The Reformed Church in Zimbabwe (RCZ)

Varwi VaKristu Vokunyengetera (an intercession group of the RCZ)

In the middle of Machonaland, now called Masvingo, one will find the church centre of the Reformed Church in Zimbabwe (RCZ) and, 35 km in an easterly direction, you will find a big mission station called Morgenster, the Dutch word for the ‘morning star’ so that it is symbolic of the church’s witness to Christ and the coming of his kingdom (see Revelations 22:16). The uniqueness of this church’s history is that it has been planted by white and black missionaries working together.

The Shona and Ndebele people of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a population of about 14 million people. The two main population groups are the Shona people (71%) and the Ndebele
people (14%). The largest language group in Zimbabwe, the Shona people, can be subdivided into five major clans, with close relatives in Botswana, Mozambique and so on. They originated from the ancient kingdoms identified with the Monomotapa Empire.

The Ndebele stem from the Nguni or Zulu people of South Africa. During the difaqane (a period of widespread chaos and warfare
among indigenous ethnic communities in Southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1840) in the early nineteenth century, a group of people under King Mzilikazi broke away from King Chaka’s reign and eventually settled in Matabeleland. The two large groups merged and, together with other minor groups, they formed the one Zimbabwean nation.

Working together

In 1865, Rev. Stephanus Hofmeyr began with mission work in the area of the Soutpansberg mountains in the northern parts of what is now South Africa. His approach was to focus on the training of lay persons, equipping them to carry the gospel further. From pioneer hunters Rev. Hofmeyr learned of the Banyai or Vakaranga people, a Shona tribe, who were hiding in the mountains of the Gutu area out of fear for the Ndebele people of the same area. Stephanus Hofmeyr and Francois Coillard of the Paris Evangelical Mission Society, together with three of Hofmeyr’s assistants who were members of the Buys clan, visited these people in 1877. This led to sending four members of the Kranspoort congregation in the Soutpansberg area as a first missionary expedition to work among the Banyai. They were Gabriël Buys, Petrus Buys, Micha Makgato and Jocob Moemi. Several other missionary expeditions followed, led by Kranspoort congregants and also Hofmeyr’s successor, Rev. S. P. Helm. Chief Mugabe of the Banyai was anxious to allow missionaries to settle permanently in his area close to the ancient Zimbabwean ruins, but paramount Chief Lobengula of the Ndebele did not want to give his permission. The missionaries and congregants of the Soutpansberg mission thus had to find alternative and more permanent ways of continuing with this work.

In 1890 the young Andrew Louw who had to quit his theological studies due to ill health was recruited as permanent missionary to
the Shona people. Cecil John Rhodes, by virtue of his colonial powers, gave permission for a missionary to settle in the Mashonaland area. Andrew Louw left for Zimbabwe on 18 June 1891. He was accompanied by several missionaries of the Soutpansberg mission, among whom Micha Makgato, Jozua Mashoha, Lukas Mokoele, Jeremia and Petrus Morudu (two brothers), David Molea and Izak Kumalo. These faithful people settled in different villages where they started communities of faith.

Shortly after their arrival, Louw fell seriously ill with malaria and dysentery. Chief Mugabe wanted to know why Louw’s God would make him fall ill. He compassionately proposed to get some of his own diviners and bring sacrifices to the ancestors to cure Louw. The young Andrew Louw realised how much was at stake and earnestly prayed: “Lord, I cannot die; I must live for the sake of your Name and your Kingdom.” He recovered without the intervention of diviners or the required sacrifices to the ancestors. This was a very powerful testimony to God and Louw could go on to establish the first permanent mission station about 7 km south-east of the world-famous Zimbabwe ruins.
Mr Louw called the mission station Morgenster and, five years later, the first two converts were baptised. Mutizigwa and Muzeza thus received their Christian names Joseph and Matthew on 16 September 1896. Louw learned the local language and, together with his wife Cinie (née Malan) who joined him later on, wonderful work was done in recording the vocabulary and grammar of the Chikalange language for the first time. Louw was later ordained as a minister.

