From 1908 to 1922, Oswin Boys Bull (1882–1971) had the primary responsibility for supervising the recruitment of African youth and students into the South African SCA and YMCA. Following the lead of overseas sojourners Luther Wishard and Donald Fraser in 1895 and John R. Mott and Ruth Rouse in 1906, Bull took his experience as a Jesus College, Cambridge classics and theology major and sportsperson into the challenging religious, racial and ethnic field of the Union of South Africa. Bringing a mix of strong spiritual roots and an unwavering commitment to the racially inclusive interpretation of Christianity, Bull blazed a trail that earned him the reputation of a pioneer ecumenist.
Ably assisted by illustrious Xhosa-speaking intellectual and seasoned Christian proselytizer John Knox Bokwe, Bull made inroads into areas previously ignored by his predecessors. With a reach extending as far as neighboring historic Basutoland, Bull's efforts resulted in the establishment of branch associations in a variety of rural and urban locations. In spite of local opposition and tremendous geographical, linguistic, social and political barriers, Bull applied himself to the task of providing a firm foundation for Black and Mixed Race SCA and YMCA members to find places in previously lily-white bodies.
Understanding both his limits as well as his capabilities, Bull's generosity allowed him to share the spotlight with other evangelists. His correspondence with YMCA leader John Mott demonstrates a humble willingness to see the task of ‘nonwhite’ inclusion in SCA and YMCA work to the end. By the time Max Yergan, the first permanent YMCA and SCA secretary arrived in South Africa early in 1922, Bull was able to delegate most of the duties that required a field secretary to him, satisfied that he could concentrate on the remainder of his managerial duties from the YMCA and SCA center, in Cape Town and Stellenbosch, respectively. Already fluent in Afrikaans, Bull's history of attempting to build bridges between competing and often hostile populations set the standard for the type of leadership that a complex, extremely ethnically and religiously particularistic society like South Africa would need to construct a broadly based national movement.
Although O.B. Bull is known only to readers of Alan Paton's Hofmeyr, and those involved in the institutions with which he was associated, most notably, St Edmunds School, Jesus College, Cambridge, the Scriptural Union and the South African SCA and YMCA, it may now be possible for later generations to revisit the times in which he lived and worked to regain a sense of the odds against which he struggled and the resolve he showed in striving first to dream of and then fight for a more inclusive Southern African YMCA.
While he was by no means perfect and was clearly himself a product of his place and time, his quests for something better within himself and his adopted country were noble.