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STUDIES OF THE NAZARETH BAPTIST CHURCH IBANDLA LAMANAZARETH
THE STORY OF ISAIAH SHEMBE

TRANSLATED BY HANS-JÜRGEN BECKEN
EDITED BY IRVING HEXHAM AND G.C. OOSTHUIZEN

Copyright Hexham, Oosthuizen, Becken 1995

Published by the Edwin Mellen Press, Box 450, Lewiston, New York, USA, 14092-0450; Tel. 716-754-2266; Fax. 716-754-4056.
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THE ORAL HISTORY OF THE NAZARETH BAPTIST CHURCH IBANDLA LAMANAZARETHA
BY HANS-JÜRGEN BECKEN

 

Introduction

This book contains the history of the ibandla lamaNazaretha (the Nazareth Baptist Church) according to the testimonies of Christians who belong to the movement. The church was inaugurated at the beginning of this century by the prophet Isaiah Shembe. Today it is by far the largest African Independent Church (AIC) among the Zulu speaking people of Southern Africa. Its congregations can now be found in all the provinces of the Republic of South Africa, and its missions have spread the message to Swaziland and to Mozambique.

The ibandla lamaNazaretha is the fruit of an organic growth of Christianity on the African soil, an institution in which the Gospel message was incarnated into African culture, mentality and community life. Members of the ibandla lamaNazaretha worship God in an African manner. Thus this church addresses the mentality and the needs of Africans in a way in which Africans sense their own spiritual and social needs.

Therefore, this movement can be properly termed an African Reformation of the twentieth century. As such it resembles the indigenization of the Gospel in the European Reformation of the 16th century. The phenomenon of the ibandla lamaNazaretha has attracted the attention of numerous scholars from different disciplines. These people have reported their observations and findings in numerous academic articles and books. As a result the volume of literature on the ibandla lamaNazaretha far outnumbers that written about other AICs.

Most of these publications, however, were written by outsiders. Therefore, even with the best of intentions to present an unbiased interpretation, they inevitably looked at the life and the history of the ibandla lamaNazaretha through their own glasses. As a result they understood the church within the framework of their own concepts.

The approach of this our study differs radically from all previous attempts to write the history of the ibandla lamaNazaretha. In fact, it is a pioneering work in African Church History. We avoid calling it "unique" only, because we hope, that it will encourage many others to follow the path of "making Church History" through presenting indigenous oral evidence.

The study itself is based on the largest collection of oral testimonies so far recorded by any AIC. And this presentation is the result of a (hitherto unusual) cooperation between an AIC and her Western scholars.



Oral Church History

When relating the history of their church, members of the ibandla lamaNazaretha used to tell a story of experiences rather than offering a sequence account of historical dates, facts and events. In a style similar to that of the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament they witnessed to the power of the gospel in their lives. Ministers and evangelists, chiefs and teachers, but also many ordinary men and women witnessed, to their encounter with the Christian message that confronted them in an African way. This message, they said, touched and convinced their hearts, liberated them from the bondage of evil, and healed them from illness and sin.

They gave their testimonies in personal conversations and in public witnessing during worship services and in evangelistic outreaches. In their understanding, these testimonies are not simply stories of the past. Rather they have an important theological meaning which is essential for our present times.

These stories represent a treasure trove of oral church history. The term "oral history" refers to reports on events in the recent past by means of personal recollections, where people narrate their own experiences of historical events. This is different from recounting what somebody has been told by others or what he or she regards as common knowledge.

The latter belongs to the field of "oral tradition," which is widely practised and understood in a society and must have been handed down for at least one generation. In oral societies, memories are faithful repositories, which contain the sum of past human experience and explain the how and why of present conditions. They can remember and spin complex ideas, messages and instructions for the living, manifesting continuity over time: one of the greatest wonders.

Oral tradition is culture that is transmitted from one generation to the next by word of mouth rather than through written accounts. Other means of oral tradition are hymns and praise songs (izibongo) of the leaders. Members of the ibandla lamaNazaretha do not come from a society which can be described as having a purely oral background. They are literate. They read and use their Bibles, they have hymn-books, and other printed matters, and they write letters to each other. However, their thought patterns are shaped by their oral heritage. Even in highly literate societies, the reading of the Bible is complemented by oral sermons to interpret the meaning of the historical texts for our time. In the same way, these testimonies convey the today's meaning of the message.



Petros M. Dhlomo's Achievement

The founder-prophet of the ibandla lamaNazaretha died in 1935. After his death his son, and successor in the leadership of the movement, was concerned to collect all kinds of testimonies about the work of his father. This task was so important to him that he appointed for this work an archivist by the name of Petros Musawenkosi Dhlomo, who until 1949 had been a migrant worker at Johannesburg. Dhlomo gave the following account of his call to this task:

In the year (1949), when the church building at Ekuphakameni was dedicated and the July meeting was over, our father, J. G. Shembe, stood there until the end of August. One day, our father called me. He held in his hand a small typewritten paper. We went to the place next to the church building where he used to attend to the people,

When we had arrived there, he showed them this little paper and said: "Here you see a report on the deeds of our great father, Isaiah Shembe, which he did at many places. I look for people, who will work on them. But nobody wants to do this; they say, that they must work for the Whites. There is a man by the name of Mngadi who does not belong to our church, and who said, that I could bring them to him; however, I do not like, that the work of God should be done by unbelievers."

