This church grew out of the work done among the Indian population of Kwazulu-Natal by missionaries of the South Africa General Mission (SAGM). (This mission was later called Africa Evangelical Fellowship (AEF)). In 1896 Mr Spencer Walton, chairman of SAGM, settled in Durban and began contacting Indian people.
Two missionary ladies joined him (Miss M Day and Miss E Hargreaves), and soon they were holding meetings on Sunday mornings in the hostels. Later these two ladies moved to a sugar estate near Phoenix where a school was opened.
As time passed, missionaries came and went, Indian people were converted and some were trained as evangelists. A missionary who deserves special mention is Mr Nelson Tomlinson who ministered to Indians in KZN for 45 years, retiring in 1949. Mr Tomlinson had a vision of Indian churches like lighthouses in the sugar estates along the Natal South Coast.
He arranged for an evangelist, John Thirapillay, to be placed on a sugar estate near Port Shepstone while he himself moved to Umzinto, working there and at nearby Esperanza. The first church building for Indians was erected at Esperanza in 1910. In 1913, more church buildings were erected at Port Shepstone and Beneva for the Indian believers, and in 1915 another church was erected at Illovo.
By this time there were a number of Indian evangelists who needed further training, especially in the face of fierce opposition. In 1919 Mr Frank Evans started a Bible School, which ran for two years, and later another was set up at Park Rynie. After World War II young Indian people could train at the Johannesburg Bible Institute.
In 1921 the Indian church held its first conference with delegates from all the churches. This became a yearly event and a source of great encouragement. In 1924 the churches began to handle their own finances and appointed their own treasurer and secretary.
In 1951 the missionaries ceased to serve as officers with a view to making the church totally controlled by Indian believers. In 1966 SAGM gave the church its complete autonomy, including the right to any church properties held in the Mission’s name. The name for the autonomous church was “The Evangelical Church in South Africa”. ECSA’s first president was Mr Andrew Kodi.
Mr Tomlinson had been concerned for the Indians in Johannesburg, but it was only in 1956 that SAGM missionaries began to contact Indians there. The first converts were baptized in 1957 and in 1970 a large, modern church complex was opened in Lenasia.
In the 1960s it was noted that many Indians were moving from the South Coast to Durban, so new missionaries concentrated on city work and new churches were opened at Merebank and Chatsworth. By 1979 ECSA churches were to be found in Durban, and surrounds, in Johannesburg, Benoni and even on the island of Mauritius.
Personnel and methods had changed over the years, but the same gospel of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ was still being proclaimed. The churches have now increased to 27 in number; each led by a pastor or elder and are spread up and down KZN as well as in Gauteng. The vision of Nelson Tomlinson has indeed been fulfilled.
THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE MISSION
The Cape General Mission (CGM) was founded by Martha Osborn, Spencer Walton, and Andrew Murray in 1889. Murray, a well-known author who founded a university and a seminary, always considered missions “the chief end of the church.” After Martha Osborn married George Howe, they formed the South East Africa General Mission (SEAGM) in 1891. CGM and SEAGM merged in 1894, forming the South Africa General Mission. Because their ministry had spread into other African countries, they changed their name to Africa Evangelical Fellowship (AEF) in 1965.