The Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa (LECSA)

The Pilgrimage of Peace and Leeto la Thapelo during LECSA’s Reformation Sunday Celebration

The mountainous and picturesque Kingdom of Lesotho is landlocked by its larger and only neighbour, South Africa. The Maluti mountain range, with its highest peak Thabana Ntlenyana (3482m-high), runs right across the South East of Lesotho forming the border of Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa, and the Thaba-Putsoa range which runs in the middle of Lesotho. These mountains are normally covered by snow in winter, serving as vital water catchment area and source of several life-giving rivers flowing to South Africa. Lesotho’s population is about 2.1 million, of which one third lives in urban areas close to its western border with South Africa. The country has a low income, depending mostly on the selling of water to South Africa, diamond mining activities, agriculture and providing migrant labour to South Africa.

More than 99% of the population is Sesotho speaking, nourishing a proud culture, which also entails wearing the most beautiful traditional blankets during winter and at special occasions, with the ladies wearing colourful head scarfs and men pointed hats of woven grass. The King of the Basotho is revered as a uniting symbol and traditional chiefs still play an important role in communities making a subsistence agricultural living on the communal land. Basotho are peaceful people; the country’s motto is Khotso, Pula, Nala (Peace, Rain, and Prosperity).

More than 90% are Christians, with about 50% Roman Catholic and 41% Protestant of the latter group, the Lesotho Evangelical Church is the biggest Protestant denomination.

A brief history of the Basotho people

Like in the rest of Southern Africa, the original inhabitants of Lesotho were San people; there are still many beautiful examples of their rock art in the Lesotho mountains and along the cliffs near the river banks. Modern Lesotho (the former Basutoland) became a single political entity under King Moshoeshoe 1, son of Mokhachane, around 1822. His followers, and former adversaries, joined in resistance against the Lifaqane (violent scattering) associated with the reign of Chaka Zulu (1818-1828). Moshoeshoe built his stronghold on top of the unconquerable and impregnable Thaba Bosiu. He was a wise king and was far ahead of his time in applying democratic, diplomatic and military strategies, building a strong Basuto nation despite the coercions of several challengers (other African tribes, as well as British colonialism and Boer expansionism). During the 1860s Lesotho lost a relative vast territory to the Orange River Sovereignty (later called Orange Free State Republic), and desperate for protection Moshoeshoe 1 appealed to Queen Victoria, who proclaimed Basutoland a British protectorate in 1868. But eventually, after Moshoeshoe’s death in 1870, Basutoland was treated as a British colony. Lesotho gained independence in 1966 and was renamed Lesotho. But since then, there has been much party-political turmoil in the country, even to this date. The current monarch is King Letsie III. Lesotho is part of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and other international political and developmental bodies.

Origins of the church in Lesotho                  

The first missionaries of the P.E.M.S. (Paris Evangelical Mission Society), a French-speaking,   Protestant (Huguenot) society, arrived in South Africa in 1829. In collaboration with the London Missionary Society under the leadership of Dr John Philip, Revs. Samuel Rolland, Prosper Lemue and Jean Pierre Pellissier first tried to establish a mission amongst the Bahurutse tribe in today’s North West Province but were eventually prevented by the dreaded warrior and all-powerful King Mzilikazi of the Matebele tribe. They then had to settle at Motito amongst the Batswana people, working amongst refugees driven away by Mzilikazi.

In the meantime a second group of French missionaries came to South Africa, arriving at the London Missionary Society’s Griqua station at Philippolis and heading for the Motito mission. Moshoeshoe 1 heard of their arrival and sent a Griqua hunter, Adam Krotz, as an embassy to Adam Kok, the Griqua leader at Philippolis, expressing his desire to also obtain the services of missionaries.

The party of three missionaries, Rev. Thomas Arbousset, Eugène Casalis and missionary artisan Constant Gosselin, overheard this message of the ‘King of the Mountain’ as a call by God and then departed for Thaba Bosiu in Basutoland. They were met by Moshoeshoe’s emissaries at Khalong-la-Bo-Tau (Modderpoort) led by Moshoeshoe’s two sons (Letsie and Molapo) who escorted them to Thaba Bosiu. They crossed the Caledon approximately where Maseru is today, and arrived on 26th June 1833. The missionaries were immediately impressed by the King: “… the chief bent upon me a look at once majestic and benevolent … a superior man, trained to think, to command others, and above all himself,” Casalis wrote.

The King advise them to go around his country to look for a place to establish a mission station  and they eventually decided to settle in a beautiful valley of mount Makhoarane, which they called Morija. With the support of Letsie and Molapo (Moshoeshoe’s sons), they started erecting (with the strong and pretty local sandstone) the first mission station.

