The conversion of Theodosius Vanderkemp — wealthy physician, scientist and soldier — is a compelling story, but that his conversion would lead him to the kraals of the Zulus and Khoikhoi in South Africa is a stunning example of how God may use each of us in ways that we can scarcely imagine. What follows is an amazing account of how God chose the unlikeliest of vessels — a new convert well past fifty years of age — to proclaim the glorious Gospel of Christ “to all who are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”

A modern apostle was Theodosius Vanderkemp—at least he has never been surpassed since the days of the apostles in consecration and self-denial. He was a Dutchman, born in 1747, at Rotterdam, where his father was pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church. He took a five years’ course of training at the University of Leyden, and became a physician. Later he exchanged his position of physician for that of a soldier under the Prince of Orange for sixteen years, where he rose to be captain of the horse. Then owing to a difference between the Prince of Orange and himself, he left the army and returned to the practice of medicine. He went to Edinburgh where he distinguished himself by his knowledge of the sciences and modern languages, and then settled at Rotterdam, and by the practice of medicine he made a great deal of money.

But a sudden event changed his life in 1791. He was sailing on the river near Dordt, when a violent storm arose and a water-spout broke over his boat, by which it was instantly upset. His wife and daughter were instantly drowned before his eyes, and he was brought to the point of death. Clinging to the boat, he was carried down stream nearly a mile, as no one dared, in so dreadful a storm, to venture to his aid. A vessel then lying at the port of Dordt was by a mysterious providence driven from her moorings and floated toward the part of the river where he was just ready to sink, and the sailors took him from the wreck. His proud heart was completely broken by this providence. As a young man he had lived a dissolute life, but since his marriage he had lived an outwardly moral life. Yet he had imbibed that spirit of rationalism so common in his day. He did not believe in the Bible, and denied the divinity of Christ. But his soul, now completely broken up by the accident, could not find rest till it found rest in Christ. Slowly and with many struggles, he fought his way back to faith—a brand plucked from the burning, and destined to become a burning and shining light for the Gospel. The Book and the Saviour whom he once despised, now became his hope and treasure.

About this time he came across the report of a great London missionary meeting containing sermons and addresses, etc., and one text, “Curse ye Meroz,” entered his soul. Falling on his knees, he cried, “O, Lord Jesus, here am I; Thou knowest I have no will of my own since I devoted myself to Thy service.” He at once offered himself to the London Missionary Society1, though over fifty years of age.

He was appointed to South Africa, and was ordained November 3, 1797. But before leaving the Netherlands, in order that his influence might remain behind him, he organized two missionary societies, one at Rotterdam and the other in Friesland, the former of which has become the well known Netherlands Missionary Society, which now has missions in the East Indies with about 20,000 communicants. In 1798 he sailed with three others, one of whom, Kicherer, like himself, seems to have been a missionary from the Dutch Reformed Church also. Vanderkemp did not wait until he arrived at Africa before he began missionary work. On the vessel in which they sailed, there were a number of convicts on their way to the penal colony in Australia. He at once became interested in them, and addressed them with such power that there was an awakening in the ship, and through it many of them were led to change their lives. When the time came for the convicts to separate from Vanderkemp at the Cape of Good Hope, nearly all of these strong, wicked men shed tears. Perhaps some of them had never received a word of help and kindness before. He arrived at Capetown in March, 1799. At Capetown Vanderkemp at once began work. He started among the slaves, Mohammedans and Khoikhoi, although he tried to awaken a deeper interest in missions among the Europeans. In May, 1799, he left Capetown for the interior with Mr. Edmonds. He traveled northeastward, aiming to work among the interior tribes. These were a very different race from the Khoikhoi. They were a courageous, strong and warlike people, with high foreheads and black eyes. These tribes were also cruel to their enemies, and would wait long for vengeance. They included the Bechuana, Basuto and Zulu tribes. They had long and bloody wars with the other tribes and the English. In the Boer War, one of the tribes, the Zulus, defeated the English, and the Prince Imperial, the son of the Emperor Louis Napoleon, lost his life. They were, therefore, very brave, but dangerous to labor among. Through a country full of dangers he pushed and finally arrived on the border of this warlike tribe.

