A Transatlantic Alliance

MANGENA MOKONE and Charlotte Maxeke—uncle and niece—wanted nothing more than to see South Africa transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. But they chafed under white denominational structures. Joining others who proudly held up the banner of “Ethiopianism” (pp. 8, 14), these two powerful leaders left, respectively, Methodism and Presbyterianism, and joined hands with an African American denomination that had a history uncannily similar to their own.

Mangena Maake Mokone (1851–1931) was born in Sekhukhuneland in what is today the Limpopo Province but was then called the Transvaal. He was a member of the Sotho tribe and the son of Maake, a sub-chief. When the boy was 12, his father was killed in a war against the Swazis. At the age of 16, Mokone left his mother and with a friend went to Durban on the Natal coast, where he found work as a “kitchen boy” in the home of a Wesleyan (British Methodist) lady named Mrs. Steele.

The Wesleyans first came to South Africa in the 1800s as part of the military force that took over the Cape from the Dutch. When the first Methodist missionaries arrived in the early 1800s, they discovered Methodist Societies founded by local Transvaal men who had traveled to Natal or the Cape, where they had been converted and educated.

By the time Mokone went to Durban, it contained many local Methodist lay preachers (Wesleyan local preachers were not ordained) who supported their ministries by working at trades like shop-keeping and farming.

"Rowdy” for God

As he swept Mrs. Steele’s bedroom each morning, Mokone saw her Bible, which she read every day. The young man wished he could read, too. Soon he began attending the Aliwal Street Chapel, and he proved himself an excellent pupil at the chapel’s night school.

One Sunday Mokone heard a local preacher, Mr. T. Fine, preach about how pits were dug to trap animals and how the devil uses the same strategy to trap people. Deeply affected, Mokone was converted, and he soon became a local preacher himself.

Mokone seemed especially endowed with spiritual power in preaching. During one service, he so moved his congregation that they fell to their knees en masse, weeping loudly. Alarmed Europeans commanded the congregation to “Vuka!” (get up). They insisted that Mokone be replaced by a less “rowdy” minister.

For over a decade, Mokone worked as a carpenter by day and preached at revival meetings at night. Despite his dedication and success, it was only in 1880, when the annual conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church met at Pietermaritzburg, that Mokone was accepted as an “on trial” probationer minister.

After a year as a probationer at Newstead in Natal, Mokone was posted to Pretoria in the Transvaal. There he opened a school. By 1883 his work had grown from a congregation of six people and a school with three children to a crowded church and a packed school of 45 young scholars. As part of his work, Mokone, with the help of a fellow minister, translated the Methodist Catechism into Sepedi, his home language.

In December 1886, nearly two decades after leaving her, Mokone was reunited with his mother during a missionary journey to his native country. Mokone later wrote of the experience. Not recognizing him, “Three times she denied that I was Mangena, and at last she found out that I am the same. Oh there was great joy to see.” The chief also received him with open arms, saying, “(We) are willing to receive Methodist missionaries at any time.”

Finally in 1887 Mokone became a full Wesleyan minister. At that time, the meetings of the Methodist Church in the Transvaal Synod were racially separate. The practice had begun to avoid keeping white ministers from their churches in the long teaching and examining sessions for black preachers. But Mokone found this separation distressing—he felt that African ministers were being excluded from discussions among white ministers.

Founding and finding an African church

In 1892, Mokone resolved to leave the Methodist Church and start his own inter-tribal “Ethiopian” Church (pp. 8, 14). He gave a number of reasons. Native preachers had been treated unfairly, he said—he was one of only two African ministers who had been ordained, although others had been in training for several years. Stipends given white and black ministers varied widely. And some white ministers in the denomination had shown a “lack of care” for black ministers.

When he made his separation from the Wesleyan church official in October 1892, Mokone was not supported by the other black ministers in the synod. But soon, as he founded and led the new Ethiopian Church in Mabastad, Pretoria, Mokone was joined by disenchanted Methodists from other areas. At the opening ceremony for the group’s first church, in 1893, a white Methodist minister from Pretoria, the Reverend Geoff Underwood, preached the dedicatory sermon. He used as his text Genesis 28:19: “And he called the name of that place Bethel.”

This was the same text that the American Methodist pioneer bishop Francis Asbury had used when he preached the sermon at the opening of the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia in 1794. Those free, enslaved, and ex-slave blacks in America who left the Methodist Church in Philadelphia to establish that new denomination also held dear the Scripture verse so central to African Ethiopianism—Psalm 68:31: “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands to God.”

