Thomson, William Ritchie

Presbyterian , Glasgow Missionary Society , Dutch Reformed Church
South Africa

William Ritchie Thomson was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Cape Colony, South Africa. Thomson was born in Tarbolton, Ayrshire. His father, Hugh Ritchie, had been closely associated with the formation of the Glasgow Missionary Society (GMS). After ordination in London in 1821, Thomson and his wife, Frances, sailed to Cape Town as missionaries of the GMS. There he was appointed both a missionary and an agent of the British colonial government in Cape Town, which was to pay his salary. He ministered to Gqona, Koikoi, and detribalized Xhosa at Chumie. In 1828, having found his two tasks incompatible, he became a minister of a Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) congregation of mostly Koikoi in Stockenstrom. He remained an honorary member of the GMS presbytery and played a significant part in the formation of the Lovedale Seminary, opened in 1841.

In 1855, forty-five Boers, newly arrived in Stockenstrom, requested that they form a separate session and observe the Lord’s supper as a white group. The synod initially declined this proposal, but in 1857 separate worship was allowed on practical grounds as a concession to weakness. Although Thomson was against the change, he accepted the synod’s decision, which constituted the beginning of racially separate worship in the DRC. As missionary and pastor, Thomson spoke up for the rights of the indigenous people. He did try to remain loyal to the state in its political decisions but tempered this with humanity. His first wife having died in 1836, in 1846 he married Isabella Smith (1823-1905), a teacher of missionaries’ children. He died and was buried at Hertzog.

Norman H. Cliff


H. Davies and R. H. W. Shepherd, South African Missions, 1800-1950 (1954).

R. H. W. Shepherd, Lovedale, South Africa: The Story of a century, 1841-1941 (1940)

D. Williams, When Races Meet: The Life and Times of William Ritchie Thomson (1967).

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.