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The Rhenish Missionary Society (Rhenish – of the river Rhine) was one of the largest Protestant missionary societies in Germany. Formed from smaller missions founded as far back as 1799, the Society was amalgamated on 23 September 1828, and its first missionaries were ordained and sent off to South Africa by the end of the year.
The London Missionary Society was already active in the area, and a closer working relationship was formed with them. The Society established its first mission station in the Cederberg in 1829, named Wupperthal, and predated the naming of the German city by 100 years.
Very soon, the missionaries started migrating north through the barren and inhospitable south-western Africa. Here they encountered various local tribes such as the Herero, Nama and Damara, and were frequently in the middle of wars between them. The missionaries tried to broker peace deals between the tribes, and for this reason were later seen as political assets by the tribes.
Around the same time, debate started in Germany regarding its colonial empire, with the activities of the RMS in distant Africa fanning imaginations. The unclaimed area to the north of the Cape Colony was proclaimed German South West Africa in 1880, but they quickly ran into numerous problems, since Germany was inexperienced at colonization. The Herero and Namaqua Genocide during 1904-1907 proved to be the nadir of their rule, and combined with the effects of World War I, Germany was unable to maintain a foothold so far from home. South Africa annexed the area in 1915, renaming it South West Africa. During this time, missionaries' reactions ranged from compassion and help for the local tribes, to patriotism and support of colonial interests.
During the 20th century, the Society focused on its work in southern Africa. The Society ultimately amalgamated all of its mission stations in South Africa into the Dutch Reformed Church, except for Wupperthal which chose to join the Moravian Church. The mission stations in Namibia became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church there.