Cape Town today. Photo copyright: South African Tourism

After a month’s travel he was brought before their king, Geika, unarmed, and without any attendants but a few Khoikhoi. The tribesmen at first thought he was a spy. Some slaves and criminals who had fled from the colony, aroused suspicion among them against Vanderkemp, but it happened that on his way he stopped at the farm of a Dutch colonist named Beer. Mr. Beer had that very day buried a little girl. The arrival of the missionary was a balm to his heart. “O Lord,” he cried in his prayer at family devotion that night, “Thou hast sent me a trial, but Thou hast at the same time granted me a great joy in answering my long continued prayer for a missionary.

Thou art faithful to Thy promises.” It is said that through Mr. Beer’s intercession, the chief gave Vanderkemp a place to live in. Geika had given him permission to pitch his tent but advised him to leave on account of the unsettled state of the times. He was not safe from wild beasts and wilder men, who at times closely watched his dwelling.

Various stories are told of the way in which renegades from the colony would stir up the chief against him. One of the Dutch farmers went to the chief and made him believe that Vanderkemp would try to poison him by giving him brandy with water in it. The chief, taking a company of armed men, went to the missionary, fully determined to kill him as soon as he offered him anything to drink. He seated himself near his wagon and began to talk with Vanderkemp. Hours passed away, and still the brandy did not appear. Tired of waiting, the chief went away, but soon returned and asked, “Haven’t you any brandy?” “I have not,” answered the missionary, without a suspicion of the danger he had passed through, “and never expect to have any.” “Then they have deceived me,” cried the chief, throwing himself at the feet of the missionary. “I see that you are a good man. You do not wish to kill me.” Permission having been given, he opened a station and school. The chief, though he disliked him, yet appealed to his aid. When the country was desolated by a long drought, Geika sent for Vanderkemp, so as to obtain rain through him. Fearing that if he did so it would be attributed to magical art, like that of the professional rain-makers of the heathen, Vanderkemp refused. But the chief sent a second messenger, who told him the king said, “It is cruel to treat us thus. You know if you will only go on your knees and hide your face in your hands, we will have as much rain as we want,” “So be it then,” said Vanderkemp. He remembered Elijah’s prayers for rain, and he began to pray. The God of Elijah answered, and rain came in torrents for several days. The chief sent a messenger with many thanks to him, but gave him a compliment that made him smile. “Another time,” said the chief, “be a little more moderate. This time you have almost drowned us. Here, however, is a fat ox as the proof of my gratitude.” Vanderkemp peremptorily refused to receive the ox. But one of the scoundrel whites who infested the country, conceived the idea of making a good thing at Vanderkemp’s expense. He met in the woods the man taking the ox back to the chief. “What?” said he, when the tribesman told him the story how the ox was brought back to the chief. “What, one ox— one single ox for such a splendid rain as that? It is an insult. Let Geika at once send me six oxen like this. I will take it on myself to present them to the missionary. You will see that they are accepted.” The chief forwarded the six oxen to this officious middle man, and it hardly need be added that neither Geika nor the missionary ever heard of them again.

Vanderkemp found his life constantly in danger from such men as these adventurers who accompanied the retailers of brandy, and were marauding among the natives, falling on them most cruelly unawares. Such men could not forgive Vanderkemp for the love he had toward the Khoikhoi and other tribes. More than once they attempted his life, but God preserved him. The tribesmen saw his danger, and also noted his safety and came to regard him as a sacred being, who had power with the invisible God, before whom they so often saw him pray. His companion, Mr. Edmonds, having left, he continued alone in the land for over a year. Then Geika, becoming jealous of the growing power of Christianity, ordered him away. He left, followed by sixty converts. Thus ended his work among these inland tribes, whose hearts seemed like stone, and yet it did not end. He sowed good seed, for thirty years afterwards an aged woman was admitted to the Church who had received the Gospel from his lips. But the most important result was that he, with his wonderful skill at languages, prepared a dictionary of the tribe’s language. The London Missionary Society said that he had done more in sixteen months than many missionaries did in a lifetime. For years afterward, the tribesmen who embraced Christianity were frequently called Ma Yankana, meaning, “the men of Vanderkemp.”

