The history of the South African Assemblies of God dates back to 1908 with the arrival in South Africa of some early Pentecostal missionaries. They did not come with the intention of collaborating with one another, nor did they intend to establish a church called the Assemblies of God. They began to cooperate partly because of the need for fellowship and partly because of the governmental objection to having dealings with a multitude of independent missionaries. By 1936 the A/G was predominantly a black church with the control in the hands of expatriate missionaries.
Peter and Paul
The A/G conference in 1938 adopted a radical and unprecedented policy which opened the way for missionary bodies to come under the umbrella of the A/G in SA. It entrenched the concept of a church body consisting of groups cooperating within a single movement, but not having to sever ties with their respective mission boards. This prompted H.C. Phillips and the Emmanuel Mission to join the A/G, thereby bringing Nicholas Bhengu and James Mullan into the group. Both of these men are numbered among our pioneers.
The new policy also permitted people within the A/G to branch out and establish groups of their own, which were still affiliated to the A/G in SA. Mullan and Bhengu subsequently planned to form a partnership, going to parts of South Africa where there were no A/G churches or missionaries. Their agreement was a Peter-Paul arrangement (i.e. Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles - Galatians 2:8) with Bhengu going to the blacks and Mullan to the whites.
Bhengu's ministry had begun in the late 1930's in Benoni. In the 1940's James Mullan arranged a crusade in PE for Bhengu. Miracles of healing took place through the ministry. Crowds flocked in and 1000 conversions were recorded in a few weeks. Bhengu announced that he intended founding a church and invited those who wished to join to stay with him. The others he urged to return to their churches. About 500 stayed and were formed into 3 congregations in different areas in PE.
Bhengu's work grew dramatically with thousands of people being converted in a very short space of time. By 1959 there were 50 assemblies that had been started through his ministry. His meetings were characterized by power, both in preaching and healing, and attracted thousands. In 1957 a church in the shape of a cross and seating between 4000 to 5000 was opened in Duncan Village, East London. Even the international media were interested in Bhengu, with the TIME magazine of 23rd Nov 1959 calling him "the black Billy Graham" and stating that his ministry resulted in the crime rate dropping by as much as a third in some areas. At one meeting the police took away 3 vanloads of stolen goods and weapons that people surrendered when they came to Christ. The TIME article states, "it is not unusual for Evangelist Bhengu to end up by walking down to the police station hand in hand with someone on the wanted list."
James (Jim) Mullan was an Irishman who had married the English Mary Paynter. Together they served as missionaries in the Congo under the renowned pioneer missionary and Bible teacher W.F.P. Burton. James and Mary Mullan left the Congo in 1935 to join Hubert Phillips at the Emanuel Mission in Nelspruit. From there they were sent to Tzaneen where they spent 9 years of ministry. During this time James established a few churches amongst the black people, and also 2 amongst the whites, one at Tzaneen and another at Pietersburg.
In 1944, after his historic agreement with Bhengu, Jim Mullan moved to PE, living in a caravan with his wife and children. Without support or contacts he founded an assembly. On one occasion, Mary Mullan was counseling a backslidden Pentecostal girl after a Sunday meeting. The girl burst out sobbing and speaking in tongues. Mary was astonished when she realized that she could understand what the girl was saying. She was speaking in a Congolese dialect similar to the Kiluba language Mary had spoken as a missionary in the Congo. In the language that was unknown to her, but not to Mary, the girl was confessing her backslidden state and thanking God for his mercy in receiving her back. After 5 years Jim Mullan moved to East London planting an assembly there, which later grew to over 300 people under the ministry of Paul Lange. From then on he travelled the country, going as far north as Zambia . Between 1945 and 1964 he established some 20 Assemblies that stretched from Cape Town to Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The A/G had been a predominantly Black church under expatriate development until the advent of Jim Mullan and Nicholas Bhengu, when it developed a significant white membership, and its black membership came to operate under black leadership rather than expatriate whites. During the period 1936-1944 the A/G executive became multiracial. Until that time, the executive had consisted of expatriate white missionaries.
W.F. (Fred) Mullan was led to the Lord by his brother Jim. In 1931 Fred came out from Ireland to start a work in South Africa. He had no support and little Bible training and was not connected to any organization. After founding 2 churches in Durban he moved to Johannesburg where ultimately he developed a thriving and influential assembly of 450 souls at Fairview. When in 1935 a decision was taken to admit missionaries and congregations working among whites to the A/G fellowship, the first to join were Fred Mullan and Louis Potgieter. Within time Fred Mullan became the general chairman of the A/G S.A. holding that position for many years.
