John Philip was a Scottish superintendent of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in southern Africa. He was converted in the Haldane revival and in 1805 began a very successful ministry in Belmont Congregational Church, Aberdeen. There he married, in 1809, Jane Ross who bore four sons and three daughters.
In 1819 the LMS work in South Africa was threatened with closure by the British authorities John Campbell and John Philip were sent down as directors of the LMS to investigate fully and suggest reforms, and Philip was appointed to stay on as superintendent. Three of his sons became Congregationalist ministers in South Africa, one daughter returned to Great Britain and another, Elizabeth, married John Fairbairn, the radical negrophile editor of the Cape Commercial Advertiser. Jane also became the de facto administrative secretary of the LMS in South Africa, sometimes, during many of her husband’s long treks, having to act on her own initiative.
In the Cape Colony, the indigenous Khoi people had become a landless laboring class. Together with the many people of mixed race, they constituted the so-called Cape Coloured people. In 1820 they had few civil rights. The LMS had gathered many of them into a number of lively congregations, and in 1823 Philip began a campaign to gain them their civil rights. In 1828 the effort was successful, though Philip had had to spend 18 months in Britain lobbying on their behalf, during which time he wrote Researches in South Africa.
Beyond the Cape Colony frontier the LMS had helped the Griqua people become an independent Christian ministate, and Philip hoped this would be the model for other South African indigenous peoples. While in Europe, he recruited the Paris Evangelical Mission Society and the Rhenish Missionary Society to begin work in South Africa; by correspondence he also persuaded the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to come. As with his own LMS, he advocated to these societies the necessity of “native agency,” that is, that only Africans could convert Africa.
After the Xhosa war of 1834-1836, Philip went to London with a group of Coloured and Xhosa Christians to give evidence to a parliamentary commission before which he insisted that a major share of responsibility for the war lay with the British authorities and the white colonists. For this he was never forgiven by a large section of the white population. He was bitterly condemned by the Afrikaner people, who had left the colony on their Great Trek and had created the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Coloured people, together with the Griqua, Sotho, and Xhosa, had a very different attitude toward him, symbolized by his grave in a Coloured graveyard in a Coloured township.
Andrew C. Ross
W. M. Macmillan, The Cape Colour Question (1927 and 1968) and Bantu, Boer and Briton (1963); Andrew C. Ross, John Philip: Missions, Race and Politics in South Africa (1986) and “John Philip,” in Gerald H. Anderson et al., eds., Mission Legacies (1994), pp. 125-131.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.