The Wessels and the Bible – its biography and description

I discovered the Bible while I went through my grandfather’s books in our family’s storeroom. I found it in a cardboard box, alongside other books. In part, I am hoping that someone who will read this essay might know a more complete story of this Bible. It is unknown how long the Bible has been in my family’s possession. What is known of it is that it is a New Testament Bible that was published in Amsterdam in 1729 and its text is in Dutch. Within the same cover, it also contains the book of Psalms.

The New Testament Bible published in 1729. Photo credit: Mik Motala

The Bible’s covers are made of wood and leather, which has become very tattered over the years. It is all but missing its spine. It is worn and it is clear that it was well used. The leather cover is threadbare and darkened due to being held in the hand. The erosion of the cover is a trace of the people who held it. The paper is made from the pulp of cotton rags. The cover page is a bit faded and this is possibly due to it always being opened first. In the back of the Bible there is a bit of thread from clothing – could it be from someone’s jacket from the 18th century?

We know that it is a Protestant Bible and not a Catholic one because it is a Martin Luther translation. The edges of the paper are worn and stained from the fingers of those who have flicked through its pages. The inside cover of the book is covered in beautiful but faded marble paper. On the first page, in the right hand corner is a name, but the name is hard to make out. The letters “J.K. Otkenm…ria” are written, and it is unknown whose writing this is. Beneath that is written “Mamre Archiv” and this might be its proper home – did my grandfather or great-grandfather not return it?

The New Testament Bible. Photo credit: Mik Motala

The leather has become brittle, yet if one looks closely, one can see that there are subtle patterns in the dotted marks on the covers, some are circular in shape others are leaf-like. There is something meditative about looking for the patterns in the leather. The more one focuses on the Bible, the more all these aspects that have been hidden in plain sight become apparent.

Gosden and Marshall (1999) explain that historically objects were thought of as processes of function – in other words, what it does and how we use it. A Bible is meant to be read and that is where its relation to the user ends, but this notion alone is not a sufficient account of the object because it does not show the impact an object has in the making of history itself (Gosden & Marshall, 1999). An object can play a part in the formation of society itself and plays an active role in the meaning that is made around it (Gosden & Marshall, 1999). An object as it moves through time collects many different biographies (Gosden & Marshall, 1999).

The Bible that was found in my grandfather’s store room is difficult to position because its biography, as known to us, is that it has been in a box, in a store room at Berg Straat, Genadendal. Of its other journeys we do not know more yet. However, there is another important aspect of the Bible in the sense of what the New Testament means in Genadendal (Gosden & Marshall, 1999; Bredekamp, 1997). It was New Testament Bibles like this one that Schmidt gave to his community when they completed their ABC books, and thus it represents both a gain and a loss (Bredekamp, 1997; Gosden & Marshall, 1999). Bill Brown (2010) problematizes the notion of how objects present themselves through time, and he reflects on the array in which an object can be interpreted. In reality, there are many ways the Bible could be exhibited, this could be within the context of books from the 1720s, or as Bibles through the ages? When an object is placed in different contexts different meanings can be derived from it, and the object then is an active participant in the making of its own meaning and can help with a deeper understanding of it.

So far this project has reflected on the transition of the Khoi who became Christian. But embedded within this concept is agency, and that too is reflected in the Bible (Bredekamp, 1997; Elbourne, 1992; Brown, 2010). Powerfully, the Bible has also reflected an alternative to the status quo, meaning that Christianity was now not exclusive to the settlers only (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966; Elbourne, 1992).

Moravian refugees arrived at von Zinzendorf’s estate in Saxony in 1722. They escaped persecution from the Catholic Church in Moravia and had to flee their homes (Krüger, 1966). Georg Schmidt was one of these refugees, and he had spent six years in prison for his beliefs (Krüger, 1966). Schmidt knew what it felt to be dispossessed and persecuted, and when he saw the Khoi, I believe there was a resonance that solidified in him a will to create something that would be an alternative to the extant situation of the Khoi people. In his mind, to bring God’s Word to the Khoi (Schmidt, 1981).

Daniel Moses Wessels

Another aspect of the object that is of significance to me is I see the Bible speaking of so-called Coloured agency because it represents empowerment in a time when there was very little, and it would similarly represent another time of empowerment during the apartheid era (Bredekamp, 1997; Elbourne, 1992; Frankl, 2006; Lewis, 1987). There is a strong intangible history attached to this Bible that cannot be seen within the object itself (Brown, 2010). This can only be brought to the fore by contextualisation and oral history. My mother Charlene, the eldest of three sisters (Vida and Birgitte) was born to Martin and Hilda Wessels. I have learnt most from her telling me stories about Genadendal and my great-grandparents. But what makes the Bible significant to the Wessels other than the idea that it belonged to or somehow came into contact with the Wessels family?

The first place to start is with the Wessels family, because our history originates in Genadendal. The story begins with Maria Oktober. What is known of Maria Oktober is that she was born on a farm called Kwartelrivier on the 4th of August 1816 and she was baptised on the 29th of July 1828 at Genadendal. Maria Oktober’s mother was Saartje Abrahams who worked on Kwartelrivier and had given birth to her there. On the 10th of December 1834 Maria Oktober gave birth to a son on the farm Grootboschfontein and four years later he was baptised Jonas Wessels at Genadendal on the 16th of July 1838. Jonas Wessels married Maria Swart on the 10th of February 1861. The Wessels in Genadendal can trace their ancestry back to this marriage, and because there are so many different families, an attempt to make a comprehensive family tree within this project would not do it justice.

