Berlin Missionary Society

The Berlin Missionary Society (BMS) or Society for the Advancement of evangelistic Missions amongst the Heathen (German: Berliner Missionsgesellschaft or Gesellschaft zur Beförderung der evangelischen Missionen unter den Heiden) was a German Protestant (Lutheran) Christian missionary society that was constituted on 29 February 1824 by a group of pious laymen from the Prussian nobility.[1][2]

It was a successor organisation, in Berlin, to the missionary training efforts of Pastor Johannes Jaenicke [de] (of the Bohemian-Lutheran congregation in Berlin) which had prepared missionaries since 1800 for work with other missionary societies including the London Missionary Society.[3]

The BMS began the training of its first missionaries in 1829, with assistance from missionary societies in Pomerania and East Prussia.

An important director was Hermann Theodor Wangemann [de], who directed the Society from 1865 until his death in 1894. He first traveled to South Africa shortly after becoming director and went a second time in 1884. He wrote a system of regulations addressing fundamental questions of missionary work, the 1881 Missionsordnung der Gesellschaft zur Beförderung der Evangelischen Missionen unter den Heiden zu Berlin.[4]

The Society supported work in South Africa, China and East Africa.

South AfricaEdit

The Berlin Missionary Society was one of four German Protestant mission societies active in South Africa before 1914. It emerged from the German tradition of Pietism after 1815 and sent its first missionaries to South Africa in 1834.[3] There were few positive reports in the early years, but it was especially active 1859-1914. It was especially strong in the Boer Republics. World War I cut off contact with Germany, but the missions continued at a reduced pace. After 1945 the missionaries had to deal with the decolonisation of Africa and especially with the apartheid government. At all times the BMS emphasized spiritual inwardness, and puritanical values such as morality, hard work and self-discipline. It proved unable to speak and act decisively against injustice and racial discrimination and was disbanded in 1972.[5]

Free State and Northern CapeEdit

The BMS sent its first missionaries to South Africa in 1833. Missionaries with ties to Berlin had been working there with the London Missionary Society and Rhenish Missionary Society, making South Africa an obvious choice, with the initial objective being to set up a mission to the Tswana. Upon arriving in the southern Free State, and on advice from the London Mission Society’s G.A. Kolbe at Philippolis, it was decided instead to establish a mission amongst the Korana at a spot on the Riet River, which they named Bethanien, in September 1834.[1][2][6] From Bethanien missionaries founded a station at Pniel on the Vaal River in 1845, which would be at the centre of South Africa’s diamond discoveries in 1869–70.

Eastern Cape and NatalEdit

Further missionaries arrived in 1836/7, with Jacob Ludwig Döhne setting up BMS stations Bethel and Itemba amongst the Xhosa in a part of the Eastern Cape then known as Kaffraria. Other stations followed but on-going frontier conflict was a constraint. During the Frontier War of 1846 to 1847, these stations were abandoned and the missionaries sought safety in the neighbouring British colony of Natal.[2] Missionaries Karl Wilhelm Posselt and Wilhelm Güldenpfennig founded the first BMS station in Natal which they named Emmaus, with further stations being established in the years that followed, including the Christianenberg and Hermannsburg Missions.

South African Republic/TransvaalEdit

Missionaries Alexander Merensky and Heinrich Grützner started work in the north eastern part of the South African Republic in 1860, their first station being at Gerlachshoop. There were unsuccessful early attempts to evangelise the Swazi and in Sekhukhuneland. Merensky sought refuge amongst his Christian converts in the Middelburg district and founded the station at Botshabelo (“city of refuge”) – which soon became the most important station of the Berlin Society in South Africa. Here were established a school, seminary, workshops, mill and printing press; and from here BMS influence spread throughout the Transvaal. By 1900 there were more than thirty six stations and nearly 30,000 converts in the region. The Berlin missionaries in South Africa, particularly Alexander Merensky, Knothe, Trümpelmann, Schwellnus and Eiselen, contributed to the study of African languages, producing Bible translations and hymnals.

It was at Botshabelo that the missionary R.F Güstav Trümpelmann, with the invaluable assistance of his erstwhile student, Abraham Serote, translated the Bible into Sepedi (Northern Sotho). The publication in 1904 by the British and Foreign Bible Society of this combined effort was the first complete Bible in an indigenous language. Their work was interrupted by the Anglo Boer War, during which BMS missionary Daniel Heese was murdered by members of the Bushveldt Carbineers, an irregular regiment of the British Army.

