Yesterday (November 2) Hugh Wetmore, 85, founder of the Evangelical Fellowship of South Africa (EFSA), the predecessor of the Evangelical Alliance (TEASA) and the Evangelical Seminary of South Africa (ESSA), went to heaven.
Hugh grew up in Cape Town where he enjoyed mountain hiking and caving at Kalk Bay. On his conversion he became involved in evangelism including outreach to a gang in Woodstock. He worked at Old Mutual until he had saved enough to study at Bible Institute, Kalk Bay. He married, Thearl, and they were sent as missionaries to Pondoland, Transkei, an area hardly touched by Western culture, where he operated a barter trading store. Unknown to him at the time, he was closely monitored by spies from the security police.
Later Hugh caught the vision of the World Evangelical Alliance and founded the Evangelical Fellowship of South Africa, an association of biblically faithful denominations, uncomfortable with the modernism of the South African Council of Churches. Each year, he energetically toured the country by train visiting and encouraging branches in each province. At the same time, he represented Evangelical churches in making political submissions to the apartheid government, which are now stored in the ESSA archives, Pietermaritzburg.
He led a delegation of church leaders challenging apartheid policy to PW Botha, who at the last minute cancelled and told them to meet with a subordinate who rudely told them they must listen to him because they had ‘two ears and one mouth’. Noting tampering with his mail, he laid a charge against the security police, who then revealed they had been watching every detail of his life since seminary. As a leader, Hugh walked a lonely road opposing both competing political power bases of apartheid racism and Marxist violence — unifying evangelical factions while opposing those who dismissed the authority of the Bible. He took flak from all sides and kept smiling. He was not only visionary and theoretical leader, but had deep interest and concern for people and families – a care that moved a theological and political opponent to tears.
Hugh was a champion of broad evangelical unity, encouraging churches to overlook differences on secondary issues and unite around the core of the gospel. His book Why Christians disagree argues a strong biblical case as to interpret which issues are essential to believe — and which we can maintain unity in diversity. This was adopted by the Baptist Seminary as a textbook on Bible interpretation. Unlike so many influential visionary leaders, Hugh was humble, approachable, accountable and always wanting to serve rather than control other leaders. His Baptist style of leadership facilitated an environment where everyone had a say.
On founding the Evangelical Seminary of South Africa in Pietermaritzburg, he trained a generation of pastors of all races, inspiring them with the example of Jeremiah challenging the leadership of his day. Hugh was not only a man of action, but a deep thinker in applied practical theology on a diverse range of topics. He developed practical theologies of political engagement based on Jeremiah, church unity, church worship, work and marriage. On each of these topics he had a formidable output of writings. As the issues in public debate shifted, he applied the Bible to each: racism, abortion, gender, same-sex marriage and corruption — always standing for Scripture against the tide of culture.
Throughout his life, he wrote songs on every conceivable topic and for every age group — definitely hundreds but maybe thousands. He mourned the decline in biblical richness in the lyrics of popular songs and wrote a column for Gateway News, Worship Conversation, arguing that the Psalms cover a range of topics and so should our church worship. He corresponded with popular worship leaders urging them towards deeper biblical content.
Hugh continued to advocate a Christian political influence the transition to democracy. On passing the baton of the Evangelical Alliance, he became pastor of Pietermaritzburg North Baptist church, where he was much appreciated by the congregation. Hugh founded a marriage counselling ministry, not only to counsel those in difficulty but to prepare couples for marriage — publishing his advice in his book The essentials of marriage — a book with probably the most useful marriage advice packed into 50 short pages for “cram learning” before the big day.
Hugh became a board member of ChristianView Network where he served 22 years, mentoring myself in navigating the crazy and turbulent world of Christian leadership. Hugh also mentored a generation of leaders in a diverse range of ministries.
Troubled by the decline in integrity in both politics and Christian leadership, he wrote a book on corruption and how to avoid the traps that have tripped up so many leaders. Hugh collected evidence to take on corruption, when it was costly, painful and would have been easier to overlook. As his health declined with age, he retired to Pretoria, where he continued his pastoral role in the home where he lived. While technically retired, the insatiably productive and compassionate Hugh kept doing more to help others than many do that at the peak of the careers.
Few leaders have left such a massive and diverse footprint of influence on South African Christianity. Hugh has gone to his reward and his example will continue to inspire into the future.
Here are some tributes to Hugh from Christian leaders:
“He was a true soldier of the cause” — Moss Ntlha, General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa
“Another of God’s faithful servants, safely home! A huge impact on many of us still on the battlefield!” — Neil Henry, Bible Institute of South Africa
“Know ye not that there is a prince and great man fallen this day in Israel” — 2 Samuel 3v38 KJV “God bless Hugh’s legacy to the larger evangelical cause in our country” — Craig Hounsom, Editor, Protestant Reveille, Protestant Association of South Africa
“We mourn the passing of a great man.” — Jean-Ray Knighton-Fitt, U-Turn Ministries
“Hugh was a great statesman of the Christian faith and a solider of the Gospel” — Ndaba Mazabane, former chair of TEASA and the World Evangelical Alliance.(Currently at Rosebank Union Church).
” Hugh Wetmore was someone who lived Colossians 3:12 and in whose life compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience were evident and who< glorified Christ through them.I thank God for this brother who preached and lived reconciliation all his life.” Martin Frische, Bishop of Evangelische Stadtmission in Southern Africa; founder of the Association of Christian Media.
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