A key issue in accounts of the shaping of the Afrikaner community is whether the Afrikaners from an early stage considered themselves – in a similar way to the Ancient Hebrews – as a people with a covenant with God, specially chosen to fulfil a divine plan. It has been argued that the Afrikaners only started viewing themselves as a chosen people with a divine mission when Kruger started to expound this idea in the 1880s. It is also maintained that only after the South African War (1899–1902) did a group of Dopper (Gereformeerde church) intellectuals in Potchefstroom turn the idea of a chosen people into a motivating ideology.
But there is indeed evidence that some Voortrekkers, specifically the Doppers, saw themselves as chosen. As a DRC minister in Bloemfontein between 1849 and 1860, Andrew Murray noted the tendency among the trekkers (he appeared to have the Doppers in mind), ‘not to distinguish clearly between the relations of Israel and their own to the savages with whom they saw themselves surrounded . . . They thought that in going forth to conquer them they were extending Christianity.’
W.W. Collins, who had lived in the Orange Free State since the early days of the republic, emphasised the commitment of a divine mission even more clearly. His reminiscences of 1858 referred to the Doppers as a ‘peculiar sect’, evidently obsessed with ‘Jehova’s wonderful manifestation to his ancient people in . . . the Old Testament’. ‘[The Doppers] seem to be possessed with the idea that they too are a Divinely favoured people in the same sense that Israel was, and have been signally endowed by the Almighty with sufficient intuitive knowledge and understanding to undertake any mental or other duties.’
There was no single sense of mission among the Voortrekkers; even among the Doppers there were differences about the nature of their mission – to conquer the land, do missionary work, or live by an almost literal understanding of the Bible? The most famous Dopper, Paul Kruger, often spoke of the Transvaal burghers as ‘God’s people like in the ancient Covenant’ but he did not subscribe to the heresy that all black people were inferior and eternally doomed. Apart from Calvinism, Kruger’s guiding principle was a fierce determination to preserve the ZAR’s republican freedom – convinced he would be accursed if he did not.
The ‘chosen people’ theology was by no means a mainstream doctrine or a source of common inspiration. Church schisms racked the Transvaal burgher community, and the three Reformed churches watched each other with suspicion. The Hervormde Kerk, while relatively liberal in its theological views, firmly opposed all missionary work. The Dopper majority accepted missionary work as long as it avoided the ‘abomination’ of common worship. They preferred German missionaries, most of whom expected their converts to respect the existing social hierarchy. The pro-British DRC ministers were more liberal in their attitudes towards blacks but, while in principle in favour of missionary work, did very little in practice.