Johannes Sentsho was born about three miles from the Butjwana Nazarene Church. His grandfather saw the first whites, the Louis Trichardt Trekker party, when they descended the Drakensberg Mountains nearby. His father was a chieftain of the Sekororo people. His mother was the chief’s first wife but she was driven out of her home when Johannes was a small boy and left to fend for herself and her six children. They were in a desperate situation and often half starved. One time, when they walked for two days without food, Johannes was sick and fell unconscious. They came to a store where the white shopkeeper gave him some milk and wrapped him in blankets. They did not think he would live but he recovered. None of the children had any clothing but miraculously they survived and eventually reached their relatives’ home.
Johannes was sent out to herd his uncle’s cattle along with the other boys. One day he was bitten by a deadly black mamba. He fainted and his brother carried him two and a half miles to their home. No one was home and some of the children ran to get his mother who was working in the fields. They quickly administered traditional snakebite medicine but it was too late and they gave him up for dead. However, while they were digging his grave he regained consciousness and began to recover.
Johannes hated herding. When he was ten years old he ran away and began wandering around the country with other delinquent boys, stealing, fighting, and sometimes finding work at the white settlements. The police caught him and sent him home but he ran away again. His companions’ new sport was to hide along the railway tracks and throw stones at passenger trains to break windows. The police tracked them down and this time Johannes was sent to a reformatory. Although he bitterly resented it at the time, Johannes said later that this was the first discipline he had ever had and it helped him to become a better boy.
When he was released he worked in mines and on the railways. Eventually he made his way to Natal where he learned the Zulu language, working in homes and as a gardener. Occasionally he would go to school for short periods but for the most part he learned to read and write by himself. He gained a smattering of English and Afrikaans while working for whites. In the work crews he learned to speak fluent Shangaan as well. During World War II Sentsho joined the army and was sent to Egypt. While in the service he met a girl from Zululand whom he married and brought home to Butjwana after the war.
Missionary Irvin E. Dayhoff met Johannes in Butjwana in 1945. Johannes attended the first services that were held there under a tree. His wife, having some education, was asked to teach the school that was started. After a while Sentsho began to miss the services. One Sunday as the missionary passed his home, Sentsho’s wife came running out, scantily dressed and too drunk to talk coherently. After that another teacher was found for the mission school at Butjwana.
The missionary saw little of Sentsho over the next few years. His face showed the dissipation from the life he lived. He took a second nonChristian wife, Elizabeth, and moved his family to an adjoining area near another of missionary Dayhoff’s preaching points. Sentsho found employment as a ranger on a government farm. He became the leader in the social life of the community. He made and sold liquor and organized all night drinking and dancing parties at his home. He was a man of exceptional intelligence and leadership ability and he soon came to be recognized as the one who would one day follow his father in the chieftainship.
During one of the special annual evangelistic tent campaigns Sentsho attended the service on the last night and sat at the back. Dayhoff spoke to him urging him to seek the Lord, but he turned away saying, “Not this time, missionary.” His first wife left him and returned to Natal, taking their son with her.
Sentsho had trouble with his white overseer because he would not repay some money that he had borrowed from Sentsho. He took the matter to the nearest magistrate but received no help. One day he had a fierce argument with the overseer over this matter. Both were drunk and when the white man saw that Sentsho was becoming violent in his anger, he left the house and drove away in his car.
In a blind, drunken frenzy Sentsho entered the overseer’s house and went from room to room throwing kerosene over the furniture. He set the house on fire and hid in the bush to await the overseer’s return with a shotgun and ammunition he had snatched. Instead of returning, the overseer sent the police to arrest Sentsho who fired into the air over their heads. The police fled on their bicycles to the police station thirty miles away. Soon a truck full of police with white officers returned to search for Sentsho. Again he fired into the air and fled into the bush.
Finally a posse of fifty police arrived with bloodhounds and they cornered him twenty miles away in the mountains. Sentsho was hiding behind a large rock and when he peered over it he was shocked to see that the leader of the group was his ex-army captain for whom he had the profoundest respects. A bullet grazed the side of his head, causing a permanent scar. Torn between desperation and shame, he saw only one way of escape. He put the shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger but the gun misfired. He was then arrested. At his trial his gun was examined and no reason was found for the misfire. It seemed that God had miraculously stepped in to save his life.
At first Sentsho received a very heavy sentence but he appealed his case. At his second trial his white overseer was shown to be partly to blame for what happened. Sentsho’s sentence was reduced to three years with hard labour for being in illegal possession of firearms and burning down a home. In prison three hundred miles away in Pretoria, Sentsho began to remember the teaching he had heard in the church services he had attended. He prayed but God did not seem to answer. However, God was working with him and he saw himself at last as the wicked sinner that he really was. He began praying in earnest for many nights. He slept only fitfully and was troubled with dreams.
