Overcoming Prejudice: the Labours of African Pentecostal Pioneer Elias Letwaba

A very rare photo (retouched). Acknowledgements to Roberts Liardon Official God’s Generals

The most fruitful African ethnic evangelist and church-planter in early Pentecostalism was Elias Letwaba (1870-1958). History has largely forgotten him, for two main reasons. First, his ministry was conducted out in the remote bush of the Transvaal, South Africa. Secondly, he was native African, from the Ndebele tribe. The Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM), to which he allied himself, was at first racially inclusive but increasingly embraced segregation, even holding separate baptism services for blacks and whites. In this article, historian Barry Morton writes: ‘records were typically kept on white Pentecostal leaders and their congregations, while the African membership was usually undocumented.’

From a young age, Letwaba was was sensitive to God and gifted with languages, eventually speaking seven. He also experienced supernatural gifts. Morton urges caution here, because a regrettable tendency developed in the African Pentecostal context to solicit funding through accounts of miracles, some of which may have been glamourised.  Even so, we read that Letwaba felt tinglings in his hands when he read Bible accounts of healing. One day he prayed over a lame girl in Jesus’ name – and only found out five years later that she had been healed.

He tried several churches, then in 1908 he travelled to Doorfontein to hear the American evangelist and healer John G Lake. The power of God was very obvious in the meeting, with people being healed and set free. Lake sensed something in Letwaba, invited him on to the stage and kissed him. This won Letwaba’s heart but caused division among the white believers, some of whom wanted him thrown out. The story goes that Lake declared: “If you throw him out, I will go too.” The two men became brothers from the heart; Lake invited him into his home, where Letwaba received his personal Pentecost, the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit‘.

When Lake and his team left for Bloemfontein, they invited Letwaba to go with them. Under Lake’s training, Letwaba began an itinerant ministry, walking hundreds of miles between far-flung villages. He was often beaten, kicked and verbally abused, but when he prayed for the sick, many were healed. From time to time, Lake would come to Letwaba’s home in Potgietersrust and the two would minister to people together – always attended with remarkable divine happenings.

Typical round houses of the Transvaal

Typical round houses of the Transvaal

After Lake returned to America in 1913, people began to recognise that Letwaba had, in some special way, inherited his mantle in ‘power ministry’. On one occasion, during a heavy drought, he prayed for rain for one village, prophesying that it would happen that night (there were no weather forecasts in those days!). And the rain came.

Morton again: ‘Letwaba, although never nominally in charge, was the de facto leader of the AFM’s African membership for almost 50 years. His success as an evangelist, his renown as a man of God, and his indefatigable work rate meant that he enjoyed tremendous respect throughout the church.’ He was salaried by the AFM and attended its ministers’ conferences – the only African leader to be so treated.

Seeing the great need for training ethnic Christian workers in tribal areas, Letwaba founded the Patmos Bible School at Potgietersrust in 1924 (he even made the bricks on his own farm). An intake of twelve students could live in and study the Bible, as well as general studies and public speaking. Nearby, he opened a primary school for hundreds of children.

This article on the ‘Healing and Revival’ blog shows the extent of his labours: ‘Letwaba had the care of thirty-seven churches. On Sundays he would lead services at five or six locations and would start at 5:30 in the morning and continue until 9:00 at night. He also taught six hours a day at the Bible school. He continued the school until 1935 when he was 65 years old. His congregations were tribally mixed, and often his sermons had to be given through two or three interpreters.’

It has been roughly estimated that 10,000 people found healing as a result of his prayers. For all this, he remained a humble man, writing sermons pleading for personal holiness and humility, and leading by example in those areas. He was also inclusive, welcoming to his campaigns and churches people of all tribes. He died in 1959, aged 89, a father of the African church – yet regrettably unknown outside his beloved Transvaal.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

8 responses to “Overcoming Prejudice: the Labours of African Pentecostal Pioneer Elias Letwaba”

  1. normal says :

    Wow. It does make yopu wonder how many thousands of unknown superheoes we'll meet in heaven…

  2. Trevor Saxby says :

    Yes indeed! In this particular story there is a painful thread, though. The Apostolic Faith Mission, as you may know, grew out of the Azusa Street revival of 1906, where William J Seymour (the black preacher whom God used so mightily there) boldly insisted on racial integration – in the face of huge opposition. Then along comes Charles Parham, from the bible school at Topeka, Kansas, where speaking in tongues in the Pentecostal sense broke out in 1900, pulls rank and insists on racial 'apartheid' – which we see continuing in Africa in this story.

  3. John Vagabond says :

    Hadn’t seen this before-remarkable on many levels. What if he’d gone transracial? The blacks wouldn’t have come because they’d have been suspicious of the whites and the whites would have stayed away out of arrogance, fear or both. Very wise man – he reached more by segregating.

  4. Dr Nico Horn says :

    Elias Letwaba is not unknown in South Africa or the Pentecostal world for that matter. He is well known in the nownon-racial AFM. I read Gordon Lindsey’s book on Letwaba when I studied at the then AFM Theological College in 1976. One of our part- time lecturers, Dr Scheepers ended his language classes with a reading of Gordon Lindsey’s book on Letwaba’s life and ministry. A reprint of the book was still sold in the AFM-owned Gospel Publisher’s bookshop. My bother-in-law was a padtor in Potgietersrust where Letwaba spent his last days. Letwaba was highly respected by white and black alike.
    As I always remind historians, apartheid was bad enough. There is no need to ignore the times when some black leaders broke through the racial barriers and influenced white communities. Elias Letwaba was one of them.
    PS. The Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa is not an off-spring of William Seymour’s Apostolic Faith Church of Azusa Street. It was planted by American evangelists John G Lake and Tom Heshmalalch whose mission was sponsored by another Los Angeles church, the pre-dominant white Upper Room Mission.

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