SA Unitarian History

by Rev Gordon Oliver

The Unitarian movement in South Africa was founded in 1867 by the Reverend Dawid Faure, member of a well-known Cape family. He encountered advanced liberal religious thought while completing his studies at the University of Leiden in Holland for the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town. On his return to South Africa he preached a probationary sermon in the Groote Kerk, Cape Town. This led to a public appeal to him to found a community based upon what was called the ‘new theology’. The ‘new theology’ as preached by Dawid Faure was grounded in what he described as “the very essence of religion” – Love of God and love of neighbour. Responding to popular appeal Dawid Faure gathered a congregation of people who felt the need for a church unfettered by traditional dogmas, open to the advances of modern knowledge and receptive to new spiritual insights. A very interesting autobiography written in 1907 by Reverend Faure can be downloaded for free at this Internet Archive.

Free Protestant Church

From 1867 to 1890 the fledgling church, known as the Free Protestant Church, rented premises in a commercial building in Cape Town, and in 1890 a warehouse in the city was purchased and converted into the present church.   Rev Faure continued as minister until 1897 when he was succeeded by Rev Ramsden Balmforth, from England. He conducted a thriving ministry to 1937 and brought the Free Protestant Church into the international Unitarian Movement in 1921. Ministers who followed Balmforth were William and Wilma Constable (1937 to 1941), Donald Livingstone (1941 to 1949), Magnus Ratter (1949 to 1960 and 1971 to 1976), Victor Carpenter (1962 to 1967), Eugene Widrick (1968 to 1971), Leon Fay (1977 to 1979), Robert Steyn (1979 to 1997).

Cape Town Unitarian Church

The Cape Town Church has a membership of approximately 80 people, of whom about 20-30 are regular church attendees. The historic church is located in a revitalized area of central Cape Town. The Church provides a service to non-churchgoing couples who come for marriage or to have children blessed and in the conducting of memorial services.

Somerset West Unitarian Fellowship

Since 1984 there has been an active fellowship in Somerset West, about 40 kilometres outside Cape Town. Their services which typically include 20-30 people are informal with the form of a presentation and discussion.

Johannesburg Unitarian Fellowship

In the 1950s the Johannesburg Fellowship was started by Rev Donald Livingstone with the help of Unitarian minister, Margaret Barr, who worked with the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills in India for many years. She visited South Africa in the fifties and was invited by Livingstone to address a meeting of interested persons in Johannesburg. This Fellowship has remained active since then and meets monthly.

Durban Unitarian Fellowship

The Durban Congregation has been active since 1986 and meets twice monthly in Westville.

South African Unitarians – a National Structure

Recently all four groups met in Cape Town to plan for the future and it was decided to establish a national body of South African Unitarians which would have the role of coordinating and planning growth and activities on a national level.

A More Complete History

Unitarianism in South Africa has a fascinating history and this is recorded in the doctoral thesis of Rev Eric Heller-Wagner, an American Unitarian Universalist, now minister in Sydney, Australia, who visited Cape Town in the early 1990s in order to complete his doctorate at the University of Stellenbosch. His thesis, entitled “The Unitarians of South Africa – A Socio-historical Study” is a very comprehensive record of the Movement in SA. This large two-volume document is in the process of being condensed into an A4 publication so as to make it more accessible to interested readers. In the meantime, there is a shorter version, written by Wayne Visser and based on Heller-Wagner’s thesis, which can be found at this link.