Spirit and Literacy, Prophecy and Modernity in a South African Church – by Kevin Ward

Kevin Ward on Joel Cabrita’s Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church

Joel Cabrita, Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 418pp., $99
Joel Cabrita, Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 418pp., $99
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A hundred years ago, around the time of the First World War, when the terrifying implications of modern, technological western “civilization” were unleashed upon Africa, a new kind of African Christianity began to emerge. This was not the first attempt by Africans to establish churches independent of missionary control, but these new movements were a new departure in that they called into question some of the axioms of the western Christianity preached by missionaries: rationalist explanations for events based on a scientific understanding of the world, the importance of western clothing as a sign of civilization, the hymns and liturgies and reading practices of missionary Christianity, and above all the supremacy of the school, the long process of education and the attainment of literacy. New Christian movements were started by William Waddy Harris in West Africa, Simon Kimbangu in the Congo, Malaki Musajjakawa in Uganda, and (the earliest of them all) Isaiah Shembe, a Zulu from the British Colony of Natal. Each of these pioneers independently initiated new ways of being Christian in Africa. It was not an accident that the Uganda movement, the Bamalaki (named after Musajjakawa), was nicknamed dini la rahisi, Swahili for “cheap religion.” This put-down could also be given a positive meaning: you could undergo baptism, claim a “Christian” name, and have the prestige of a Christian identity, without the arduous process of a long catechumenate and the achievement of literacy and the cultural baggage associated with being a “reader” (in East Africa Christians were known as basomi, readers).

One of the achievements of Joel Cabrita’s new book Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church is that it calls into question some of the binaries between “western” and “Africa,” literacy and an oral culture, rational order and (potentially) anarchic spirit. She explores how Shembe’s movement developed a central interest in the written word, in the establishment of a canon of texts concerning the life of the prophet (Isaiah Shembe himself), and the lives of his followers — despite its attraction to illiterate people, and despite Shembe’s own lack of schooling. The movement’s authoritative canon, which supplemented but did not supercede the biblical texts inherited from missionary Christianity, was an important factor in enabling the Ibandla lama Nazaretha (the Church of the Nazaretha) to emerge as a cohesive movement within colonial South Africa, and to maintain its distinctiveness over time.

Isaiah Shembe (c.1870-1935) came from the northern regions of the British Colony of Natal (the area bordering the Zulu kingdom). His family was displaced from their land by the British and moved to the Afrikaner Orange Free State (when it was still an autonomous state outside the British empire). Shembe was associated with a variety of mission-founded churches, before launching out as an independent evangelist. Around 1910 (the date of the inauguration of the Union of South Africa) he managed, in spite of the restrictions on black African land tenure, to purchase land just north of Durban: a place called Ekuphakameni (“the elevated place”). This became the headquarters of the Nazaretha movement, and the sacred site of the annual pilgrimage for which the movement became famous.

Cabrita explains the importance of Ekuphakameni in this way:

The settlement’s popularity may also be explained by its attractiveness to an African constituency that was sceptical of the conflation of Christianity with Western culture. Unlike many of his Christian contemporaries, Isaiah had a fairly permissive attitude towards certain markers of the old way of life, including polygamous marriage… The July meeting at Ekuphakameni became famous for the thousands of traditionally dressed Christian men and women, solemnly dancing adorned with elaborate beadwork and waving plumes of feather headdresses.

But Shembe was never simply a preserver of Zulu tradition. He also experimented, in an eclectic way, with “modern” fashion such as Scottish kilts and colonial pith helmets. Above all, he encouraged an economic self-sufficiency for his community through the inculcation of industriousness and self-help, small-scale agriculture and commerce. He hoped thereby to mitigate the culturally corrosive effects of migrant work on European farms or in mines of the Rand and the Northern Cape. In this respect, Shembe was, in fact, part of a long tradition of self-sufficiency on missionary settlements, going back to the Moravians in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth-century “Coloured” (mixed race) communities of the London Missionary Society.

Cabrita is concerned to locate the Nazaretha in the tradition of Protestant evangelical Holiness movements, which had been an important part of South African Christianity since the revivalist missions of the American evangelist William Taylor and his Zulu translator Charles Pamla in Natal in the 1860s. The importance of self-examination, confession, and testimony to victory in the unending struggle to lead a pure life, became an important part of the communal worship of the Nazaretha, which was never simply an endorsement of traditional Zulu ethical values either in personal or communal life.

Shembe himself was illiterate. He was critical of what he saw as the self-centered individualism of mission-educated converts, with their solitary reading practices, and refusal to participate in communal activities. Yet he sent his sons to the elite missionary Adams College, and to Fort Hare University, the only tertiary institution open to Africans in the Union of South Africa. Shembe’s abiding concern was that a written record of his activities and of his church be recorded for posterity. He employed young literate students as scribes (abahali) to deal with correspondence with government and missionary officials, to record his sermons, and compile hymns and liturgies of Nazaretha worship. Scribes also assisted members in writing letters. In this way the division between the amakholwa (mission-educated believers) and the illiterate masses could be healed. (Interestingly, young Kikuyu Christians in the Kenya of the 1920s and 1930s were similarly concerned to overcome divisions between literate and non-literate, and expressed this graphically in their newspaper Muigwithania, which can be translated as “Unifier.”)