One night he dreamed that a missionary came to him holding a large Bible which he opened, saying, “Here is the Word of God. This is what you need to help you. Study this book and then take it to your people.” Suddenly Sentsho awoke, perspiring profusely. As he prayed deeply and earnestly, God gave him forgiveness and assurance. Desiring to help his fellow prisoners find God, he asked the prison officials for a room where he could meet with some of them and teach them the Bible. They simply laughed at him. Nevertheless, the prison chaplain helped him to get a place where he could begin Bible lessons for the prisoners.
Sentsho wrote to Irvin Dayhoff saying “I am a Christian now and I will never turn back to the world again. Come and baptize me.” Dayhoff replied that immediate baptism was not necessary but that he could be baptized when he got out of prison. This letter was unduly delayed however, and Sentsho was impatient to make public testimony to his Christian faith. He asked the prison chaplain to baptize him but stipulated that he wanted to join the Church of the Nazarene. Irvin Dayhoff visited him in prisons some months later, and they spent a time together reading Scripture, singing, and praying. He left him some tracts and scripture portions. Sentsho told him his sentence had been reduced for good behavior and he would soon be released. He had no idea what he would do then. The missionary invited him to come and help him build churches. He replied, “I don’t know anything about building, but I will come and visit you as soon as I am out of prison.” Sentsho showed the literature to his prison friends and proudly told them, “My missionary has been to see me.” One of them asked if that was the same missionary that he saw in his dream. Sentsho smiled and replied, “It could be, I only saw his hands and the Bible in my dream.”
One Sunday morning Irvin Dayhoff passed Sentsho’s home and thought that it should be about time for his release from prison. Walking over to his homestead he found Sentsho still in his prison clothes with his two children. He invited him to accompany him to the services at the various preaching points that day. Sentsho was noticeably very quiet all through that day. Arriving back home towards evening the missionary asked if he was ready to start working. He replied that he needed a week to sort out some family affairs, but then he would come.
Shortly before leaving prison Sentsho had learned of serious family problems at home. All the way home on the train he was tormented by angry thoughts and was very close to losing his faith by the time he arrived home. He had by-passed the mission and gone straight home not wishing to see the missionary while he was in that state of mind. Having arrived that Sunday morning he found only his two children at home and just then the missionary drove up. When he told this to the missionary he said, “God sent you that morning. If you had not come and taken me away that day I would most certainly have lost my faith and gone back into darkness, but God spoke to me all through that day and when you left me at home that evening the problems were resolved. My wife was home when I arrived and there was a happy reunion. We prayed together, and she made a start toward becoming a Christian.”
True to his word, Sentsho walked the fifteen miles from his home and arrived at the mission at daybreak on Monday ready to go to work. He was an excellent worker and soon learned the building trade well. He was a fine foreman and built a number of church buildings during the next two years. Out of his first wages he bought a bicycle and asked permission to go home each Sunday to preach to his people. What a testimony he had to share with them! Prior to this the congregation had been mainly women, young people, and children. Now the men came to listen to him. This, in spite of the fact that the tribe had disowned him for becoming a Christian. He said to them, “You know what my life was before I went to prison. Look at the change that God has made in me! You used to follow me to the beer parties. Follow me now to Jesus!” His conversion made a tremendous stir throughout that area among both whites and Africans.
It was a joyous day when Johannes Sentsho told the missionaries that God was calling him to the ministry and that he wished to enroll in Bible School to prepare himself. In 1956 at the end of two years at Siteki Bible College in Swaziland the full light of holiness broke through to Sentsho’s soul, and he was fully sanctified. The following years proved his genuine walk with God. His influence went far and wide. The churches on the Lorraine Zone grew and young men, seeing his transformation, answered God’s call into the ministry. Sentsho was ordained and became the leader of the Letaba-Lorraine Zone.
Shortly after he began ministry he was called to a great gathering of his people. They told him, “After you took to the White Man’s religion, we had decided to make your brother the chieftain in your father’s place. But we have been watching your changed life. Your brother is just an ignorant drunkard like we are. We think you could help us. We want you to be our chief.” This was indeed a great honour and a great compliment to his changed life, but Sentsho knew that this would sidetrack him from God’s plans for his life. He declined the honour telling the people that he had a bigger job than being their chief. He felt he could help them more by preaching the Gospel to them than by governing them. Sentsho was a very effective preacher to his people. Often he would say at the close of his message, “Don’t sit there squirming. It’s not lice that are biting you; it’s your sins.” Emphasizing the value of visiting ministers at evangelistic meetings and camp meetings and the need for their support he would quote the ancient proverb, Tšhikidi e phela ka madi a moeng (Bedbugs live off of the blood of visitors). He put gospel lyrics to traditional tunes and they were very popular.