Rapid growth

The work grew rapidly and in 1901 the first outstation or prayer house, Pamushana, was established. In 1907 three mission stations of the Berlin Mission Society, viz., Gutu, Zimuto and Chibi were transferred to the DRC mission. The Jichidza mission station was established in 1908, Alheit (Chingombe) in 1909, Makumbe in 1915 and Nyashanu in 1954.

As in the other mission fields of the DRC, a multiple or comprehensive approach was taken towards the missionary work, including evangelism, education, medical work, industrial work and literature ministry. Mrs Cinie Louw started a needlework class for women shortly after her arrival in 1894 and, in 1909, the first girls’ houses were erected (where girls were educated in domestic science, literacy, biblical values, etc.)

Three years after the missionaries arrived medical work began. It continued uninterrupted even after missionary staff had to leave the stations in 1978 because of the war. Today the hospitals at Gutu and Morgenster are still running, led by local and international, mostly Dutch, staff and they meet a range of human needs.

Apart from contributing to medical care, the Church has also made significant contributions in terms of education. The first school was started in 1892. It was an evening school and outpost schools were also subsequently established. Today, several primary schools, ten secondary schools, the Margaretha Hugo School for the Blind at Copota, the Henry Murray School for the Deaf and the Morgenster Teacher’s College are run under the auspices of the Reformed Church in Zimbabwe (RCZ).

Rev. Andrew Louw and his wife Cinie started with the laborious task of a first translation of the New Testament in Chikaranga, a Shona dialect. This was published in 1919 and the translation of the Old Testament was finished in 1924. Dr A. A. Louw took over this task from his father and mother in 1925 and he revised the whole Bible in Chikaranga. He also played a major role in incorporating this translation into the Union Shona Bible that was completed in 1950.

An autonomous church

The first presbytery meeting of the Church in Mashonaland was held in 1918 and the first synod of the Shona Reformed Church took place in 1952. Meanwhile, a school for evangelists and a school for ministers were established at Morgenster in 1925 and 1936 respectively.

Shortly before the independence of the former Rhodesia in 1980, however, the DRC had to withdraw most of their mission staff because of the security risk in the country. In 1977 all missionary work and properties in Mashonaland were transferred to the Reformed Church in Zimbabwe that has grown into an autonomous church.

The RCZ today and its impact on society

Like the people, the RCZ also feels the increasingly negative effects of the political turmoil in the country. There is a severe shortage of money and congregants cannot pay their tithes. There is a mushrooming of independent churches, often characterised by prosperity faith and strange prophecy and healing practices. The challenge for the RCZ is to win the hearts of people who would become bridges of hope and convey messages of peace and nation-building to others in today’s Zimbabwe.

Today the RCZ consists of 18 presbyteries, 80 congregations, about 80 ministers (of whom 8 are in synod’s service), eight evangelists and seven spiritual workers. The number of church members is around 100 000 and thousands of members are involved with the men’s, women’s and youth church associations.

A formal evangelist school, the Murray Theological College, started in 1925 with Rev. Henry Murray snr. as the first lecturer. In the 1930s the first minister, Rev. Esra Shumba, was trained and admitted into the ministry. There are currently seven full-time and three part-time lecturers. Dr Rutoro is the very capable rector and he was mentored by the late Rev. Henry Murray jnr. to take over the position from him. The church is also proud of a number of female pastors that have been serving in congregations the past 10 years. Rev. N. Mubwandarikwa was the first woman to be ordained as minister.

Diaspora ministry

Since 6 December 2009, RCZ congregations have been established in Johannesburg, Polokwane, and Cape Town, due to the migration of thousands of Zimbabweans to South Africa. These congregations are supported by DRC congregations in various ways, such as availing the use of their facilities. Dr Christopher Munikwa is the full-time pastor for RCZ members in Gauteng and the northern parts of South Africa as well as Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Worcester and Hermanus.


Rev. Tafadzwa Masimba (General Secretary: RCZ)