The Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa (LECSA)

The Mothers Union

The mountainous and picturesque Kingdom of Lesotho is landlocked by its larger and only neighbour, South Africa. Lesotho has two mountain ranges: the Maluti Mountains with its highest peak, Thabana Ntlenyana (3,482 m), which forms the southeast border with the Republic of South Africa, and the Thaba-Putsoa range in the middle. These mountains are normally covered by snow in winter, serving as vital water catchment areas and sources 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, primarily derived from the sale 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. They nourish a proud culture, which also entails wearing the most exquisite traditional blankets during the winter and at special occasions, with the ladies wearing colourful head scarves and men wearing pointed hats of woven grass. The King of the Basotho is revered as a symbol of unity, and traditional chiefs still play a significant role in the lives of communities that rely on agriculture for subsistence. The Basotho people are peaceful; their motto, Khotso, Pula, Nala (Peace, Rain, and Prosperity), is considered an appropriate expression of their national identity.

Over 90% of the population are Christians, with about 50% being Roman Catholic and 41% Protestant. 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 the San people. There are still many beautiful examples of their rock art in the Lesotho mountains and along the cliffs near the riverbanks. Around 1822, modern Lesotho (the former Basutoland) became a single political entity under King Moshoeshoe I, son of Mokhachane. 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 mountain called Thaba Bosiu. He was a wise king who applied democratic, diplomatic, and military strategies to build a powerful Basuto nation despite the coercions of several challengers (such as other African tribes, British colonialism, and Boer expansionism). As Lesotho lost vast territories to the Orange River Sovereignty (later called the Orange Free State Republic) in the 1860s, Moshoeshoe I appealed to Queen Victoria, who proclaimed Basutoland a British protectorate in 1868. But eventually, after Moshoeshoe died in 1870, Basutoland was treated as a British colony. The country gained independence in 1966 and was renamed Lesotho. But since then, the country has experienced much party-political turmoil, even up to this day. 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 PEMS (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 attempted to establish a mission among the Bahurutse tribe in what is today’s Northwest Province, but were thwarted by the dreaded warrior and all-powerful King Mzilikazi of the Matebele tribe. As a result, they had to settle in Motito among the Batswana people, working alongside refugees who were 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 I heard of their arrival and sent a Griqua hunter, Adam Krotz, as an embassy to Adam Kok, the Griqua leader at Philippolis. He expressed his desire to also obtain the services of missionaries.

Rev. Thomas Arbousset (left) and Eugène Casalis

 

The party of three missionaries, Rev. Thomas Arbousset, Eugène Casalis, and Constant Gosselin, a missionary artisan, overheard this message and took it to be a divine call. They 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. Crossing the Caledon River approximately where Maseru is today, they arrived on the 26th of June 1833. Casalis wrote that 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.”

The king advised them to travel around his country to look for a place to establish a mission station. They eventually settled in a scenic valley of Mount Makhoarane, called Morija. The first mission station was built (using the strong and pretty local sandstone) with the help of Letsie and Molapo (Moshoeshoe’s sons).

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 River near present-day Smithfield. 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 referred to as Baruti ba Moshoeshoe (Moshoeshoe’s ministers).

The second generation of missionaries who have shaped mission work in Southern Africa arrived in 1858. They were François Coillard, Adolphe Mabille, and Eugène Casalis Jnr. The missionaries devoted themselves to learning 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 built schools and taught people to read – education became the primary means of evangelism. Some local men, even from the royal house, soon joined as co-workers. Elia Maphike led them in spreading the gospel to far-flung regions, including the Northern Free State and Magaliesburg in the Transvaal.

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

From the beginning, the PEMS missionaries worked in close cooperation in different fields with ministers of the DRCSA. There was tension after the Great Trek of 1838 (white settlers migrating northwards) regarding the border and expanding the territory of Orange River Sovereignty (later Orange Free State Republic) and 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 missionary endeavours were carried out at Morija for years, for instance, the training of indigenous evangelists and ministers for the DRC’s early mission.  Andrew Murray Jnr., who served as DRCSA’s minister in Bloemfontein during these pioneering years, laid official ties between the DRCSA and the emerging Reformed Church in Basutoland. This was the very first “ecumenical relationship” the DRCSA entered.

