The Methodist roots of Nelson Mandela

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Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

Although it is almost universally agreed that he was a Christian, his exact denominational allegiances remain a source of discussion. While some have suggested that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, as his first wife, his sister, and many relatives around him identified as such, most believe he was a Methodist. He attended a Methodist church school growing up, and was baptised in a small Methodist stone church in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu.

A story by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel religion writer Annysa Johnson and another reporter identifies Mandela as a Methodist:

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Wisconsin Conference United Methodist Church recalled meeting Mandela — a Methodist himself — during a Council of Bishops visit to Mozambique in 2006.

“We were in awe. It was a great and blessed moment,” said Jung, who described Mandela as a servant leader.

“He lived an extraordinary life. The whole world will miss his powerful presence and solidarity of spirit,” he said. “We will remember his courageous and bold fight for God’s justice for all people.”

Religion News Service quotes faith leaders reacting to Mandela’s death, while over at “The Exchange” blog at Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer notes:

Even though Mandela led his revolution through political maneuvers, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he reflected on the work of the church in South Africa regarding the overthrow of apartheid: “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.”

But to what extent is Mandela’s faith or religious background figuring in the mainstream media coverage of his life and death?

Not prominently, if The New York Times’ 6,500-word obituary by Bill Keller — yes, that Bill Keller — is any indication.

The Times obit has one reference to Mandela’s Methodist roots:

The enlarging of Mr. Mandela’s outlook began at Methodist missionary schools and the University College of Fort Hare, then the only residential college for blacks in South Africa. Mr. Mandela said later that he had entered the university still thinking of himself as a Xhosa first and foremost, but left with a broader African perspective.

And the term “Christian” appears once:

Mr. Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that this congregation made him the world’s best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was. Probably it was just his impish humor, but he claimed to have been told that when posters went up in London, many young supporters thought Free was his Christian name.

But “faith,” “religion” and “church” show up not at all.

Obviously, this story is still breaking. Please share any relevant links that you come across and stay tuned for more GetReligion analysis.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Here’s a comment that might be startling to hear from a Black American poster.

    Does it seem that much of the memorial stories and editorials on Mr. Mandela seem bordering on idolatry? Of course, his accomplishments are real. However, in place of the lack of his religious beliefs are the writer’s beliefs of Mandela shown in the writer’s own words. Imagine, temporarily, of Mandela as a religious figure and contrast how the stories seem to reflect a quasi-religious tone about the man.

    That’s a meta-ghost in itself that a team of ghostbusters would have problems in bagging.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    Here’s a new link from RNS, “Shaped by Methodists, Mandela paid tribute to the role of religion”: http://www.religionnews.com/2013/12/06/shaped-methodists-mandela-paid-tribute-role-religion/

  • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

    Radical Marxist. Abortion advocate. Advocate of Pornography. Advocate of Prostitution. Advocate of Homosexuality. Womanizer. Supporter of dictators in countries with some of the worst civil rights records such as China and Cuba.


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