The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC)

During the Synod meeting in 2019

The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South Africa is the oldest church in the Family of Reformed churches. In this family, the DRC has been known as the “mother church”. Today the DRC prefers to rather play the role of one of several sisters, albeit the “elder sister”. After 370 years of existence, the DRC is still a vibrant church with many congregations and a variety of ministries. It constantly adapts to changing times and new challenges. Recognising its deep roots in the Low Countries of Europe, it also sees itself as a church that has been (re)planted in Southern Africa, with a definite calling to and in this region, so that its roots have grown equally deep in the African soil.

The 17th Century in The Netherlands was known as the Dutch Golden Age, experiencing a heyday in arts, science, philosophy and commerce. Through the Dutch East India Company (DEIC), The Netherlands dominated sea trade with the Far East. In 1652 the first group of Dutch settlers, led by Jan van Riebeeck, arrived in three sailing ships at the southern tip of Africa to establish a refreshment station called, significantly so, Cape of Good Hope, but at times also Cape of Storms. This refreshment station developed into a permanent settlement, expanding northward into the interior of the continent. The history of what was to eventually become the independent and democratic South Africa of today started to unroll as the descendants of the settlers engaged (clashed!) with the indigenous peoples of the Western Cape as well as with black ethnic groups migrating southwards from around the Great Lakes area in Central Africa.

South Africa today

After many years of struggle against racial injustice and inequality, South Africa became a fully democratic republic in 1994. Today, the Republic of South Africa, secular democracy, is populated by about 60 million people. The capital cities are Cape Town (legislative capital) and Pretoria (executive capital), while the largest city is Johannesburg (the business hub). The country has 11 official languages, viz. Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga and isiXhosa.

Christianity is the religion of the majority of people, while much smaller percentages of the population practise Islam, Hinduism, traditional African religions and Judaism. An increasing number of people are non-religious. South Africa’s gross national income (GNI) per capita is of the highest in Africa. South Africa exports gold, diamonds, iron, coal, other metals and minerals, and agricultural products, while there is also a strong manufacturing, mining and technology industry. Unfortunately, the country is, as some of its neighbours, also hampered by growing corruption, violent crime, unemployment, inequality and poverty.

A brief history of the Dutch Reformed Church

The first Dutch settlers also brought with them a church, a church with typical Dutch characteristics of the 17th century. While the word Dutch refers to the geographical area of the Low Countries, comprising the Netherlands, parts of Belgium and north-western Germany, it also signals a particular history, culture, language and especially a Reformed tradition. The 17th-century protestant church in The Netherlands was strongly influenced by the theology of the reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. This brand of the Reformation culminated in the expression of its faith in the Belgic Confession (1559), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and eventually in the decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht of 16181619 leading to the Canons of Dort, a particular church order and an official Bible translation called De Statenvertaling (State Translation). The spirituality of the Dutch Protestant Church varied from, on the one hand, an orthodox Reformed approach, often tending to be very dogmatic and rational, and on the other hand the emphasis on pietism and a holy, even puritan lifestyle.

Initially, the ministry in the settlement at the Cape was taken care of by visiting Dutch ministers and spiritual workers called ziekentroosters or “comforters of the sick” employed by the DEIC. In 1665 the first full-time minister, Rev. Johannes van Arckel, arrived in the Cape. In that same year, the first Dutch Reformed congregation was established in Cape Town. In 1704 the well-known Groote Kerk building was erected in the Mother City. As the settlement gradually expanded into the interior, more congregations were established and taken care of by Dutch ministers employed by the DEIC. In 1686 Stellenbosch was the second congregation to be established. From 1688 quite a number of Huguenot families fleeing from violent oppression in France due to their Protestant faith arrived in South Africa. They established the third congregation called Drakenstein (today’s Paarl Valley and Franschhoek areas) and these Huguenots influenced the church with a distinctly French Reformed piety.

The broad and very descriptive name for the church, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), only came into frequent use after the first synod of the church convened on 2 November 1824.

Another distinct influence on the church was affected by a number of Scottish ministers arriving at the Cape from 1818. Especially the descendants of Rev. Andrew Murray Snr., who arrived in 1822 and became the minister of Graaff-Reinet, have had a seminal effect on the church and its mission. These Scottish ministers had a strong missionary thrust and their evangelical influence converged with the Reformed tradition from the Low Countries. In 1826 the DRC sent out its first ordained missionary, Rev. Leo Marquard, who worked among the Khoisan people in the Clanwilliam area, with many more missionaries to follow.