With Shembe’s death in 1935, the leadership of the movement passed down to his son, Johannes Galilee Shembe, an amahkolwa par excellence, graduate of Fort Hare, and headmaster of Adams College at the time of his father’s death. This might be seen as the archetypal moment when a charismatic movement became subject to second-generation bureaucratization, in good Weberian fashion. But Johannes only succeeded in establishing himself in so far as he was able to prove that the prophetic and miraculous healing charisma of his father had descended upon him. One of the major achievements of Johannes was systematically to inaugurate a documentation of the life of his father, and of the testimonies of the Nazaretha community, into what was to become a canonical collection of sacred authoritative texts. He did this with the help of an official archivist, Petros Dhlomo. The result was both an expansive collection of testimonies, “The Acts of the Nazarites,” and “The Book of the Birth of the Prophet,” a single narrative compilation of the life of Isaiah Shembe, which served as a kind of gospel for the movement.

For Christian scholars (both western and African operating within the “mainline” churches) this is one of the most problematic aspects of the existence of a church like the Nazaretha. But the very existence of such a written canon is itself a challenge to any overly schematized polarity between “traditional” and “modern.” In fact, it opens up much larger questions around the relation between religion and scholarship.

Shembe’s movement has not lacked those who have been sympathetic to the vigor and creativity of the movement: the Lutheran scholar, and later Bishop, Bengt Sundkler, was one of the first to pay serious scholarly attention to the phenomenon of African independent churches in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed theologian Gerhardus Oosthuizen has written a sympathetic appraisal of Shembe’s theology. As Cabrita details, Oosthuizen, along with the Lutheran missionary scholar Hans-Jurgen Becken and the American evangelical academic Irving Hexham, have facilitated the production of a five-volume collection of Nazaretha documents, published between 1996 and 2005 by Edwin Mellen Press. It is this collection which Cabrita uses so effectively in her analysis of text and authority among the Nazaretha. Well-wishers such as Oosthuizen, Becken and Hexham have proved useful to the Nazaretha in giving the movement a wider acceptance as a genuine expression of Christianity. Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars such as Marie-Louise Martin and Walter Hollenweger were instrumental in enabling the Kimbanguists to receive membership of the World Council of Churches. However, the urgency of receiving recognition also has its downside as far as the academic study of a religion is concerned. It may mean that elements of theology and practice which cannot easily be reconciled with traditional “orthodox” Christianity are down-played (both by Christian scholarly well-wishers, and within the church itself, by contemporary leaders anxious to present their community in the best light). In turn, scholars of religion may be more interested in those elements of a movement which do not conform to missionary orthodoxy, and, in the case of the Nazaretha, privilege distinctively Zulu traditional elements over distinctively Christian ones. For mainstream Christian theologians the presence of a deutero-canonical scripture focusing on Isaiah Shembe is problematic. What is the status of these scriptures? Can such a juxtaposition of Moses, Jesus and Shembe, as three parallel messengers of God, each with a distinctive role for their own time, be compatible with orthodox Christianity? Historians too are challenged when faced with such a movement. Clearly it is not the duty of the historian to adjudicate about what transgresses the boundaries of orthodox Christianity; but it is their responsibility to articulate the beliefs of the Nazaretha in ways which do justice to the self-understanding of Shembe and his followers — which is no easy task.

A forthcoming publication by Carl Kilcourse entitled Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-64 explores these issues in relation to the movement initiated by Hong Xiuquan. Hong was certainly influenced by Protestant translations of the Bible into Chinese, and by missionary tracts. Like many of his contemporaries, Hong saw himself as a casualty of the Qing imperial examination system, having entered and failed the exam on numerous occasions. He was literate, yet he was also a victim of an elitist education system (one of Shembe’s criticisms of missionary Christianity in Africa). Missionaries in China were at first optimistic that the Taiping might be instrumental in proclaiming the Christian message in ways which were attractive to Chinese people generally. But the terrible anarchy which the rebellion produced turned the missionaries against the Taiping. They were alarmed at the increasing heterodoxy of Hong’s teaching, not least his proclamation of himself as God’s “Chinese son” and younger brother of Jesus. Brian Stanley commends Kilcourse’s book for rescuing the Taiping movement from “the scrap-heap of religious eccentricity” by persuasively arguing for the Taiping as a “uniquely Chinese style of Christianity,” which resonates with modern Pentecostalism and African Instituted Churches. Recent Christian scholarship, both historical and theological, has tended towards a much more open-ended appraisal of what constitutes Christianity — a recognition, indeed, that there are multiple Christianities, and that scholars should avoid making overly dogmatic judgements about the boundaries between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.


