Johannie Cronjé, long-time missionary, mission secretary and researcher, was born on August 31, 1914, in the town of Vredefort, Orange Free State, South Africa. On reading that a Johan Cronjé was coming to Zambia as a missionary, Dr. Susanna Kok (mission doctor), Miss Freda Brink, and Sister Joh Coetzer decided that since all the words in Chinyanja (the language spoken in the Eastern Province of Zambia) ended with a vowel, he had to be “rebaptized.” The name Johannie thus stuck throughout the rest of his life. He married Marthie Coetzee on 30 June 1939 in Middelburg, Cape. They had three children Elise, Hennie and Marina, all born at Madzimoyo Mission Station, Zambia.
Cronjé began his school education at the local “farm” school in the Vredefort district with 20 students and completed his secondary education at Grey College, Bloemfontein, in 1932. In January 1933, he left for the Mission Institute at Wellington, South Africa, which had been established in 1877 under the influence of Dr. Andrew Murray for the training of missionaries. In 1936 he attended Livingstone College, London, completing a medical course for missionaries. He completed the M.Th. at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch in 1950 and obtained the D.Phil. in 1959 from the University of the Orange Free State, after studies in the Netherlands under J. H. Bavinck, D. Nauta and G. C. Berkouwer.
During the school break at the end of his second to the last year at school, he told his brother he wanted to become a mining engineer. His brother, Izak, was not impressed and answered that there was more to life than money. At Izak’s invitation, he attended special evening services held in their local church, the Dutch Reformed Church in Kroonstad. One evening, unhappy with himself, he remained behind after the preacher had issued an invitation to the congregation. The preacher took a watch from his pocket and said: “If I now say: ‘Take this watch for you,’ what do you have to do?” “Believe your offer, stretch out my hand and take the watch,” he answered. “This is precisely the meaning of the Lord’s words in 1 John 1:9 ‘If we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.’ Accept in faith the forgiveness of your sins because Christ died for our sins on the Cross.” The preacher continued: “He also said: ‘I will never turn away anyone who comes to me’ (John 6:37).” Cronjé confessed his sins and peace came into his heart. Following this experience, Cronjé struggled with the question of whether to become a missionary or a mining engineer. He was eventually convinced that the will of the Lord for him was to become a missionary.
During the last year of studies at the Mission Institute in Wellington he presented himself to the Mission Committee of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Orange Free State as a missionary. He departed for Zambia in 1937 and was posted to Madzimoyo–meaning Water of Life–Mission Station, about 40 km from the Malawi border, where he immediately started language studies. His language teacher, the senior missionary Rev. J. H. van Schalkwyk required him to preach his first sermon in Chinyanja after six weeks. After a year he was transferred to the Malherbe Mission station, 50 km east of Lusaka. The station and area lacked water and was especially unhealthy for people suffering from asthma. Attempts to have the mission station moved to a more suitable place were unsuccessful. Six months after he brought his bride to Malherbe they had to be transferred back to Madzimoyo as Marthie suffered badly from asthma. It was here at Madzimoyo that their children were born. One child, Johan, died soon after birth.
The congregation in Madzimoyo consisted of 2 000 members in 1941 when Cronjé returned. He was then transferred to Chipata (called Fort Jameson at the time) about 20 km east of Madzimoyo. The stay there was short as the local synod, established in 1943, decided that the training of evangelists had to be started at Madzimoyo. Cronjé was put in charge of this task and began the work in 1945. His wife assisted with the preparation of the wives of trainee evangelists. When the first group of evangelists had completed their training the synod decided that ministers must also be trained. In 1951, the first students for the ordained ministry were enrolled. Initially, only Cronjé was responsible for theological training. In due course he was assisted by Rev. Samuel Thewo as part-time lecturer, Rev. D. J. Kriel and, after Rev. Kriel’s death, by Dr. W. A. Krige. The foundations laid led to the development of the present day Justo Mwale Theological College in Lusaka, Zambia. Besides his teaching duties, Cronjé was also responsible for pastoral work in the Madzimoyo congregation. In 1948, as a contribution to the 50th anniversary of the mission of the Dutch Reformed Church in Zambia (1949) he published a history, En Daar was lig (And There was Light), on the church’s mission work in Zambia. This work formed the basis of his M.Th. studies in 1950 at the Faculty of Theology, University of Stellenbosch.
At the beginning of the 1950’s, growing nationalism among the local people became noticeable, even in the church. The word umwini was heard more and more. This pointed to the desire of the church to exercise control over its own affairs. This happened at a time when the Mission Council of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Orange Free State still had, according to the constitution, the right of veto over all resolutions taken by the synod in Zambia. Aware of the possibility of confrontation and sensitive to possible negative effects on the mission of the church, Cronjé decided to study under J. H. Bavinck to learn more about how older missions in the world, which had passed this stage, had dealt with this challenge. After studies in the Netherlands under J. H. Bavinck, D. Nauta and G. C. Berkouwer, he completed his doctoral thesis, Die Selfstandigwording van die Bantoekerk (The Road to Autonomy for the Church Amongst Africans), in 1959 at the University of the Orange Free State. By the middle of 1959, Cronjé suffered from Malta fever and general fatigue. The family had to leave Zambia at the end of 1960, after 23 years of service.