Not all his services were filled with eager listeners. He was holding an evangelistic campaign at Lepelle accompanied by the Bible College students, Josias Mahlatji and Dixon Mampa. Traditional school celebrations were being held that week in the community and attendance to the services was poor. He rang the first bell (beating a piece of iron hanging from a tree) at 9:30, again at l0:30, 11.00 and 11:30. He went out into the bush to pray and at 12:00 noon he told the Lord, “Now I am going to ring the sixth bell and regardless of whether anyone comes or not, I am going to have a church service. He rang the bell, sang a hymn by himself and prayed aloud. While he prayed a boy knocked on the door. He was on an errand and in spite of his protests, the preacher persuaded him to come in and sit down. Then three women came. By the end of the Sunday School lesson at 1:00 p.m., there were sixty-seven in the little church. Others came and he had seventy-five to listen to his message. Thirty-seven came out at the close to pray at the altar and six joined the probationer’s class for the first time. Feeling that it was too good an opportunity to let slip by, Sentsho gave them a missionary message and ten of them asked for alabaster boxes (for donations to be used for building mission buildings around the world).
Johannes Sentsho’s natural ability as a communicator and leader made him a valuable minister in the church. His sparkling eyes would hold the audience entranced as he preached. By 1960 he was the leader in the Thabeng, the Downs, and the Lorraine Area and was also active in full-time evangelism. Eighteen of his converts were baptized at the camp meeting in 1959. Being the son of a chieftain he was able to exercize special influence with chiefs of surrounding tribes in gaining permission to enter new areas with the church. Through his help Chief Mafefe granted the church a site to build a church and parsonage in his area.
At Middelkop in GaMphahlele homeland permission had been obtained to pitch an evangelism tent. The response was excellent, and after three tent campaigns regular services were begun under a tree. Chief Mphahlele agreed for the church to request a church site at Middelkop. When the application was made the chief was away. It was known that he and many of his councilors were not in favour of the Nazarene Church coming. The regent received the leaders kindly and was favourable to the request. However permission first had to be obtained from the local chieftain at Middelkop. They knew that he was against the church so it was fearfully and prayerfully that they went to his homestead. Because of the prolonged drought the chieftain and most of the men were away working. His old mother and young son were in charge of affairs. The son was as hostile as his father but the old grandmother was called from working in the fields to make the final decision. Johannes Sentsho spoke to her alone for a while. He said, “I am the son of a chieftain of the Sekororo people and we also used to be opposed to missionaries coming to break down our ancient traditions and way of life. But God has brought many blessings to our people because of the coming of this missionary to our people.” When the son came in, before he had a chance to say a word, the grandmother told him, “You get into the car with this missionary and go to the chief and tell him that we want the missionary to come and build a church here.” The necessary permission was granted.
Sentsho was instrumental in helping Chief Mmashila Letswalo of the Mmamahlola People at Metz near the Lorraine Mission to become a Christian in 1961. He worked faithfully to disciple the chief and preached to a great crowd of people from the whole area at the Chief’s funeral in 1962.
In May, 1965, Johannes Sentsho accompanied missionary J. C. B. Coetzer to visit the Pedi queen in Sekhukhuniland. They had an appointment but upon arrival at 9:00 a.m. on the appointed day, a great tribal ceremony called the “Cutting of the Hair” was in progress. The tribe did not want any whites around, but Sentsho told them that Coetzer was a missionary, not a white man. They were sent to obtain the approval of two local Lutheran pastors. One of them was drinking beer and he told them, “If you are one of those churches that preaches against drinking beer, just leave and don’t return.” These pastors were however greatly impressed by the many Bible verses that Sentsho quoted. They took him back to the royal homestead, but their entry was still refused. Sentsho persuaded them to allow him to enter the inner court alone. As he watched the dancers, he saw an old friend whose life he had saved in North Africa during the war. His friend helped him obtain a hearing with the queen’s councilors. Sentsho told the councilors that he and his fellow missionaries had brought a nice leather Bible to present as a gift to the queen. The queen sent word that she would not see him, but that he may just leave the Bible. Sentsho sent a message back to the queen explaining that the Word of the Almighty God was too important to be treated lightly; he needed to present it to her in person. She responded that she was sick and could not see visitors. Sentsho then sent a message saying that God could heal sickness, and he would like to pray for her. Upon receiving this message the queen agreed to see Sentsho and the other missionaries, and the councilors called Coetzer, who had been waiting outside, to join them.
