Helperus Ritzema van Lier

The grave of Helperus Ritzema van Lier (1764 – 1793).

Ravensburg Avenue, Hiddingh, Newlands

 by Geraldine Goncalves

This ancient grave, half hidden by trees and shrubs in Ravensburg Avenue in suburban Newlands Cape Town, is the tomb of a truly remarkable person of the VOC era, Helperus Ritzema van Lier who was born in Holland in 1764.

A brilliant scholar from Assen in the Netherlands he entered the University of Groningen at the age of 14 and by the time he was 18 was a Master of Free Sciences and Doctor of Philosophy having majored in history, French, Latin and Greek. The subject of his thesis for the doctorate concerned “human liberty and responsibility in the light of man’s lack of moral freedom and divine pre-science” [Dictionary of National Biography]. Although he had originally registered for theological studies he was during his early years conflicted between his interest in physical sciences and his spirituality. His scientific interests for a while predominated and he produced a number of scholarly papers. In 1783 he won a gold medal from the Academy of Sienna for a treatise on the various constituents of the atmosphere. Later he attracted interest for his paper Over het algemeen en bijzonder gebruik der aerostatisch machines which can be literally translated as “for the general and special usage of aerostatic machines”.  [ie balloons!]

His religious faith began to fail and be superseded by his scientific interests until following after a series of personal afflictions –  the death of his fiancée and the disappearance of his father, the Receiver General of Drenthe, after a financial scandal – it was restored and he thereafter pursued his theological studies taking his final examination for the ministry in 1785.  In order to understand why a person with such a brilliant intellect should have followed the course that he did it is necessary to be aware of the influences that came to dominate the rest of his life. His studies were increasingly dominated by the Pietist theologians. This movement, which originated from the German Lutherans and primarily from the writing of Philip Jacob Spener, emphasised religious devotion, ethics, charity and pastoral work in opposition to formalistic theological dogmatism. There were links between the Pietists and the Moravians which Van Lier later pursued in his attempts to get the Moravian missionaries established at the Cape which included trying to persuade his distinguished uncle Professor Petrus Hofstede, an academic in Rotterdam, to support him. Another influence was George Whitefield an Englishman who preached a new brand of calvinistic methodism mostly in America.  Whitefield’s sermons were designed to simplify the essentials of religion to appeal to ordinary people.

The following year, 1786, at the age of 22 Van Lier left for the Cape of Good Hope with two sisters and was appointed third minister of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town.

There followed two threads in his short life, his writings for which he became internationally renowned and his evangelical, missionary and pastoral work at the Cape. His most famous and influential written work is The Power of Grace 1789-92, a series of six letters written in Latin to John Newton, rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London, in which he describes his earlier re-conversion to faith.   This was the same Newton, son of a slave trader and later a trader in slaves himself who, after converting to an ardent Christian, became one of the foremost in the English anti-slavery movement and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.   The Power of Grace was translated into English by the poet William Cowper who was taken under the wing of Newton and wrote a number of our best known hymns.  Here in the Cape one of Van Lier’s sisters wrote among other religious works a poem that is now Hymn 28 in the Dutch Reformed Hymnal.

Sadly, there do not seem to be any copies of his works in South African libraries.

In the Cape, Van Lier was noted for his sermons which packed the Groote Kerk but he put most of his energy into pastoral visits and particularly into his missionary work with the most poor and humble of the parish including the slaves and the Khoi. During this period there was considerable opposition from many of the farmers and other slave owners to the christianising and education of their slaves which was seen as a threat to the institution of slavery.   His groundwork enabled the creation of the SA Missionary Society after his death and it was on account of his belief that the slaves and coloured people shared the same humanity and his zeal for education that a succession of evangelicals later became involved in the teaching of slaves and black children in the Western Cape.

Another of Van Lier’s activities at the Cape was his educational work with the Dutch youth.  He gave classes in Latin and French to prepare them for studies in Holland and he himself learned the language of the Malay Muslim slaves.

In 1793 aged 28 Van Lier died of consumption. In that same year he had won a gold medal for a dissertation on the best means of arousing the interest of ordinary people in religion.

In his brief life he had married and fathered four children as well as casting his influence over the protestant world and here at the Cape.  Despite his intellect he set greater store by his parish work and was himself so humble that he adopted the pen name Christodulus (the servant of God) for his writings so that they would not be ascribed to him.  At his request he was buried in what was then the countryside in Newlands rather than in the Dutch Reformed graveyard in Cape Town.

His widow and children went to live at Groote Constantia under the care of one of his sisters.

The tomb and plot belong to the Cape Town Groote Kerk.  A committee under the auspices of the Groote Kerk, the Helperus Ritzemer van Lier Forum has been constituted with the objective of promoting knowledge and recognition of his life and work and the conservation and maintenance of the grave and the grounds. The Rondebosch DRC is tasked with supervision of work.  I (Geraldine Goncalves) am a member of the Forum representing Newlands Residents Association.

The Groote Kerk over the last few years has renovated the tomb with financial support from the Simon van der Stel Foundation under the supervision of heritage architect Trevor Thorold with advice from prestigious heritage authority Hans Fransen who featured it in one of his books. The DRC is now concentrating on improving the grave site as funds allow.  The young trees on the boundary with the adjoining house were donated by neighbour Nick Stodel.  Landscape architect Clare Burgess designed and supervised the making of the new path.  The grass is cut by the DRC’s gardening team.  Fresh improvements to the garden are waiting funding form any interested donors.

Bearing in mind not only his intellectual accomplishments, his humility and pastoral work but particularly in view of the philosophical and theological links that he brought about between the far away colony and the western world, local residents and visitors should have the opportunity to learn more about and honour this remarkable man who left our world so prematurely after achieving so much.

 Sources: Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Vol 11, p152

          Gilomee.  The Afrikaners, p96

          Ashley DI Cloete.  Mysterious Ways of God

          James D Nelson. Pietism.  Internet

          Dictionary of National Biography

Biography: Helperus Ritzema van Lier. TN Hanekom 1959.


Should any Newlands residents have any further enquiries please contact Geraldine Goncalves who has the heritage portfolio for Newlands Residents Association at

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