WHO WAS ISAIAH SHEMBE?
Department of Religious Studies
University of Calgary
Willst du dich selber erkennen
so sieh, wie die andern es treiben;
Willst du die andern verstehn,
blick in dein eigenes Herz
(Will you understand yourself
Will you understand others
Look into your own heart)
This paper deals with some problems encountered by scholars who attempt to study Primal Religions. It focuses on an examination of the major scholarly literature and some traditions surrounding perceptions of the Zulu religious leader Isaiah Shembe. It has nine sections: The Problem of Prejudice, Isaiah Shembe: Zulu Prophet or Black Christ?, The Judgement of Shembe's Successors, Literary Norms and Living Traditions, Studying Living Religions, The Role of Primal Experiences, The Importance of Mythology, Getting One's Hands Dirty, and Who was Isaiah Shembe?
The Study of African Religions
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century it was often claimed that Africans were "without religion." At first this claim led to the argument that Africans "had no soul." Therefore, they were not fully human. Latter the argument was modernized. Instead of having no soul, it was now said that Africans were lower on the evolutionary tree than Europeans. Therefore, they lacked the intelligence to develop religions of their own.
Thus, the claim that Africans lacked religion led to their exploitation. The first argument, that Africans had no soul, legitimated slavery. The second, that Africans were low on the evolutionary ladder, justified colonialization.
Many people, particularly Christian missionaries, argued against both of these arguments and the exploitation they justified. But, to do it was essential to prove that Africans were just as religious as other humans. Therefore, great effort was put into explaining the apparent lack of religion among many African peoples and discovering a High God behind African mythologies and ways of thought.
As a result many missionaries and scholars "discovered" a Christian type of God "hidden" in African culture. Such discoveries served a political purpose and distorted the reality of many African religions just as much as the earlier claim that African had "no religion."
A similar distortion, for very similar reasons, has taken place in the twentieth century with regard to the discussion of New Religions in Africa. At first such movements were dismissed as a return to heathendom. Today, many scholars embrace them as pure forms of African Christianity. As will be argued in this paper, both attitudes are wrong and distort the reality of African religion.
The academic debate between G.C, Oosthuizen and various critics, particularly Bengt Sundkler and Absalom Vilakazi, illustrates the problems involved in understanding New Religions in Africa. Oosthuizen claims that the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe represent a New Religion distinct from Christianity. Sundkler and Vilakazi claim that Oosthuizen is wrong and that the amaNazaretha are an authentic form of Zulu Christianity.
Changing Perspectives on African Religious Movements
To appreciate the problems involved in making academic judgements about African Religious Movements it is important to recognize the distortions created by past prejudices. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century it was often claimed that Africans were "without religion." At first this claim led to the argument that Africans "had no soul." Therefore, they were not fully human.
Latter the argument was modernized. Instead of having no soul, it was now said that Africans were lower on the evolutionary tree than Europeans. Therefore, they lacked the intelligence to develop religions of their own. Thus, the claim that Africans lacked religion led to their exploitation. The first argument, that Africans had no soul, legitimated slavery. The second, that Africans were low on the evolutionary ladder, justified colonialization.
Many people, particularly Christian missionaries, argued against both of these arguments and the exploitation they justified. But, to do it was essential to prove that Africans were just as religious as other humans. Therefore, great effort was put into explaining the apparent lack of religion among many African peoples and discovering a High God behind African mythologies and ways of thought.
As a result many missionaries and scholars "discovered" a Christian type of God "hidden" in African culture. Such discoveries served a political purpose and distorted the reality of many African religions just as much as the earlier claim that African had "no religion." A similar distortion, for very similar reasons, has taken place in the twentieth century with regard to the discussion of New Religions in Africa. At first such movements were dismissed as a return to heathendom. Today, many scholars embrace them as pure forms of African Christianity. As will be argued in this paper, both attitudes are wrong and distort the reality of African religion.
Until the 1980's African Religious Movements, usually called "Independent Churches," whether or not they were Christian, were widely regarded as highly questionable social movements. Earlier they were seen by most observers as positively dangerous. Even today, many people remain essentially hostile toward them. A suspicion of danger has surrounded African Religions for most of this century. This suspicion is vividly illustrated in John Buchan's popular novel Prester John. The highly offensive language of Buchan's novel leads the reader to recognize the depth of prejudice against African religions earlier in this century. Known as "Ethiopianism" until the 1930's, African Religious Movements, were viewed by colonial administrators as cunning attempts by Blacks to organize politically under the guise of religion. In this sense Buchan's description of a Black revolt mirrors the reality of white perceptions. British missionary leaders agreed with their colonial counterparts about the political nature of Ethiopianism. But, they added a religious twist. African Religious Movements, they argued, converted members of established mission churches back to Christianized forms of paganism. Behind the negative reaction of white observers, be they administrators or missionaries, lay the deeply ingrained belief that Black Africans were incapable of developing a genuine interest in religion qua religion.