The queen asked the Lutheran pastors to verify that Sentsho’s gift was indeed a Bible. This they did. Then she asked Sentsho to read a little from it before leaving. He did so and then preached a powerful ten-minute gospel message. At the conclusion the whole court knelt to pray including several councilors and the queen herself. Many had tears in their eyes when they arose. Everything was changed. Sentsho and Coetzer were given a meal in the queen’s own hut. She promised to write to them and asked them to let her know when they could go and see the work of the church elsewhere. Her final word to them was that they could bring their evangelism tent anytime they wished.
With a motorcycle for transportation Sentsho began travelling all over Sekhukuniland holding evangelistic campaigns. God helped him not only to preach the gospel effectively, but also God protected him in many practical ways. He was not in robust health and this was a very taxing few years for him. This arduous work made the Church of the Nazarene known throughout the territory and laid the foundation for the establishment of the North Central District of the Republic of South Africa. Once on a mountain road as he rounded a curve a large baboon that had jumped from a ledge above landed right on top of him. The preacher, the motorcycle, and the baboon all fell together across the road. The baboon hurt its hand in the spinning wheel of the motorcycle and as a result became very angry and started attacking the preacher. Without any adequate weapon to defend himself, Sentsho was indeed in grave danger. As he tried to get out from under the fallen cycle he picked up a rock and threw it at the oncoming baboon in an effort to stop it, but a large and angry baboon is a formidable adversary. The baboon was not frightened by the rock but instead picked up a rock and threw it back at Sentsho. At that precise moment a police van rounded the corner on the road. Taking in the situation at a glance the constable leveled off with his rifle and shot the baboon. How Sentsho thanked God for his timely protection that day!
While he was visiting a new area, the chief had granted him permission to hold a service. A great crowd gathered around a large tree. As Sentsho began speaking an uproar occurred. People jumped up and shouted as the crowd opened up leaving a path for a deadly snake that was slithering through the grass heading directly toward the preacher. As it approached, Sentsho realized that traditional doctors in the crowd were thinking that this snake, representing the ancestral spirits, was coming to drive out the preacher. Knowing that he would lose credibility if he fled from it, Sentsho breathed a prayer and jumped directly onto the snake as it came close to him and stomped on it. Immediately some of the men came with sticks and killed the snake. They found fang marks on the cuffs of Sentsho’s trousers where it had struck at him. As a result, many responded to his message in that area.
He was returning home one evening after a meeting when his motorcycle broke down. He pushed it in the darkness and stopped at a home near the road but the man at the house seemed frightened and would not help him or give him a place to spend the night. He pushed on through a densely-wooded valley. As he progressed he had an ominous feeling of impending danger. In the deep darkness around him he began to hear whisperings. The smell of death was in the air. Sentsho prayed fervently as he pushed ahead with the cycle as fast as he could in the darkness. A man brushed against him on the road carrying a load of what seemed to be flesh. Sentsho breathed a prayer of thanks and relief as he emerged from those woods. Along the road ahead he found help to repair his motorcycle and went home. The following day as he travelled back along this same road to continue the tent campaign he heard that several ritual murders had taken place in that forest the previous night. He realized then that he had indeed been in mortal danger and he praised the Lord for His guardian angel who had walked with him that night.
A traditional doctor found the Lord through Sentsho’s ministry. Once a gang plotted to murder him but God delivered him. On another occasion, the work at a promising new church at Nebo was frustrated because the chief refused to give permission for a site where a church could be built. Sentsho met with the chief and obtained the permission they needed.
In 1971 Sentsho was appointed the district superintendent at Blouberg and was reelected to this position when the district was combined with the Pietersburg area to comprise the Northwest District. In 1975 Rev. Johannes Sentsho retired from the ministry.
His son Joseph Sentsho became a minister and pastors the Zoeknog Church of the Nazarene in the Drakensberg District (2003).
Paul S. Dayhoff
Paul Dayhoff, “Six Bells for Church,” The Other Sheep, Mission magazine of the Church of the Nazarene, (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, October 1960), 3.
Feature of Chief Mmashila Letswalo, Paul Dayhoff, Africa Nazarene Mosaic: Inspiring Accounts of Living Faith, first edition, 2002, (Florida, S. Africa: Africa Nazarene Publications), 87.
Irvin E. Dayhoff, Pioneering in Pediland, (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishng House, 1964), Chapter VI. Paul S. Dayhoff, personal notes.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Standing Stones of Africa: Pillars of the Faith in the Church of the Nazarene, unpublished, copyright pending, 2004, by Paul S. Dayhoff. All rights reserved.