Monday, September 21, 2009

Missionary Pioneers in Namibia - Johan Heinrich Schmelen (1777 - 1848)

Johan Heinrich Schmelen - Father of Missions in Namibia

Johan Heinrich Schmelen may undoubtedly be called the father of Namibian missions, even though his physical presence on Namibian soil amounted only to about 16 years. It is true to say that he bore the original physical burden for the conversion of the tribes of Namibia.

Buys and Nambala in their ‘History of the Church in Namibia’ say ‘Schmelen can be rightfully called the first permanent pastor of the Christian Church in Namibia.’

Schmelen’s 16 years of ministry at Bethanien in Southern Namibia had significant influence, not only his own work, representing the London Missionary Society, but also concerning the Wesleyan and Rhenish Missionary Societies and their church planting endeavours in Namibia, for he essentially encouraged their labours. For his gracious and fatherly concern and leadership he was affectionately known in later years as ‘Father Schmelen’. Emma Sarah Hahn (1814-1880), having recently married the pioneer missionary Carl Hugo Hahn (1818-1895) in Cape Town, and ‘en route’ to the Namibian mission field, wrote in October 1843 to her mother: ‘We were met about a half day’s journey from Kommagas (Northern Cape - South Africa) by a dear old missionary whom we call Father Schmelen. Both he and Mrs Schmelen have received us with much kindness; indeed here I have felt more comfortable than in any other previous place.’ This little note reflects on the love which Schmelen displayed towards all. 

Youth and Conversion in London

Johan Heinrich Schmelen was born on the 7th January 1777 in Kassebruch, near Bremen in Germany. In a letter dated in 1831 he writes: ‘My parents were neither rich nor poor, and they afforded my siblings and myself an education as was common for those of the middle class in those days. However, as I grew up, I also grew in godlessness and frivolity. In 1776 war erupted between France and Germany and many of our young people were conscripted into the army. With the consent of my parents, I left for England. I left my father’s house as a rebel and an unbeliever. But the Lord, who had better things for me in mind than the life of a prodigal son among the pigs, led my ways in London in a wonderful way. I came to stay in a home where there were many God-fearing Germans who took me to the Savoy Church and (Congregational Church) where a preacher, Mr Borgman, was the pastor. Mr Steinkopf (after which the little town in the Northern Cape is named) became his successor. It was particularly under the preaching of my spiritual father Mr Steinkopf that it pleased the Lord to open my heart, and to show me the lost condition of my soul. At that time I knew that if I did not repent, and if I would continue to reject the truth of God, I would be eternally damned!’

In 1803 a missionary named Kircherer, working in South Africa, brought three Orlam Nama converts, Martha Arendse, Sara Fortuin and Klaas van Roy, to London. This caused quite a sensation since these people, giving testimony concerning Jesus Christ, were representatives of the firstfruit of the work among the Khoi-Khoi (Nama) people of Southern Africa.

Schmelen was impressed by the fact that the heathen had an undying soul. For three years he struggled with God as to whether he was to remain in London or minister to the heathen. Pastor Steinkopf, his spiritual father, advised Schmelen to attend a seminary, the Jaenicke Mission Institute, in Berlin, Germany. Upon completion of his studies he was sent to South Africa by the London Missionary Society.

Arrival on the Mission Field and Firstfruits of his Labours 

He arrived in Cape Town on the 15th September 1811 with a number of other missionaries. From Cape Town he travelled northwards to the Orange River which forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. Here he helped to start a mission station called Pella. With Pella as his base Schmelen joined the nomadic Orlam Nama tribesmen and preached to them with great zeal, whilst praying that God would grant them repentance. He grew very discouraged, since there appeared to be no fruit from his labours. The Orlam Namas were a tribe of westernised Khoi-Khoi people. They wore clothes, spoke Dutch, and had horses and guns.

One day he heard the voice of a man praying behind a bush. It was the voice of Amraal Lamberts, one of the tribesmen. It was the first prayer from these heathen that Schmelen had ever heard. It amazed him that the spirit of prayer had also suddenly descended upon the others. Even very young children, as young as 5 years old, were affected. At night he heard the loud voices of the praying people. It seemed as if the Holy Spirit had come upon them. A number of these were eventually baptised in 1814. Among those baptised, were his future wife, Zara Hendriks, and her sister Leentjie. Schmelen encouraged these two women to help in the work of this early congregation.

