The Boer is a pious person, who prays to God when he wants rain, and forgets to pray when his mealie crop proves a success. Unlike other people, he does not believe in thanksgiving when he shells one hundred bags of mealies where he only expected twenty. He has no 'harvest home.' He simply stores his mealies until such time as he can bring them to town and obtain the best possible price. But let the rain stop away too long and the sun wither up his crops, and he is a very different man. In every Boer house there is a large Bible, and that Bible is systematically read and re-read when the fates are unkind. The very low class Boer is, of course, unable to read his Bible, but he takes it over to his nearest neighbour, whose education may not have been neglected to the same extent.
The Boer journeys to town once every three months with his family in order to attend Divine Service. These occasions are known as Nachtmaal. He brings his waggon with him, and outspans on some open space within the town. When he cannot arrange for a room or rooms gratis, he sleeps in his tent waggon. He very seldom goes to a hotel, unless this course is absolutely necessary. If he does go to a hotel, he engages a room only, and dines alongside his waggon or else he goes to his particular storekeeper and indulges in sardines and sweet biscuits He is great on sardines, and his only regret perhaps, is that the tin is not edible also.
A Dutch Nachtmaal in the olden days was a sight quite equal to any Lord Mayor's show. The costumes were unique; but in the present day the womenfolk in particular have learned to ape the English, and the colours are therefore less conspicuous. Formerly the young ladies wore short dresses of many colours, and the display of white stockings was very general. The men appeared in black felt hats with huge brims, and frock-coats (most of them bordering on green) were the order of the day. Veldschoens of home manufacture were never wanting, but in these latter days veldschoens are regarded with contempt.
The man who probably suffers most at Nachtmaal-time is the organist, for organs are now regarded as indispensable. An organist is usually a man of a sensitive nature, and on such occasions his ideas of good music are apt to be completely demoralized. Nevertheless, he gets along as best he can, and even if he happens to be dragging a congregation numbering three hundred voices seven whole notes behind his instrument, he continues to suffer nobly and silently.
The services commence at 7 a.m., and continue throughout the day until 9.30 p.m. Baptisms occupy a few hours during the afternoon, and the most common names for youthful burghers are Gert, Barend, Paul, Piet, and such like. The Boers do not believe in departing from the time-honoured names of their forefathers. Piet suggests the immortal name of Piet Retief, and Paul—well, there is Oom Paul.
Before the marriage ceremony can be performed in a Dutch Reformed Church, the minister must satisfy himself that the contracting parties have previously been confirmed. Great preparation for the confirmation is engaged in by the young people a week before Nachtmaal Sunday, on which day, in presence of the whole congregation, they are received into the bosom of the Church.
The Boer is very conscientious in the matter of religion. For instance, should he be on bad terms with any of his friends or relations, he will not attend Divine Service. He argues that a man who is not at peace with his fellow-men cannot hope for reconciliation with his God until the difference has been amicably settled.
It may be observed that the order of service in a Dutch Church is very similar to that in vogue in a country church in Scotland. The minutest details have much in common, but perhaps I had better not enlarge upon such a coincidence. Before each service the menfolk linger in front of the church door, with their hands stuck deep down in their pockets and the inevitable pipe between their teeth. They talk about almost everything except religion—the crops, their petty difficulties with Kaffirs, the last hailstorm and the havoc it worked, and so on. The Boers never enter into theological arguments. Each and all place implicit faith in the Scriptural teachings, and they take for granted everything from the beginning to the end of their Bibles. Consequently the teachings of Scripture are not very firmly impressed on their minds.
When the organ begins to peal forth the voluntary, the worshippers troop into their seats. During the choral part of the service the congregation remain seated, and they rise when the minister prays. The elderly gentlemen very promptly go to sleep when the text is given out, and they lean back in their respective corners with the full assurance that they will not be disturbed for at least an hour. Occasionally they may be gently aroused by their wives or children, whose supply of sweets has been exhausted. By the way, every Boer in the country has one particular weakness, and that is a desire after sweets. The young men recklessly walk into a store whenever they come to town, and devote a portion of their capital to the purchase of 'Dutch mottoes,' to which the ladies are very partial. The elderly men are not so particular in this respect.
When the benediction is about to be pronounced, there is a general scramble after hats, and the last Amen has scarcely been uttered when there is a rush for the doors. It seems to amount to a sort of competition as to who will be first in the street.
It may be interesting to pause for a moment and look at the collections. The poorer classes besiege the stores on Saturday with anxious inquiries for 'stickeys,' i.e., threepenny-pieces. To a poor man with a large family of church-goers this matter of church collections is a serious business unless he can get four mites out of a shilling, as coppers are not used in the Transvaal; but I have known men of good standing inquire as eagerly for the despised threepenny-piece. When special collections are called for, in aid of a new organ fund, for instance, the results are rather surprising. In one instance the combined special collections on a Nachtmaal Sunday amounted to a little over £500, with a congregation of only 400. This points to the fact that there is money enough in the country, and it only requires a church collection to prove it.
It is to be regretted that the Boer does not devote a little more attention to the education of his children. If there happens to be a school anywhere near his farm, he does not mind taking advantage of this with a view to 'teaching the young idea how to shoot'; but perhaps he takes too literal a view of this adage. His chief care is to see that his boys are taught to shoot straight, and he does not attach so much importance as he might to the three R's. The Boer who can afford such luxuries engages a tutor for his children, but tutors are mostly of the English persuasion. They have not yet learned to appreciate the language of the country, and this constitutes a serious barrier. Again, one does not expect much of a country school, and the majority of the men who preside over these institutions in the Dutch Republics are there simply because they can obtain no more lucrative an occupation. A number of Free State farmers invariably 'trek' to Natal with their families and stock during the winter months, and this affords an opportunity for placing the children at more advanced schools; but then again the objection is serious—the masters are English.
In the town of Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, where the Volksraad thunders forth its mighty convictions, there is a model Young Ladies' College. It seems that one day recently the members of the Raad found themselves in want of debatable motions, and it fell to the lot of one of their number to save the situation. That member directed the attention of his brethren to a certain question affecting the proper conduct of the Young Ladies' College aforesaid. It had come to his knowledge that the Principal of the College had granted, to certain of the pupils who desired it, permission to pray to Almighty God in the English language. The member forcibly contended that this lamentable state of affairs should not exist, but that every pupil in the College should be compelled to pray to God in the language of the country! A general discussion followed, but it was ultimately allowed that this matter did not come within the jurisdiction of that Raad.