaching ministry.
Johanson, B.A. 1982. Looking Back. Pietermaritzburg: the Author.
Johanson, B.A. 1971. We Watched It Grow. Sweetwaters: Union Bible Institute.
Xaba, T.A. Interviewed by the author. June 1, 2009.
This article was submitted in 2016 by Claudia Tsang, a short-term missionary with TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) working at Union Bible Institute as the school librarian from September 2015 to June 2016. She co-wrote the article with Jackie Bolger who was a missionary in South Africa for 30 years with Africa Evangelical Fellowship (now SIM). Nine of those years were as librarian at Union Bible Institute in Pietermaritzburg.