Albert Geyser

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For an American physician, see Albert C. Geyser.
Albertus Stephanus Geyser
Geyser 1980s.jpg
Born (1918-02-10)10 February 1918
Naboomspruit, South Africa
Died 13 June 1985(1985-06-13) (aged 67)
Johannesburg, South Africa
Nationality South African
Occupation Theologian / academic
Spouse(s) Celia Geyser (nee van der Westhuisen)
Parents Petrus and Nina Geyser

Albertus (Albert) Stephanus Geyser (10 February 1918 – 13 June 1985) was a South African cleric, scholar and anti-apartheid theologian. Geyser was a deeply religious man who died an outcast of the Afrikaner community because of his unshakeable opposition to apartheid. A brilliant scholar with Master's degrees in Greek, Latin and French, he was appointed professor at the age of 27 in the Theological Faculty of the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NHK) at the University of Pretoria. He paid the price for being one of the first Afrikaner nationalists to speak out against the Broederbond and apartheid on theological grounds. He is also known for his work as one of a number of scholars involved in the first annotated edition (1953–1958) of the Bible in Afrikaans.

Family background and early academic life[edit]

Albert Geyser, 1930s

One of three children, Albert Geyser was born on 10 February 1918 to Nina and Petrus Geyser in Naboomspruit in the former Transvaal province (now Mookgophong in the Limpopo Province). From an early age he demonstrated a rich intellect and a sharp critical, scientific sense. After matriculating from Ermelose Hoërskool (High School) in 1935 he was admitted to the University of Pretoria in 1936 where he completed a BA degree cum laude in Greek and Latin in 1938. His BD followed in 1941 and a MA in Greek and Latin in 1943. In the same year he obtained his Doctor Divinitatis degree with distinction, also at the University of Pretoria. He completed additional courses in Aramaic and Syriac in 1945.[1] Geyser married fellow Afrikaner Celia van der Westhuisen in Rustenburg in the early 1940s and the couple had three sons and two daughters.

Geyser served the NHK as minister in Heilbron in the Orange Free State (1941–1943) and Pretoria North-West (1944–1945). He was only 27 years old when in 1946 he became Professor of New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Theology (Section A) at the University of Pretoria.[2] Geyser's first years at the University of Pretoria (i.e. from 1946 until 1952) were characterised by his loyal support of both the policies of the government of the day and of his Church's missionary policy. At the time he endorsed the principle adopted by the NHK that only whites belonged to it. The position of the Church was that missionary work should be aimed at the establishment of separate indigenous churches.

His position at the University of Pretoria afforded him the opportunity to study in Europe and to broaden his perspectives. In 1952 he was a visiting Professor in New Testament Studies at Utrecht University. He also worked in 1949 at the Faculté de Libre du Protenstantisme at the Sorbonne on the concept of "The Church in the New Testament". In the same year he was invited to the Papal Institute in Rome to visit the excavations under St. Peter's Basilica.[1] During his 1952 visit to Europe he was increasingly influenced by the progressive ecumenists who emerged in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the wake of the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches WCC held in Amsterdam in 1948. Following his return to South Africa Geyser became increasingly critical of the use of theology as a basis for apartheid.

In 1955 Geyser was one of the "notorious" 13 Afrikaans academics who signed a petition condemning the removal of coloureds from Parliament and the stacking of the Senate.[3] Within the Church he set out to refute any biblical justifications for apartheid. The NHK initially tolerated his views. In 1960 he was given an extensive hearing in the distinguished scholarly theological journal of his Church, Hervormde Teologiese Studies, when he launched a scathing attack on a theological justification of apartheid as advocated in a book on "Eiesoortige Ontwikkeling tot Volksdiens" by Professor A. B. du Preez, at the time Professor of Dogmatics in the Faculty of Theology (Section B) at the University of Pretoria.[2] In the same year Geyser co-authored a book titled 'Vertraagde aksie' (Delayed action) which strongly condemned apartheid.[4] For the Broederbond this was the equivalent of waving a red rag to a bull and the organisation led a smear campaign against Geyser and the other authors.