Fred had a vibrant ministry and a clear gift of healing. One remarkable healing concerned a young boy who had been crippled by polio. When God restored his legs perfectly, about 12 members of his wider family circle were saved and became stanch members of the church. Wonderful Easter conventions were held annually at Fairview with hundreds of people attending from as far afield as Natal. Meetings like this injected much enthusiasm and inspiration into the work. Fred conducted evangelistic meetings in Norwood and established what would become a thriving assembly. One of the many later converts in the Norwood assembly was a young bodybuilder named Ray McCauley, who in later years founded what became the largest and most dynamic Pentecostal congregation ever seen in South Africa (Rhema).
In 1953 Jim Mullan preached in Mowbray for 3 months and established the Cape Town Assembly, placing John Bond there as the first pastor. In later years, under John Bond and Paul Watney's ministry, the church experienced a mighty revival known as 'the Hippie Revival'. By 1967 Paul Lange had grown the church located at Harfield Road in Kenilworth to over 300. John Bond again took over from Lange in 1967.
On reaching Harfield Road, he found a group of dedicated elders who believed that it was God's will to start 10 new assemblies using Harfield Road as a base. Indeed in the decade following, 10 white and 5 coloured congregations were started in the Western Cape and 12 churches built. People flocked in, giving the church a 700 percent growth rate for several years. John Bond felt led to plant a church in Fish Hoek. By the turn of the millennium, the Fish Hoek assembly had grown to some 500 people.
The Coastal Assemblies
Mike Attlee was a young unconverted man with a promising Rugby future, but tragedy struck early in his married life when his first son, Anthony, was born brain-damaged and blind. Mike's father, Wilfred, not yet saved, heard about the way that God was using the Zulu A/G evangelist, Nicholas Bhengu, in miraculous healings. He persuaded his reluctant son to ask Bhengu to pray for Anthony. When Mike located John Bond in order to make contact with Nicholas Bhengu, John explained the way of salvation to him and he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. When Bhengu prayed for Anthony, the little boy born blind was able to see. Born brain-damaged, Anthony subsequently walked, talked and even went to school. His miraculous recovery brought much joy and blessing to the Attlee family until the Lord took him home 11 years later. Many came to Christ through Anthony's story and the Attlees' testimony. Mike Attlee went into full time ministry and ultimately oversaw what became known as the Coastal Assemblies, many of which are located in Kwazulu-Natal, although there are some others throughout South Africa.
The International Assemblies of God
Nicholas Bhengu and Jim Mullan had apostolic ministries in terms of founding churches, establishing local oversight and moving on. The "things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles" (2 Cor 12:12) were evident in their ministries as well. Both Bhengu and Mullan still maintained an apostolic authority over the churches they planted, much like the apostle Paul. The American A/G contingent disagreed with this form of church government believing that, like the U.S., South Africa should be split into regions, each headed by a regional superintendent. In effect it would have meant that Bhengu and Mullan would have been restricted in their church planting ministries, having to gain permission from the regional superintendent to operate in their respective areas. The A/G executive in S.A. found this to be unacceptable. The Americans were also unhappy with the very brief 7-point constitution believing that it should be more comprehensive. The constitution was jokingly dubbed the "Bikini Constitution". Due to an inability to reach agreement on these and other matters, the Americans in S.A. broke away in 1964 forming what was called the International Assemblies of God.
The Group & the Independents
The A/G work amongst blacks was mainly spearheaded by Nicholas Bhengu. Work amongst whites developed in 2 streams, these being led by Jim Mullan and his brother Fred. Those working with Fred became known as the Independent assemblies, and those with Jim became known as 'the Group'. Fred Mullan concentrated his efforts in the Johannesburg area and early on established his congregation in Fairview. Attendances at this assembly grew to a few hundred, and became a centre of growth on the Rand. Churches connected with the Independent stream were mainly on the Reef and in the southern Transvaal. There were 15 churches, namely Fairview, Benoni, Brakpan, Nigel, Bezuidenhout Valley, Roodepoort, Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark, Westonaria, Carletonville, Krugersdorp, Stilfontein, Klerksdorp, Orkney and Kenilworth.
In about 1972, Jim Mullan made contact with Sam Ennis, an Irishman of Salvation Army background. He hoped to draw Sam into the Group to work with him. After sending Sam around South Africa to look at the available prospects, Sam opted rather to become the minister of Roodepoort assembly. Roodepoort was then one of the small Independent assemblies but in time it grew to a congregation of about 800 people. Sam pastored the Roodepoort Assembly for 30 years until 2002. Sam's talent and charisma soon made him a leader of the company of Independent assemblies, who up to that point had been largely unfocused and leaderless. They felt that Jim Mullan's work was growing more because it operated in unity as a group and thus formed themselves into a group called the F.I.A.M. (Fellowship of Independent Assemblies and Ministers).