Both World Wars, when access to funding became severely limited, caused even greater disruption. Moreover, after World War II the Society's Berlin headquarters fell within the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany. In 1961 the BMS established a branch in West Berlin, which remained in contact with its only remaining missionary field, namely in South Africa, for the next 28 years. However, from 1962 it began granting independence to its mission churches which, in time, became amalgamated with other Lutheran mission churches in the region and formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa.


The BMS focused on providing schooling and bringing the gospel to people in their own language. Hence the Society’s missionaries were often at the forefront of publishing Bible translations, dictionaries and grammars in indigenous languages. It was as part of this process that Africans, duly trained and sometimes salaried, were accepted into the Society as teachers, catechists and lay-preachers, the so-called Nationalhelferen or national helpers.[7]

The Tswana Catechist Richard Miles was an early example of an indigenous person fulfilling this role at the Mission Station at Bethanie in the Southern Free State. Miles traveled to the interior with the missionary party in 1835.[8]

Niklaas Koen, a “Khoikhoi”, was sent by the BMS to Germany in 1875 to further his education at a high school at Ducherow in Pomerania and afterwards to study for the ministry at the Berlin Missionshaus, where he adopted a German version of his name, Klaus Kuhn. Kuhn qualified as a missionary (he also took lessons as a violinist) and, after becoming engaged to a German woman, Maria Brose, returned to Africa to the mission station Königsberg in Natal – where he married his bride in 1878.[7]

Another gifted African student who had started out with violin lessons and was to follow in Kuhn’s footsteps to Ducherow and then the theological seminary in Berlin was one Jan Sekoto. Apparently not adapting well to the Pomeranian climate, however, he returned early to the BMS station at Botshabelo as a teacher. Sekoto’s son Gerard Sekoto, born at Botshabelo in 1913, would later emigrate to Europe, obtaining French citizenship and achieving considerable renown as an artist.[7]


The BMS also sent workers to China in 1869 during the late Qing Dynasty, but it was not before 1882 that the Society officially declared Canton as its mission field, inheriting a station of the Rhenish Mission. A second missionary field in China arose after Germany declared Shantung to be within their sphere of political and colonial influence in 1896.[1] Later the BMS in China merged with the German East Asia Mission (German: Deutsche Ostasienmission), which in 1972 was integrated into the still existing Berlin Missionary Endowment (German: Berliner Missionswerk). The latter keeps well established ties with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (est. 1953) and the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and co-operates with the United Church of Christ in Japan and the Church of Christ in China.[9]

See alsoEdit

East AfricaEdit

The Bethel Mission had established a missionary presence in Tanganyika, German East Africa, inviting the BMS in 1903 to take over a number of its stations. These missions declined after World War I (when Germany lost all its colonies and German missionaries in such areas were deemed undesirable) and their work was impossible after World War II.[1]


The Mission House (in bright brick; 1873) with its extension (in darker brick; end of the 19th century) and the new extension (clinker; 1996) form now Evangelisches Zentrum (Evangelical Centre), the head offices of EKBO.

The Berlin Missionary Society is still active today as an integral part of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia (EKBO).[1]

External linksEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e The Berlin Missionary Society
  2. ^ a b c Van der Merwe, Werner The Berlin Missionary Society
  3. ^ a b Shantz, Douglas H. (6 March 2013). An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe. JHU Press. p. 189. ISBN 9781421408804.
  4. ^ H. Lehmann: 150 Jahre Berliner Mission. Erlangen (1974), pp. 62-87. ISBN 3-87214-057-4
  5. ^ Gunther Pakendorf, "A Brief History of the Berlin Mission Society in South Africa," History Compass (2011) 9#2 pp 106-118
  6. ^ Schoeman, K. 1985. Die Huis van die Armes: die Berlynse Sendinggenootskap in die OFS, 1834-1869. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau
  7. ^ a b c Heese, Hans Friedrich The Berlin Mission Society and Black Europeans: The cases of Klaus Kuhn, Jan Sekoto and Gerard Sekoto Archived 2011-07-19 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Richard Miles: Motswana preacher "to the native tribes beyond the border,
  9. ^ American Presbyterian Mission (1867). Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press. pp v-vi