The Moravian Church in the mission village of Wupperthal, which with dozens of homes and other structures was gutted in a fire on Sunday. Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)
The fire devastating the Moravian mission village Wupperthal not only destroyed livelihoods, but also a jewel of South Africa’s heritage.

As a Moravian from Germany, I am frequently asked by friends about the origin of the church and its name. This sad occasion has prompted me to write a summary for interested readers.

The Moravian Church is the oldest Protestant church in the world. Its roots stretch back to Jan Hus, a professor (and priest) at the University in Prague (Bohemia) who condemned the oppression of the people by the pope and emperor.

He was sentenced to death and burnt at the stake in Constance (Germany) in 1415.

His followers, who called themselves the Bohemian Brethren, rejected the authority of a corrupt Catholic Church. Their persecution was severe, the price often death.

Many of the brethren fled to the neighbouring country of Moravia where, centuries later, their descendants had to leave their homes once again for the same reason: religious persecution.

They found refuge in Germany on the estate of Count Zinzendorf.

He called his estate Herrnhut (literally “under the Lord’s hat” in the sense of shelter and protection) and formed a new community (1722). When Zinzendorf heard about the suffering of the Khoi at the Cape of Good Hope, he sent a man from Herrnhut to live among them.

In 1737, Georg Schmidt came to the Cape and assisted the Khoi families with practical skills and spiritual encouragement so that they may see themselves with the eyes of the Christian God. He also taught the Khoi spoken and written Dutch and baptised some of them.

The Dutch settlers were enraged and Schmidt was deported. The Khoi settlement was later called Genadendal, which is historically regarded as the first mission station in South Africa. Half a century later, the Herrnhut-Brethren received permission from the British to do mission work in South Africa and they registered the mission as the Moravian Church, named after the first refugees from Moravia who settled in Herrnhut.

Wupperthal was originally established by the Rhenish Mission and handed over to the Moravians because of their work among the indigenous people.

The Moravians then developed the mission station with a strong focus on skills and education.

Let us hope that finances can be found to rebuild Wupperthal and make it even more attractive to tourists who want to learn more about South Africa’s history.

* Reverend Renate Cochrane, Hout Bay

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus