Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rev William Miller

The Baptist church in Grahamstown is a national momument.
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 the 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. He 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 Grahamstown, which he found in a carpenter’s shop. This move allowed him to focus move specifically on the congregation in Grahamstown, which first outgrew the cottage that they were being loaned and were using initially, and then even outgrew the carpenter’s shop where Miller worked. Apparently the congregation become quite a talking point of the town whenever they would march down to the river that run through the town to Baptist new converts. The growth of the congregation lead to the decision that the time had come for a proper church building to be built. The foundation stone was laid by Miller and the congregation gave as much as they could, both with materials and money as well as with physical involvement in the building of the chapel. The first Baptist chapel was officially opened in July 1824, and the congregation flourished under the leadership and care of their shepherd, 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 29th November 1856 at the age of 77. Although the name of his wife is given as Elizabeth at the time of his arrival in South Africa, the inscription of Miller’s tombstone indicates her name as Ann, who died just two months later. Perhaps Elizabeth died and Miller remarried Ann, unfortunately the history on this point is unclear.
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 strongest, most wide-spread and most active denominations in Southern Africa, with hundreds of congregations and several theological training institutions.
Written by: Bradley Anderson

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