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Death of Tiyo Soga, Xhosa Evangelist

African evangelist accomplished an amazing work.

TIYO SOGA was just 42 years old when he died of tuberculosis on this day, 12 August 1871. However, he had used his few years to the utmost. The first African minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church for South Africa, he built a mission station at Emgwali, evangelized his own people, taught school, wrote hymns, and translated Pilgrim's Progress into the Xhosa language. 

An early embarrassment made it appear Soga was not destined for academic success. Lovedale Mission offered a competitive exam. The African with the highest marks would be admitted to the school free of charge. The examiner gave Soga a simple subtraction problem, but he stared at the chalkboard helplessly. The examiner encouraged him by saying, "Take away the lower line from the upper." Soga brightened up. Quickly he wetted his thumb and erased the bottom line! 

Despite this failure, Soga’s teacher, the Rev. William Chalmers, was convinced the boy was above average. He lobbied Rev. William Govan, principal of Lovedale, and convinced him to admit Soga free of charge. 

Govan himself was so impressed he paid for Soga to travel to Scotland for further education. In Scotland, Soga continued his academic success, made a profession of faith, and was baptized. He returned to Africa in 1856 to evangelize, and helped found a mission work at Uniondale. Africans who hated Christianity because of its association with colonial oppressors burned the station to the ground, and Soga barely escaped with his life. 

He decided to return to Scotland for further theological training to better equip himself to teach his own people, and came back to Africa a married man. Janet Burnside, a Scottish woman, had been so impressed with his character when he visited her home, that she became his wife. Eventually they had seven children. 

In Africa, the Sogas overcame racism and resentment. Undeterred, Tiyo poured himself into teaching, preaching, and church building. He built the Emgwali mission station. Days on end he walked the African trails, carrying the gospel from kraal to kraal. Under this workload, his health failed. Even so, he took on new tasks. 

During a period of illness in 1866, he translated Pilgrim's Progress into Xhosa, adapting the story to his people's experience. The book had the impact he hoped, and greatly influenced the language and literature of South Africa. 

When Presbyterian leaders asked him to open a new mission at Tutuka, he agreed, although it meant leaving Emgwali and his own people. Drenched with rain one day while riding, he became seriously ill. An offer from the Presbyterian mission which would have allowed him to rest and recover arrived too late. He was already dead. 

Dan Graves

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