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The Equality of Believers

Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa
Richard Elphick

BUY Cloth · 448 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813932736 · $42.50 · Oct 2012
BUY Ebook · 448 pp. · ISBN 9780813932798 · $42.50 · Oct 2012

From the beginning of the nineteenth century through to 1960, Protestant missionaries were the most important intermediaries between South Africa’s ruling white minority and its black majority. The Equality of Believers reconfigures the narrative of race in South Africa by exploring the pivotal role played by these missionaries and their teachings in shaping that nation’s history.

The missionaries articulated a universalist and egalitarian ideology derived from New Testament teachings that rebuked the racial hierarchies endemic to South African society. Yet white settlers, the churches closely tied to them, and even many missionaries evaded or subverted these ideas. In the early years of settlement, the white minority justified its supremacy by equating Christianity with white racial identity. Later, they adopted segregated churches for blacks and whites, followed by segregationist laws blocking blacks’ access to prosperity and citizenship—and, eventually, by the ambitious plan of social engineering that was apartheid.

Providing historical context reaching back to 1652, Elphick concentrates on the era of industrialization, segregation, and the beginnings of apartheid in the first half of the twentieth century. The most ambitious work yet from this renowned historian, Elphick’s book reveals the deep religious roots of racial ideas and initiatives that have so profoundly shaped the history of South Africa.


The Equality of Believers is a pioneering work that treats many topics not dealt with previously. The scholarship is impeccable, and the result is a very rich and detailed study that is beautifully written. The book rests on an enormous base of evidence, archival and other, and is clearly the product of many decades of work. An immense contribution to the field.

Christopher Saunders, University of Cape Town, coauthor of South Africa: A Modern History

The Equality of Believers is an original and substantial contribution to the study of the history of Christian missions in southern Africa. Elphick has accumulated, assembled, and analyzed a mass of data with considerable insight and conviction. He is not only at home in the historical detail but also with the theological and cultural issues that are central to the discussion. The scholarship is impressive and the outcome is persuasive, and the book is undoubtedly the most important contribution to the debate to date.

John W. de Gruchy, University of Cape Town, author of Christianity, Art, and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice

Richard Elphick’s book tells the engrossing and very tragic tale of how the missions policy of the Afrikaans churches led them to sacrifice their most precious possession, their faith, on the altar of Afrikaner political survival through its instrument, apartheid.

Hermann Giliomee, Stellenbosch University, author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Virginia)

"This fine book tells us why and how the racial politics of South Africa owed so much to Protestant missions, both English-speaking and Afrikaner."

John Stuart, Kingston University London · American Historical Review

"Elphick makes a persuasive case for using religion as an analytical framework to elucidate larger questions about the relationship between missions and empire, and religion and apartheid."

Fiona Vernal, University of Connecticut · IJAHS

The Equality of Believers is a well-structured and elegantly written account of the role of religion in South African racial struggles. By blending intellectual history and institutional history in the South African context, Elphick constructs an inspiring approach to the study of race, religion, and nation-building in South Africa.

Lindsey Maxwell, Florida International University · H-Net Reviews

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