Missionary Expansion into Namibia

The London Missionary Society desired to reach the tribes north of the Orange River in Namibia. One of the great difficulties in the missionary labours had always been the irregular food and water supply. Schmelen was ordered by the LMS Inspector, John Campbell, to explore the mouth of the Orange river. He left on the 13th April 1814 with a group of 150 Orlam people. They found no suitable harbour for ships to anchor. The group proceeded to press northwards into Namibia. Schmelen’s journal reflects his intense desire to minister the Word of God, to both his travel companions and to those Namas whom they occasionally encountered in their travels. The man’s spirituality is obvious as he records in one of his letters: ‘A sweet thought to me was always that despite those great difficulties and dangers of our journey, I could win souls for the kingdom of heaven. I hope and ask God daily that His Word might not fall on fruitless soil among the heathen who had never before heard the gospel which I had proclaimed to them.’ 

The group eventually reached a place called Ui Gantes, in Namibia. A Nama chief by the name of Vleermuis of the tribe of the Veldskoendraers lived there. When he and his people saw the big group of people arriving on the horizon, they all fled. We need to remember that the region was ruled by a number of petty warlords. One of the first mission stations in the south of Namibia, called Warmbad, was attacked and ransacked by a warlord called Titus Afrikaner - a brother of the infamous warlord Jan Jonker Afrikaner, who was later converted. The tribespeople thought that it was he who was coming to attack them, but their fear turned to joy when it was discovered that it was the missionary Schmelen. Chief Vleermuis pleaded with Schmelen to stay and become their missionary. Schmelen stayed, and he renamed the place Bethanien - Bethany – which means ‘house of depression’. 


He writes at the beginning of his ministry in Bethanien, ‘I determined right at the outset to know only Christ and him crucified, and I have prayed that as long as I live, I might never depart from this foundation. This was the gospel which I preached in Bethanien, and I had the pleasure of seeing in the short time that I spent there a remarkable work of God. Often I had to stop my preaching as the people were melted with tears, asking, “What must we do to be saved?” Bewildered I asked the Lord, “Lord, what are you doing?” But my astonishment soon turned into an intense love to him who ruled in my heart. I have seen the fulfillment of these words, “that an entire people would believe in one day”! Nearly the whole tribe and village was moved, and this greatly encouraged me to carry the gospel also to the furthest heathen. Being a rocky and stony place it wasn’t easy to get about. I was not able to keep a horse in these conditions, and so I used an ox which was trained for riding. I took my Bible and a “karos” (sheepskin) which I used by day as a saddle and as a bed by night. I crossed the vast areas of this land to preach the gospel. The Lord had delivered me often from the mouth of lions and other wild animals, and he blessed my feeble efforts so much that at times I forgot all about my hunger and thirst which I had to frequently endure on my journeys. My food was only a little meat. I had no bread, but the Lord strengthened me daily, so that by his grace I have endured.’ 

After some time in this wilderness his clothes were completely worn out. Eventually he no longer had shirt or trousers, hat or shoes. He wore clothes made of animal skins and shoes as the Namas wore them. I can only imagine that his appearance must have been like that of John the Baptist, only this was in the wilderness of Namibia! The time had come to go back to Cape Town to look for new clothes and other essentials. But he had grave reservations about leaving. What would happen to the little flock once he left? In 1816 he left for Cape Town with twelve of his people. The journey there and back lasted 6 months.

Another biographer writes, ‘He must have been a strange sight. He arrived one night at a mission station and they received him with much joy. The hostess wanted to make him a good plate of food, but he said: “Give me a piece of bread and a newspaper so that I may know what is happening in the world.” When they wanted to wake him up in the morning, they saw that the bed was untouched. He still sat in the chair with the piece of bread in his hand and completely absorbed in the newspaper. It was the time when Napoleon, the great French general, was captured and imprisoned on St Helena Island, which is not far from the Namibian coast in the mid-Atlantic ocean.’ 

Northern Cape - Steinkopf and  Kommagas 

In Cape Town he received a letter from the London Missionary Society. In this letter he was ordered not to return to Bethanien, but to establish a mission station which was called "Bysondermeid " in the Northern Cape. This mission station he later renamed "Steinkopf", after his spiritual father, a Congregational pastor in England. When travelling from Windhoek to Cape Town one normally passes through this village. 

This did not really please him because his heart was in Bethanien. What would happen to the young Christian converts? Would the evil one not destroy the work? His worst fears actually came true! The weeds had overgrown much of the good seed planted. But he did not lose courage. A few people remained faithful to the Lord.’ They were looking forward to the return of their teacher. He was able to return to Bethanien in 1818 after he had been replaced in 1817 by a missionary called Kitchingman. 