In the English speaking world such prejudicial thinking was first challenged by the publication of Bengt Sundkler's Bantu Prophets in South Africa in 1948. This was followed by Fred Welbourn's East African Rebels in 1961 and later by the works of Harold Turner, G.C. Oosthuizen, David Barrett, etc. These books slowly turned the tide of academic opinion in favour of taking African Religions seriously. Gradually academics came to see that Africans were capable of adapting Christianity to meet their own needs and of revitalizing their own indigenous traditions.
The recognition that revitalized forms of African traditional religions are genuine religions has taken longer to gain acceptance. But, today, scholars recognize African Traditional Religions are also capable of modernizing to enable them to compete with Christian Churches. One of the biggest obstacles to the recognition of revitalized forms of African Traditional Religions is an overreaction, on the part of many scholars, to the crude stereotyping of the past. Thus some scholars appear willing to accept all African Religious Movements as indigenous forms of Christianity. The academic debate between G.C. Oosthuizen, Bengt Sundkler and Absolom Vilakazi, about the perception of Isaiah Shembe entertained by his followers vividly illustrates this issue.
Oosthuizen claims that the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe represent a New Religion distinct from Christianity. Sundkler and Vilakazi have argued that Oosthuizen is wrong and that the amaNazaretha are an authentic form of Zulu Christianity.
The amaNazaretha: Pagan or Christian
In The Theology of a South African Messiah, G. C. Oosthuizen argued that the theology of the movement must be seen "in the context of the Zulu religion..." As a result he claimed that, correctly understood, Isaiah Shembe "is not only Mediator but is Messiah, the manifestation of God." Thus, he argued Schlosser was wrong is saying that amaNazarite religions was "an interesting mixture or redemption and legalistic religion." Instead, Oosthuizen suggested that "every religion is an organic whole...Here is a Zuluized religion!"
This conclusion was strongly attacked by Bengt Sundkler in his book Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists. In Sundkler's view African Religious Movements" should be understood, not from the outside, from a Western standpoint, measuring its contents according to the standards and ideas of a European catechism, but rather from its own presuppositions." According to him "(t)he lack of such an understanding has led Dr. Oosthuizen astray." Further, he argues that Oosthuizen "constantly misread the most simple and direct statements of faith and trust."
Ten years later Absolom Vilakazi repeated such allegations against Oosthuizen's work in Shembe: The Revitalization of African Society. He accused Oosthuizen of not understanding the Zulu language or idiom, and of "expressing a particularly insular view... [which] probably represents the views of his own church." Then, he argued "Oosthuizen's position would appear, to many African Christians and theologians to be an argument for the colonization of the African soul by accepting anything which comes from European Christianity and rejecting all African cultural contributions to the understanding and enrichment of worship in African Christian Churches." Thus, both Sundkler and Vilakazi appear to seriously undermine the legitimacy of Oosthuizen's work. Rejecting his thesis they urge their readers to accept that "Shembe's Church is deliberately and unapologetically Zulu."
Given that Vilakazi is a native speaking Zulu and Oosthuizen is an Afrikaner, it is not surprisingly that many scholars automatically assume Vilakazi's interpretation of amaNazarite religion must be correct.
The Judgement of Shembe's Successors
It comes as a surprise to learn that Isaiah Shembe's son and grandson, Bishop Amos Shembe and the Rt. Reverend Londa Shembe, preferred Oosthuizen's presentation of their beliefs to that of his critics. Amos Shembe was furious when he read Vilakazi's manuscript in 1986. In fact, Amos Shembe immediately applied for a Court injunction to prevent its publication. In his opinion it was blasphemous because completely distorted the life and teachings of Isaiah Shembe.
After seeing the book in a local bookshop in 1986, Londa Shembe wrote "About Prof. a. Vilakazi's book...I leafed through the pages and there was nothing that I could find in it that gave joy to my heart. I was sorry in fact that I had ever looked at it...my hope is that with the passage of time brave authors will come forward and really get into the meat of the matter: the spiritual identity of the man. Who was he in the realm of the Spirit?" Later, after he read the book, Londa Shembe commented "¦ have it in my mind to wirte a short work on the work life of Baba inKhulu Isaiah Shembe to counter the poison-pen of Vilakazi's."
