Johann Theodorus Vanderkemp (van der Kemp) died on December 15, 1811.
He was born in Rotterdam, Holland, 64 years previously (1747) to a family which stressed academics and religion. His father was a Professor of Theology and his brother was a minister. Johann studied medicine and philosophy in Leyden but ran away from home in his teens, to become an officer in the Dragoon Guards for 15 years. During those years his empty religion was to no moral avail. He lived an immoral life, even having a daughter by a married woman.
He married in 1780 and resigned his commission, to study medicine at Edinburgh University – and he then practised as a doctor back in Holland for 10 years.
Then in 1791 – at nearly 45 years of age – he witnessed the drowning of both his wife and daughter in a boating accident in a freak storm. His Deism failed him and he turned back to the religion of his godly parents. Only he had been saved, seemingly miraculously, so he sought God’s call for his life.
The French Revolution had begun in 1789 so he became a medical officer during the revolutionary campaigns in Flanders, and then as superintendent of a hospital.
This is there that he learned of plans to form the London Missionary Society, which he then offered himself to in 1796. This mission society was founded by several denominations, including the Church of England, however, over time, it became the sole preserve of the Congregational churches who sponsored it.
In March 1799, at the age of 50, Vanderkemp arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, as leader of a three-member pioneer missionary band to the Dark Continent. This was some 40 years before David Livingstone ventured forth to that needy continent.
There were problems with Boer slave traders … and the Bushmen – “an almost pygmy people”.
And when he was 60 he married a 17 year-old Malagasy slave girl whom he had rescued. She bore him four children. This marriage, we are told, “created an uproar among colonists and missionaries as well!”
Nevertheless, the same biographer tells us that “he won hundreds of converts” and after 12 years of missionary service he is recognised still as “one of the great pioneers of the London Missionary Society”.
Note that South Africa was contested between the Dutch and English and this led to instability at times. Tribal issues and the exploitation of natives by slave owners and farmers was also rife. Vanderkemp worked with the displaced Khoikhoi and represented their grievances to the first court system to be implemented, once the English gained control again in 1806, forming the Cape Colony.
Vanderkemp’s mission station at Port Elizabeth (known then as Bethelsdorp) was not highly organised and his leadership was lacking, but he was a pioneer who paved the way for others who also brought the gospel to Africa.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com