Evangelists of Namibia

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Links brothers

The Link-brothers and colleagues. Standing (from left to right): Frederick Smit, John Dirk, Peter Links, Johannes Boyse.


Sitting (from left to right): Jacom Jagers, Barnabas Shaw Links, Jan Kriel.

Jacob Links (c. 1799-1825).

More Educated Than a Boer Farmer

In 1819 in a letter to mission headquarters in London, the Evangelist Jacob Links wrote the following:
Before our English teacher came, we were all sitting in the shadow of death. The farmers around us told us that if we prayed they would flog us. Some of them threatened to shoot us dead, should we Namacquas call the name of the Lord. They said we were not men, but baboons, and that God was blasphemed by the prayers of Namacquas, and would punish us for it. Now we thank the Lord that he has taught us that he has also given his Son over to death for us. We hear that English people pray for us, and hope they will not forget us. The society of all praying people are by me saluted. An unworthy Namacqua [...]
When he wrote this letter, Jacob Links had been living with his parents and siblings for quite some time at the Leliefontein mission station in Little Namaqualand. He was about twenty years old and a member of a WMMS congregation. In the congregation which was founded by the brothers Abraham and Christian Albrecht, he heard the Christian message for the first time. In his letter, he went on to report that out of desperation he ate the pages from an old Dutch hymnbook to find peace, and climbed onto the roof of an old house to be closer to God. It was only since he recognised Christ as the true way and as a friend of sinners that he would “feel sweetness for my soul, whilst I speak about the Gospel, and my own experience in the Lord.”
From Leliefontein, he undertook a journey lasting several weeks into the surrounding area to preach to the people he met. In as early as 1822 he was a “Native Assistant Missionary”. For the first time, he went on a mission journey with WMMS missionary James Archbell to Great Namaqualand, today’s Namibia. On another occasion, he travelled with Archbell to Cape Town and then sailed to Walfishbay. He was still a young man, but already had a wealth of experience: he had stood up to European settlers and endured the ridicule of his own family for his conversion to Christianity. He could read and write (unlike many European settlers around him), could speak several languages and, in addition to the important city of Cape Town, had already seen much of his surroundings. At the beginning of the 19th century, this was totally out of the ordinary for a young man of his age.
How Jacob Links’ new mindset shaped an encounter with one of the European farmers in his immediate vicinity was conveyed by WMMS missionary Barnabas Shaw. (In addition to Jacob Links, the Evangelists Jan Links and Hendrik Smit also took part in the discussion):
Farmer: What kind of singing and praying is this you have had?
Jacob Links: I think master, you only come to mock at us, as many of the farmers say we ought not to have the gospel; but here is a chapter (Jacob Links reads from John, Chapter 3). Say who are the persons that must be born again? (Jacob Links hands the New Testament to the farmer).
Far­mer: Myne ogen zyn niet goed (my eyes are not so good), but I suppose Jesus.
Jacob Links: No master, no such thing; Jesus Christ saves all sinners, and that we must be born again of the Spirit, or we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jan Links: But master, you once told me that our names did not stand in the book, and that the gospel did not, therefore, belong to us Namacaua. Will you now tell me master, whether the name of Dutchman or Englishman, is to be found in it?
No answer.
Jacob Links: Master, you who are called Christi menoh (Christians), call us heathens. That is our name. Now I find the book says, that Jesus came as a light to lighten the Heidene (Gentiles). So we read our name in the book.
The farmer keeps silent.
Hendrik Smit: That master cannot understand many things in the book, is not strange; Paul says, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God”.
Farmer: Ik ben geen zendeling (I am not a missionary), therefore I cannot explain scripture passages.
Jacob Links: But master, do you ever teach your slaves and servants anything of the gospel?
Farmer: Neen, volstrekt niets (No, certainly nothing at all), for were they taught, it would make them equally as wise as myself.
This dialogue showed the self-confidence of the Evangelists. As farm workers or servants, they would have been exposed to the farmer and would not have allowed themselves to speak so frankly. Perhaps in their conversation, they felt secure and confident at the mission station and by the presence of Shaw. Regardless, however, the Evangelists’ way of arguing showed a self-esteem that could not be intimidated by the farmer’s aggressive demeanour. Their pride arose from their knowledge and appropriation of the values that the farmer until then thought were exclusively part of his identity as a “Dutchman”. With their arguments, they beat the European at his own game and unmasked him as illiterate in his narrow-minded stupidity. Perhaps the conversation did not “actually” take place in this way. However, the record already reveals the profile of an Evangelist which the sources of the next decades will reveal time and again.
What characterised Jacob Links in particular, were his experiences with his new faith and the new worldview that accompanies it. Being prepared to accept major disadvantages for his faith showed that his new associations are not only motivated by material benefits. The faith of Evangelists like Jacob Links’, had both cognitive and strong emotional elements. What the Comaroffs called a “veritable flood [of tears]”, and was interpreted by the missionaries as the work of the Holy Spirit, was characteristic of Christian congregations in southern Namibia during this period. Missionaries from the beginning of the 19th century time and again reported the strong emotional involvement of the Oorlam and Nama during sermons and Christian rituals. The unbaptised broke out into a “general, loud wailing and weeping” when hands were laid on the baptised after baptism. During Sunday prayers in Jerusalem for example, many of the worshippers were “moved so amazingly” that they often broke out into “a terrible wailing and crying […] so that I was often unable to speak or sing because I could not hear my own words, let alone those of others, due to the terrible crying. This began several times when they saw me coming with the Bible and hymnbook under my arm.” It seemed that the deepest soul of many Oorlam and Nama of the early 19th century was made to resonate by parts of Christian songs and texts. Or as Chinua Achebe puts it in his famous novel “Things Fall Apart”:
It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. [...] It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul. [...] The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.
Jacob Links travelled to Namibia for a third time, on this occasion with Johannes Jager and the WMMS missionary William Threlfall. While attempting to open up new mission areas, all three were deviously murdered by their companions in August 1825 near Warmbad. Only months later did Jacob Links’ wife and family learn of the tragedy.
The murder of two Evangelists would probably have left the outside world unmoved had they not been accompanied by a European missionary. The event prompted the Cape authorities to reconsider their policy towards the region. Several attempts were made to involve willing chiefs in a peace plan in which the mission stations and their Christian members would act as a kind of buffer. The plans were, however, never implemented and after the European missionaries left the region, their co-workers stayed there alone. Some of them continued to work of their own accord.
With these few highlights of the life of Jacob Links, the Methodist Evangelist of the 19th century, the structures within which other Evangelists would be working in the decades to come, are becoming clear. Their confrontation with racism, both in a personal and structural way, runs like a thread through the history of the Evangelists. This can be shown by countless examples from the long list of Evangelists. Only two examples (Johannes Links and Jacob Links) are to be mentioned here. Both are Evangelists from the Links family, whose members, 75 and 100 years later respectively, and under different conditions, had similar experiences as Jacob Links had in his conversation with the farmer as quoted earllier.