Daniel Christian Theunissen was the first South African person of mixed race to be ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister.
Daniel C. Theunissen was born in Somerset West, Cape Province, on September 13, 1873. No information is available about his parents. He grew up working as a casual laborer on the farms of Europeans living around Somerset West. Dannie, as he was fondly called, learned early to bear his share of home responsibilities. One day, at the age of eight years, he arrived home with a load of firewood and heard his mother asking God to make her son a minister. Dannie never forgot that prayer.1
In 1885, when his mother died, Dannie was sent to work around Kimberley. Pieter Wessels, his employer, taught him how to care for horses and talked to him about the Sabbath.2 But Dannie did not make any decision to keep the Sabbath at that time. When he returned to the Cape at the age of eighteen, he became employed by Pastor A. T. Robinson, the president of the South African Conference. Dannie became a lifelong friend of Dores, the son of Pastor Robinson. It was Dores’ discussion of the Adventist teachings that led Dannie to believe and get baptized by Pastor Robinson in 1893, becoming the first South African person of mixed race to become an Adventist.3
Career and Ministry
Since 1895 Dannie worked in various institutions around the Cape for several years, one of which was to look after the coach and horses of Dr. George Thomason, the medical director of the Cape Sanitarium. During that time his heart burned to share his faith with the South African people of mixed race, of whom he was one. It should be noted that at that time, no racial distinction was made with regard to membership, as individuals who accepted the Seventh-day Adventist teachings joined a congregation that was nearest to their residence.4 On Sunday afternoons he walked or rode the street cars to Salt River, where he spoke in the marketplace. A number of people became interested and began to meet in a small hall on Sabbath mornings. This became the nucleus of the first South African Adventist congregation with predominantly members of mixed race, opened in 1905.
About 1904 Dannie met Kirsten Eliza Sutherland from St Helena Island, who had worked at Claremont Sanitarium until 1901. Kirsten’s sister, Adeline Victoria Sutherland, studied at the Claremont Union College where she graduated in 1904 and joined the institution’s staff afterward. Dannie and Kirsten got married in 1906.
Dannie attended a six-week crash course at an Adventist Bible Training School held on Breda Street, Cape Town, in 1905 to prepare himself for wider soul-winning service among the South African people of mixed race. This was the only training he ever received. That same year, in 1905, Dannie became employed as a full time Bible worker to pastor the Salt River congregation.5 From then on, with his close colleague, Daniel May, he devoted his entire time to evangelism, raising churches in Goodwood, Parow, and Worcester. Cycling was his regular mode of transport. When his family accompanied him, they traveled by horse cart or public transport.
Salt River SDA Company became organized as a church in 1909. Pastor Theunissen often visited Salt River Church praying from pew to pew for the problems of the people he knew so well. For a long time he was the only South African worker of mixed race in South Africa. By 1910 Pastor Theunissen was laboring in Worcester, about one hundred ten kilometers from Cape Town.
In 1911, when he reached the age of thirty-eight, he was ordained to the gospel ministry. During 1915 and 1916 Pastors Theunissen and Dannie May actively evangelized Goodwood and Parrow where they established a company. Although the initial facilities were in poor state, such as the renovated stable, a church school was also opened in 1916 but discontinued after a short time. In 1918 the Salt River Church building was dedicated, and Pastor Theunissen often visited it when it was not in use to pray one empty pew to another where his church members often sat. To keep up with his pastoral work, he regularly cycled throughout the Cape Peninsular to visit his members in their homes and in the churches.6
After working in several places, Pastor Theunissen was “retired” due to shortage of funds in 1921 or 1922 and was requested by the conference committee to spend three months in the canvassing work. He gladly accepted, making Salt River his field of labor.7 Pastor Theunissen, although ordained, remained unemployed until March 1928 when he received a call to join the Black Kaffirland Mission Field.8 That same year he decided to move to Cape Town so that his children could attend an Adventist school that was about to be opened at Salt River Church. Then, following a proposition made by the General Conference of finding a worker of mixed race to assist in the Coloured Department9 of the (white) Cape Conference, a call was placed in 1929 to invite back D. C. Theunissen to connect with the work of the Coloured Department of the Cape Conference, his former employer.10
In 1930 he attended the General Conference session held in San Francisco, U.S.A., at which time he spoke for five minutes to appeal for funds to build a school for the people of mixed race in South Africa. Before he left America Pastor Theunissen addressed the General Conference staff at the church headquarters in Washington, D. C., appealing for funds to open a school for the people of mixed race in South Africa.11 He never stopped telling of the thrilling experience of meeting Seventh-day Adventists from all over the world.
Pastor Theunissen and Daniel May conducted an effort at Pacaltsdorp in 1930, after which the converts of mixed race who were baptized were received in the George congregation. Then Pastor Theunissen decided to separate the newly baptized members from the multiracial George congregation, which he later explained that the people of mixed race needed to develop their own leadership.12 At this time W. H. Branson, president of the African Division, had also started separating Adventist members on the grounds of race. On January 3, 1932, he baptized his last born child, Daniel Gold, at Elim Church, in George, who later became an ordained minister, as well. After Pastor Daniel May resigned, Pastor Theunissen remained working as the only ordained South African minister of mixed race.
