Van der Kemp, Johannes Theodorus (1747-1811)

Pioneer Dutch missionary and protagonist of racial equality in South Africa

Van der Kemp was born at Rotterdam, Netherlands, the son of a professor of theology. After service as an officer in the army, he went to Scotland where he received his medical degree in 1782 from the University of Edinburgh. He practiced medicine in Holland from 1782 to 1795. The drowning death of his wife and only child in a boating accident in 1791 led to his conversion.

He came into contact with the Moravian Brethren at Zeist, where he learned about the newly founded London Missionary Society (LMS). He applied to LMS and in 1797 was ordained for service in South Africa. Before leaving he also helped to found the Netherlands Missionary Society in Holland. Arriving in Cape Town in 1799, he left for Kaffraria and ministered among the Xhosa for two years, but saw no Christian conversions despite his contacts with King Ngqika.

In 1801 Van der Kemp shifted his concern to the distressed Khoikhoi (Hottentot) people in the Graff-Reinet area. There he experienced tensions and conflicts, first with the colonists and later also with the government. In 1803 he founded Bethelsdorp, a mission station near Algoa Bay through which he hoped to evangelize and civilize, and build character and society among the Khoikhoi. From the beginning, however, Bethelsdorp was bitterly resented by the Dutch colonists, as well as by the Xhosa and Khoikhoi. Van der Demp’s identification with his “colored” flock, and especially his marriage in 1807, at age 60, to a teenage Malagasy slave girl, shocked both is his foes and friends. New conflicts arose due to his struggle against slavery and his fight for social and economic equality for the Khoikhoi. Still, he remained the natural leader of the missionaries and was appreciated by the Xhosa. Some of the converted Khoikhoi gradually took the initiative as evangelists among their own people.

The missionaries at Bethelsdorp, in the face of much hostility from white settlers, rejoiced at the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Van der Kemp composed a hymn for the day of public thanksgiving at Bethelsdorp to mark this event. He also wrote a commentary on Romans 13-16 and a textbook on midwifery for use at Bethelsdorp. When he died at Cape Town his funeral was attended by vast numbers of Cape inhabitants, including leaders of church and state. It was a testimony to his life and work as well as inspiration for many who faced discrimination and oppression.

I. H. Enklaar, “Kemp, Johannes Theodorus van der,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 357.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Digital Texts

Carne, John. Lives of Eminent Missionaries. Vol. 2. London: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1833.

Thompson, Andrew. Great Missionaries: A Series of Biographies. London, New York: T. Nelson, 1870.

Van der Kemp, Johannes T. The Christian Entirely the Property of Christ, in Life and Death: Exhibited in Fifty-three Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. Wherein the Doctrine of Faith, Received in the Reformed Church, is Defended Against the Principal Opponents, and the Practical Improvement and Direction of it to Evangelical Piety, Enforced. Vol. 1. New-Brunswick, NJ: Printed by Abraham Blauvelt, 1810.

_____. The Christian Entirely the Property of Christ. Volume 2. New-Brunswick, NJ: Printed by Abraham Blauvelt, 1810.


Van der Kemp, Johannes T. Extracts from the Journals of Dr. Vanderkemp and Mr. Read after their Settlement at Bota’s Place. London: Williams, 1804.

_____. Memoirs of the Rev. J. T. Van der Kemp, M.D., Late Missionary in South Africa. London: J. Dennett for the London Missionary Society, etc., 1813.

_____. Principles of the Word of God for the Hottentot Mission. 1804.

_____. “Religion, Customs, Population, Language, History and Natural Productions of the Country.” In Transactions of the Missionary Society. Vol. 1 (1800): 432-68.

_____. Specimen and Vocabulary of the Caffra Language. [London: LMS, 1804?].


Brightwell, C.L. Dr. Vanderkemp: The Friend of the Hottentot. London: LMS, 1874.

Enklaar, I. H. Life and Work of Dr. J. Th. Van der Kemp, 1747-1811: Missionary Pioneer and Protagonist of Racial Equality in South Africa. 1988.

Martin, Arthur Davis. Dr. Vanderkemp. Westminister: Livingstone Press, 1931.

Northcutt, William Cecil. Hero of the Hottentots: John Vanderkemp. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1939.

Smith, G. John Vanderkemp: 1748-1811: The First Medical Missionary to Africa. London: Nelson, 1900.

Smith, Lucius E. Heros and Martyrs of the Modern Missionary Enterprise: A Record of Their Lives and Labors. Providence, RI: Potter, [1856].