My great-grandfather Daniel Moses Wessels represents someone who realised the threat of apartheid as it took hold and took steps to try and prevent it. History often buries individuals amongst facts and dates, yet when I started learning about my great-grandfather, I had begun to see him more as an agent of change. As someone who had convictions that he was willing to stand up for. Living in a post-apartheid South Africa, one does not need to look far away to see its everlasting effects (Marais, 2011; Davenport & Saunders, 2000). Previously, I tended to think of apartheid as this monstrosity that only became untenable, and yielded to pressure, once it existed. For some reason I did not realise that there were individuals who opposed it from the beginning and could foresee its damaging effects. Daniel Moses Wessels was one of these many individuals that realised its effects and continued to fight against its injustice.

Fight for freedom

Reverend Daniel Moses Wessels and his wife Cornelia Wessels.

Daniel Moses Wessels’s story represents for me an attempt to curb racist ideology and law, and expresses the humanity of everyone. He was born on the 21st May 1902 in Genadendal and was baptised in the Moravian church the same year. He attended the Teacher Training School in Genadendal. He would later become a priest of the Moravian church. He was also the president of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA) and had been banned twice from politics by the apartheid government; the letter from B.J. Vorster which he received is amongst documents that were left over after he passed away. This document stated that he could not meet with more than three people at a given time, and banned him from any political activity.

As a person of colour, I often think of when I was first introduced to the notion that by birth I was automatically classified (Davenport & Saunders, 2000). This leads me to think of when my great-grandfather first encountered racism. While it is something of a futile question since I do not know, in his diaries and documents there are stories that reflect his coming into contact with racism and his own stand against it.

During World War II he was part of the Home Guard. As was common place in pre-apartheid South Africa, people were classified according to race and he was issued a uniform of a non-European officer which did not have the same authority of that of a European officer. He took great offence to this, and felt that he was being discriminated against because of the colour of his skin, and he was right, why else would such an arbitrary distinction exist other than to discriminate? The actions he took against this was to write a letter explaining that this arbitrary distinction went against his values as a person and that he would not in good conscious allow himself to be a victim of it.
Another incident was when he had an altercation with a postmaster in Blueliliesbush where he was the local priest. He had gone to fetch his post. It transpired that the post was not there. Daniel Moses Wessels questioned the postmaster about its absence. This ‘insolence’ was too much for the postmaster and resulted in racist nonsense aimed at him, while he responded in kind. In his diary he notes how angry he was and how close he had come to blows with this man, but that he felt that God’s teaching ran counter to violence. I feel that these experiences influenced him, as he begun to formulate his own political stance and identity, Steve Biko (2006) in I write what I like explains that the reason a movement like Black Consciousness exists is because this abnormal, abhorrent apartheid system existed. Daniel Moses Wessels realised that the system for that racial discrimination to be made into law would prove a mistake.

Elbourne (1992) writes about how the Khoi used Christianity and specifically how alternative sources of authority arose through preachers who were persons of colour i.e. the control of religion no longer resting in the hands of settlers. This alternative form of authority represented a voice for those who did not have one (Elbourne, 1992). The legacy of this authority is reflected in my great-grandfather who was able to continue an alternative source of authority which ran counter to the dominant narrative that was taking place at the time (Davenport & Saunders, 2000; Biko, 2006).

This provides an interesting entry point – namely the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA) of which Daniel Moses Wessels was a part (Adhikari, 1986; Adhikari, 1994). The TLSA was an organisation that sought to protect, reform and advance so-called Coloured education, because, importantly, education was seen as a means of empowerment from manual labour (Adhikari, 1994). Such labour was a reality for many of the so-called Coloured population (Adhikari, 1994). Although it is important to note that the TLSA would move away from so-called Coloured specific issues to adopting principles of non-racialism and equality and would openly oppose apartheid and its segregationist policies (Wieder, 2001). Adhikari (1986) notes that the this conservative isolationist group of the TLSA was overthrown by ‘radicals’ and my great-grandfather was one of these radicals that steered the TLSA away from its origins of purely focusing on one group (South African History Online , 2013). Daniel Moses Wessels is mentioned in a book by Gavin Lewis (1987) in which he focuses on the history of so-called Coloured politics in South Africa.

If we draw a line from 1734 when Schmidt started the process of educating the Khoi, to the late 19th century where missionaries were still responsible for educating their descendants in the so-called Coloured people, what becomes clear is that social mobility through means of education was almost non-existent and the education of peoples of colour was by no means a priority of the colonial establishment (Adhikari, 1994). Adhikari (1994, p.118) writes: “The most pressing problem afflicting Coloured education was the utter inadequacy of mission school facilities and the material shortages with which it had to cope. The government had virtually abdicated Coloured education, having shunted it upon the churches who did not have the resources for an adequate service.” In fact, in the early days the TLSA wanted to move this monopoly away from the mission schools, so that the government could take responsibility (Adhikari, 1994).

Daniel Moses Wessels was also a member of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). The NEUM played a big part in his life where, he alongside the TLSA was able to express his political beliefs and fight against the apartheid regime. The NEUM was a movement that sort to unite all persons of colour who were oppressed by apartheid and rejected the government structures that enforced them (Adhikari, 2005; Nasson, 1990). He was also a member of the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department Movement (Anti-CAD). The Anti-CAD movement opposed the government Coloured Affairs Department and Coloured Advisory Council (Lewis, 1987). These governmental branches would seek to promote the ‘interests’ of the so-called Coloured people (Lewis, 1987). For his actions he was banned in taking part of political gatherings and meetings. For me, he has left a legacy within in my own family of fighting against oppression and inequality. My mother was arrested for her anti-apartheid activities in Graaf-Reinet in the 1980s. She spent six months in prison there. My father, too, was arrested for anti-apartheid activities and was imprisoned several times for these. My great-grandfather to me represents someone who was willing to stand up for the rights of all people and not just a selected group.