Cottesloe Consultation[edit]

Geyser received international support for his views when, following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the World Council of Churches sent a delegation to meet with clerics in the Johannesburg suburb of Cottesloe. The Cottesloe Consultation resulted in 17 recommendations, three of which caused great commotion in the Afrikaans media:

  • The church must not discriminate on the basis of skin colour or race.
  • There are no biblical grounds for a ban on mixed marriages.
  • The possession of land and participation in government are inalienable human rights.[5]

The recommendations were rejected outright by the Broederbond, the leading National Party and Prime Minister Verwoerd, who claimed foreign powers were interfering with South Africa's domestic policies. As a result of this conflict the NHK and the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) withdrew from the WCC. While Geyser was not a representative at Cottesloe he strongly supported the recommendations and continued to launch fierce attacks on the NHK, particularly on its understanding of the concept of catholicity and on its policy with regard to missionary work.[4]

Following the Cottesloe Consultation Geyser became an opponent of Article III of the NHK constitution, which specifically forbids blacks as members.[1] It was inevitable that he would clash with what he saw as the "ideological theology" of his own and other Afrikaans churches. This made his position as a Professor in the Faculty of Theology of the Church untenable, both for the Church and for himself.

Accusations of Heresy[edit]

In January 1961, two mass meetings attended by thousands of Afrikaners were organised by conservative Professor Adriaan Pont, professor of church history at the Reformed Theological School in Pretoria, protesting against the authors of 'Delayed Action'.[5] In September 1961 the Broederbond controlled leadership of the NHK responded to complaints by three students and accused Geyser of heresy and insubordination because of his interpretation of Philippians 2:5–11. He was asked to resign his Professorship of New Testament Studies because the chair was sponsored by the NHK. While he was acquitted on the charges of insubordination, he was found guilty of heresy by the Synodal Commission of the NHK and expelled in May 1962. It was widely accepted that the NHK used the accusation of heresy in an attempt to remove Geyser because of his opposition to Article III of the NHK constitution and his "deviant" views on racial matters.[4] Geyser felt he was falsely accused and contested the Commission's findings in the Supreme Court. During the subsequent court case the NHK reached an out of court settlement and he was reinstated. However these conflicts continued to be a source of tension and Geyser resigned from the NHK in 1963.

Geyser left the University of Pretoria in 1962 after successfully applying for the position as the first Professor and Head of the Department of Divinity (now the Department of Religious Studies) at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Christian Institute of South Africa and the Broederbond[edit]

During the early 1960s Geyser befriended Beyers Naudé and disclosed to him his idea of establishing a movement which would bring together ecumenically minded Christians in Southern Africa with a view to a united witness against the ideology of apartheid and its negative consequences in church and society.[1] The Christian Institute of Southern Africa was formed in 1963, and Geyser as the chairman of the board of directors had little difficulty in persuading Naudé, then a minister of the NGK, to become its first director.

Naudé asked Geyser for his advice because the anti-apartheid stance of the Christian Institute was increasingly at odds with his membership of the Broederbond. To help Geyser understand the tensions between these two loyalties Naudé provided Geyser with a number of secret Broederbond documents which included minutes of meetings and the names of members of the Broederbond.[5] Unknown to Naudé, Geyser (who was a keen amateur photographer) made photostats of the documents before returning them. Geyser's advice was crucial in Naudé's subsequent decision to resign from the Broederbond.

In November 1963 the English newspaper, The Sunday Times published the Broederbond documents and Naudé was initially blamed for the leak. In reality it was Geyser who had leaked the documents to a journalist at the newspaper.[6] In his statement on 20 November 1963, Geyser said that he had decided to make the documents public because he wanted to frustrate the aims of the Broederbond. According to Geyser the documents showed without a doubt that the Broederbond was using the Church for political ends: “My immediate observation was that these people were making the Church, which is the bride of Christ, a servant girl of politics.”[7] The Broederbond reported the documents stolen and the offices of Naudé and Geyser were raided by the security police. The fact that the raids were not conducted through normal police operations but by the security police implied that the actions of the leaders of the Christian Institute were now regarded as a matter of national security.

