John L. Dube: The Positive and Negative Influences of Missionaries



Missionaries played an important and complicated role in shaping the social and political face of South Africa.  Missionaries had both positive and negative effects throughout the history South Africa. John Dube stands as an archetypical example of these positive and negative effects of the mission education in late nineteenth century South Africa. Dube was able to use the knowledge that he received from his Christian mission education to address the social injustices perpetrated in South Africa.  However, later in his career he would fall from the fore of political action because his views were too conservative for the new progressive activists in the ANC (African National Congress).

 Missionary teachings provided an education and a Christian moral code for indigenous pupils. Ironically, this ideology and education would arm the indigenous peoples with the tools to combat the racist laws of the apartheid state. Ingrained in their biblical teachings were lessons of private property, inherent equality, and social justice.

In addition missionaries often created for their students a complex network of links back in England or the United States.

Dube, an educated Christianized Zulu, befriended Oberlin graduate Reverend William Cullen Wilcox (B.A. 1878, Theology, 1881), in association with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the East Central African Mission near Inhambane. [1] Wilcox took a special interest in the Zulus of Southern African.  He “was the first man to reduce their language to writing. He translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the Zulu dialect.” [2]   Wilcox himself described this translation as “the greatest and most important literary work of [his] life.” [3]    Perhaps Wilcox’s role in the education of John Dube stands as his greatest contribution to the people of South Africa and their struggle against the apartheid system.

After a disciplinary incident at school, Dube was referred to Wilcox. The two took to each other and developed a robust relationship.  Wilcox planned to return to the United States; when Dube learned of this he asked to accompany him.

As Dube described his situation, he “had just enough money to pay his passage to the United States.” [4]   Arriving in 1888, Dube moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where he took classes at the Oberlin Preparatory Academy.  Dube stayed in Oberlin until 1890, relying wholly on his own resources to fund his education. [5]   (For more information click here to go to a biographical sketch of John L. Dube)

From 1890 until late in 1892 Dube traveled throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York. [6]   In 1891 Dube published a book called A Familiar Talk Upon My Native Land and Some Things Found There.  This is most likely his first published work and it reflects the conflicts of the mission educated indigenous person. The mission education helped Dube acquire a strong grasp of the English language. However the missionaries also attempted to indoctrinate culturally their indigenous subjects. The effect of such indoctrination guided Dube to describe “his native land” in at times less than favorable terms. Regardless of the content of this work, it reflects Dube’s strong writing skills and motivation to produce. This drive would enable him to help lead the indigenous people into a verbal battle for their rights. However in 1892, the harsh climate and his heavy workload overwhelmed Dube. Unfortunately he “worked too hard for [his] health’s sake and illness forced [him] to return to Natal, where [he] was engaged in missionary work for the American Board.” [7]

As noted in his biographical sketch, Dube returned to South Africa, where he worked as a teacher for his former high school, Amanzimtoti.

(Click here to return to Dube’s Biographical Sketch)

In 1894, with his young wife, Dube moved to the village Incawadi, in the Umkomas Valley, beneath the Drakensburg Mountains, where taught English and basic mathematics, and erected two church buildings.

In 1897 Dube took up residence to Brooklyn Heights, New York, where he was ordained in the Congregational ministry at the Lewis Avenue Church located in the Bedford Stuyvesant area. [8]

Upon his return to South Africa in 1900 Dube again combined his missionary and educational work serving as a pastor for the Inanda Congregational Church and establishing the Zulu Christian Industrial School, later called Ohlange Institute after the region where it was located. [9] August 8, 1900, was the schools opening day, however the first ‘working day’ was August 20, 1900.  Dube described his school as “an indigenous Tuskegee.” Ohlange’s initial objective was to train Zulus as skilled laborers in the house, store, workshop, and on the farms.  However, as the school progressed, Dube not only expanded his expectations to teaching skilled craftsmen, he also sought to train an elite group of students potentially ready for university. [10]   Dube wrote that the Ohlange Institute was created to “provide leaders from among their own boys and girls.” [11]   Dube spread his wealth of knowledge, helping to increase the number of educated indigenous people.

Dube’s influence grew during this period.  In 1906 he founded the pioneering Zulu language newspaper, called Illanga Lase Natal, (The Natal Sun), in 1906 that is still in existence.  In addition, in the same year, he and his wife Nokutela Dube also published the first collection of secular, traditional Zulu songs. [12] Clearly Dube had not forgotten his ethnic roots and the traditions of his people.

