The “Chief”—way ahead of his time

The Church’s own health insurance, a football league of congregational teams, and a working area that spanned half the globe: today we celebrate the 125th birthday of Heinrich Franz Schlaphoff—an Apostle unlike any other.

“So, if it were not for a keyring being sold for a bazaar, I would not be New Apostolic“, says Church spokesman Kenny Kotze (South Africa). The handmade piece had been offered to his father in a fundraising drive of the New Apostolic Church. The senior had never heard anything about this denomination before, and so inquired further with interest. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

This keyring had been produced for a congregational bazaar at Thanksgiving—a tradition in South Africa that had been established by District Apostle Schlaphoff, and which fell on the same day as his birthday on 3 August. But this was only one of the smaller innovations in a working area that ultimately spanned the entire southern hemisphere for the later Assistant Chief Apostle.

Junior turns the Church on its head

Heinrich Franz Schlapphoff had grown up in poor circumstances. The family became New Apostolic on Pentecost 1902. It was only on the insistence of his father that the junior Schlaphoff finally agreed to take on a ministry in 1919. After the sudden death of his father, the son was called to the Apostle ministry in July 1929, and thus assumed the leadership of the Church in South Africa. Run over

But the new man on the job turned the Church on its head: among the most radical measures was the abolition of German-speaking divine services. From then on, the sermons were to be conducted in English and Afrikaans. Reflecting the national languages in the sermons gave the congregations a significant boost, both in South Africa and, later on, in South America.

And the District Apostle created structures too: he divided the district into Elder—and later Bishop—district, established an accounting system that was up to the European standard, and published weekly circulars to the ministers in three languages. And by the end of the 1940s he was publishing his district’s own Church magazine, namely Our Family, named after its German prototype.

Beyond European models

But he went far beyond what was commonplace, even decades later, in the German mother Church. An example of his innovations included the District Church’s annual reports, which provided information on the Church’s structure, membership development, financial expenditures on church construction, and revenue from Thanksgiving bazaars.

Schlaphoff saw the poverty of the people in his care, and thus made the Church socially active as well. He established a burial fund, so that the members would be able to afford a dignified funeral. And he established a health insurance fund with affordable premiums and separate consultations with contract doctors.

He even had an eye out for leisure time: under the umbrella organisation United Sports Union, the Church maintained its own leagues of community teams in sports such as football, cricket, and softball. And of course, the Church magazine would report on the scores and team rankings.

Unique lifetime achievement

The conditions in South Africa did not please everyone, however. The Swiss Apostle Otto Güttinger complained to the Chief Apostle about cinema attendance, youth Vaudeville evenings that included humour, theatre, and magic, as well as dancing events: “I even saw Apostles turning in circles with members!”

At the time, Church leader Johann Gottfried Bischoff still protected his Helper, describing Schlapphoff as “the man given by God who corresponds to the conditions in Africa”. But only about eighteen months later, the Apostle Meeting unanimously decided to “reject him as Chief Apostle Helper and successor to the Chief Apostle”.

And in 1954, the man who was often fondly addressed as “Chief” had to give up his ministry as Apostle. It was the same year in which Apostle Güttinger was dismissed from ministry and in which the conflict with District Apostle Peter Kuhlen began to escalate in the Rhineland (Germany). This was precisely the time in which Chief Apostle Bischoff wrote to the Apostles: “It is a fact that even today there are leading men in the work of God who are counting on my demise and have already written plans for that event. I have my proof of this.”

Until his death in 1965, Heinrich Franz Schlaphoff attended the services in our Claremont congregation (Cape Town). When Chief Apostle Bischoff’s death was announced there, Heinrich Schlaphoff rose as a sign of respect. The respect that was mutual. As Chief Apostle Bischoff put it: “The achievements of this man are simply singular.”

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Andreas Rother
Chief Apostle Helper, People/Personalities