The first thing he did upon his return to Bethanien was to build a stone house, which is kept presently as a museum and is called the "Schmelen Haus". Its claim to fame is that it is the oldest existing stone dwelling in Namibia. In the meantime the Nama Orlam tribe began to dispute with the other tribes of Southern Namibia, and began to raid their livestock. Schmelen at this time endeavored to faithfully preach the Word of God to the people of Bethanien. Morning and evening he preached expository sermons to them, helping them to understand the whole Bible. It seemed however as if the appetite for God’s Word had suddenly vanished. The spontaneous singing and praying was beginning to fade. Instead, people were always found arguing. Schmelen wept and pleaded with the Lord that he would not withdraw his hand from them.

To add to all his troubles, there was a person, a deceiver and former member of the congregation who acted piously, but in reality was a hypocrite who was misleading the young people by taking them away from the church and engaging them in robbery among neighbouring tribes. Schmelen opposed and resisted these practices and therefore his presence among the Orlam Namas was increasingly despised. Yet there always remained a faithful little flock, loyal to the Lord Jesus and to their missionary shepherd.

In 1820 a missionary friend, the Methodist minister Barnabas Shaw, whom he had met in Cape Town on his last trip, came to visit him at Bethanien. This was the first visit which he had ever received from any missionary colleague. Their joy was great. Together they decided to reach the Rooi Nasie (Red Nation) - another tribe of the Namas. This tribe actually represents the core group of the Namaqua - Khoi-Khoi people. Their chief was regarded as the paramount chief of all the Namas. The Methodists tried to get a mission station going among the Red Nation, but their attempts failed because there was too much jealousy among the various tribes of the Namas.

When Schmelen returned to Bethanien from this trip, he faced new difficulties. Three years of drought had struck the land, and all prayer seemed to have failed. Schmelen was actually blamed for bringing on the drought, and in 1821 one of the Nama chiefs, Jan Booi, told him to leave Bethanien. He left with his faithful followers and settled at the Orange River mouth where he led a nomadic life. A year later he was requested to come back. He did so, but the peace lasted no longer than a year, upon which he had to leave again. After this his house was plundered and burned. That brought Schmelen’s work effectively to an end in Bethanien.

He returned to Cape Town, but in 1824 he decided to return to Namibia with 80 companions. They reached Bethanien once again in 1825. He still desired to find a suitable harbour on the Namibian coast, so that ships could supply the ever expanding mission stations, so that all the tribes of Namibia might hear the gospel. In 1825 he followed the Kuiseb river (a dry, seasonal river in central Namibia) down to its river mouth, and discovered a natural harbour. Today it is known as the port of Walvis Bay. There he encountered the Topnaar Namas. Later a mission station called Sheppmansdorf was founded there. Walvis Bay, the territory’s most suitable harbour, eventually became the port from which all Namibian mission stations were supplied. Martin Rautanen, the Finnish missionary, and  the future husband of  Schmelen's granddaughter, Frieda Kleinsschmidt,   disembarked there.

In 1830, after years of bitter struggle and a difficult ministry, his mission recalled him to Namaqualand (Northern Cape) at Kommagas, where he continued to live and minister until his death.

The Translation of the Bible into Nama 

Back in 1822 Schmelen was requested to translate the New Testament into the Nama language. He had by this time married a Nama woman, Zara Hendriks, who was one of the first converts of his missionary labours. She was able to assist him in this difficult project. In 1831 (i.e. 9 years later) just after the Gospels were printed, Zara died from tuberculosis. 

The biographer Moritz says, ‘She was already ill when the last proof reading before printing was done in Cape Town. When she had read the last page, she put her fountain pen down and said, “Now my work on earth has been done. I can go home!” She died on the way home in the ox wagon - peacefully and tired, but with great peace.’ We need to appreciate the fact that it was Zara who in the main, enabled her husband to translate the Gospels into Nama, when he had very little actual knowledge of the very difficult Nama language with its intricate click sounds. 

The Governor of the Cape Province, Sir Lowry Cole, to whom Schmelen had handed a copy of the Nama Gospels, recognised the great work that was done by this remarkable man and his wife. He granted Schmelen and his mission a very large tract of land on which the mission station Kommagas was established. 

When the Rhenish (Lutheran) missionary Carl Hugo Hahn visited him in 1841 at Kommagas, he noted that the church was filled with attentive listeners. Hahn commented, ‘In their spirituality these people were not behind their European counterparts.’ 

