Samuel Mathabathe was a pioneer preacher of the Methodist Church who, before the missionaries came, established a Christian community in what was at the time the northern Transvaal. He was born in about 1840 in the Soutpansberg area in the territory of the Maphahlele clan.
In about 1862 Mathabathe left his home and went to Natal in search of work. Here he met up with the Methodists and attended the school of the Rev. James Allison in Edendale. He learned to read, write and apply efficient farming methods. He also learned how to preach after he had become a Christian. He was baptised by the Rev. J. Allsop who worked in Durban during the 1860s. When the Rev. George Lowe met Mathabathe at Good Hope Mission in 1886 he was shown a well-worn Bible Mathabathe had received in Durban twenty years before (Choates 1951, 5).
After a while Mathabathe felt called to return home to his own people. As soon as he arrived back in the Soutpansberg area he began to preach. He asked the chief for permission to preach but was told: ‘If you hold meetings to talk about the “new Chief” [Jesus] you will have to leave the tribe or I will put you to death’ (Mears 1955, 16). However, Mathabathe continued to preach and soon gathered a group of people who wanted to hear the Christian message.
From the outset he encountered opposition. A small church that he had built with his own hands was ruthlessly pulled down. He kept on doing house-to-house visitations and after four years the chief died and the chieftainess who succeeded him was more sympathetic. She allowed a church building that could hold 600 people and a school to be erected.
At about this time the Mathabathe clan, to which Samuel belonged, moved away from the Maphahlele tribe, but Mathabathe decided to remain with Maphahlele’s people. He appealed to the Chief, ‘Mutle i’hadudi Maphahlele, to allow him to preach and was given permission to continue with his Christian work.
Mathabathe appointed two teachers to work in the school. He sent them to the French missionaries in Lesotho to learn how to teach. One of the teachers was Johannes Maphahlele, a relative of the chief, who later became a minister. Maphahlele had spent time in Port Elizabeth where he was converted. He also worked on the Kimberley mines and used the money he earned to pay for his instruction at the Rev. Mabille’s school in Lesotho. Mathabathe and Maphahlele gathered all those willing to listen into a Methodist Society class meeting. Maphahlele taught the people the stories from the Old and New Testaments that he had learnt from the French missionaries. He also taught the congregation how to sing the Magnificat to the tune of the Dead March from Saul.
In 1870 the Rev. Albert Nachtigal of the Berlin Missionary Society wrote that two men from the Maphahlele chiefdom had come to him for books and assistance in improving their reading and writing. One had been in British ‘Kafferland’ (possibly Port Elizabeth) and the other in Maritzburg, Natal, and had known Allison. The names are not mentioned but the description fits Mathabathe and Maphahlele. The Notices of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society recorded in 1883 that prior to 1879 Mathabathe had ‘for months got writing materials from the Berlin missionaries’. They had wanted to take over his work, but Mathabathe told them that he ‘belonged to the Wesleyan Church’. His people belonged to it, too. ‘My missionaries know nothing about me, but in God’s own time they will find me, for they are sure to march into the interior.’
Mathabathe once again had to face persecution when the church he had built was burnt down. Converts were beaten and their property destroyed. Children of converts were forced to attend circumcision school. As an unordained preacher Mathabathe was unable to baptise his converts. Because of the problem of people who needed to be baptised Mathabathe sent a message to the Rev. Owen Watkins of the Methodist Church in Natal asking him to come and perform the baptisms. Watkins was unable to leave his work in Natal and sent a message to the Rev. Stephanus Hofmeyr of the Dutch Reformed Church asking him to baptise the converts. Mathabathe made sure that Hofmeyr was aware that he was baptising Methodists.
Mathabathe twice went against African tribal tradition when it was in conflict with his Christian convictions. On one occasion a convert gave birth to twins. According to tribal custom the children should have been put to death and their bodies used for ‘muti’. Mathabathe refused to allow this. When one of the twins died he carried the body to the Dutch Reformed mission in Goodehoop to be buried.
The persecution was particularly bad in 1880 and 1881. At this time Mathabathe removed a boy, Micha Makgatho, from the circumcision school and sent him to the mission school. This was considered an affront to the sacred rite and the lives of Christians were once again threatened.
In 1883 the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society purchased the farm Goodehoop to accommodate Mathabathe’s converts and the Good Hope Mission was born. By this time the Transvaal had been named a ‘Trial mission’ by the Methodist Church and Watkins was in charge. He visited Mathabathe and described him as ‘having the courage of the apostle Paul and the tenderness of the apostle John’. He was small in stature and had worked as an evangelist for nine years, ‘unknown, unpaid and unvisited’.
Once Good Hope was established Mathabathe traveled to evangelize and ‘visit the distant tribes on foot’ while Maphahlele remained at the mission. In 1885, at the age of forty-five, Mathabathe was presented as a prospective candidate for the ministry. He found he could not master the study needed for ordination so remained an evangelist. In 1886 the Rev. George Lowe was sent to take charge of the mission and to work with Mathabathe and Maphahlele.
Mathabathe died on 2 January 1914 and is buried at Good Hope Mission. His memorial is the work of the Methodist Church which he initiated and which today is evident throughout the Northern Province.
J. A. Millard
Choates, D. “The Story of an African’s Thirst for the Good News.” The South African Weekly, (26 January 1951).
Choates, D. Private papers.
Delius, P. This Land Belongs to Us. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1983.
Mears, G. Methodist Torchbearers. Cape Town: Methodist Missionary Department, 1955.
Minutes of the Transvaal and eswatini District Synod of the Methodist Church 1885, 1886, 1890.
Notices of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society 1883.
MS 15 697. The Story of Samuel Mathabathe and the Wesleyan Mission, Zoutpansberg. Good Hope Mission Press. Cory Library, Grahamstown.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.