Soon afterwards, Pellissier and Roland abandoned their efforts to establish a mission amongst Mizilikazi’s Matebele tribe; in 1835 Roland founded a station at Beerseba, on the banks of the Caledon near present-day Smithfield and Pellissier settled at the present day Bethulie. In 1837 Rev. François Daumas erected a fourth P.E.M.S. station at Mekoatleng, near present-day Clocolan. After four years of working at Morija, Casalis left this station to erect a fifth one closer to King Moshoeshoe’s stronghold, at the foot of Thaba Bosiu. At Thaba Bosiu Casalis was later joined by his brother in law, Rev. Hamilton M Dyke. This mission station at Thaba Bosiu grew rapidly. King Moshoeshoe also attended the worship services and an intimate relationship of mutual trust developed between him and the P.E.M.S. missionaries. The missionaries acted as his scribes, interpreters, and advisors in foreign relations. The missionaries were soon fondly known as “Baruti ba Moshoeshoe” (Moshoeshoe’s ministers).

In 1858 a second generation of missionaries who left a deep impression on mission work in Southern Africa arrived. They were François Coillard, Adolphe Mabille and Eugène Casalis Jnr. The missionaries devoted themselves to learn the Sesotho language; they even developed the Sesotho orthography. They soon translated various religious texts and started working on a Sesotho hymnbook (Lifela tsa Sione). They erected schools and taught people to read – education became the primary means of evangelisation. Some local men, even from the royal house, soon joined as co-workers. Under the leadership of Elia Maphike, they embarked in spreading the gospel to distant regions, even as far as the Northern Free State and Magaliesburg in the Transvaal.

Ambivalent relations with the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRCSA)

From the beginning, the P.E.M.S. missionaries worked in close cooperation on different fields with ministers of the DRCSA. Just after the 1838 Great Trek (white settlers migrating northwards), tensions arose about the border and expanding territory of the Orange River Sovereignty (later Orange Free State Republic) and that of Moshoeshoe’s kingdom. Several wars were fought around the 1850s and 1860s.

On the one hand, the DRCSA ministers and synods cooperated closely with the French missionaries, even contributing financially to support their work. Many joint missionaries endeavours were undertaken, for instance, the training of indigenous evangelists and ministers for the DRC’s early mission was for many years done at Morija. Andrew Murray Jnr., who has been the DRCSA minister in Bloemfontein during these pioneering years, was instrumental in laying official ties between the DRCSA in South Africa and the emerging Reformed Church in Basutoland – the very first “ecumenical relationship” the DRCSA entered into.

But on the other hand, history also tells the very sad story of several mission stations of P.E.M.S. that have been attacked and burned down during the skirmishes since the 1840s between Free State commandoes and Basotho people – especially the station of Beerseba was totally demolished with no real reason, destroying wonderful projects. Missionaries were also banned for several years from continuing their work in the territory conquered from the Basotho.

DRCSA ministers like Frazer of Philippolis and Van der Wall of Bloemfontein objected strongly to these injustices done to the P.E.M.S. The DRCSA and the church in Lesotho nevertheless collaborated throughout in the late 19th and 20th century on an on and off basis, for instance making agreements of commitments to each other, leading to the DRCSA taking over some P.E.M.S. stations in the Free State and supporting the P.E.M.S. work in Lesotho, but then breaking it again during the high tide of Apartheid in the 1950s. It was later, around 2008, when LECSA and the DRC Free State Synod started some talks to resuscitate their relationship as a Reformed family.

The Basotho church reaching out to Barotseland in Zambia

After the missionaries returned from their exile, they found that the church amongst the Basotho steadily grew in ‘grace and numbers’ since their absence. Mabille impressed upon the youthful church the necessity of also undertaking its own mission work among the more distant un-evangelised tribes. They became aware of a need for mission work amongst the Banyai in Mashonaland (north of the Limpopo River) and after receiving a report from a reconnaissance journey led by Asser Sehabane, a Christian coming from Basutoland and who worked with Rev. Stephanus Hofmeyr in the Northern Transvaal, P.E.M.S. Synod in 1875 decided to send some Basotho missionaries northwards. Despite their persisted efforts, several attempts to reach their destination failed due to the Transvaal Government who refused them passage and tribal struggles in the area.

In 1884 a group of Basotho Christian families, under the leadership of missionary François Coillard, however, managed to start a mission at Sesheke in Barotseland, just across the Zambezi River. There they established a church amongst the Barotse people.

The Barotse speak a language closely related to Sesotho. It is a remarkable story of pioneer mission work by a young indigenous church. The mission work grew and even to this day, LECSA maintains close ties with this church, which is now part of the United Church of Zambia (UCZ).