Dube continued his active life, articulating his beliefs of racial equality at a missionary exhibition on January 8, 1912.  On this occasion, Dube would base his case for racial equality on Christian morality.  A scholar of African Nationalism, Peter Walshe, summarizes Dube’s argument stressing

that the area of freedom in South Africa should not be artificially restricted to Boer and Briton.  The Gospel taught that a just government derived its rightful powers from the consent of the governed, but in contrast to this the South African Government, which professed to be based upon the model of Christ and to be the defender of His faith, was artificially restraining the progress of Natives in commerce and the civil service, was taxing without consultation, providing a mere pittance for education, and restricting liberties through the pass laws. [13]


Dube articulates the protests of his people using Christian Biblical teachings as the basis for his argument.  According to Dube, the Bible states that a “just government” rules “from the consent of the governed.”  However, contrary to this Christian ethos, the government of South Africa artificially restrained the progress of its indigenous peoples in commerce and civil services.  Walshe quotes Dube, writing

That the time has come when we should have some measure of legislative representation, some way of making our influence felt in the law-making powers.  Our progress in the Gospel life and its accompanying civilization demands it; our liberties and rights are taxed and governed by bodies are not safe without it. [14]


Dube argued that as taxed Christian citizens the indigenous Africans deserved representation. 

            The missionary education had provided Dube with the tools to effectively articulate the grievances of his people.  In this instance Dube used his “progress in Gospel life” to illustrate the need for legislative representation. Through his writing and his global travels, Dube was able to increase concern for human rights and help unify the indigenous people of South Africa.  Dube and others like him used their abilities to educate other indigenous South Africans in order to encourage the creation of a more equal South African state.  Dube showed that the African people deserved representation and did not need the patriarchal presence of the Boers or British. By using Christianity to challenge European socio-political domination, he made strong arguments. Yet critics have questioned whether “the master’s tools” can ever dismantle the master’s house. [15]

Missionary presence served as neither a totally bad nor good influence on the indigenous people of Southern Africa.  Christian teachings served to break down many barriers between Africans of different tribes. In addition, with their mission educations Dube and others like him were able to more powerfully assert their rights as people.  The missionaries’ actions provided these men with the intellectual tools and an environment in which they could develop skills and arguments.  The Christian education supplied the tools that the indigenous peoples used to build a political party ultimately capable of felling the British and Boer political status quo.  In the late nineteenth early twentieth century, these Christian influences encouraged the indigenous leaders of South Africa to explore the ideological underpinning that would lead to the demise of apartheid.

Dube and others like him used the teachings of the Bible as a tool of justice. These men understood the way in which colonial behavior was inconsistent with Christian values, and their mission educations equipped them with the tools to vocalize these criticisms of the hypocritical status quo.  The teachings of the missionaries served as one factor that facilitated the demise of the apartheid state by educating the indigenous leaders who would direct their people out of oppression.  However some scholars have argued that the compromises Dube and his piers settled for made it possible to establish an apartheid state.  Ironically Dube stands as the founding president of the ANC, and yet, it can be argued that he was never able to fully step outside the Western Colonial framework that had helped forge the tools he appropriated.

[1] John L. Dube. A Familiar Talk Upon My Native Land and Some Things Found There. p35. Rochester N.Y. R.M. Swinburne & Co., 1891?

[2] Alumni Necrology 1925-30 (Carbon Copy). Student File (W.C. Wilcox). Alumni & Development Records. O.C.A.

[3] Question 7. Books or Articles written or edited (Carbon Copy). Student File (W.C. Wilcox). Alumni Development Records. O.C.A.

[4] Student File (John Dube), Alumni Records Oberlin College Archives. A fundraising pamphlet for the Ohlange Institute. C. 1905.

[5] Professor W.B. Crittenden. Letter “to whom it may concern.” Jan. 11, 1891. Oberlin. OH. In A Familiar Talk Upon My Native Land. By John L. Dube. Rochester, N.Y.: R.M. Swinburne & Co. 1891?, O.C.A. (Oberlin Special Collections).

[6] Marable.p. 68.

[7] Student File (John Dube), Alumni Records O.C.A. Included in this file is a fundraising pamphlet for the Ohlange Institute.



[10] Peter Walshe. The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa: the African National Congress, 1912-1952. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) p. 13.

[11] Student File (John Dube), Alumni Records O.C.A. A fundraising pamphlet for the Ohlange Institute.

[12] Student File (John Dube), Alumni Records. O.C.A. This file includes a Letter from Dr. Veit Erlmann c/o Dr. N Groce, to the Archivist Mr. Bigglestone in January 15 1985.

[13] Walshe. The Rise of African Nationalism. p.38

[14] Walshe. The Rise of African Nationalism. p.39.

[15] Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider. Crossing Press/Trumansburg. New York 14886. 1984.