Tiyo Soga – The First Ordained Black South African

Tiyo Soga – The First Ordained Black South African


Many things had changed in South Africa since Tiyo Soga had first traveled to Scotland in 1846. And he had changed as well. He had left a young seventeen-year-old graduate of the Lovedale Institution in South Africa, an outpost of the Glasgow Missionary Society, with the goal of pursuing a higher education. He returned for good nine years later, as a full-licensed preacher in the United Presbyterian Church – in fact, as the first Black South African ever ordained in any church. He was also one of the rare Black South Africans to have acquired a high education in Europe.

            The Xhosa Wars (also known as Cape Frontier Wars) between the Xhosa Kingdom and European settlers had been raging since 1779, leaving many Africans impoverished. Emgwall, where he was to be stationed, was now under British rule.

            But one of the greatest calamities had been provoked not by the British but by a small Xhosa girl who had claimed to be a prophet. After an outbreak of tuberculosis among the cattle, this girl had convinced the people that the only way to save the nation was to slaughter the rest of the cattle. This, she said, would open the door to great gains. In reality, it brought untold suffering and starvation to a population that depended heavily on cattle-raising. Soga arrived back from Scotland in time to witness this senseless tragedy.

            As their minister, Soga deeply cared for his people’s bodies and souls. He provided help by preaching the gospel, distinguishing truth from fiction, and by encouraging education and productivity – two values his own father had promoted years earlier, when he became the first Xhosa to use a plough and irrigate his crops with running water.


Early Challenges

            Soga had a rough start. During a short stay in his homeland in 1850, he witnessed first-hand the animosity some Africans nurtured against Christianity as a product of the same western nations that had been fighting against them. On Christmas day that year, a group of Africans attacked and burned to the ground the mission station, killing many. Soga narrowly escaped by outrunning his pursuers. In spite of this, he continued his education “in order to learn better how to preach Christ as my known Saviour to my countrymen who know Him not.”[1]

            Regardless of his respectable origins as the son of one of the chief counsellors of Chief Ngqika, some Africans considered Soga an outsider because of his western education. This discrimination became particularly evident when he disembarked his ship in 1856 with his Scottish wife, Janet Burnside.

            “You should have been with us this day to witness the wonder and amazement with which a black man with a white lady leaning on his arm seemed to be viewed by all classes!” he wrote. “We were ‘a spectacle unto all men!’ In walking through the streets, black and white turned to stare at us, and this was the case as often as we went out. It seemed to some to be a thing which they had not only never seen, but which they believed impossible to take place. From the remarks of some of my countrymen as they passed us, I at once understood that the report of our presence has gone far and wide.”[2]

            Far from seeing it as a badge of dishonor, Soga saw his marriage as “one of the

triumphs of principle.”[3]


            Some also accused him of not being a full man, since he had not undergone the customary initiation for African boys (this accusation even caused some students to withdraw from his school). But it had been his mother Nosuthu, a Christian, who had asked her husband to spare Tiyo from a ceremony filled with elements of pagan worship. She was also the one who had enrolled her son in the mission’s school and allowed him to go to Scotland. “My son is the property of God,” she said then. “Wherever he goes my God goes with him. ... No harm can befall him even across the sea. He is as much in God’s keeping there as he is near to me.”[4]

            But the time spent in Scotland had not turned Soga into an outsider or a traitor. Instead, it had allowed him to take an objective and critical look at two different ways of life. He had concluded that his people could learn valuable things from Europe, while rejecting the decadent aspects of that culture and the compromising attitude– which he described as “unblushing infidelity”[5] - of some western Christians.

            He was particularly concerned that the new European trend of “putting God on the dock” and the divisions that it generated would only confirm some Africans’ suspicions that Christianity was a religion fabricated by Whites and likely to be modified at will. These suspicions were particularly upsetting as the Xhosa tried to make sense of their culture after the devastating wars against the British.

            Another concern was the increasing neglect, in Europe, of the sanctity of the Sabbath. He blamed the commercial world, especially at that time of industrial revolution, when factory workers became, in practice, slaves and prisoners of their employers. Soga saw a correlation between the neglect of the Sabbath and the decline of Christianity in the West.

            These and other concerns helped Soga to present the gospel free from undue cultural and socio-political ties. He also refused to take any side in the war, and declined to work for the government as an interpreter.