Thus, although they disagreed strongly about other issues both agreed that Vilakazi's work was unacceptable. Amos Shembe believed Isaiah Shembe created an entirely new form of Christianity. Londa Shembe believed his grandfather founded a new religion. Both said that Oosthuizen, not Vilakazi or Sundkler, was the person who really understood their Faith.
They also agreed that Vilakazi attempted to cast the amaNazaretha in a Christian mould of his own making. In Londa Shembe's words "In the past Christians used a stick to beat us. They said we were pagans and that our followers ought to join real churches. Now they are using a carrot. They say we are just another Christian denomination. In this way they are trying to bring us under their control by using promises of recognition and financial assistance as bribes to lead our people back into their churches." Londa Shembe summed up the issue saying "only Oosthuizen understands us. The others want to re-make us in their own image."
Literary Norms and Living Traditions
Bengt Sundkler was right when he suggested that "a fundamental methodological factor"  was responsible for the differences between the interpretation of Oosthuizen and that of other writers. But, he was wrong when he located this methodological factor in Oosthuizen's supposed lack of empathy for the amaNazaretha. In fact, it was Oosthuizen's empathy for Zulu religion, which led him to recognize the amaNazaretha could not be interpreted as just another Christian Church, which created his problems.
The mistake Oosthuizen made when he published The Theology of a South African Messiah was that he allowed his work to be governed by conformity to the norms of literary scholarship. Thus, in the book he appears to deduce the theology of the amaNazarites from published texts without reference to his knowledge of their oral culture. Therefore, he exposed himself to the charge that he imposed a Western theological framework on the texts. In fact, Oosthuizen based his conclusions on the results of several years of fieldwork involving participant observation and extensive interviews with many amaNazarites. But, because of his classical training Oosthuizen lacked the confidence to publish a book based on such methods. Instead he chose to offer an interpretation of amaNazarite religion which appeared to be based on written documents. In reality he was interpreting the Hymns of the amaNazaretha in light of information gleaned from informants. As a result his interpretation reflected the views of the people he interviewed in the 1960's.
Studying Living Religions
Few New Testament scholars would dare to suggest that there is no development in doctrine between the writing of Q or Mark and the theologies of Matthew, Luke, or John? Nor, would any reputable scholars suggest that there was no development in Christology during the first century.
Yet, many scholars expect new religious movements to appear in history with mature and essentially stable theological systems. In the case of the amaNazaretha we are probably dealing with a shorter period of time than was involved in the writing of the Gospels. Nevertheless, many scholars appear to believe that what was taught in the 1930's, 1940's or 1950's defines amaNazarite theology. Such an assumption is clearly flawed. Criticizing Oosthuizen both Sundkler and Vilakazi appealed to statements made years earlier by Johannes Galilee Shembe about the way his followers viewed Isaiah Shembe.
Oosthuizen researched the amaNazarites in the mid-1960's. Sundkler and Vilakazi on the other hand did their primary research in the 1940's and 1950's. It is true that both Sundkler and Vilakazi updated their presentations and added new material when they published their later books. But, they appear to have done no significant new research among the amaNazaretha following the publication of their original studies. Thus the differences between these writers may well be due to the development of doctrine within the amaNazaretha.
The Role of Primal ExperiencesAfrican traditional religions, like most grassroots religious movements, are based on the religious experience of their members. These religions are often called "Primal Regions," because they are essentially oral traditions that give primacy to the interpretation of experience rather than a collection of Sacred Scriptures. Primal Religions include most African Traditional Religions, African Independent Churches, Native American religions, and many New Religious Movements in Western society.
These religions are identifiable with what Robert Redfield calls "little traditions" where charismatic experiences, healings, prophecies, and visions etc. are the principal concern of devotees. In primal religions shamen or similar ritual figures communicate between this world and the next often with the aim of placating the ancestors. At the core of all Primal Religions are primal experiences. These are intense experiences which defy rational explanation. Primal experiences are unexpected vivid encounters which are so unusual that they can only be explained by reference to a religious mythology. Such experiences take many forms. Above all, they shock those who experience them bringing about a change in their attitude toward the material world. Primal experiences involve such things as dreams, visions, voices, spiritual healings, a sense of presence, notions of destiny, sightings of the dead, and inexplicable spiritual phenomena.