Succession in 'the Group'
As Jim Mullan aged, the question of succession arose in the Group assemblies. When Jim turned 70 in 1971, he appointed 5 men in whom he had confidence, as 'potential apostles'. These were Mike Attlee, John Bond, Noel Scheepers, Trevor Yoko and Paul Lange. Paul Lange opted to rather follow an itinerant ministry and Trevor Yoko left the A/G. This left Jim Mullan's work in the hands of the 3 remaining brothers, along with the additional assemblies each of them had started.
In general the Western & Southern Cape and Transvaal assemblies fell under John Bond's leadership, the Eastern Cape under Noel Scheepers and the 'Coastal' (Natal) assemblies under Mike Attlee. Many assemblies on the Rand (now called Gauteng), with their ideas of church government more influenced by Fred Mullan, remained autonomous but affiliated to the F.I.A.M. Fred had believed in the autonomy of each assembly and that the church government should reside solely with the local oversight of elders and deacons, rather than having any accountability to the apostolic founder of the church. Due to the misuse of the title 'apostle' in certain circles, the Independent assemblies were generally reticent to use the term and some felt that the ministry of apostle had ceased after the 1st century church.
The end of an era
In 1967 John Bond succeeded Fred Mullan as the general chairman of the A/G SA. Fred Mullan went to his reward in 1981. A quiet, shy man, Fred had made his way by sheer weight of spiritual worth. His character commended him to his brothers, some much older than himself, making them happy to work with him as their leader. When he died, the restraining effect of his presence was removed and the relationship between the Independents and the Group deteriorated. Tension was particularly high at executive level.
The Assemblies of God Fellowship (AGF)
Following the general conference of the A/G in 1981 there was another split in the movement. One of the main issues was concern about a clause in the general constitution regarding property rights. The Independents were under the impression that the ownership of their church properties by the local congregation was at risk. Another issue concerned the re-election of the executive members. The final straw for the missionaries and the Independents was the discovery that many black delegates had been privately lobbied in order to replace certain members of the executive. Many white independent ministers, Noel Scheepers, the missionaries, the Portuguese assemblies, the 'Coastal Assemblies' work connected with Mike Attlee, and some of the black churches split from the A/G. Jim Mullan, who was by then retired, subsequently also resigned from the movement he had helped to build.
Sam Ennis was among those who withdrew from the A/G in SA. Together with others of a similar persuasion and with a desire to maintain fellowship, he took an active role in the establishment of a new organization called the
Assemblies of God Fellowship (AGF). Sam had initially served on the Board of Trustees for the Assembly of God. A leader of leaders and an exemplary ambassador of the kingdom of God, Sam was the first chairperson of the AGF, holding that position for around 20 years, until he retired from the Roodepoort Assembly in 2002.
In 1985 that spiritual giant, great leader and apostle, Nicholas Bhengu, went to be with the Lord. This man had won the hearts of whites and blacks alike throughout Southern Africa and abroad with his simple yet profound preaching, spiritual insight and wisdom. His death left a leadership vacuum, but the work associated with him ('Back to God Crusade' and the 'Assemblies of God Movement') has held firm. The anxiety that his death would result in the dissolution of his work has proved to be unfounded, emphasizing the sound foundation that he laid. His outstanding ministry bore the imprint of the hand of God.
Jim Mullan, the beloved pioneer, apostle and tireless worker for God, also went to be with the Lord in 1987. Mullan himself was undoubtedly one reason why the A/G grew so rapidly. He had a very strong personality but was not at all flamboyant; he typified a Victorian gentleman - conservative and very disciplined. Being a very able Bible teacher, this ensured the doctrinal stability of the churches he established. He instilled a sense of confidence in people and they were happy to be associated with him. In all his work for God, he always displayed a Christ-like spirit.
Sam Ennis graduated from this life to his eternal reward on Thursday the 2nd June 2016. He was known as a true gentleman, who with a turn of phrase, superb humour and a ready smile, could win people�s confidence and trust, irrespective of their age or station in life. Sam was succeeded in the AGF leadership role by Ken Paynter, pastor of the Brakpan AGF. Ken was later succeeded in the AGF leadership position by Reg Berowsky. Reg, a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, and leader of the AGF Fellowship for many years, went to be with the Lord on 27th July 2016.
The Present A/G
In 2002, the three groups (Assemblies of God, Assemblies of God Fellowship & International Assemblies of God) found a formula for unity. To date nothing practical has resulted from the reconciliation, with the groups still holding separate conferences and having separate governing executives. However by the grace of God, the previous animosity between the groups has thankfully been laid to rest.
The current President of the Assemblies of God Fellowship (AGF) in South Africa is Philip Dungulu, while Justus Carstens is the Vice-President. The Secretary General is Julio Da Silva.
Compiled and edited by Gavin Paynter
- "From Africa's Soil - The story of the Assemblies of God in Southern Africa": Peter Watt
- "For the record - Reflections on the Assemblies of God": John Bond