South Africa

Johannes and Anna Wessels and their 10 children were among the earliest South Africans to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Dutch farmers, they reportedly sold a diamond field to the De Beers diamond company for about US$1.7 million. They generously supported the mission of the church in South Africa, Australia, and America.

Pieter Wessels (1856–1933), the eldest child of Johannes and Anna Wessels, had been an earnest Christian from an early age. One day, he was challenged by his brother John to observe the seventh-day Sabbath as a test of his spiritual sincerity.

Pieter studied the issue and soon became a Sabbath keeper, unaware that there were others of like faith in the world. Later, on hearing of Seventh-day Adventists, he and several other Sabbath keepers contacted the church headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, asking for workers and enclosing a donation to help meet expenses.

Pieter personally met the first Adventist missionaries when they arrived in Cape Town in 1887. Four years later another group of workers arrived, led by A. T. Robinson. Soon the first conference was formed, and the work of the young church in South Africa grew rapidly.

Pieter’s mother, Anna, and three of his younger brothers, (from left) Daniel, Andrew, and Francis, in the mid 1890s. Daniel and Andrew traveled with Anna to visit Ellen White in Australia in 1894 and to attend the 1895 General Conference session in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Pieter was 34, and his wife, Maria Elizabeth, 30, when this photograph was taken around 1890. The couple married in 1878 and had seven children.
Pieter Wessels in the early 1900s. In 1893, he helped obtain the land in South Africa where Solusi University operates to this day.
South African field workers, 1890. Pieter and Maria Elizabeth are seated in the center of the front row. In 1889, four years after Pieter became a Seventh-day Adventist, South Africa had two licensed ministers and was considered part of the church’s Foreign Mission Field. In 1933, the year Pieter died, the Southern African Division (now the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division) comprised the southern half of the African continent and encompassed an area of 4,914,765 square miles.
Pieter, 77, and Maria Elizabeth, 73, spent many years supporting the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Pieter died in 1933, several months after this photograph was taken. Maria died in 1942.

The Wessels family’s loyalty to the church inspired them to give liberally of their fortune to progress its work in South Africa and internationally. They assisted with the costs of establishing Avondale College in Australia with a donation of US$5,000 while visiting Cooranbong. John Wessels was called by Ellen White to come to Australia and use his business skills to help the young church grow, and this he did, contributing generously of his own money to the cause. He is particularly remembered for finding the site, then hidden in the bush of Wahroonga, for the Sydney Sanitarium, which later became the Sydney Adventist Hospital.

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Back home, Pieter was largely instrumental in working with Cecil Rhodes in 1894 to secure the 4,856-hectare (12,000-acre) land grant, which today is the Solusi University property, receiving much opposition in the process from American church leaders who initially feared the grant had violated the principles of separation of church and state. Ellen White’s counsel was of vital importance in resolving this property issue favorably. She argued powerfully in her letters from Australia that it was not really an issue of separation of church and state as many in America thought at the time.

However, money does not solve all problems. The Wessels family admired the Battle Creek model, prompting them to strongly support the development of similar large institutions in South Africa, generously giving many thousands of dollars to those programs. But the rapid growth of these large institutions outpaced that of the church membership, and in time some had to be sold or their activities downsized.

Regardless, Pieter Wessels was a powerful personal worker, particularly among the Dutch people, winning to the faith a number of people who were to become church leaders in South Africa and beyond.

Photos courtesy of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research and the White Estate.

Lester Devine
Lester Devine is director emeritus of the Ellen G White/Adventist Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education.