LEC/LECSA as an autonomous church

In 1964 P.E.M.S. gave Lesotho Church autonomy and it became the Lesotho Evangelical Church (LEC). In 2012 (while it was preparing to celebrate its fiftieth Jubilee in 2014) it proposed the renaming of itself to be the Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa (LECSA).  The name was publicly and officially announced in 2014, acknowledging the fact that the church has also several congregations outside Lesotho.

LECSA considers itself a Reformed church, with a missional identity. Rev. Nelson Khethang Posholi, Executive Secretary of LECSA, describes this identity as follows: “LECSA proclaims in the name of the crucified and risen Lord, God’s saving grace and love for the whole world. In the midst of sin, brokenness, pain and suffering, it proclaims to the world in words and deeds that God’s salvation, hope, peace and reconciliation have come into our midst in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It does so in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Its theology is geared towards equipping life-giving transformative engagement in the world. This is a spirituality that is built in community and builds community.”

LECSA is a vibrant church, with its Synod Secretariat offices in Maseru, and its head office in Morija where you will find different LECSA institution like the Morija Printing Works established in 1861, the Morija Theological Seminary established in 1882, the Morija Sesotho Book Depot, the Morija Museum and Archives, LECSA School’s Secretariat Office, Mophato oa Morija Youth Centre, the Scott Memorial Hospital, K.E.L. Radio and many others. More than 100 parishes spread across the whole of Lesotho, even in remote parts deep into the mountains, with more than 100 ministers and evangelists. The church seeks to carry out its mission through the preaching of the word of God, the publication of its newspaper and radio station, participating in Radio Lesotho programmes, and other appropriate ways.

With its limited means, LECSA tries to express its obedience to the Lord through medical health institutions and educational services. It has two hospitals and health centres, which are involved in primary health care, and a centre for the rehabilitation of alcoholics. The church runs 500 primary and 75 post-primary schools.

Other departments of LECSA include a lay training service, youth work, guidance and counselling on family and social matters. A planning commission gathers and identifies the critical ministry issues and opportunities from the various boards and other commissions of the church and advises the synod. The women’s desk was established in 1988. The church runs several women’s, youth, HIV and Aids projects.

A department of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and Ecumenical Relations was set up in 1991 to provide leadership, communication and education on current and ecumenical issues. A printing press and book depot were established in 1861 at Morija and are still in operation. The LECSA Museum and Archives is the oldest one in the country and the archives are an important resource for students from different faculties. The church plays a prophetic role of critical solidarity in the Lesotho society. It has adopted the Accra Confession as well as the Belhar Confession. LECSA is a leading member of the Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) and is also a member of various other ecumenical bodies like the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC).

Since 2015, LECSA adopted the Pilgrimage of Peace and Justice from WCC and organises it annually in the last week of October, coinciding with the celebration of Reformation Day on the last Sunday of the month. During this week, LECSA members and Basotho from different denominations walk from Modderpoort in the Free State Province, where King Moshoeshoe’s emissaries met with the first three missionaries of P.E.M.S in 1833, to Morija. This Pilgrimage is called “Leeto la Toka le Khotso” (Journey of Justice and Peace). Church leaders and congregants walk approximately a 100-kilometre distance for a week sleeping over in the LECSA parishes found along the route to Morija. They pray together as the church, congregations, and people of faith try to encourage all Christians to bear a common witness by participating in worship services and acts of support in favour of peace and justice for Lesotho and the world at large. The ‘Reformation Day’ weekend is then celebrated enthusiastically in Morija by thousands of church members and youth from all over Lesotho, and the Republic of South Africa with choir-singing, dancing, praying, inspiring sermons: a whole weekend of a vigil, fundraising, presbytery meetings and preaching. This event is called “Leeto la Thapelo” (Journey of Prayer).

In 2017, during LECSA’s celebration of five hundred years of Reformation in Morija, official ties between LECSA and the DRCSA Free State Synod were officially resuscitated by signing a Memorandum of Partnership. Also, a Memorandum of Partnership between LECSA and the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa was signed. The other Memorandum of Partnership was signed between LECSA and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of South Africa in 2019 in Morija.

LECSA became part of the Reformed Family Forum – the long-separated sisters found each other again in 2017.

Church polity and membership  

The organization of LECSA is made up of church councils at the local level (Lekhotlana), parish councils (Consistory), presbyteries and the Synod. From the presbytery level, clergy and laity are represented equally, and the various commissions, departments and boards are also represented in the Synod. The 109 LECSA parishes have a total of close to 800 000 members.

Contact

Rev. Nelson Posholi (Executive Secretary: LECSA)
[email protected]