Another large set of questions opened up by studying the Nazaretha is the relation between religion and culture. Shembe’s movement has been seen by western observers as, indisputably, an authentic African religious movement, but less clearly an orthodox Christian one. It may be instructive to compare it with another important twentieth-century African religious movement that has suffered from the opposite problem. The East African Revival (Balokole) has sometimes been regarded as far too close to classical European and American Protestant revivalism to be counted as authentically African. The Balokole movement began in Uganda and Rwanda in the late 1920s and 1930s, within the Anglican church, and spread widely throughout the Protestant churches in East Africa. By and large they have remained within the mission-founded churches, and have been reluctant to establish independent churches. Yet the Balokole have had their divisions and theological quarrels, and the relationship with the organized churches has never been easy. Their western evangelical admirers tend to gloss over the many examples of Balokole practice which do not easily fit into the norms of evangelicalism. Critics of Christianity in Africa, who see the religion as a regressive survival of colonial mentalities, tend equally to dismiss the Balokole as a particularly egregious example of false consciousness. But the East African Revival has, in fact, decisively colored the spirituality of East African Protestantism as a whole. It is decisively not simply a colonial hang-over.

The issue of how to characterize “Christian” and “African,” and “African Christian,” is also crucial in the burgeoning study of Pentecostalism in Africa, where the authority of the Bible, the encounters with the spirit world, the relationship between culture and faith, as well as with older forms of African Christian spirituality (such as the Nazaretha and the Balokole), are important, complex and fascinating problems.

The level of involvement of British missionaries in the origins and progress of the East African Revival should not blind one to the fact that this was from the start an initiative of Ugandans. Because they did not found a separate church, the role of prominent Balokole such as Simeoni Nsibambi and William Nagenda have not received the recognition accorded to Shembe, Harris or Kimbangu. But Nsubambi and Nagenda were equally exercised about the inadequacies of mission Christianity, and missionary education, in inculcating a Christianity which spoke to African men and women. Both the Nazaretha and the Balokole were concerned with confession and testimony; both were critical of the colonial mentalities of missionaries; both challenged the patriarchal culture of traditional society and of missionary Christianity, enabling women to find their voice. Yet both movements were themselves trapped in patriarchal mentalities. Both could be counter-cultural, critical of traditional authorities, while at the same time asserting the right of all Africans to shape their world. Both were concerned to overcome fissures between educated and uneducated, elites and peasants. Both movements assert that Africans can and should take ownership of Christianity.

The differences are also clear. The Balokole are Christocentric to the core: nothing can displace the cross as the fundamental salvific act in history. No contemporary prophet can supplement or take the place of Jesus. Unlike Shembe’s movement, there has been no attempt by the Balokole to institutionalize the message, to create a headquarters, or establish a centralized holy place (though places hallowed by early revivalist history do function as pilgrimage sites for the Balokole too). There has been no Balokole dynasty, no family succession. Indeed, few, if any, of the children of the original leaders have taken on the mantle from their parents. But they have contributed enormously to public life, in church and state.


Cabrita’s account of the Nazaretha traces the changing role of the movement within South African society as a critic of the Zulu ruling class, playing an ambiguous role within the apartheid state, supporting the Zulu cultural movement Inkatha, and, more recently, strongly backing the ruling African National Congress. The Nazaretha see themselves as part of the “African renaissance” proclaimed by Thabo Mbeki, with its pan-African (rather than narrowly Zulu) appeal. There is a hint, towards the end of Cabrita’s book, that the Nazaretha, in emphasizing the role of African culture in building the (post-apartheid) nation, have tended to emphasize the continuities with Old Testament (Jewish) law and custom — at the expense of the New Testament. I suspect that this can best be seen as part of their ongoing responses to political realities, rather than a systematic or permanent downgrading of the role of Christ. After all, the movement is named after the ancestral home of Jesus of Nazareth, and the actual practices of the church continue to resonate with Christian themes. One issue which I wish Cabrita’s study had given more attention to is the role of the Bible in the life of Nazaretha communities, perhaps drawing on work by Gerald West and others who have paid careful attention to the ways in which local congregations from various churches in Southern Africa study the Bible. In exploring the role of “text and authority” within the Nazaretha Church, the ongoing (and, no doubt, changing) use of the Bible inherited from the Protestant Christian tradition is likely to be of crucial importance.

But all in all, and most importantly, the writings of Cabrita on Shembe (and, among other recent scholars, Derek Peterson on the Balokole) tend towards a reconfiguring of the categorization of African Christianity. Cabrita’s careful contextualization of Shembe within the world of Protestant revivalism helps to underline the cross-fertilization between the world of mission and that of African independent churches. Joel Cabrita is to be congratulated in producing a book with such resonance for the on-going scholarship on African Christianity, African religion, and African culture and society.