Primal experiences are important for African Religious movements because they affirm the reality of traditional mythologies and the foundation myths of New Religious Movements like the amaNazaretha. Before a person has a primal experience, he or she, may view the traditional mythology, or myths of a particular New Religious Movement, as unbelievable fairy tales which only uneducated traditionalists believe. Following a primal experience the "old ways," or teachings of a new religion become a reality.
Among the amaNazaretha primal experiences play a key role in the formation of their beliefs and practices. Discussing his call to become the leader of the amaNazaretha, Londa Shembe described how he originally was only interested in making money. Therefore, he became a lawyer. After his father's death he experienced three dreams or visions of such intensity that he gave up his law practice to become a spiritual leader.
This decision was not easily made. His uncle, Amos Shembe also claimed to be the rightful successor. By contesting this claim Londa Shembe knew that he risked his life. Indeed, at the close of our last meeting in 1987 he descried himself as a "hunted man," who lived in constant danger of assassination. Two years later the assassins struck and he was brutally murdered.
Why did Londa Shembe, an intelligent and well educated man, give up a promising future to risk death daily as a religious leader? The answer lies in the way he interpreted his experiences in terms of amaNazarite myths and tradition. He accepted the reality of his visions as messages from Isaiah Shembe. For him they were vivid encounters with the divine which compelled him to lead the amaNazaretha even if it cost him his life.
The Importance of Mythology
The role of myths in causing Londa Shembe to become the leader of his people is crucial. Without the interpretation of experience supplied by the myths, Londa could easily have dismissed his visions, which occurred after the death of his father, in terms of the psychology of grief. But, in this instance he chose to ignore secular, Western, explanations of his experiences in favour of the myths of the amaNazaretha.
Therefore, to understand the amaNazaretha and people like Londa Shembe, we need to study the use of myth in African and other Primal Religions very carefully. Probably the most useful definition of myth for our purposes is a story with culturally formative power. What is meant here is that a myth is essentially a story which affects the way people live. As such a myth can be any story. Contrary to what many writers say a myth is not necessarily unhistorical. A story which becomes a myth does so because of the function it serves in the life of an individual, a group, or a whole society. Myths are stories that serve specific social functions. They enable people to understand themselves and their world. As anthropologist John Middleton puts it, "a myth is a statement about society and man's place in it and in the surrounding universe....Myths and cosmological notions are concerned with the relationship of people with other people, with nature and with the supernatural."
With this definition in mind it is now possible to see why Oosthuizen and his critics could disagree so sharply about amaNazarite beliefs while remaining true to their own data. The myths of the amaNazaretha, some of which are recorded in various documents, enabled Londa Shembe, and other members of the amaNazaretha, to continually interpret and re-interpret their primal experiences. In the process the very act of interpretation creates new myths which in turn shapes amaNazarite religion. As a result appeals by Sundkler and Vilakazi to written or published texts to establish the correct interpretation of those same texts does not work. The texts of the amaNazarites may be subject to theological exegesis in the future. But, at present they can only be understood within the context of the life of the community where there is a dynamic interaction between primal experiences and an ever evolving mythology.
Getting One's Hands Dirty
The religions studied by most historians of religion are essentially religions of the written Word. When we attempt to study African Religions, and New Religions generally, we face a different task. We need to understand religions which are primarily dynamic oral traditions based on the ongoing interpretation of primal experiences. We must therefore use different tools to study these religions than we use to study established traditions with long literary histories. Years ago Fred Welbourn argued "scholars of religion cannot simply sit in their studies to reflect on intellectual truth. They must do that, but they must also go out into the world and get their hands dirty." In other words we need to combine academic reflection on religion with the empirical study of living religions. This means we need to recognize the dynamic nature of African and other Primal Religions and the experiential nature of their theology.
Who was Isaiah Shembe?
According to Londa Shembe, he was the "third Shembe." That is to say he assumed the mantle of his father and grandfather as the spiritual leader of the amaNazaretha. "Europeans," he said, "call Isaiah Shembe a prophet." But, this term, he insisted, did not convey the full meaning of the reality of Shembe.
Who was Isaiah Shembe? To this question Londa Shembe answered "I have made it plain to you again and again who I think Shembe was within the bounds of safety which the cultural domination of the West permits me (at the cost of my being called a lunatic)." On another occasion he wrote "Think about me as being both Londa Shembe and Isaiah Shembe and then you will understand...Then move on and think again that to you I am Londa Shembe (or Johannes Galilee Shembe for that matter) and then you will see...I am making an attempt to make you see my God through my eyes..."
