Georg Schmidt was born in Kunewalde on 30 September 1709 as the son of a peasant family. He was converted to Christianity at the age of 16.
In 1726, Schmidt set off on foot for Herrnhut in Germany and started preparing to become an evangelist for the Moravian Church which had a strong emphasis on missionary work. For his first evangelistic mission in 1728, Schmidt was sent to Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). He was incarcerated for six years for addressing private religious meetings which violated the Roman Catholic law in that country.
Establishing South Africa’s first mission station
In 1736, two years after his release, he received a letter from two clergymen in the Netherlands who were looking for volunteers to evangelise the Khoikhoi at the Cape. Schmidt proceeded to Amsterdam and sailed for South Africa on 4 December 1736 landing in Table Bay on 9 July 1737.
In September that year, he established himself near the Sonderend River beyond Caledon where he met the group of Khoikhoi, led by Africo, who would become his core converts. In 1738 he moved to Baviaanskloof (present day Genadendal) with 11 men, 12 women and 4 young children where, on the 23rd of April, he established the first Protestant mission station in Southern Africa.
At the mission station, Schmidt built himself a house and planted a vegetable garden and some fruit trees. He was an apprentice butcher and did the odd butchering job for neighbouring farmers.
The Khoikhoi built their usual huts with the women collecting wild plant food and men hunting wildlife and tending to their livestock. Some of the Khoi men were employed as farm hands and wagon drivers and the women were seasonal workers on the surrounding farms.
Schmidt read the Dutch Bible to the Khoikhoi, taught them to read and write and also to plant and sow.
From Schmidt’s diary it is evident that the Khoi were reluctant to give up their traditional ways. The Khoi still maintained relations with nearby kraals and they frequently visited friends and family living there. Schmidt was strongly opposed to them performing any ritual activities such as ‘dancing and singing’ which he described as ‘heathenish behaviour’. Anyone found ‘dancing and singing’ would be punished by not being allowed to attend classes until they repented their ‘sins’.
Schmidt baptised five of his converts in 1742.
News of the baptisms reached the local headquarters of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in Cape Town. The DRC was strongly opposed to Schmidt’s arrival from the start of the mission. They allowed him into the region on the understanding that he wasn’t an ordained minister. After the baptisms however, the DRC discovered the truth.
Schmidt had sent a letter to the Moravian headquarters requesting permission to baptise his followers. When he received a letter of ordinance granting him that permission, he began the baptisms. The DRC questioned the validity of this, began mounting pressure and on the 5th of March 1744, Schmidt suspended his duties and left the country.
Schmidt never returned to Genadendal. His actions however, laid the groundwork for the re-establishment of the Moravian mission almost 50 years later.
After having served the Moravian Church in many different places in Bohemia, Schmidt settled in Niesky Germany in 1752. He passed away on 1 August 1785.