Christian Nationalism and the Dutch Reformed Church of Transvaal

17 July 2023

By dr. Adi Schlebusch

When the Boers migrated north from the Cape Colony during the the nineteenth century, they established a number of Christian Boer Republics north of the Orange River, which formed the border between the Boer territories and the British Cape colony to the south. The largest and two most famous of these republics were the Orange Free State (1854—1902) and the South African Republic (1852—1902), also known as the Transvaal. The Transvaal was unique among the Boer Republics, however, in that here a national Boer Reformed Church, known as the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, was established whose position was also constitutionally enshrined. The ideal of the Transvaal Boers—one nation, one church, and one civil government co-operating in an organic unity, thereby shaping the entire culture of the land as a Corpus Christianum—was rooted in the covenantal thinking of the Zurich Reformation in particular. In accordance with this view, the implications and outworking of the covenant between God and his people is understood as not only limited to the ecclesiological realm, but encompassing all spheres of society, with the nation itself being an organic covenantal unit ordained by God for his glory.1 

 The first constitution of the Transvaal (1855) stated that:

The nation desires to preserve its Dutch Reformed religion as established in 1618-1619 at the Synod of Dort. The nation does not desire to tolerate in its midst the Roman Church nor any other Protestant Church which rejects the core doctrines as outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism. No one apart from those who are members of the Dutch Reformed Church may hold a civil office.2

 For the citizens of the Transvaal, their National Reformed Church had tremendous socio-political significance in that they viewed its existence and perpetuation was intrinsically linked to the existence and perpetuation of the Boer people themselves, along with their republic.

In 1888, the national synod of this church reaffirmed its position as national covenantal church along with its commitment to serving the Boer people with the administration of the Word, sacraments and discipline, by noting that:

The Dutch Reformed Church is the Church of our Fathers and the Church of the nation which founded this republic. Our founding fathers conceived a republic with an own national church along with a national state: for the people and through the people.3

As is the case with many national churches, theological liberalization led to the Dutch Reformed Church of Transvaal abandoning the Christian Nationalist ideal early in the 21st century.  This led to a split in the church in 2011, with the Bond of Reformed Congregations being established to continue this old “volkskerk” ideal. This denomination currently has 26 congregations, of which 25 is in the territory of the former Transvaal Republic and 1 in the former Orange Free State.

1. Pont, A.D. 1986. “Verbond en Volkskerk,”  HTS Teologiese Studies 42(1), p. 34.

2. SA Argiefstukke Tvl no. 3:382.

3. Handelinge van die Algemene Kerkvergadering 1888, p. 91.