Who was Isaiah Shembe? Are the amaNazaretha authentic African Christians? Or are they a New Religious Movement? In the last analysis neither Amos Shembe nor Londa Shembe really knew. Both acknowledged a historic debt to Christianity. Amos Shembe also admitted that he encouraged his followers to read the Bible because he saw the future of the amaNazaretha within the Christian community. Londa Shembe, however, did not encourage his followers to read the Bible. He was trying to find religious roots outside of the Christian fold. Both men acknowledged a wide spectrum of belief among their respective followers.
In conclusion, there is no easy answer to the questions raised by the arguments over Oosthuizen's book. The amaNazarite movement is still in the process or formation. They could become an entirely New Religion, completely distinct from Christianity, or they could develop into an authentic form of Zulu Christianity. What will happen? we cannot be know? All we can do is plot their progress and continue to learn from this and similar dynamic movements. What does this tell us about the study of African Religions and New Religious Movements generally ?
Allow me to paraphrase Goethe:
Wer die Heiligen will verstehn,
muβ ins Land der Heiligen gehen.
(Whoever wants to understand saints
must dwell in the land of saints).
Cf. John V. Taylor, The Primal Vision, London, SCM Press, 1963.
This paper will concentrate on the academic debate between G.C. Oosthuizen and two of his critics, Bengt Sundkler and Abselom Vilakazi. For practical reasons it will not discuss the works of Hans-Jürgen Becken, Elizabeth Gunner, James Fernandez, Katesa Schlosser and other scholars who have also written about the Prophet Shembe and the amaNazaretha.
Cf. Joseph R. Washington, Anti-Blackness in English Religion, 1500-1800, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1984, pp. 110. Cf. The Anthropological Review, London, Trübner & Co., Vol. III, 1865, p. clxv.
This argument was being used as late as the 1840's by B.H. Payne, The Negro: What Is His Ethnological Status?, Cincinnati, 1840. For a general survey of this problem see David Brion davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1970, n.b. pp. 453; and
Cf. Josiah Priest, Bible Defense of Slavery; and Origin, Fortunes and History of the Negro Race, Glasgow, W.S. Brown, 1852.
Numerous articles on this topic are to be found in The Anthropological Review, London, Trüber & Co. Cf. Vol. II, 1864, pp. xv-xxlvi, n.b. p. xv, where "A comparison was drawn between the anatomical differences existing between the Negro and the ape...It was stated...On all these points there appeared a nearer approach to the ape than was seen in the European..."; Vol. III, 1865, pp. 120 ff.; a particularly repulsive article, with the title "Anatomico-Anthropological Observations upon the Body of a Negro," is to be found in The Journal of Anthropology, London, Trüber & Co., Vol. III, January, 1871, pp. 245-258.
Cf. The Anthropological Review, London, Trüber & Co. Cf. Vol. III, 1865, pp. clxiii-ccxciii, where there is a long debate about the effectiveness of Christian missions in Africa. One of the main points made by the critics of missionaries is that Africans lack religious sentiments, n.b., pp. clxvi, clxxi, cxcix. All of the arguments advanced were linked to a criticism of "Exeter Hall," p. ccv., i.e. the Anti-Slavery Society, Aborigines Protection Society and other Evangelical Christian efforts to protect native peoples. Further, it was confidently asserted by critics of the missionary movement that "not only has the negro race never civilised itself, but it has never accepted any other civilization..." p. ccxxi. Various Christian members of the Anthropological Society vigorously objected to this view arguing that it was plainly untrue.
Cf. Priest 1852.
Cf. The Anthropological Review, London, Trübner & Co., Vol. I., 1863, pp. 3-4, 12-14, 16-17; and George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology, New York, the Free Press, 1987, pp. 62-69, 248-254, 271-273.
Two good examples are Bishops Colenso and Callaway in South Africa. Cf. Henry Callaway, Fragment on Comparative Religion, Natal, Privately Published, 1874, and On the Religious Sentiment amongst the Tribes of South Africa, n.p., 1876; and John W. Colenso, "On the Efforts of Missionaries among Savages," in The Anthropological Review, Vol. III, 1865, pp. ccxlviii-cclxxxix.
For an African critique of this type of scholarship see: Okot P'Bitek, African Religions in Western Scholarship, Kampala, East African Literature Bureau, 1970.