Schmelen and Zara had one son and three daughters. The son died as a youth in 1838. Their daughters Hanna, Johanna and Friederike, were sent to Cape Town, where they received a good education. After the death of their mother they were a great support to their father. However, Schmelen found it difficult to be without a wife in Kommagas. In 1834 he married Elizabeth Bam from Cape Town. 

In 1842 the German Rhenish missionary Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt married Schmelen’s daughter Hanna who was fluent in Nama, Dutch and English. This proved to be a great asset in their missionary labours in Namibia. After their wedding the Kleinschmidts left for central Namibia, where they started the mission station at Otjikango (today’s Gross Barmen in central Namibia) among the Hereros, and at Rehoboth among the Nama people of Willem Swartbooi.

It is very interesting to note that Martin Rautanen (called Nakambale) the ‘apostle to the Ovambos’, was later married to one of the Kleinschmidt daughters, Frieda. The Ovambo people were reached through the missionary labours of that remarkable missionary, Rautanen.  (

Schmelen’s heart was consistently upon the mission to all the Namibian tribes, also including the Hereros and Ovambos, although he had never as yet had any formal contact with them. Matti Peltola, in his excellent biography of ‘Nakambale’, ( Martin Rautanen) reflects on Schmelen’s missionary heart – particularly after he had moved to Kommagas (South Africa) in 1829 saying: ‘He could not forget the Namas and Hereros on the other side of the Orange river.’ They were continuously on his mind and he eventually asked the Rhenish Mission Society to start a work among them. He had heard about the Ovambos who lived far in the north and he used to pray for them every day! He never knew that his descendants into the third and fourth generation would work among the Ovambos! But God is faithful. He answers prayer - even after the death of his servants.

Schmelen died on the 26th July 1848. His son-in-law Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt writes: "His end was filled with the peace of God, and his last words were spoken in glad anticipation: 'The Lord is nearby, the Lord is nearby!'” 
Two months before his death, he had preached for the last time in spite of being already greatly weakened. His life had been a hard one, but for 38 years he had preached the gospel as a faithful servant in God’s service. The Lord accordingly put his seal upon this work, although much of it was seen only in the reaping of those that came after him. 

Steinkopf wrote this about Schmelen: ‘Although he did not fight with fire and the sword, he fought with the Word of God and with an iron will against innumerable obstacles in a strange, pagan world, in which not only faith, but also the courage of a tested and proven man was needed. Schmelen’s sowing has produced great fruit. Others harvested where he had planted, but what does it matter … and who was equal to him in the sowing of the gospel?’


Schmelen is undoubtedly the father of missions in Namibia. The explorer Anderson described him as, ‘the most gifted and most enterprising of missionaries that ever set foot on African soil’. Very few modern missionaries today would dare to live as ruggedly as Schmelen did. He knew the importance of the indigenous language and although he never completed a full translation of the Bible in Nama which is a very complex language. He nevertheless laid the foundations for further translation work. Professor Haacke of the University of Namibia (UNAM - 1989) rightly called Schmelen ‘the real pioneer of Nama literature’. 

Schmelen was passionate about the preaching of the gospel to all the peoples of Namibia. Walter Moritz, Schmelen’s biographer, testifies: ‘His main work consisted in the preaching of God’s Word . His aim was to bring the gospel not only to the Namas on the other side of the Orange river (i.e. Namibia), but he also wanted to reach the Herero, Damara and Ovambo nations.’ Besides the primacy of preaching Schmelen was a man of prayer. He prayed always for the people he wanted to reach with the gospel of Christ.  In Schmelen we have an example of what is required to complete that task set before the Church by her illustrious Head. 


Dave said...

Hi Joggie
You should get this stuff published - I found it inspiring.
One little thing, you refer to Jonker Afrikaner, as coming from Tulbach. From what I remember, he was a black chief and head of the Oorlam tribe. Reading your article, gave the possible impression that he was an 'Afrikaner' i.e. boertjie. Not that this detracts from the article. Have you considered getting it published?

Joachim Rieck said...

Hi Dave ,
I have thought of publishing the three biographical sketches of Schmelen , Hahn and Rautanen , sometime when i have more time. I have presented these at our pastors conferences in Namibia .
As to the name ' Afrikaner ' in relation to Jan Jonker - this was his ' clan name' and had nothing to do with the boers .
Thanks for your encouragement and greetings Greetings ! JR

Joachim Rieck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.


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