A German bowl inscribed in Africa
In the process of finding out more about this baptismal bowl – where it comes from, who used it, and when it was discarded, it becomes a portal into South Africa’s contested past. Methodologically, a cultural-historical approach is taken to investigate the object as multiple signifier, not only as part of a transcontinental network, but also within a local, transcultural, context – what John and Jean Comaroff (1991, p. 200) referred to as the “long conversation” between European missionaries and African Christians.
The bowl was meant to be used with an accompanying, although, in this case, not quite matching, pitcher for the baptism ceremony, in which Christians use water to symbolise the blood of Christ washing away their sins. The Wallmansthal station where the bowl was found, was established by the Berlin Mission Society in 1869. The farm was about thirty kilometres north of Pretoria, today a capital city of South Africa. It became home to African converts gathered from the Kekana-Ndebele and several other pre-colonial northern Sotho polities (Van Rooyen, 1953, pp. 15-20). By the mid-twentieth century, the congregation was approximately 550 people strong (Schulze 2006, p. 456). Together with several other German protestant mission societies, the Berlin Mission contributed to the making of a Christian denomination referred to as “Lutheran” in South Africa today. After a century under white missionary tutelage, the African Church became independent as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa in the 1970s (Pakendorf, 2011, p. 115).
Knowing that a protestant congregation in Bochum, Germany, donated a church bell to the Wallmansthal Church in 1870 (Van Rooyen, 1954, p. 26), we can deduce that the baptismal bowl may also date from this era. The pitcher bears the mark of Gerhardi & Co. Judged from its Art Nouveau design elements and knowing that this Ludenscheid-based (Gerhardi) company was quite prolific in the production of cast pewter in the Jugendstil (Online Encyclopedia), a post 1890 manufacturing date seems equally probable.
Called Taufgeschirr (Baptismal dishes), bowl-and-pitcher sets of this kind are still being manufactured and used in churches in Germany today. Some congregations include images of old as well as new baptismal bowls on their websites as part of the material markers of their heritage. The exact same design displayed by the Evangelical Church of Illertissen in Germany on their website, is still in use today in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Masealama (formerly the Kratzeinstein Congregation of the Berlin Mission Church) in South Africa’s Limpopo Province (Joubert, 2015).
Many baptismal bowls were inscribed with verses from the Bible. The quote on the Wallmansthal bowl is a contracted version of Matthew 19:14. What makes this bowl an exceptional object of transculturation, is the fact that its inscription appears in the early orthography of the local African language, Sepedi: “Lesang bana batle gonna, ka gobane mmuso oa Modimo ki oa bona” (NIV: “Let the little children come to me, … for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”).
The bowl was used in church services on mission stations in the same way it would be used in protestant churches in Germany: the pastor would sprinkle the children of African Christians on the forehead with water which had been poured into the bowl from the pitcher. The initial African converts, however, were baptised as adults, only after proving that they had internalised enough knowledge of the Bible and convinced the white missionaries of their commitment to the beliefs and practices of Christianity (which, well into the twentieth century, remained entwined with Western ideas about civilisation).
To these converts, the baptismal bowl was symbolic of their ritual immersion into a foreign way of thinking, living and believing. And yet it was inscribed in their own language, invoking possibilities for cultural translation; for selective appropriation as well as for imbuing the alien culture with own interpretations, relating it to the indigenous and the familiar, and composing new meanings in anticipation of changing circumstances. The baptismal bowl is thus taken as reflective of broader processes of societal, economic and political reconfiguration brought about by the colonial encounter, but with an emphasis on African resilience.
On the site where the Wallmansthal baptismal bowl was used, these processes played themselves out in a series of extraordinary episodes that indirectly also related to broader world-political epochs: Up until the First World War, the Wallmannsthal land sustained an African Christian farming community. In 1936, as an attempt to address their post-war financial crisis, the Berlin Mission sold off a large section of the farm, giving the (exclusively black) African buyers full title deeds for their plots. Until after the Second World War, Wallmannsthal was a bustling African town giving its inhabitants the economic advantage of being close to job opportunities in Pretoria (Van der Merwe, 1987, pp. 69, 135).
In 1967 the Apartheid government forcibly removed all the inhabitants, including the Berlin Mission Christians who had still lived on the retainer of the farm where the Church and other mission station buildings were (Schulze, 2005, p. 458). Wallmannsthal then became a military base and arms depot for the South African Defence Force. During the late 1980s, with the Cold War still dictating international relations and South African whites slowly awakening to the need for political reform, the Defence Force contemplated the restoration of the site. These plans never materialised.
In the early twenty-first century, in a successful land claim, the Wallmannsthal farm was returned to the descendants of its early twentieth century owners. The restitution did not herald a final episode of utopian prosperity. Increasing demands on limited resources seem to be one of the reasons for the reinstated landowners’ current challenges, ranging from obtaining municipal infrastructure, to addressing the status of illegal squatters on their land, and designing the best possible ways of yielding a sustainable livelihood for an increasing population (eNCAnews, 2018).
Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa is but only one of several Christian denominations in South Africa with missionary roots. Many more South Africans belong to African independent or African initiated churches – and, increasingly, international churches with their roots elsewhere in the Global South. The process of inscribing Christianity with own meaning and local significance, continues.
- 925-1000.com (2018). Online encyclopedia of silver marks, hallmarks and maker’s marks. Retrieved from https://www.925-1000.com/silverplate_G.html.
- Comaroff, J & Comaroff, J. (1991). Of revelation and revolution. Christianity, colonialism and consciousness in South Africa I. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
- eNCAnews (2018, 27 October). Pretoria land claims. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/eNCAnews/videos/pretoria-land-claims/302862580316147/
- Evangelische Kirchengemeinde Illertissen (2019). Die Taufe. Retrieved from https://evang-kirche-illertissen.de/informationen/taufe/
- Gerhardi (2019). Gerhardi – Ein innovatives Traditionsunternehmen. Retrieved from http://www.gerhardi.com/index.php?id=9&L=0
- Joubert, A. (2015). A journey into the life of a mission-ethnographer. doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1375528
- Pakendorf, G. (2011). A brief history of the Berlin Mission Society in South Africa, History Compass, 9/2, 106-118.
- Schulze, A. (2005). “In Gottes Namen Hütten Bauen“. Kirchlicher Landbesitz in Südafrika: Die Berliner Mission und die Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche Südafrikas zwischen 1834 und 2005. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.
- Van der Merwe, W. (1987). Die Berlynse Sendinggenootskap en Kerkstigting in Transvaal, 1904-1062. Pretoria: Government Printers.
- Van Rooyen, T.S. (1953). Kronieke van Wallmansthal I, Pretoriana: Journal of the Old Pretoria Society 4, 15-20.
- Van Rooyen, T.S. (1954). Kronieke van Wallmansthal III, Pretoriana: Journal of the Old Pretoria Society 2, 24-28.
published February 2020