This is well illustrated by the comments of the award winning, liberal, South African journalist Allister Sparks in The Mind of South Africa, New York, Alfred A. Knof, 1990. In a provocatively named chapter "A Theological Civil War," Sparks claims that the members of African Independent Churches are deeply conservative, ill educated, lower class, Blacks. These churches, he says, preach the acceptance of suffering and a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die gospel. Cf. Sparks 1990:293. As a result he suggests such movements are politically dangerous because they are reactionary. Although Sparks claims to have visited to the headquarters of South Africa's largest Independent Church, the Zion Christian Church, he clearly made little effort to talk to its members and makes no effort to understand them. To support his negative view of African Independent Churches Sparks writes "Some scholars think they are exerting the same kind of quietistic influence on the urban poor that the Evangelical Revival did on the English workingclass in the early nineteenth century, sublimating political grievances into religious fervour." He bases this claim on a University of Cape Town B.A. honours thesis by Michael Sparks. In fact, everything Sparks says about African Independent Churches can be questioned. Survey and other empirical evidence shows quite clearly that membership of an African Independent Church tells very little about socio-economic standing or an individual's political views. Cf. Unpublished survey results gathered by Professor G.C. Oosthuizen and the New Religious Movements and Indigenous Churches Research Project at the University of Zululand, South Africa, 1989 & 1993. Further, Sparks' ethnocentrism prevents his clearly distinguishing between African religion and Christian theology.
 John Buchan, Prester John, London, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962, first published 1910. Buchan, was a very successful mystery writer best known for his book The Thirty-Nine Steps, later he became Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor General of Canada. The book was written on the basis of his experiences working for the British Governor of South Africa, Lord Milner, during and following the Second Anglo-Boer War. From what he writes it is clear that Buchan had access to British Intelligence Officer's reports on African ReligiousMovements when he composed his novel. The book begins with racist slurs about a Black South African convert to Christianity, "The Reverend John something-or other" (Buchan 1962:3). As a young boy the hero of the yarn observes this man preach in his local church. Later, that very night, he and a friend observe the man stark naked on a lonely beach performing strange magic, black arts, and bloody sacrifice (Bucham 1962:8). Years later Buchan's hero encounters the same Black in South Africa. Now the man has become the leader of a vile plot to drive whites from Southern Africa. Buchan's hero, however, frustrates his antagonist's plans and saves white civilization (Buchan 1962:80-85).
 Unlike "true Christian Churches" the new African Independent Churches did not convert the heathen. Instead they were led Christians astray through their recognition of witchcraft and acceptance of polygamy. Cf. Christian Express, Editorial, "The EthiopianChurch," April, 1897, and Editorial, "The Negro Spirit," April, 1900, in Outlook on a Century, edited by Francis Wilson and Dominique Perrot, Alice, Lovedale Press, 1973:153-155 & 158-160. This is a fairly typical reaction. Thus, the growing popularity of African Independent Churches was explained by their alleged lack of moral discipline. According to critics they tolerated moral laxity and superstitious practices to attract members. Mission churches, on the other hand, opposed witchcraft and polygamy. African Independent Churches, however, incorporated these beliefs and practices into their theology. Therefore, it was argued that "young converts," "weak in faith," were easily attracted to these halfway houses between "true Christianity" and African Traditional Religions which, it was said, sanctioned the grossest forms of behaviour. For a strong reaction to traditional social behaviour sanctioned by African religion by a Black Christian minister see John Henderson Soga, The Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs, Alice,Lovedale Press, 1931:134-135, 248 & 253.
 Subsequently, the World Council of Churches, the South African Council of Churches, and similar bodies gradually recognized the spiritual legitimacy of African Independent Churches. As a result African Independent Churches are now widely accepted as genuine religious movements which have adapted the Bible and Christian teachings to the local circumstances of African people. Through them, most observers agree, the global religion of Christianity findslocal expression in the lives of Black Africans.
Interview with Amos Shembe, by Karla Poewe and Irving Hexham, July 1987. It should be noted that Bishop Amos Shembe made identical comments in April, 1986, when he was visited by Terry Muck, Paul Robbins, Frederick Hale and Irving Hexham. At that time he also told his visitors about his lawsuit to prevent the publication of Vilakazi's book. See also the introductory chapter in Irving Hexham, ed., The Scriptures of the amaNazaretha of Ekuphakameni, translated by Londa Shembe and Hans-Jürgen Becken, with an introduction by G.C. Oosthuizen, Calgary, Calgary University Press, 1994.
Interviews with Amos and Londa Shembe, July 1987. The major theological difference between the followers of Amos Shembe and those of Londa Shembe was that Amos Shembe wanted the amaNazarites to be recognized as a Christian Church rooted in Zulu culture even if it was highly unorthodox. On the other hand Londa Shembe and his supporters, rejected what they saw as the Christianization of their religion. Instead Londa Shembe argued that his grandfather had founded a new world religion quite distinct from Christianity. In his view the amaNazarites were as close to Judaism and Islam as they were to Christianity. Therefore, he argued they must be recognized as a world religion in their own right. For this reason he was desperate to see the scriptures of his movement translated into English, which he believed was the new world language.
