The New Apostolic Church, which drew applause recently from Deputy President Thabo Mbeki for its proposed new national anthem, has a shady past which extends from a close relationship with the Nazi regime to support for apartheid.
Confronted by this information, a representative for Mbeki, Titus Mafolo, said: “It is difficult for the deputy president to comment on the ins and outs of individual churches.”
The New Apostolic Church has an autocratic leadership structure headed by a group of “apostles”. The “chief apostle” heads the church. In 1932, chief apostle Johann Bischoff sent messages of support to Adolf Hitler and claimed the Nazi leader was God’s special emissary.
When Hitler came to power in March 1933, Bischoff sent a letter to his German congregations denouncing criticism of Hitler’s government as “atrocity propaganda”.
The letter was followed by Sunday-evening services, throughout Germany, based on Ecclesiasticus 10:1-5 (from the Apocrypha). The German translation of these verses demonstrates more powerfully than the English the political opinions of Bischoff. Ecclesiasticus 10: 1 reads: “A wise regent is strict; and where there is a sensible government there is order.” These verses were obviously contrived so as to be made applicable to Hitler. Verse five speaks of “a praiseworthy chancellor”.
At least 13 German apostles were members of the Nazi Party. On April 23 1933, the organisation’s leaders directed congregations to excommunicate government opponents. New Apostolic youth and women were encouraged to join organisations of the Nazi Party.
In 1933 alone, the New Apostolic Church contributed more than 121 500 marks to the state. Congregations also engaged in joint fund-raising efforts with elements of the Nazi Party such as the brutal SA (Storm Troops). In response to its loyalty to the Nazis, the New Apostolic Church was exempted from all property taxes and most corporate levies.
Peter Johanning, representative of the New Apostolic Church International, based in Germany, refused to comment on questions about the church’s association with the Nazi regime. Noel Barnes, one the leaders of the church in South Africa, also refused to comment but Roy Klibbe, Western Cape representative, said “mistakes may have been made”.
Bischoff gained notoriety during his reign as leader of the New Apostolic Church. Under his leadership his son, Friedrich, enriched himself by assuming the role of the sole publisher of New Apostolic Church literature. He also established the position of chief apostle as a dictatorial office which did not allow any criticism.
His megalomania led to a prophecy in 1951 that Jesus Christ would return in his lifetime. Bischoff was already 80 years old when he made this prediction. When he died in 1960 the church suffered a serious setback. Thousands of members left and formed a number of splinter groups.
The current chief apostle is Richard Fehr. He, like all his predecessors, is German- speaking although he is a Swiss citizen. Three of the chief apostles have been German- speaking Swiss men while four were German citizens. This is despite the fact that more than half of the movement’s estimated 10- million members are Africans.
The New Apostolic Church was established in South Africa in 1889. In 1927, the German immigrant who founded the South African branch was excommunicated and took a large following with him to establish the Old Apostolic Church. There are currently about 250 000 members in South Africa. The South African branch of the movement is divided into two regions led by Barnes and Johann Kitching.
During the 1980s the church claimed to be apolitical and refused to take a position on apartheid. Its official creed stated: “I believe that the government is the servant of God for our benefit; he who opposes the government opposes God, because it is decreed by Him.”
In 1991, as the demise of apartheid set in, the creed was changed to allow opposition to the government that was about to be elected. The new creed states: “I believe that I am obliged to obey the worldly authorities provided no godly laws are thereby transgressed.”
In 1994, before the national elections, President Nelson Mandela attended a church service at a Mitchells Plain congregation. The New Apostolic Church has a large coloured membership, and the African National Congress was attempting to win its support.
Members are known to obey the church leadership slavishly and would not hesitate to vote for the ANC en masse if instructed to do so. In turn, the New Apostolic Church would gain greater social acceptance and access to resources and to the ears of government which it was previously denied. It has already been granted airtime on SABC TV for religious broadcasts.