During the Great Trek that started in 1836, a large part of the white population moved into the interior of Southern Africa to settle in the regions that later became the Orange Free State, Natal and the Transvaal. Many new congregations were established and the need for qualified ministers increased. This led to the establishment of the first theological seminary in 1859 in Stellenbosch. In 1937 a second training institution for ministers, the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria, was established. The third institution, the Faculty of Theology at the University of the Orange Free State (now the University of the Free State), was established in 1978. The Mission Institute for the training of the many missionaries taking the Gospel into Africa was established in Wellington in 1876. The Huguenot Seminary, established in Wellington in 1874, and which focussed on the training of women, eventually developed into the Huguenot College which is today presenting various courses in social-, spiritual-, and youth work as well as community involvement.

The churches in the Orange Free State, Natal and the Transvaal began as independent denominations, separated from the historical Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (Cape Colony). For many years the four churches, however, collaborated in a federal system and they only merged into one general synod in 1962. Different regional synods were established, including one in Namibia and another in Zimbabwe (although the last mentioned was later on dissolved).

The church experienced an evangelical revival in the 1860s and it leads to several local missionary endeavours, but also into other African countries north of the Limpopo River. The missionary approach was influenced by the missionary principles of the time. This comprised a comprehensive approach, that is, the proclamation of the Word, but also diaconal services including educational, medical and agricultural support and development with the aim of planting separate, indigenous and autonomous churches for each race- and language group.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth-century hundreds of missionaries were sent out all over Africa (Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya, etc.) These mission endeavours were richly blessed. At the peak of its missionary activity in the 1960s, the DRC supported about 1 000 missionaries and 10 000 teachers, spiritual workers, “indigenous” ministers, etc. It further established and supported 3 660 schools with 220 000 pupils. Several special schools for deaf and blind learners as well as a number of orphanages were erected. Besides this, the church has been involved in the founding of 38 mission hospitals with a total of 8 000 beds and many institutions for theological training were created in order to address the spiritual needs of the people across a vast area, deep into Africa.

The success of the missionary enterprise has become visible in a family of churches the DRC always saw as part of the broader DRC Family. These churches include, in South Africa itself, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA), the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) and the Reformed Church in Africa (RCA) while they also include churches in Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho. The DRC also cooperated closely with other churches and missions, like the Paris Evangelical Mission Society and the Rhenish Mission Society.

It is, however, not possible, neither financially nor practically, that all the missionary activities and the facilities discussed above could be maintained by the “mother church”. It was difficult to cede the activities and full autonomy to the so-called “daughter churches” and to celebrate their coming of age with them when the time came in the 1960s. But by God’s grace it all worked out well and the growth of the churches after becoming fully autonomous and independent mostly increased exponentially. God blessed the missionary endeavours abundantly, despite the imperfection of and often incorrect approaches by the sending church.

From the late 1980s and early 1990s, and especially after the DRC confessed that its theological justification of and practical collaboration with the Apartheid system was a sin, the drive to reunite at least the domestic sister churches has increased. Sadly, this did not yet materialised; the process often crushing to a halt by unnecessary tensions and by the persistent struggle to overcome the legacy of the past. However, the DRC continues to express its sincere eagerness to work towards greater visible unity, not only with the domestic sister churches but also within the broader family. The DRC also continues to strive to establish close partnerships and develop warm relationships as a step on the way of realising the ideal of unity, but also enable the Reformed Family of Churches to obey and give better effect to its calling in this region.

The development of a DRC identity

The Nicaean Creed, the Athanasian Creed and the Apostle’s Creed together with the three Reformed confessions of faith or the “three forms of unity”, that is, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort, form the basis of the faith as taught in the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1962 the first General Synod of the DRC decided on a church order that would be a modernised version of the 1619 Church Order of Dort, that is, it was to be a Reformed, “Synodical Presbyterianpolity, aimed at safeguarding the governance of Christ in his church – through the Word and the Holy Spirit.

The DRC has been influenced by different theological streams. From the Netherlands came the influence of the Dutch Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie or Further Reformation) with a strong emphasis on the Reformed confession, experiential knowledge of God, intellectualism and even liberalism. In the early nineteenth century, the Scottish ministers brought with them an openness to pietism, revivalism, holiness as well as Pentecostal influences. This resulted in a church that harbours devotional diversity.