Mokone had a niece, Charlotte Manye, who was studying at the AME—linked Wilberforce University in Ohio. He read the letters she wrote home and was impressed by her accounts of the educational and mission work of the AME. She also sent him an AME Book of Discipline. Mokone determined to ask the AME to start work in South Africa and to join with his Ethiopian Church. This was agreed at a Conference held at Pretoria in March 1896.

In 1898, AME Bishop H. M. Turner visited South Africa. At Cape Town Mokone, the presiding elder of the Ethiopian church, met Turner, who re-obligated to full—time ministry those who had come from other churches and ordained other preachers. This marked the formal establishment of the AME in South Africa.

Mokone continued to serve the AME Church, first as the presiding elder for the Cape (1898) and later in the Transvaal. His name on the conference rolls came second after the bishop’s. In 1903 someone suggested a “Mokone Day” to honor him as founder, but Mokone asked that they wait until he died. Today “Mokone Day” is remembered by the AME in South Africa, and his legacy is embodied in the large number of AME churches in South Africa.

The rest of Charlotte’s story

Charlotte Manye (1874–1939) did much more than write those influential letters from Ohio. As a teenager in the Northern Cape, South Africa, Charlotte and her sister Katie sang with a choir named the Jubilee Chorus. The group toured England for two years (now as the “Kaffir Chorus"), singing to Queen Victoria at her summer palace on the Isle of Wight. The sisters learned to speak English fluently with a British accent. They learned other things too: Charlotte met Emmeline Pankhurst, who at the time was fighting for woman’s rights. She also met two African-Americans, the Bogee brothers, who told her about Wilberforce University, a historically black university in the United States.

Charlotte went to America to join the Orpheus Singers, an American choir. She met Bishop Derrik of the AME, who helped her to enter Wilberforce University. While she was studying she wrote letters home describing her experiences—letters that inspired her uncle, Mangena Mokone, to align his new Ethiopian Church with the AME.

There were other South Africans at Wilberforce University too—all men. Among them was Marshall Macdonald Maxeke, who she married in 1903. Together they worked for the AME in South Africa, he as a minister and she teaching and working to improve conditions for the African people—under the inspiration of Booker T. Washington, her teacher at Wilberforce. Charlotte graduated as the first black South African woman to earn a B.S. degree. Her husband earned a B.A.

"I left a Basuto girl”

When Charlotte returned to South Africa, she was warmly welcomed by the AME—the bishop asked her to give the missionary address at the 1901 Conference. After a standing ovation, she spoke of the need for mission ("Cape Town outcasts must be brought to Christ") and ended with the words: “I left a Basuto girl and returned an African girl for the whole of Africa.”

Charlotte and Marshall began to work for the AME as missionaries at Ramogopa, the home of her father. Later they were invited to open a school at Idutywa, in what was then the Transkei. In 1908 they moved back to the Transvaal and established the Lilian Derrik Seminary at Evaton.

For the rest of her life, Charlotte Maxeke worked for her brothers and sisters in the South African church. She became president of the AME’s Women’s Mite Missionary Society (later the Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society) and founder and organizer of the Bantu Women’s League (now the African National Congress Women’s League).

In 1925, Charlotte addressed the South African Missionary Conference on The African Christian Mother, confronting the problems of drunkenness and poverty. She praised the early missionaries: “Now the early missionaries in this country knew what they were doing. They studied us; they lived with us; they moved among us.” But times had changed: “But what happens to us today? . . . Many times when we go to visit one of our missionaries we find, when we knock at the front door, somebody tell us ‘Go round to the kitchen.’” She concluded, “He (the African) must be taught to work among his own people.” But the African must not work in isolation. The walls of racism must be breached. “We need Christian women, the Europeans to have conferences with native women . . . so that we may know each other.”

Charlotte also made her mark as a social worker or Native Welfare Officer. She was the first black woman to be made a probation officer. An article in the Cape Argus said of her: “Recognizing the value of her work, the government has now created for her the post of Welfare Worker.”

Charlotte outlived her beloved Marshall, who died in 1928. She died in 1939 at Kliptown, Soweto, and is buried in the Pimville, Soweto, cemetery. The AME church at Kliptown is known as the Maxeke Memorial Church. CH

By Joan Millard

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #79 in 2003]

Joan Millard is a retired lecturer at John Wesley College and fellow at the University of South Africa.
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