Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Calvin Meets the Hominins: A Brief History of Creationism in South Africa

The history of South African creationism from the 20th century onward is inextricably intertwined with the political course of the country. The Netherlands established a colony at the southern tip of Africa in 1652. The settlers, spreading northwards, were followed first by French Huguenots and later by the British. The British largely retained their language and customs, unlike the Dutch and French who had been more cut off from their native countries. By the 1930s, this mix produced a uniquely South African language and culture. Armed conflict with the indigenous populations was temporarily resolved and Europeans occupied what is now known as South Africa. The Afrikaans language evolved from Dutch and a great divide (now faded) developed between English- and Afrikaansspeaking South Africans. Most of the latter were farmers or frontiersmen who had little time or inclination for the niceties of philosophical debate, and they were united by a common language and a strict form of Calvinism. The Bible was accepted as literal truth, and black South Africans, illiterate and with customs strange to the European settlers, were regarded as heathen and inferior.

Two independent Dutch-speaking republics (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) were established during the latter half of the 19th century, while the Cape Province and Natal remained British colonies. Parallels were drawn by the citizens of European descent in these republics between themselves and the Jews of antiquity who, against all odds, obtained their independence from an imperial power by struggle, perseverance and belief in God.

It is unlikely that Calvinist doctrine would have allowed evolution to be accepted in those republics but as far I am aware, it was never really a bone of contention at the time. During the Second Anglo- Boer War (1899–1902), Transvaal and the Orange Free State were conquered by Britain, and the whole of South Africa was united as a British colony. The defeat of the two republics had a seminal influence on the subsequent course of South African history.

The inhabitants of the two Boer republics felt, with some justification, that their language, culture and religion — the very fabric of their identity — was under threat. The British High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner, instituted a program of Anglicization that, among other things, enforced the use of English as the sole language of instruction at school.

The predictable result was that Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were drawn closer together, their language, religion, and culture serving as rallying points. The three main Afrikaans churches played a prominent role in fostering Afrikaner identity: the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church or DRC, the most powerful as far as membership and political influence was concerned), the Gereformeerde Kerke van Suid-Afrika (Reformed Churches of South Africa or RCSA), and the smaller Hervormde Kerk (Reformed Church). The churches soon made their influence felt in almost every sphere of Afrikaner life and together with the Afrikaner Broederbond (Afrikaans Brotherhood, a secret society at its founding) kept a close watch on the school curricula and textbooks, which had to be freed of English “liberal” influence and any reference to evolution (van den Heever 1999).

A sense of exclusivity grew from this religious outlook, and Calvinism was adapted to the “national differences in aptitudes, temperament, national character, history and circumstances” which “[protected] us as a nation during the previous century against Anglicization on the one hand and bastardization on the other” (Erasmus 1946). It was unthinkable that South Africans of European descent could share a common evolutionary ancestry with people of color, because that relationship would have been too close for comfort. It was much easier to accept a divine fiat for the separation of the races as read in the stories of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and the Tower of Babel.

That is not to say that there was not some disagreement within Calvinist circles. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Johannes du Plessis, an important figure in the DRC Theological Seminary at the University of Stellenbosch, became a political and theological liberal, stating that the Genesis account should not be taken literally. Du Plessis’s highly qualified evolutionary views, however, were cut from cloth weaved by Wallace and not Darwin. For this and other stated opinions he was initially suspended and later discharged from his post. The Western Cape Synod of the DRC had declared evolution a heresy. Du Plessis took the DRC to court and won the case, but in winning the battle he lost the war. He never taught at the seminary again and died an embittered man in 1935 (Lever 2002; van den Heever 1999).

The effect of the synod’s decision was to stifle all discussion of evolution in Afrikaans religious and educational circles for a considerable time. While at least some scientists at universities quietly researched and published on evolution, this work was done mainly (but not exclusively) at English-language institutions.