The two Anglo-Boer Wars (The First Transvaal War of Independence of 1880-1881 and the South African War of 1899-1901) had, together with the First and Second World Wars, a profound influence on the members of the DRC. During the first part of the 20th century, the DRC turned away from the more “evangelical” to a particular philosophical, neo-Calvinistic interpretation of the theology of the Dutch political and theological leader Abraham Kuyper. This change, coupled with the German missions’ focus on volkstümlichkeit (separate churches for separate peoples and races) all contributed to the developing the identity of the Dutch Reformed Church as a “church for Afrikaner people” and its subsequent uncritical acceptance of Apartheid.

During the twentieth century opinions in ecumenical circles exercised an influence on the views of the DRC. In the first half of the twentieth century, the DRC was actively involved in bodies such as the International Missionary Council, the World Council of Churches, the Reformed Ecumenical Synod and so on. But, because of its support of apartheid policies in South Africa, the DRC was excluded from these bodies and only allowed to return during the 1990s. Today it is again playing a significant role in ecumenical bodies, especially in the South African Council of Churches and the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

Current focus

The DRC is currently striving to rediscover and enhance its missional identity as a core aspect of church life. As the church also celebrated 500 years since the Reformation, it also deliberately works towards the rediscovery and enhancement of its Reformed identity in the context of modern-day Southern Africa. It would like to be a church in Africa and for Africa, embracing diversity in the unity of the body of Christ. After about 370 years of existence, the DRC still confesses to be a Reformed church that adheres to the authority of Scripture and that is missional in character in its Southern African context. Much emphasis is thus placed on the missional ministry of local congregations.

Apart from the many facets of DRC activities inside congregations, the DRC also tries to serve our (often broken) communities through community development programmes. Throughout the years the DRC has been known for its compassionate services or diaconal ministry. Diaconal work is part of the Church’s proclamation of God’s grace and love in the world. The basic approach of the social services programmes of the DRC is holistic as it also includes caring and relief work, as well as transformational development and healing of the communities, families and individuals. There are service stations and residential facilities (old age homes, homes for children, Early Childhood Development centres, etc.) to be found all over South Africa, in all communities, from deep rural areas to cities. These service stations are seen as centres of hope. In the 2019/2020 book year social service programmes of the regional synods provided services to more than 1,4 million people. If the impact of these services is measured, it reached about 5,6 million people. The DRC is, after the government, probably the biggest provider of social services in the country. The social services employ 5,390 full-time staff, 1,655 contract workers and are assisted by 7,110 volunteers. The church is doing much in reaching out to the youth, for example by creating opportunities to make the young feel at home in the church. It strives for continuous theological development of not only traditional ministers but also developing new ministerial offices (lanes of ministers) like specialised elders, the further training and ordination of youth workers, social workers, community workers and pastoral counsellors and the church aim to support congregations in their endeavours to make ministries (priesthood of all believers) fruitful in an increasingly modern, urbanised and secularised context. It provides various forms of literature and programmes to equip members for the ministry.

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has had a devastating influence on the economy and the lives of many people. The church has had to make many adaptations to its ministry, for instance by focussing more on informal diaconal and pastoral engagement, migrating to digital communication, and consolidating many projects in order to survive financially.

Statistics and structures

The Dutch Reformed Church consists of ten synods, of which nine are in South Africa. The tenth synod is in the neighbouring country of Namibia. The borders of the synods are drawn along those of the various provinces of South Africa and the country of Namibia.

Every synod has its own regional structure, with a head office situated in the main town or city of the province where it is situated. Every synod has full jurisdiction over its own affairs. There are 1,110 congregations in total and they are geographically organised into 144 presbyteries or circuits. There are 1,382 ministers and the total membership of the DRC comes to about 900,000 (confessing members). At local (congregation) level, the church council, together with the ministers or pastors of the congregation, is responsible for pastoral care and ministry.

The General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church’s office is in Pretoria in Gauteng Province; Bible Media, Christian Literature Fund and the Huguenot College, as well as the newly established Andrew Murray Centre for Spirituality, are located in Wellington in the Western Cape; and the Church Archives are in Stellenbosch.


Dr Gustav Claassen (General Secretary: DRC General Synod)