I reached this conclusion after carefully studying the text of The Theology of a South African Messiah. It contains many hints about his method, but no direct information. Ithen telephoned Professor Oosthuizen in South Africa to ask him how he reached his conclusions. Oosthuizen's reply was that he had spent a "lot of time" with the amaNazaretha. He then interviewed "many people" and carried out a simple survey among two groups of 70 church members. On the basis of this research he wrote hisbook.
A close examination of his book reveals that Oosthuizen (1967) constantly interprets the text of Isaiah Shembe's hymns in light of current practices within the community of the amaNazaretha. For example on p. 4 we read "Shembe II is also deified...The leadership of the movement has become institutionalized." Two pages later on p. 6 in notes 1 and 2, Oosthuizen comments on church membership statistics. Statements like these could only be made on the basis of fieldwork and direct observation. Yet nowhere in the book does Oosthuizen discuss his method. Only when I telephoned him in connection with writing this paper did he admit that he had expected that his readers would recognize the extent that he was dependent on his informants and that in fact he thought he was simply reporting what all amaNazarites knew to be true.
Cf. Sundkler 1976:196;. It is important to note that Sundkler bases his comments about the amaNazarites in his l976 book primarily on work he did in the 1940's. It is also important to note that if Sundkler's account of his fieldwork on page 14 of Bantu Prophets is compared with what he says on pages 6 and 162 of Zulu Zion (1976), he clearly did less fieldwork on the amaNazaretha than the casual reader might be led to assume.
In the introduction to his 1954 M.A. thesis Vilakazi claims to have relied on information provided by "Amos Shembe," "two young girls" (Vilakazi 1954:5), and four senior male members of the church (Vilakazi 1954:6). In addition he says that he studied the church as a participant observer between 1950 and 1953, participated in the January celebrations in 1951, and interviewed "upwards of 100 people (Vilakazi 1954:6). For the published version of his thesis, the 1986 book, Shembe, Vilakazi added some additional material, but not, it seem, very much (Vilakazi 1986:5). Vilakazi's work contains many helpful insights into the beliefs and practices of the amaNazarites. Yet, when he comes to expounding their theology, he abandons his anthropological stance. Instead he relies "on the hymnal and book of prayers: Izihlaelelo ZamaNazaretha, published in 1940 by J. Galilee Shembe..." (Vilakazi 1954:82; Cf. Vilakazi 1986:70. N.B. the misprint is in the original title).
This explanation does not apply to the work of other scholars like Hans-Jürgen Becken who disagree with some of Oosthuizen's findings. In these cases such things as the geographic location of informants, the particular branch of the amaNazarites to which they belong, and even their kinship ties probably account for differences in belief. Unfortunately space does not permit a discussion of this topic in this paper.
As it turns out, primal experiences are remarkably common even in Western society. Professor David Hay became interested in the phenomenon when some postgraduate students at the University of Nottingham, England, responding to a survey admitted that they had primal experiences that profoundly affected their outlook. See Hay, "Reports of Religious Experiences by a Group of Postgraduate Students: A Pilot Study" and "Religious Experiences among a Group of Postgraduate Students: A Qualitative Survey," unpublished papers presented at the Colloquium on Psychology and Religion, Lancaster University, 1975. The majority of these students said that they had no adequate explanation for their experience and would welcome one. Following this initial survey, Professors David Hay and Ann Morisy arranged a statistically valid national survey of the British population. In this more qualified survey they found that 36.4 percent of those included in the random sample reported having had such experiences. Significantly, 45 percent of those who had these experiences had no real contact with churches or organized religions. Cf. D. Hay and A. Morisy, AReports of Ecstatic Paranormal or Religious Experiences in Great Britain and the United States: A Comparison of Trends,Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1/7:255-65.
In a national survey in the United States, some 30 percent of American responded positively to questions about primal experiences. A much higher figure was obtained by Robert Wuthnow in his survey of the San Francisco Bay area population. There Wuthnow=s positive response rate went up to 50 percent. Cf. R. Wuthnow, Experimentation in American Religion: The New Mysticisms and Their Implications for the Churches, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1978:64-65 & 100. In Canada, Reginald Bibby found that 60 percent of Canadians reported positively when asked about primal experiences. All of this evidence suggests, Bibby observed, a "pool of religiosity" that is largely untapped by established religions. Bibby, AReligionless Christianity: A Profile of Religion in the Canadian =80s.@ Social Indicators Research, 13, 1983:1-16. See also Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985:325ff; and AlisterHardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1979.
