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Miller, William
1779 to 1856
Baptist
South Africa

William Miller was one of the leading figures in the foundation of the Baptist denomination in Southern Africa. Originally from England, he and his wife, Elizabeth Miller, were a part of a small Baptist congregation, consisting of only eleven people, who joined the "1820 Settlers," a group of pioneers who landed on South African soil in 1820 at Algoa Bay, situated in the current Eastern Cape Province. Shortly after their arrival the Baptists held their first service under a thorn tree in front of Miller's tent. Hereafter Miller began to assume the role of the spiritual shepherd for the small congregation.

The church was formally founded under the leadership of William Shepherd who built a cottage to accommodate their religious services in Salem and encouraged the congregation to recognize William Miller as the official pastor of the church. As soon as this was finalized, the Lord's Supper (communion) was celebrated for the first time in South Africa in a Baptist church. The small church at Salem began to grow slowly and opportunities opened for Miller to minister in the town of Grahamstown, some thirty miles away. For quite some time he moved back and forth between the two towns, at first by foot and later by horse, until he found it necessary to seek employment in a carpenter's shop in Grahamstown. This move allowed him to focus more specifically on the congregation in Grahamstown, which first outgrew the cottage they were borrowing initially for their services, and then even outgrew the carpenter's shop where Miller worked. Apparently the congregation became quite the talk of the town whenever they would march down to the river that ran through the town to baptize new converts. As the congregation was growing, they decided that it was time to build a proper church building. Miller laid the foundation stone and the congregation gave as much as they could, both in materials and financially and helped with the construction of the chapel as well. The first Baptist chapel was officially opened in July 1824. The congregation flourished under the leadership and care of their shepherd, William Miller.

Miller remained the pastor of the congregation for thirty years in total before stepping down, but even after this he remained intimately involved in the church until his death. He died on the November 29, 1856 at the age of seventy-seven. After the death of his first wife, Elizabeth Dennison, in about 1821 in Salem, Eastern Cape, Miller appears to have remained a widower until January 6, 1843 when he married Ann Humphreys nee Watson in the Baptist Church, Grahamstown. From her age at this time it would appear that she was born in 1792 and died on January 28, 1857 in Grahamstown. Her first husband was a Richard Joseph Humphreys whom she would have married around 1810 in England prior to coming to South Africa with the 1820 Settlers. It is not known when he died although there is a request from him to the Colonial Government for a grant of land in 1837. He and Ann had nine children, the last being born in 1831. Miller had four children from his first marriage and they were all born in England prior to them sailing for South Africa with the 1820 Settlers. [1]

Miller founded the Baptist denomination with a mere handful of people, but from these humble beginnings the denomination has grown and has become one of the most wide-spread and active denominations in southern Africa, with hundreds of congregations and several theological training institutions.

Bradley Anderson


Notes:

1. This information comes from Tessa King, genealogist, Howick, South Africa. The marriage certificate can be viewed here.

Bibliography:

Holt, Basil. Our 1820 Founder: A Memoir. South Africa: South African Baptist Historical Society.
Ayliff, John. "Memoir of Mr. Wm. Miller, Founder of the Baptist Interest in South Africa" in The South African Christian Watchman and Wesleyan Church and School Record (vol. IV, no. 2, Feb. 1857) pp. 37-45.
Roy, Kevin. Zion City RSA: The Story of the Church in South Africa. South African Baptist Historical Society: Cape Town. 2000.
Hudson-Reed, Sydney (ed.). Together for a Century: History of the Baptist Union of South Africa. South African Baptist Historical Society: Pietermaritzburg. 1977.
Hockly, Harold Edward. The Story of the British Settlers of 1820 in South Africa. 2nd enlarged and revised edition. Cape Town and Johannesburg: Juta & Co. 1957.

This article, received in 2004, was written by Bradley Anderson, a student at Capetown Baptist Seminary, a DACB participating institution, under the supervision of Dr. Kevin Roy, liaison coordinator.