The more-or-less official viewpoint espoused then and until recently by the three Afrikaans churches will be well known to readers in the USA: the earth is approximately 6000–10000 years old, everything we know was created by divine fiat in a period of six 24-hour days, and all living forms were created separately with humans as the pinnacle of creation. A world-wide flood devastated the earth some thousands of years ago, and only a few humans, together with representatives of most animals, survived to give rise to the fauna and flora we know today. Species are immutable, and at most one can hope for micro-evolution within “kinds”. No proof of evolution exists.

No mention was made of evolution in school textbooks. A well-known theologian wrote: “In Biblical creation the order of the ‘genera’… is completely correct. No-one dare … call Genesis a story in this regard any more. Moses was either the most famous gambler in history or an inspired, infallible prophet” (Deist 1994).

The National Party and Official Anti-Evolutionism

In 1948 the National Party came to power. Afrikaners had been gaining political and economic influence during the preceding decades and the NP was the Afrikaner political party par excellence — strongly Calvinist, politically conservative with pronounced authoritarian tendencies. Somewhat more than lip service was paid to the concept of democracy (providing that the voters were “white”), but at least some theologians considered a form of theocracy to be the ideal kind of government (Deist 1994).

The national education policy under the NP became officially “Christian” (that is, Calvinist). Developed some decades before, the curriculum was designed to foster a love for culture, for country, and above all for religion. The concomitant contempt that this policy instilled in some students towards non-European cultures may or may nor have been planned, but the policy resonates with a racialist interpretation of Genesis 9:25–10:32. Furthermore, textbooks paid much attention to South African history, but contained little or no mention of the region’s history before the arrival of the Dutch settlers. Evolution was not discussed in biology textbooks; it was simply ignored. One rather gets the impression that the authorities hoped that the whole theory would vanish into thin air if it was not mentioned. In 1981 a DRC theologian stated that school and university textbooks were scrutinized to ensure that evolutionary ideas did not slip through the net (van den Heever 1999). Their attempts were not entirely successful. I well remember finding (and devouring) both On the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man in my town library when in high school.

One may well ask whether any South African creationists were actively involved in any sort of scientific research (in parallel to the Creation Research Society or Institute for Creation Research in the USA). Information on this is extremely meager, but considering that very few creationists elsewhere in the world have carried out any meaningful scientific work this is not surprising. The only name I have been able to find is that of JJ Duyvene de Wit, Professor of Zoology at the University of the Orange Free State during the 1950s and 1960s. He was active in creationist circles, but a cursory search failed to find any reference to published papers of his supporting creationism. An important figure in his circles at the time, he has since fallen into well-deserved obscurity. Most other scientists researching evolution at Afrikaans institutions seemed to have kept their heads below the firing line and merely published their scientific papers without attracting too much public notice. Now and then, a museum exhibit on evolution caused some controversy, but there are no formal studies on the number, scope, and public or official reaction to these exhibits. This state of affairs persisted into the late 1980s.

Transition to Democracy

South Africa became involved in a low-intensity war on its borders from the late 1960s onwards. The government’s opposition at that time, mostly the African National Congress, was to a large extent backed by communist regimes, which, of course, afforded a perfect opportunity for the then powerful state propaganda apparatus to foster a myth about a so-called “total onslaught” by subversive communist agencies which promoted humanism, equal rights, and, of course, a belief in evolution. As international and local opposition to apartheid mounted, the government of the time desperately attempted to draw all South Africans together into a united front against the common enemy. Evolution, while not a major target of the state propaganda apparatus, was as undesirable as ever. During this period, as more books and television programs on evolution and on science in general reached the public, the unexpected happened, not only on the scientific front but also the political: opposition to the official policies on evolution came not only from outside the borders but also from within Afrikaner ranks.