Primal experiences give life to mythology in a startling way. They are enough out of the ordinary that modern secular society tends to deny that they are real. And because primal experiences are unusual, medical and psychiatric establishments identify them as abnormal and classify the people who have them as disturbed or mentally ill. Naturally, most people do not welcome being labelled in this fashion, and so even people whose lives are changed by primalexperiences are oftenreluctant to talk about them.
Such experiences foster a sense of divine guidance, or destiny, and individuals are persuaded that their experiences constitute a call to join the group. Dreams and visions confirm the rightness of this calling, as do other members of the religious community which the convert joins. Within the context the intimacy of church services and healing rites members talk freely about their primal experiences, and testify to the reality of the spirit world in their lives. In his studies of hundreds of Zulu in South Africa, for example, S. G. Lee reports that before individuals would become diviners in divining cults, they would have a variety of primal experiences, including numerous visual and auditory hallucinations. Fifteen percent reported a history of minor possession that involved fugue states, hallucinations, dreaming, and so on. Seventeen percent reported diseases that they attributed to sorcery. The difference between those who merely consulted diviners and those who actually became diviners was largely a matter of the severity of their condition. Chronic or severe sufferers went through rigorous, six-month-long initiations, and converted from client to diviner to have their Aways cleared.@ See Lee, ASpirit Possession among the Zulu,@ in Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa, ed. J. Beattie and J. Middleton, New York, Africana, 1969:28-55. See also S.G. Lee, A Study of Crying Hysteria and Dreaming in Zulu Women, Unpublished Ph.d. Thesis, London, University of London, 1954; and K. Kohler and N.J. van Warmelo, The Izangoma Diviners, Pretoria, Government Printer, 1941.
Whenever the word "myth" is mentioned some people think that it denotes something which is untrue while others see in myth hidden spiritual truths. The first attitude is demonstrated by the unreconstructed Stalinist who said "Eric Honecker was the only honest man in Germany. Don't believe what you read about former East Germany in the newspapers its a myth. It's all untrue." The second attitude is reflected in the writings of men like Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) who used the idea of myth to promote his own vague defence of spirituality. A scholarly collection of essays in this vein is found Transformations of Myth Through Time edited by Diane U. Eisenberg and several other writers, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. In the works of these writers,and many others like them, myths convey some indefinable transcendental truth, or literary value, which can be grasped intuitively by spiritual people or folk living in non-technological societies but which most modern individuals completely fail to understand. For a good discussion of various literary uses of myth see: K.K. Ruthven, Myth: The Critical Idiom, London, Methuen, 1976.
 The value of using myth as an analytic concept can be seen when we consider the alternatives. Instead of talking about myth we could refer to a world-view, or we could talk about an ideology, philosophy or perspective. The problem with all of these and many other similar terms is that they convey the notion of rational argument. Someone who lives according to their religious beliefs is usually assumed to be a person who thinks and acts in a logical manner on the basis of rational arguments. World-views are consistent entities and when their consistency fails or at least is recognized as failing by either an outsider or an insider a problem is created for the believer who attempts to show why, despite the apparent contradictions, the world-view is believable. By contrast mythological thinking lacks propositional form. Some mythologies may form coherent wholes but many consist of isolated fragments which co-exist in a person's consciousness without any need being felt to express their meaning propositionally. The fact that myths, as myths, lack propositional expression is often missed because one of the function of myths is to give coherence to the life of individuals who believe them. A collection of useful essays on the social function of myth is to be found in Mythology edited by Pierre Maranda, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1972.
This definition was developed on the basis of Malinowski's essay "Myth in Primitive Psychology." There Malinowski pointed out that most western interpreters of myth go wrong precisely because they do not observe how myths are actually used in social situations where they are important. Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion,New York, Anchor Books, 1954:96-111.
John Middleton, ed., Myth and Cosmos, New York, Natural History Press, 1967: x. Thus, what makes a story a myth is not its content, as the rationalists thought, but the use to which the story is put. Once accepted, a myth can be used to ennoble the past, explain the present, and hold out hope for the future. It gives individual and social life meaning and direction. This ability to guide action distinguishes myths from legends, folk tales, and other stories. In short, myths have the power to change lives and shape societies.
In interviews with them they were both quite open about the fact that at times even they were uncertain as to the true identity of Isaiah Shembe and the amaNazaretha.