Pamla, Charles (A)
Pamla was one of the first African Methodist ministers to be ordained. In 1866 Bishop Taylor of California described him as ‘about six foot high, muscular, well-proportioned but lean… [with] regular features, very pleasant expression, logical cast of mind and sonorous, powerful voice’ (Taylor 1895, 361).
Pamla was born in 1834 in the Butterworth district of the Eastern Cape. He was the son of Mdingazwe and great-grandson of Zulu, a prominent chief of the Amabambo tribe. Even before the flight of the Mfengu, Mdingazwe had left his home in Mzinyati, Natal, and settled among the followers of Hintsa in the Peddie district. When Hintsa heard that his name was Mdingazwe, meaning a person with no settled abode, he renamed him ‘Pamla’ meaning ‘wanderer’ (Mears 1958, 12). When the missionary John Ayliff approached Hintsa for permission to start a mission, Hintsa told him to ‘go to the Mfengu; those are the men for whom such a Gospel is fit’. One of Ayliff’s first converts was Pamla’s grandmother, Mbuya, who was a sangoma. Pamla’s father, mother and uncle were also converted.
In 1833 the whole family was baptised by the Rev. W. Garner of the Methodist Church, so Charles was born into a Christian family. He attended school in Nyara but did not receive much education as he had to look after the family’s sheep. He carried his Bible with him so that he could read while in the field. While he was herding the sheep he used to preach to the trees to practice public speaking because he wanted one day to become an ‘umfundisi’ or preacher. Pamla, too, was baptised into the Christian faith by the Rev. Garner.
At about this time the family moved to Keiskammahoek, where Pamla became a class leader and local or lay preacher. When the Rev. Robert Lamplough came to the area Pamla acted as interpreter. Lamplough was stationed at Annshaw Church, Middeldrift, and Pamla began to be involved as an unpaid evangelist. One night in 1866 Pamla had a vision and decided to offer himself for the ministry. He sold his home and farm to concentrate on his work as an evangelist. He studied Wesley’s sermons and often used them as the basis for his own preaching. Pamla became known as a powerful preacher.
In 1866 Bishop Taylor of California came to South Africa to hold revival meetings. When he reached Queenstown he was introduced to Charles Pamla who became his interpreter. At the meetings Pamla would repeat what Taylor had said in words that the listeners could understand. Many lives were changed. As people came to find out more, Taylor found himself continually asking: ‘Charles, what are they saying?’ (Taylor 1895, 409). Taylor wrote: ‘Charles Pamla’s training for our great work together was going on quite independently of me’ (MS 1534 Cory Library).
At Annshaw there was an emotional revival. Here Taylor began to preach in what Pamla called ‘low English’ so that Pamla could interpret more easily. Pamla was even able to translate the hymns. He wrote in 1916, referring to the service at Annshaw, that: ‘There the Holy Spirit came mightily on us all and many wonderful things were seen and done’ (Meats 1958, 17).
Pamla continued to travel with Taylor. At Clarkebury the Tembu chief wanted to give himself to God. Everywhere men and women, black and white turned to God. When they reached Natal, Taylor’s mission came to an end. Taylor said, before he left: ‘If my fellow labourer, Brother Charles Pamla, and a few others were set apart as were Barnabas and Saul for this work … I believe the Holy Spirit would do a work through them he could not so readily do through me.’ He also said: ‘These are the men to evangelize Africa.’
The following year a theological institution was opened in Healdtown. The first students were Charles Pamla, James Lwana, Charles Lwana and Boyce Mama. They were ordained in 1871.
Pamla started his ministry in an isolated church in Tsitsana. He then worked in Butterworth and Etembeni. He had a long ministry as a pioneer preacher, always standing firm on his Christian principles, such as refusing to drink ‘Kaffir beer’. He tried to have the African customs that the missionaries condemned discussed at Synod.
In 1909 he was appointed a connexional evangelist with wider responsibilities, although based in Clarkebury. He continued in this post until he retired to Matatiele in 1913. The mission station ‘Pamlaville’ was named after him. He remained active and a year before he died he wrote: ‘Time would fail me to tell of all the wonders of God’s grace … My own heart is full of wonder and thankfulness at the remembrance of all my eyes have seen.’
Pamla died on 24 June 1917. Speaking to members of the family, after his death, the Rev. T. Curnick told them: ‘He is not only your father, but is the father of the whole Connexion [the Methodist Church in South Africa].
J. A. Millard
Balia, D. “Charles Pamla and the 1866 Revival,” in The Making of an Indigenous Clergy in Southern Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster, 1995.
Meats, G. Methodist Missionaries no 2. Cape Town: Methodist Missionary Department, 1958.
Minutes of the South African Conference of the Methodist Church 1918. Obituary.
MS 1534. Cory Library, Grahamstown.
Taylor, W. The Story of My Life. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1895.
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.