On the other hand, history also tells the even sadder story of several mission stations of PEMS which have been attacked and burned down during the skirmishes between Free State commandoes and Basotho people since the 1840s – especially Beerseba station, which was demolished without real reason, destroying wonderful projects. For several years, missionaries were prohibited from working in the territory conquered from the Basotho

Ministers from the DRCSA, such as Frazer of Phillippolis and Van der Wall of Bloemfontein, strongly objected to these injustices done to PEMS. The DRCSA and the church in Lesotho nevertheless collaborated throughout the late 19th and 20th century on an on and off basis. This included making agreements of commitments to each other, leading to the DRCSA taking over some PEMS stations in the Free State and supporting the PEMS work in Lesotho. However, during the 1950s, apartheid again stifled collaboration efforts. It was only later, around 2008, that LECSA and the DRC Free State Synod began to talk about reviving their relationship.

The Basotho church reaching out to Barotseland in Zambia

When the missionaries returned from their exile after skirmishes with the Boers, they discovered that the church had steadily grown in ‘grace and numbers’ among the Basotho since they were gone. Mabille emphasised to the young church the necessity of engaging in mission work among more distant unevangelised tribes.  They became aware of a need for mission work amongst the Banyai in Mashonaland (north of the Limpopo River. Based on the report from a reconnaissance journey led by Asser Sehabane, a Christian from Basutoland who worked with Rev. Stephanus Hofmeyr in the Northern Transvaal, PEMS Synod decided to send some Basotho missionaries northward in 1875. However, despite their persistent efforts, they were denied passage by the Transvaal Government and tribal struggles in the area.

In 1884, however, a group of Basotho Christian families led by François Coillard were able 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 PEMS granted the Lesotho Church autonomy and it became the Lesotho Evangelical Church (LEC). In 2012 (while preparing to celebrate its fiftieth Jubilee in 2014), the LEC proposed renaming itself to the Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa (LECSA). The name was publicly and formally announced in 2014, acknowledging that the church has several congregations outside of 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. Its Synod Secretariat offices are in Maseru and its head office in Morija where you will find different LECSA institutions: 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. The church has more than 100 parishes spread across Lesotho, even in remote mountain areas, with over 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, participation 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 that provide primary health care, as well as a rehabilitation facility for alcoholics. The church runs 500 primary schools and 75 post-primary schools.

LECSA has several additional departments, including a lay training department, a youth work program, and family and social guidance. A planning commission gathers and determines the critical ministry issues and opportunities from the various boards and commissions of the church and advises the synod. The women’s desk was established in 1988. The church runs several women’s, youth, and HIV/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 invaluable 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 Confession of Belhar. 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).

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

 

Since 2015, LECSA adopted the Pilgrimage of Peace and Justice from WCC and organises it annually in the last week of October. This coincides 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 PEMS in 1833, to Morija. This pilgrimage is called Leeto la Toka le Khotso (Journey of Justice and Peace). During the week-long journey to Morija, church leaders and congregants walk approximately 100 kilometres and sleep in LECSA parishes along the way. They pray together as the church, congregations, and people of faith. They 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. South Africa.  Festivities include choral music, dancing, praying, inspiring sermons accompanied by an entire weekend of vigil, fundraising, presbytery meetings, and preaching. This event is called Leeto la Thapelo (Journey of Prayer).

A Memorandum of Partnership was signed by LECSA and the DRCSA Free State Synod in 2017 as part of LECSA’s celebration of five hundred years of Reformation in Morija. LECSA and Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa also signed a Memorandum of Partnership; the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of South Africa and LECSA signed a similar document in Morija in 2019. LECSA became part of the Reformed Family Forum – the long-separated sisters reunited in 2017!

Signing of Agreements in 2017: The Rt. Rev. Dr Robert Munthali of the
UPCSA, Rev. Tseliso Simeon Masemene (Moderator of LECSA) and Dr Carin
van Schalkwyk (Synod Secretary, DRC Free State)

Church polity and membership  

The organisation 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 nearly 800,000 members.

Contact

Rev. Nelson Posholi (Executive Secretary: LECSA)
lecmaseru@ilesotho.com