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First Missions - Africa
Butterworth Mission 1909–1910
Revised Nov. 17, 2010

The Butterworth Mission of 1909–1910
Eastern Cape, South Africa

As far as can be remembered, it was early in 1909 when Alec Pearce and Fred Alder walked into Butterworth. They had walked from a town called Komga, a distance of some 50 kms (31 miles). They completed the walk in one day, despite the fact that the road passes through the great Kei River Valley. The natives at that time, as indeed is still the case, generally rode to town on horseback. Fred Alder, in referring to that ‘walk’, said that the natives appeared to think it strange seeing two white men walking such a long way.

Their first night in Butterworth was spent in a boarding house, and the following day they managed to hire a room from a Mr. and Mrs. Hughes. Eric Fennell was the Methodist Sunday School teacher, and somehow Alec Pearce met him and managed to obtain permission to speak to the children the following Sunday. After talking to the children he announced an open air meeting that night on the market square, and asked the children to kindly invite their parents. Albert and his elder brother, Harry, went home, and, as requested, invited their parents, Reuben and Bertha Webb, to the meeting.

Street lighting in those days was provided by means of paraffin lamps which an appointed lamplighter lit every evening after sunset. It was under one of these lamps (on the corner of lawyer Martin’s office) that the first gospel meeting was held. The meeting was timed so as to catch the people walking home from the other church services held in town. Consequently quite a large number attended that first and subsequent meetings.

A day or so after the first meeting, Bertha Webb was busy wallpapering her lounge and Harry, her eldest son, was helping her. Flour was seemingly used to make glue in those days, and Bertha was apparently ‘white from the flour’ from head to toe when Harry exclaimed: “Ma, here are the two preachers!” “Tell them I’m not in,” she told her son. When Harry opened the door he was asked whether his mother was at home. He stared at the two men but remained speechless. “Son, is your mother in?” the question was repeated. Still Harry gave no reply. Eventually he looked over his shoulder at his mother, and she, to avoid further embarrassment, stepped forward, apologising for the state she was in. The preachers said there was no need to apologise ~ they indeed offered to help her. She offered them a cup of tea, and then a second cup, which they most gladly accepted. They later told her that it was the first cup of tea they had had in 14 days.

The workers continued with the open air meetings and quite a number of people became interested. It is recalled that Alec Pearce had a soft singing voice (not very good for open air singing), but Fred Alder, seemingly had a lovely melodious voice.  

During those first few days the workers had it very hard, with little money, and less food. On one occasion they bought some dry mielies, walked out of town and on the banks of the Butterworth river built a fire and cooked the mielies in a little tin can. Albert and Harry happened on them and when they reported it to their parents, Bertha Webb was moved with compassion and from that time sent baskets of food to the workers ~ the children would deliver the food on their way to school. (Fred Alder, referring to the dry ‘mielie incident’ said, they cooked behind the bushes “where they couldn’t be seen.”

The workers had railed their kitchen box from King Williams Town, but this took some time in arriving. When it did arrive they had a primus stove, but often nothing to cook. On occasions they would light the primus to pretend to Mrs. Hughes that they were cooking!

Reuben and Bertha Webb, Mr. and Mrs. Morrison, Mrs. Herbert and Louisa Matthews were the first to make a profession. These were followed by Archie and Albert Shelver.

Archie and Albert went down to Manubie where their parents and elder brother, Willie lived, to tell them about the preachers and how they got saved. It is reported that Willie, on hearing the news, threw away his pipe, and returned to Butterworth with them, and after attending some meetings also made a profession.

In those early days all those who made a profession were required to give their testimony at the open air meetings. On one occasion, while Albert Shelver was speaking, a certain lawyer said: “You have done very well Albert. Where can I put this?” and he came forward and put a halfcrown down on the ground. On another occasion when Louisa Matthews, who had only just turned 17 years of age, was speaking, someone called out, “Just look how bashful she is ~ she’s actually blushing!”

During this time, Alec Pearce, to earn a little money, did some carpentry work for old Mr. Gray. Meetings continued and were later held at Rueben and Bertha Webb’s home, and then at Herbert’s and still later at Morrison’s.

The first of two baptisms was held in December 1909. Rueben Webb, Mr. and Mrs. Morrison, Willie Shelver and young Louisa Matthews were among the first to be baptized. The second baptism, of which I’ll relate in greater detail, was held on the 20 th February, 1910. Some twenty people were baptized, among them were Bertha Webb, Albert Shelver, Arthur Matthews and Katharine Matthews.

Albert Webb and his brother, Harry, Fritz Kumm and Danie Roux had the honour of digging steps into the river bank where the baptism was to be held. A crowd of curious spectators from town turned up to watch the baptism, and most of them were sitting on the opposite bank of the river, where there was a ploughed land in which grew a large number of native watermelons. During the baptism certain young men started to mock and make fun by throwing watermelons into the river each time someone was baptized. Arthur Matthews, a farmer, had acquired the name “Turnips” because he grew large quantities of this vegetable. In any event, when Arthur was baptized, one of the men across the river shouted: “Here goes one for Turnips”, and in went another watermelon. Old Mr. Harrison by now filled with anger and indignation, waved his walking stick at the mockers, but Alec Pearce just said to him, “Let them alone”.

A day or two after the baptism, one of the young men went to Alec Pearce and pleaded forgiveness for what he had done. Alec Pearce told him that, that as he had done nothing to them, they could not forgive him. However, if he felt that he had done wrong, he should ask God’s forgiveness. Within approximately two weeks after the baptism, two of the young men involved in the mockery died, in the following manner:- The first went down to the river to a spot where the young people used to swim. He dived in from the springboard and never surfaced. When his body was eventually recovered the doctor’s post mortem recording of death was “ Heart failure!” The second young man went to the barber for a hair cut, and died in the barber’s chair. The doctor’s verdict was “Heart failure!” A third (it was often speculated as to whether this was the young man who pleaded for forgiveness) went insane and had to be admitted to an institution.

Old Mr. Harrison died about two or three years after professing, and some others who had professed left Butterworth. Young Louisa Matthews married Albert Shelver, and together with Rueben and Bertha Webb, remained true, meeting together  and serving God as Alec Pearce and Fred Alder had shown them, for other 50 years.                                     

Many of the children and grandchildren of those who professed in the “Butterworth Mission of 1909/1910” serve God today in the same way.

Albert Webb (the young lad of eleven years of age in 1909), who with his brother, Harry, were instrumental in inviting his parents to that first Gospel meeting, today has a Sunday morning meeting, Sunday night and Union meeting in his home in East London.

P.S. Bertha Webb died:  17 th July 1943 after serving God 34 years.

        Louisa Shelver died:  27 th July 1960 after serving God 51 years.

        Rueben Webb died:  23 rd April 1961 after serving God 52 years.

        Albert Shelver died:  13 th June 1974 after serving God 65 years.   

TTT Editor’s NOTE: Alexander "Alec/Alex" Pearce was born November 27, 1871 in Rathdrum, County Wicklow, Ireland.  He started in the work in 1904 and was among the first eight workers to arrive in South Africa in September 1905. He died Nov. 20, 1946 in Queenstown, South Africa.

Frederick William Alder was born March 18,1888 in Wantage, Berkshire, England.  He started in the work in 1905 and was in the second group of workers to go to South Africa, landing there with seven others in September 1906.  He returned to England 1915-1920, but otherwise appears on the South African lists up until his death Oct. 19, 1975 in East London, South Africa.

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