Shaw, William

South Africa

William Shaw was the dominant figure in early South African Methodism. Born in Scotland of English parents, Shaw was ordained as a Methodist chaplain to the Sephton party, one of the many organized groups that made up the 1820 English settler movement in the eastern Cape Colony of what is now South Africa. He was appointed to the white settlers but also to further mission among the indigenous peoples. He spent his first three years building up a strong Methodist church in the new settler community, which by 1824 counted twelve congregations. A strong settler church, he insisted, was the essential base for a mission to the African peoples. It was not until 1824 that work began among the neighboring Xhosa-speaking peoples beyond the colonial frontier. By 1830 he had established six stations covering the Xhosa-speaking population, though Methodist success was not primarily among the Xhosa but among the Mfengu refugees driven from their lands by the Zulu. This linking of the settler and mission churches set a course that resulted in twentieth-century Methodism in South Africa being one church. However, in Shaw’s lifetime it produced great tension, since too often funds from England were swallowed up in keeping the settler base strong. Also, in the terrible period of bloody conflict with the Xhosa between 1834 and 1852, Shaw appeared as a spokesman of the settlers. However, it was also true that he fought for African education against settler opinion and always criticized gross injustice. Having retired to England in 1856, he was still concerned for South Africa and in 1860 proposed that an autonomous South African Methodist Conference be established, but the Methodist authorities in Britain refused approval. He retired from the active ministry in 1869.

Andrew C. Ross


William Shaw, My Mission in South Eastern Africa (1860).

W. B. Boyce, Memoir of the Rev. W. Shaw (1874).

L. A. Hewson, An Introduction to South African Methodists (1951).

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.