Writer and Poet

Stationed in Emgwali, South Africa, Soga travelled extensively in the surrounding region, preaching the gospel wherever he went. In 1866, when an illness prevented him from traveling, he spent this time translating John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into Xhosa – a translation which has been called “the most important literary influence in 19th century South Africa after the Bible.”[6] Two years later, he was on a revising board for the Xhosa Bible – which was published shortly after his death in 1871.

            He also wrote several articles, hymns (both music and words), and prayers. In the Indaba (“the News”), a monthly magazine by the Glasgow Missionary Society, he published African fables, proverbs, legends, and a description of the habits and customs of the Xhosa.

            His health, already weakened by tuberculosis, deteriorated when a calling to open a new mission station forced him to travel a long distance by horseback in the rain. He died in the arms of his friend, the missionary Richard Ross, with his mother at his side. He was 42.


Family Life

The comments and reactions of missionary wives are rarely mentioned, but we can only imagine the challenges Janet Burnside had to face in the midst of much hostility, in a continent so different than her native Scotland. Soga, however, said that she showed “far more indifference to these prejudices against colour than I can do.”[7]

            Soga’s early biographer John Aitken Chalmers tells us that Janet “was honourable, thrifty, frugal, devoted, and marched heroically and faithfully by her husband's side through all the chequered scenes of his short life.”[8]

            As for Soga, Chalmers describes him as “delicate, considerate, tender, sometimes irresolute, open handed, and easily imposed upon; brimful of the milk of human kindness, ready at all times to sacrifice his own interests for the benefit of others of whatever colour, and he required someone as a help-meet who would be his counterpart, and thus make a complete man of him, by filling up those features of character in which he was defective.”[9]

            Apparently, the couple had a sense of humor, since Soga’s wedding invitation to his friends in Scotland read: “As a poor culprit, who has fallen into the traps and snares of Cupid, the Invincible, will you and Mrs. ... (if well then), in virtue of old friendship, come and witness the final execution of the sentence against the criminal, and give me the benefit of your mutual blessing before I shall be launched into the horrors of matrimony. Ker, of Campbell Street, will be the executioner. The terrible tragedy takes place in Ibroxholm, Paisley Road, at twelve o'clock noon. I am, dear, in terror of coming events, Tiyo Soga.”

            Tiyo and Janet had seven children, four sons and three daughters, all born in Britain, where Janet chose to return to give birth. Janet also returned to Britain several times to provide medical care for their oldest son, John, who had a crippled leg.

            Soga wanted his sons to study in Scotland like he did. Before they left, he gave them a notebook entitled “The Inheritance of My Children,” where he wrote sixty-two short suggestions. One referred to their mixed race. “For your own sakes never appear ashamed that your father was a Kafir[10] and that you inherit some African blood. It is every whit as good and as pure as that which flows in the veins of my fairer brethren … You will ever cherish the memory of your mother as that of an upright, conscientious, thrifty, Christian Scots woman. You will ever be thankful for your connection by this tie with the white race.”[11]

            He also told them to avoid vanity, pride, conceit, boastfulness, and egotism, which are “very hateful features in a man’s character,” and to wait two or more days before answering “an insulting or irritating message or letter.”[12]

            Most of all, he reminded them, “Love the Lord in your youth, for as men grow old they become hardened and wedded to sin. ... Although only boys, you have souls that stand in need of the love of God and the salvation which is in Jesus Christ, his son.”[13]

            Two of his sons - William and John – were ordained as ministers. Another, Kirkland, became a politician and the first black lawyer in South Africa. The fourth, Jotello, became the first black veterinarian surgeon in South Africa. Of Soga’s daughters, two, Isabella and Francis, became teachers in missionary schools, and the third, Jessie, became a classic contralto soloist and teacher.

[1] John Aitken Chalmers, Tiyo Soga: A Page of South African Mission Work, Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1878, 68.

[2] Chalmers, Tiyo Soga, 132

[3] Chalmers, Tiyo Soga, 132.

[4] Chalmers, Tiyo Soga, 39

[5] Andrew Walls, Crossing Cultural Frontiers, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017, 209

[6] “Tiyo Soga,” Official website of the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa. http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/tiyo-soga-1829...

[7] Chalmers, Tiyo Soga, 132

[8] Chalmers, Tiyo Soga, 94

[9] Chalmers, Tiyo Soga, 94.

[10] A word used to indicate Blacks in South Africa. Today, it has a depreciative meaning.

[11] Henry Thomas Cousins, Tiyo Soga: The Model Kafir Missionary, 1897, 146

[12] Cousins, Tiyo Soga, 146-147

[13] Cousins, Tiyo Soga, 153


Simonetta Carr