The founding of this society on 29 February 1824 was the work of a small number of Prussian nobility whose main aim was ‘to further the work of the gospel among the heathen races of the new world’.
Supported by the Lutheran churches in Prussia the society opened its own seminary in 1829 and by 1833 it was in a position to ordain its first six missionaries. Upon their ordination, the society had no definite plans to send the new missionaries to South Africa. On the advice they received from the Rhenish Society, they decided to commence work among the numerous Tswana chiefdoms. This did not materialize, because on arriving in Philippolis, a London Missionary Society station north of the Orange River, the English missionary G A Kolbe persuaded the Berlin missionaries to settle among the nomadic Kora (Korana) chiefdoms along the Riet River in the southern Orange Free State.
On 24 September 1834, the missionaries established the first mission station of the Berlin Society on the banks of the Riet River. This station was called Bethany and gradually developed into a main center. More missionaries arrived in 1837, so the society decided to commence work in the eastern Cape (Transkei) among the Xhosa. There, missionary J L DÃ¶hne played the dominant role and the stations Bethel and Itemba were founded. During the Frontier War of 1846 to1847, these stations had to be abandoned and the missionaries sought safety in the neighbouring colony of Natal.
The closing of the Xhosa mission field indirectly opened the way into Natal and contributed to the advance of the mission into the Transvaal. Apart from establishing the Natal stations, Christianenberg, Emmaus and others, the missionaries preached the gospel to the Voortrekkers and DÃ¶hne became a household name among the trekkers. While working in Natal, the society became aware of the mighty Swazi chiefdom inhabiting the interior of South Africa and decided to send missionaries there. In 1859, missionaries Alexander Merensky and Heinrich GrÃ¼tzner arrived at the Swazi capital but failed to get permission from the chief to establish a station in his domain. With the permission of the Transvaal government, they settled among the Kopa near Lydenburg, where they founded the station Gerlachshoop.
Merensky was very keen to establish a station among the baPedi so he left Gerlachshoop. Chief Sekwati gave him permission to establish a station near his capital. The mission work among the Pedi was so promising that in a short time the society established two more stations. But Sekwati's son and heir to the Pedi throne, Sekhukhune, mistrusted the growth of Christianity among his subjects and when Merensky wanted to baptize his first wife, the chief turned against the Christians and forbade the preaching of the gospel. By 1865, matters were very unsafe for missionaries and Merensky decided to leave Sekhukhuneland. He sought refuge among his Christian converts in the Middelburg district and founded the station Botshabelo (city of refuge). Soon Botshabelo became the most important station of the Berlin Society in South Africa. Merensky played an important role in the development of this station and established a school, seminary, workshops, mill and printing press.
In the decades after the founding of Botshabelo the work of the society was established throughout the Transvaal. Some of the more important stations founded were Blauuberg, Tshakoma, Pretoria, and Medingen. By 1900 the society had established more than 36 stations and there were nearly 30 000 converts. German missionaries studied the African languages and customs and very soon they became authorities on the subject. Men like Merensky, Knothe, TrÃ¼mpelmann, Schwellnus and Eiselen greatly advanced the knowledge of African languages and customs. They also translated the Bible and wrote a variety of hymnbooks. Missionary work was retarded by the Anglo-Boer War and by both World Wars. The society found it increasingly difficult to obtain the funds for the upkeep of the mission work and many stations had to be closed down. After World War II the society's Berlin headquarters fell into the Russian zone of occupied Germany and therefore no new missionaries could be sent to the field. In 1962, the society gave independence to the young mission churches and in time these amalgamated with other Lutheran mission churches to form independent Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
• Howcroft, P. (undated). South Africa Encyclopaedia: Prehistory to the year 2000, unpublished papers with SA History Online.