Against all expectations a peaceful transition of power took place, due, among others, to the then president of South Africa, FW de Klerk. It is perhaps significant that de Klerk is a member of the Reformed Churches of South Africa. This church had slowly been mounting opposition to the apartheid policy since the 1950s when it was, in South African terms, extremely politically incorrect to do so. Their motivation was purely scriptural, in comparison to the more powerful DRC which wholeheartedly supported apartheid (again on scriptural grounds) and which was often called, mockingly, the National Party at prayer.

Primer on Calvinism

Martin Luther’s success opened the way for several movements in the Protestant Reformation of 16th-century Europe. The followers of John Calvin (1509–1564) defined their position within the Reformation as distinct from the Lutheran tradition (and others) in a five-point summary that today goes by the acronym TULIP (see Perhaps the one concept most associated in the public mind with Calvinist theological thinking is the doctrine of predestination. This was a logical outcome of two positions: (1) the generic idea in Reformation traditions that salvation is attained by grace (or faith) only, and not by “works” (that is, nothing that one can do will assure salvation simply by virtue of these actions); and (2) the specific (Calvinist) idea that Christ died for the elect and not for all people. The conclusion drawn from these two positions is that one’s future salvation (or damnation) was known by God and predetermined at the beginning of time.


Within ten years, South Africa had undergone a sea change due to pressure from inside the once seemingly unbreachable ranks of the Afrikaners as well as from outside. Evolution will soon be established as part of the school biology curriculum and while many parents still object to this, many or perhaps most members of the younger generation of South Africans simply do not regard this as a problem any more. The DRC, previously a staunch supporter of apartheid, has made a major about-turn and freely admitted its role in past injustices; it now, in general, does not regard evolution as a heresy, although many of its older members still contest this position.

Does this mean that the battle is won? Unfortunately not. The three Afrikaans churches have been losing members at a remarkable rate to the relatively new (in South African terms) charismatic churches, many with American roots. These churches are much more fundamentalist in outlook than the Afrikaans churches ever were. A reason for this may be that fundamentalism offers certainty. The social and political upheavals of the last decade or so has shifted the ground under the feet of the white population; moral, political, and economic certainty are no longer taken for granted and many have turned to churches where a perceived certainty can be obtained.

There is also a deep irony embedded in the stances of the DRC and the RCSA towards evolution. The DRC had supported apartheid and opposed evolution, basing its views on biblical interpretation but has changed their views radically. The Reformed Churches rejected apartheid on scriptural grounds; it has now, for the same reasons, rejected evolution. A recent National Synod of the RCSA decried the teaching of evolution at school and requested Christian teachers not to present evolution as a fact in the classrooms (Anonymous 2003).

The University of Potchefstroom, an institution historically strongly influenced by the RCSA, issues a book on science studies, a mandatory course for students in the natural sciences, pharmacy and engineering (Geertsema and others 1996). One of its authors, WJ Ouweneel, is a member of the Institute for Creation Research. The book, strongly Calvinist in nature, contains very little science as such, nor does it give an overview of science as an intellectual discipline — the few chapters actually dealing with science advocates an old-earth creationist scenario by superficially reviewing what creationists see as major problems with the theory of evolution. PH Stoker, Emeritus Professor of Physics at that university, wrote:

Because of his sinful nature man exalts the laws, connections and regularities he finds in his science to laws according to which nature operates. In doing this he removes God not only from his science but also from his creation, because the dynamics of nature then progresses according to ‘laws’ he discovered. God is then not necessary for maintenance and guidance. The implementation of evolution in school curricula means that evolution is read into nature as a law of the biological sciences. Thus God is removed from biological nature, just as He was removed by physical laws from the physical sciences. (Stoker 2001)

Admittedly this is the only university in South Africa where students are taught creationism, and it must be added that this is by no means the viewpoint of many of its staff members. Political power has largely slipped from the hands of the reformed churches, but the banners of creationism are now in the hands of the charismatic churches who, with their growing numbers, may well pose a threat in future.

By LW Retief
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.