During 1964 and 1965 Professor Adriaan Pont wrote a series of articles in Die Hervormer, the monthly magazine of the NHK in which he accused Naudé and Geyser of various misdemeanours, including:

  • Supporting and promoting communism and its objectives
  • Advocating sabotage and planning a revolution
  • Pretending to be Christians but in reality seeking to destroy Christianity
  • Supporting the massacre and murder of white women and children
  • Committing heresy and opposing the Afrikaner churches [5]

Pont also accused the Christian Institute of being a front for communist activities. In October 1966 Naudé and Geyser filed a charge of libel against Pont and the editor of Die Hervormer. The editor immediately acknowledged that the offending articles contained “crass, untrue and defamatory statements” and expressed his “deep and sincere regret” but Pont refused to retract his comments. The case was determined in Naudé and Geyser’s favour in February 1967 and Pont was ordered to pay court costs (R150,000) as well as the largest fine for defamation in South Africa at the time (R20,000).[5][6] Despite this finding the Christian Institute continued to be a target for security police raids and attacks in the Afrikaans media.

For some years the friendship between Naudé and Geyser endured Naudé’s usurping of the Christian Institute for his own political ends, but when Naudé and Desmond Tutu started agitating for international action against South Africa he alienated Geyser both from himself and from the Christian Institute.[1] Naudé and the Christian Institute were subsequently banned by the National Party Government in 1977. For Geyser the failure of the Christian Institute was one of the greatest disappointments of his life.

Later life[edit]

Geyser retired from his professorship in 1983 following 20 years of productive academic work at the University of the Witwatersrand. He continued his public denouncements of apartheid through a number of writings and interviews despite the high price paid by his family, who were ostracised and physically threatened. Geyser himself survived an assassination attempt when the brakes on his car were reportedly tampered with.[5] In an interview with the Sunday Express in January 1983 he warned that: “A Church in isolation is doomed to futility. It has no function and becomes a museum piece, because the very concept of a Church is that it should be universal.”[1] The last 20 years of his life he formally belonged to no church, but attended services in the Anglican, Presbyterian and Nederlands Hervormde (Dutch Congregation) churches.

Geyser was hospitalised in 1985 following a minor heart attack. While recovering in hospital he penned a letter to President P. W. Botha urging him to atone for the role played by himself and the National Party in implementing apartheid after 1948. The letter, written in Afrikaans, was headed: "Consensus, conciliation, confidence, confession" and demonstrated that while Geyser was sympathetic to President Botha's reforms he continued to have theological reservations. In the letter Geyser states “I am sorry Mr President, even if you are now rowing back as hard as what the fear for the Conservative Party (CP) permits you, you are one of the oldest surviving people responsible. Do not regard it beneath you to accept and to confess guilt for your own share during your cabinet and Broederbond years…You can write off reform in South Africa as long as you allow this self-appointed self-propagating Afrikaner aristocracy to circumvent and undermine the democratic processes in South Africa.” Commenting on the role of the Broederbond in drafting the policy on apartheid, he wrote: “It was easy for this dark 'think tank' to succeed with its mutual self-promotion in the civil service, government circles, education and church, because it sidestepped the restraining but healthy experimenting station of public debate.”

Geyser suffered a second fatal heart attack before he was able to finish the letter, but the contents were published by the The Sunday Star on 23 July 1985.[3] Despite his estrangement from the NHK his last wish was for his funeral to be held at the Nederlands Hervormde (Dutch Congregation) church in Parktown, Johannesburg. The church granted him this final wish. Geyser was survived by his wife and three of his children.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Marais, Ben (1988). Albertus Stephanus Geyser (1918–1985) Biography. 
  2. ^ a b Engelbrecht, Ben (1986). "Obituary: Professor A S (Albert) Geyser 10 February 1918 – 13 June 1985". Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 
  3. ^ a b Serfontein, Hennie (23 July 1985). "Death interrupts apartheid confession plea". The Sunday Star. 
  4. ^ a b c Walshe, Peter (1983). Church versus state in South Africa: the case of the Christian Institute. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Labuschagne, Casper. "Beyers Naudé en het verzet tegen de apartheid: Achtergrondinformatie van een medestrijder van het eerste uur". Retrieved 11 January 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Ryan, Colleen (1990). Beyers Naudé: pilgrimage of faith. South Africa: David Philip Publishers. 
  7. ^ Bunting, Brian. "The Illuminati – the Rise of the South African Reich". Retrieved 11 January 2012.