On his return to South Africa, Cronjé served as a missionary at Carletonville starting in January 1961. Soon afterwards, he was appointed organizing mission secretary of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Orange Free State and relocated to Bloemfontein. In 1981, he was appointed mission secretary of the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa with its office in Pretoria. He served in this position until his retirement August 31, 1979.
The day after his official retirement he started work with the Institute for Missiological Research (ISWEN) in the Department of Missiology at the Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria. He prepared the second volume of a two volume work entitled Aan God die Dank (Gratitude to God) on the history of the mission work of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. The first volume on the DRC’s mission work inside South Africa was prepared by Prof. D. Crafford. The second volume dealt with the mission work outside the borders of the country. The two volumes were condensed into one volume, edited by Cronjé, and published in English as Born to Witness, A Concise History of the Churches Born Out of the Mission Work of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) of South Africa in 1982. In 1984, he published a book on the role of women in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa containing sketches of 120 women. A major achievement was the indexing of all articles on mission work from the 27 volumes of the Die Sendingblad (The DRC magazine on missions), Die Kerkbode (DRC official weekly newspaper) as well as the journal Missionalia, resolutions pertaining to mission work by the General Synod of the DRC in South Africa and other magazines and newspapers. By 1995, 14,000 entries had been made in the ISWEN database. In addition, he began work on an index of the agendas and minutes of the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa as well as the four regional synods of the Transvaal and the DRC synod of Central Africa (Zimbabwe).
In December 1993, after he had already left ISWEN, the University of Pretoria presented him with the Chancellor’s Medal. In 1995, the Reformed Church in Zambia named the Middle Basic School at Madzimoyo after him.
J. J. van Wyk
Publications by J. M. Cronjé:
J. M. Cronjé, Akufa Ali Kuti? [Where are the dead?] (Bloemfontein: NG Kerk Sending, 1945).
J. M. Cronjé, En Daar was Lig. Die sending van die Ned Geref Kerk in die OVS in Noord- en Suid Rhodesië gedurende die jare 1899-1947 (Bloemfontein: Sinodale Sendingkommissie, Posbus 1399, 1948).
J. M. Cronjé, Kwayera Mbiri ya Dutch Reformed Church in Northern Rhodesia [On the history of the Dutch Reformed Church Mission in Northern Rhodesia] (Bloemfontein, 1952).
J. M. Cronjé, *Abrahamu - bwenzi la Mulungu * [Abraham, Friend of God] (1957).
J. M. Cronjé, Die Selfstandigheid van die Bantoekerk (PhD thesis, University of the Orange Free State, 1958) (Bloemfontein: NG Sendingpers, 1962).
J. M. Cronjé, Aan God die Dank. Geskiedenis van die Sending van die Ned. Geref. Kerk. Deel 2. Buite die Republiek van Suid-Afrika (Pretoria: NG Kerkboekhandel, 1981).
J. M. Cronjé, Subsidiëring van die Jongkerke [Subsidizing Young Churches] (1981).
J. M. Cronjé, Die Sjinese in Suid-Afrika en hul Godsdiens [The Chinese in South Africa and Their Religion] (1982).
J. M. Cronjé, Born to Witness, A Concise History of the Churches Born Out of the Mission Work of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) of South Africa (Pretoria: NG Kerkboekhandel, 1982).
J. M. Cronjé, Vroue met Nardusparfuum Die aandeel van die vrou in die sendingwerk van die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Pretoria: NG Kerk Boekhandel, 1984).
J. M. Cronjé, Buku Limene amalankhuliramo ndi Anthu [About the Bible and Its Message] (Bloemfontein: NG Sendingpers, P.O. Box 19, 1988).
J. M. Cronjé, God’s Message for Me (1992).
J. M. Cronjé, Miracle of God in Central Africa, 2nd and expanded edition of What I Remember of My Life of 80 Years, published by the author (Pretoria: Ruimtesig C6, P.O. Box 73501, 0040 Lynnwood Ridge, 1999).
Notules van die Sinodale Sendingkommissie van die NG Kerk in die Oranje Vrystaat, Kerkargief, Bloemfontein, Suid-Afrika.
Notules van die Uitvoerende Sendingraad van die NG Kerksending in Zambië (Noord-Rhodesië), Kerkargief, Bloemfontein, Suid-Afrika.
This story was prepared and submitted in 2003 by Dr. J. J. van Wyk, DACB Regional Coordinator for Southern and Eastern Africa.