In late 1933 Pastor Theunissen was sent out as the first South African missionary of mixed race to regions outside the Cape Province in Johannesburg to foster the work among the people of mixed race there and to prepare the ground for an evangelistic effort to be held early in 1934.13 During that visit Pastor Theunissen started by holding Bible readings with people in their homes. The Lord blessed his efforts and wonderful conversions were experienced. He had the joy of baptising thirteen new believers before he left Johannesburg.14
In 1934 Daniel Gold graduated from Good Hope Training School and became the first graduate of the school to enter the “Coloured Work” as a qualified ministerial worker. Meanwhile, Pastor Theunissen Sr. continued preaching in the Peninsula and doing hospital visitation until he passed his eightieth birthday. He was highly respected for his hard work, dedication, loyalty, and, unlike most of his Adventist ministerial colleagues, always wearing his round clerical collar.
Retirement and Legacy
After his retirement Pastor Theunissen developed stomach cancer and suffered from painful illness for several months. He passed away in his home in Wynberg, Cape Town, on the morning of April 4, 1956, at the age of 83 years. His funeral service was held on Sabbath afternoon on April 7 at the Good Hope Training School. Pastor A. C. Le Butt preached, while Pastor Ross Ansley prayed. At the cemetery Pastor W. Duncan Eva preached while Pastor Kenneth Landers prayed. He was survived by his wife, Kirsten, and his children–Pearl, Crystal, Daniel Gold, and Ruby (the other two children–Joy and Jasper–had died young).15 Kirsten Theunissen, his wife, passed away later in 1961 in Conradie Hospital at the age of 80 years after suffering several strokes.
Pastor and Mrs. Theunissen were strong believers of health and dress reform, Christian education, and other practices taught by Ellen G. White’s writings. To show respect to this pioneering couple, people affectionately referred to them as “Pa” and “Ma” Theunissen. They were regarded as spiritual parents to the many members they ministered to for over a century. In honor of this great pioneer, the Riverside Hall at the Good Hope Training School was renamed the Dannie Theunissen Hall.16
Billes, L. S. “Spring Programme for the Cape Coloured Field.” Southern African Division Outlook, October 15, 1933.
Editorial. “An Appeal from Africa.” ARH, December 4, 1930.
De Beer, J. N. “Our Work on the Rand and at Kimberley.” Southern African Division Outlook, October 1, 1936.
Du Preez, Gerald T. “A History of the Organizational Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Amongst the Coloured Community in South Africa 1887-1997.” Ph.D. Dissertation submitted to the University of the Western Cape, February 2010.
Du Preez, F. and R. H. Du Pre. A Century of Good Hope: A History of the Good Hope Conference, its Educational Institutions and Early Workers, 1893 – 1993. East London: Western Research Group, 1994.
Fortner, O.O. “The Cape Town Church.” South African Missionary, November 1905.
Le Butt, Albert C. “Obituary.” Southern African Division Outlook, May 15, 1956.
Theunissen, D. C. “Blessed in the Canvassing Work.” The African Division Outlook, November 15, 1921.
Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Second Revised Edition. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1996. S.v. “Theunissen, Daniel C.”
Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996), s.v. “Theunissen, Daniel C.”↩
Gerald T. Du Preez, “A History of the Organizational Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Amongst the Coloured Community in South Africa 1887-1997,” Ph.D. Dissertation submitted to the University of the Western Cape, February 2010, 110.↩
I. F. Du Preez and R. H. Du Pre, A Century of Good Hope: A History of the Good Hope Conference, its Educational Institutions and Early Workers, 1893 – 1993, Volume 2 (East London: Western Research Group, 1994), 2.↩
O. O. Fortner, “The Cape Town Church,” South African Missionary, November 1905, 1.↩
Du Preez and Du Pre, 3, 4.↩
D. C. Theunissen, “Blessed in the Canvassing Work,” The African Division Outlook, November 15, 1921, 5.↩
Du Preez, 134.↩
The name of the department, Coloured Department, reflected the acceptable practice in South Africa to refer to the South African people of mixed race as “Coloured people.” The depiction “Coloured people” is also preferred in South Africa today.↩
Editorial, “An Appeal from Africa,” ARH, December 4, 1930, 22.↩
Du Preez and Du Pre, 4,↩
L. S. Billes, “Spring Programme for the Cape Coloured field,” Southern African Division Outlook, October 15, 1933, 2-3.↩
J. N. De Beer, “Our Work on the Rand and at Kimberley,” Southern African Division Outlook, October 1, 1936, 5.↩
Albert C. Le Butt, “Obituary,” Southern African Division Outlook, May 15, 1956, 12.↩
Du Preez and Du Pre, 5.↩