The Khoikhoi as depicted by Samuel Daniell, 1749–1840 (Africana-Museum)

Vanderkemp, having been compelled to leave, arrived with his converts in May, 1801, at Graff Reinet. He was offered the pastorate of the Dutch Church there, but refused, for he felt that his mission was to minister to and save the poor Khoikhoi. He soon collected a colony of two hundred. Buildings were erected at Graff Reinet for the mission, and it became a permanent station. But the whites soon became jealous and charged him with teaching the slaves and heathen, so that they might become the equals of the whites. He saw that it would be safer to have the Khoikhoi go out from among the whites into a separate colony, and after many struggles, he gained permission to found another colony. The government granted him land near Algoa Bay. A part of his congregation occupied it early in 1802. When the governor visited it that year, although it was not a complete success, he was so much impressed with the good it was doing, as well as the danger of the location, for the wild Khoikhoi had repeatedly attacked them, that he urged them to occupy Fort Frederick, which had just been given up by its garrison. So to be safe from the opposition of the colonists and from the attacks of plundering Khoikhoi he went with three hundred Khoikhoi to that fort. His work now became more encouraging, as several Khoikhoi applied for baptism. He was so ill with rheumatism at the time that he had to baptize them as he lay on his couch.

The country then passed from the rule of the English into the hands of the Dutch. It was expected that they would be prejudiced against the mission, because the Boers hated the Khoikhoi. But the governor soon discovered how much good Vanderkemp was doing, and gave him his assistance in forming a new mission. He granted them a station at Kooboo, where they commenced a station named Bethelsdorp (seven miles north of the bay), which was founded in June, 1803. This place had little to favor it. The soil was poor, and there was hardly enough water for domestic purposes. They could not irrigate, and so they could only farm with difficulty. Five years after, they wrote to the directors of the Mission that they had been without bread for a long time, and did not expect to procure any for three or four months, nor had they any vegetables. And yet they took this desert place, and under the blessing of God, after a long time, made it blossom like the rose.

The Khoikhoi at once began to gather round Vanderkemp, when they found that they had a friend and a sympathizer in him. The progress of his scholars there was astonishing; and, above all, their faculty in acquiring religious knowledge, when one considers their previous ignorance, was wonderful. In the first year twenty-two were baptized. From this time on till the reoccupation by the British, the work was carried on with great vigor by Vanderkemp. In 1807 great religious interest was manifested and an out-station at Steurmanns Krall established. By 1810 the population of Bethelsdorp was 1,000, so rapidly did the mission grow. Thus his work prospered.

Some very beautiful stories are told of his work. Cupido, a Khoikhoi, was remarkable for swearing, lying, fighting and drunkenness, which often laid him on a sick bed. At such times he would resolve on reformation, but when he became well again, he would forget all his vows. He was sometimes afraid of God, though he knew little of Him. He was providentially led to Graff Reinet, where he heard Vanderkemp declare that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could save sinners from their sins. He said within himself, “That is what I want. That is what I want.” He went to the missionary and asked that he might become acquainted with this Jesus. He then told all that he had found One who could save him from his sins. He not only became a believer, but through a sermon of Vanderkemp, also a devoted and successful missionary. Another interesting case was that of a woman named Lentze. She was a convert, and was remarkable for her integrity of life and her constancy and fervor in prayer. In her last illness she spent almost day and night in communion with Christ. One morning she sent for Vanderkemp, requesting him to give her farewell to all the people of God, and then desired to be placed in the open air. When he and his servant had carried her out of doors, she said, “Now I will go to my Lord,” and expired.

