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Elphick’s Book Finalist for Prestigious African Scholarship Award

Rick Elphick

Rick Elphick

A book written by Rick Elphick, professor of history, tutor in the College of Social Studies, received “honorable mention” for the Herskovits Prize, the most prestigious award for scholarship on Africa. This annual award is named in honor of Melville J. Herskovits, one of the African Studies Association’s founders.

Elphick is the author of The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, published by the University of Virginia Press in September 2012. The Equality of Believers reconfigures the narrative of race in South Africa by exploring the pivotal role played by these missionaries and their teachings in shaping that nation’s history. Providing historical context reaching back to 1652, Elphick concentrates on the era of industrialization, segregation, and the beginnings of apartheid in the first half of the 20th century. The most ambitious work yet from this renowned historian, Elphick’s book reveals the deep religious roots of racial ideas and initiatives that have so profoundly shaped the history of South Africa.

“My work, which was many years in the making, was substantially supported by Wesleyan at various stages, and I’m grateful to the numerous deans and chairs who looked on my grant applications with a benign eye,” Elphick said.

Learn more about Elphick’s book in this past Wesleyan Connection article.

5 Questions With … Rick Elphick on Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa

This semester, Rick Elphick is teaching a sophomore history tutorial on "The Emergence of Modern Europe" and "The History of Southern Africa."

This semester, Rick Elphick is teaching a sophomore history tutorial on “The Emergence of Modern Europe” and “The History of Southern Africa.”

In this edition of The Wesleyan Connection, we ask “5 Questions” of Richard “Rick” Elphick, professor of history and co-chair of the College of Social Studies. Elphick is the author of The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, published by the University of Virginia Press in September 2012.

Q: What do you think is the main message, or the main achievement, of your new book?

A: For decades, historians of South Africa have struggled to trace how a white minority, starting in the 1650s, established a system of stark inequality among the races in the region. My book attempts to reconfigure the history of South Africa by interweaving the pressures toward inequality, which are now fairly well understood, with an account of the pressures toward racial equality. These pressures, I argue, were rooted chiefly in the proclamation of the equality of all persons before God, a message brought to South Africa by Christian missionaries. My story begins with the first missionary in 1737, and ends in 1960.

Q: Do you give the missionaries credit for the eventual overthrow of white rule and apartheid in the 1990s?

A: Not really. I do give credit to the mission schools, where black leaders, almost all of them devout Christians, acquired a belief in racial equality that inspired their resistance to oppression. I also emphasize how Christian doctrine ate away at the conscience of some white South Africans. But, as for the missionaries themselves, many appear in my book as deeply conflicted between their theoretical ideals and their fear of confronting the white power structure. And many showed a lack of confidence in blacks that bordered on racism.

Q: You also say that missionaries helped create the apartheid ideology?

A: Many writers have tried to find a link between religion and the doctrine of radical racial separation known as apartheid. In my view, however, they have looked in the wrong places. I trace the origins of the doctrine to missionary leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Elphick Authors Book on Protestant Missionaries

Book by Richard Elphick.

Richard Elphick, co-chair of the College of Social Studies, professor of history, is the author of The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, published by University of Virginia Press, Sept. 26, 2012.

From the beginning of the 19th Century through to 1960, Protestant missionaries were the most important intermediaries between South Africa’s ruling white minority and its black majority. The Equality of Believers reconfigures the narrative of race in South Africa by exploring the pivotal role played by these missionaries and their teachings in shaping that nation’s history.

The missionaries articulated a universalist and egalitarian ideology derived from New Testament teachings that rebuked the racial hierarchies endemic to South African society. Yet white settlers, the churches closely tied to them, and even many missionaries evaded or subverted these ideas. In the early years of settlement, the white minority justified its supremacy by equating Christianity with white racial identity. Later, they adopted segregated churches for blacks and whites, followed by segregationist laws blocking blacks’ access to prosperity and citizenship—and, eventually, by the ambitious plan of social engineering that was apartheid.

Providing historical context reaching back to 1652, Elphick concentrates on the era of industrialization, segregation, and the beginnings of apartheid in the first half of the twentieth century. The most ambitious work yet from this renowned historian, Elphick’s book reveals the deep religious roots of racial ideas and initiatives that have so profoundly shaped the history of South Africa.

For more information on the book visit the publisher’s website.