Dr. Vanderkemp had his peculiarities and eccentricities; and yet they reveal his wonderfully consecrated spirit. He was a man of great frugality, and carried the carelessness of his person to the most extreme limits. He never wore a hat in South Africa. On one occasion, when some new trick that his enemies played on his Khoikhoi, compelled him to go up to Cape Town to appeal to the authorities, he had to buy a hat. But even then he did not use it as a head-covering, but held it in his hands behind his back. The street boys took advantage of his forgetfulness, and amused themselves from behind by filling it with gravel. The doctor soon discovered by its weight that it was no longer empty, and simply emptied it. But even then he did not put it on his head, but bareheaded went on his walk. He held rigid views about a missionary’s life. His maxim was that a missionary should own only the clothes he had on, and that he should conform himself to the food of the natives. He insisted that the London Society ought to allow only $150 a year to its workers. He did not do this merely from a notion of economy, but he held that if you would raise those to whom you ministered up to your level, you must go down to theirs in everything that was not wrong. This principle has since been proved a false one, yet it revealed his consecration and self-denial for God. It meant the giving up of civilization in order to save the blacks. In his devotion to his principles he went so far as to redeem a black slave girl and then marry her, so that he might gain the entire sympathy of the tribesmen, and thus bring them to Christ. She was a converted Hottentot, who remained to the end uneducated, so different from himself that it caused him a great deal of trouble. So great was his love for the poor Khoikhoi that he said: “I should not fear to offer my life for the last child among them.”

Fort Frederick today

Still, with all his eccentricities, he was a wonderfully consecrated man. He was a close student of God’s Word. The Khoikhoi preserve many stories of his studies. They would say that in his travels when at evening they would unyoke the oxen and were preparing the doctor’s meal he would go and seat himself some distance among the bushes with paper and pencil in hand. There he gave himself to prayer and meditation. They used to hear him say sometimes, “Lord, I do not understand this point, this word.” A moment afterwards he would say, “I see it a little better now, but not enough. Enlighten me.” And then often, after a moment of silence he cried, “Oh, now I understand; thanks, thanks, Lord.” Then, in spite of the darkness, he would begin to write, and his pencil would fly over the paper. He was prayerful, and yet he did not believe in being always on his knees. Prayer without ceasing meant prayer in the spirit, rather than prayer in the act. One day while he was traversing a forest with a young missionary, suddenly a band of warriors appeared in full armor, making motions in an alarming manner. The new missionary, whose carriage was following his, got out and ran to him, begging him to stop and ask God’s protection. But Vanderkemp said, “My friend, didn’t you pray this morning? Let us go on.”

The cruelties which the poor Khoikhoi suffered from the whites caused feelings of deepest pity in his heart. It is said that within three years he had paid no less than $5,000 to redeem slaves. Through him and the other missionaries the Khoikhoi were finally delivered from their oppressions. When Cape Colony was under control of the Dutch, it is said the Boers earnestly requested General Janssen, the governor, to expel Vanderkemp and the other missionaries, because they were trying to civilize and Christianize the Khoikhoi. The governor indignantly refused, and even went so far as to try to have justice done to the Khoikhoi on the frontiers, because he had confidence in the missionaries. This fact ought to be mentioned, for it has been generally supposed that the Dutch were against the missionaries, but here their governor protected them. Vanderkemp was called on again and again to defend these persecuted Khoikhoi. For the Khoikhoi were very cruelly treated along the frontier. Rev. Mr. Read asserted to the directors of the London Missionary Society that 100 murders were brought to the knowledge of Vanderkemp and himself, and yet there was no redress. Dr. Vanderkemp became thus the great champion of the black race in South Africa, the Wilberforce of South Africa. Twice he had to go personally all the way to Cape Town to testify for them. Almost his last service was to go and testify in the courts at Cape Town against their wrongs.

He was under appointment of the London Missionary Society to go to Madagascar, and start a new mission there, when he suddenly died at Cape Town, December 15, 1811. His last words were: “It is all good.” But his station at Bethelsdorp continued to prosper until it had, in 1889, raised up more than a hundred native preachers and brought 6,000 souls into the church and won by its instruction 30,000 adherents

Such was Vanderkemp—a most consecrated man. The Reformed Church—indeed, any other Church— has never raised up a more spiritually-minded, self-denying, consecrated missionary than he. One who was well acquainted with his work pays the following eloquent tribute to his life. He says that “for combining natural talents, extensive learning, elevated piety, ardent zeal, disinterested benevolence, unshaken perseverance and unfeigned humility he has not been equaled since the days of the apostles.”

May God ever give us such men.

Abridged, principally, from J.I. Good’s “Famous Missionaries of the Reformed Church”.