I felt like being called by these words. All the people looked at me and seemed to think: "He is the man." It was like a silent ballot, for all looked at me. The lord, J.G. Shembe, asked me: "Where is your typewriter?" I replied: "I left it in Johannesburg." Then he asked me why I left it there, when I knew, that I would come here. I said, that I always used to leave it behind when coming for the meeting. He said: "I want you to go and to fetch it; I want this typewriter."

Then he enquired for the price of a railway ticket for Johannesburg, and I told him the price. He advised me to take eight pounds sterling from the small grass basket and to go and to fetch it. I rose and went off. But my mind rumbled, for I did not understand what was going on; all what was said was not clear to me. Would this mean, that I should now stay indeed here at Ekuphakameni? In this way, I was called to write these stories of the movement of Ekuphakameni.

I returned with my typewriter according to his advice. I brought it to the lord, and he said: "May the Lord bless you!" Then he called pastor Ngcobo as a witness, and he instructed me in all the rules concerning my stay in this place. I was not supposed to loiter about in the village of Ekuphakameni nor to listen to gossip. A house was allocated to me as my residence. Shembe asked whether I had relatives who were preparing my meals, and I confirmed that. He said: "From today, they shall no longer prepare your meals; rather you shall cook them yourself."

He gave me two barrels for water storage. I went off and was depressed by listening to so many rules, which he had given to me and which were awe-inspiring. I said to him: "Our father, teach me." He replied: "In what school did Shembe learn? In what school did Jesus learn?"

Then I kept silent. When I had gone and slept in the night, there came a messenger at 4 a.m. calling me to come to the lord. I rose quickly and found him on the other side of the church building together with another minister, pastor Nene. He said: "Do you remember the rules which I told you? I shall repeat them now again." He made this pastor his witness, and he repeated all the words, which he had said before, and added even others, which he did not say before.

In this way the archivist began his work to collect and to type the testimonies. He was under pressure of time to record them, for there were still many church members alive by that time, who were able to give evidence of their personal encounter with the founder-prophet and to testify to their experiences. However, even if Nazaretha Christians live a healthy life and grow old, also these early witnesses have to pass away one day. Only when their testimonies are recorded, their oral history will survive to be told to coming generations.

Therefore, this work was given such a great priority by this church who cherishes her history in which she is rooted. Already in 1958, Professor Bengt Sundkler, author of the pioneering work on AICs Bantu Prophets in South Africa,(1) saw this collection as "the most amazing in the history of African religious movements"(2) and quoted samples from it. In an interview in 1958, J.G. Shembe: "Expressed regret that the Church had nobody who could sort out the mass of material so far collected." Adding "we want all the testimonies just as they were told. Then we shall get real history you see."(3) Sunkler also told me that in the interview J.G. Shembe added "Then people can add their own interpretation later." Unfortunately, Sundkler did not get a chance to publish these Acts of the Nazarites.



Ecumenical Cooperation

My first personal contacts with the Nazareth Baptist Church date back to the 1960s, when I was teaching Church History at the Lutheran Theological College in Umpumulo, Natal. Being trained by the famous German church historian Kurt Dietrich Schmidt, I did not restrict the study of Church History to textbooks. Rather I sent my students out to do their own field research.

In the course of these explorations into the past, we visited for several times Nazaretha congregations, their church centre at Ekuphakameni and their holy mountain Nhlangakazi. In personal conversations, J.G. Shembe mentioned to me the collection of testimonies and encouraged me to record new statements from members of his church. He also spoke of his concern to let somebody work these documents into a comprehensive presentation of oral church history. Preferably, he would like to have this work done by a member or by some close friend of the church, for he was afraid of outsiders who might mismanage the image of the church. His brother A.K. Shembe, who had the necessary qualification to edit this church history, seemed not to be interested to do it. So he proposed me to do this job.

Unfortunately, I was unable to comply with this request due to my full-time occupation at Umpumulo. However, we kept in close contact, and in the 1970s, also a student from this church was trained, together with other AIC students, at our College. Also after my return to Germany in 1974, I did not find the time to attend to this task. I said repeatedly "unfortunately" for J.G. Shembe left this earth in 1976, and in the ensuing succession conflict, the village of Ekuphakameni was seized by a faction of the church under his son L. Shembe, and the valuable collection was ravaged.

When the bulk of the church under the leadership of A. K. Shembe (the brother of the late J.G. Shembe) had established a new church centre in the nearby village of Ebuhleni, the archivist started his work from scratch again, collecting and typing fresh testimonies. Eager to salvage the endangered historical treasures of the church, he did not even stop writing at sundown. Rather he continued typing also at night time by kerosene lamp light. In this way, this skilled archivist managed to build up a large collection in a few year's time.

When I came there in 1989, he had gathered already more than 250 testimonies filling over 550 narrow-typed folio pages in his files, and Dhlomo is still adding more to them. The disadvantage was, that by then many of the early witnesses of the deeds of the founder-prophet had passed away. It was, however, of great benefit, that Dhlomo had already in 1975 condensed the oral traditions on the early life of Shembe into a mimeographed booklet of 26 pages entitled Incwadi Yokuzalwa kukaShembe Umprofethi (The Book on the birth of the Prophet Shembe).

It is the merit of professor G. C. Oosthuizen, director of the Institute for New Religious Movements and Independent/Indigenous Churches (NERMIC) at the University of Zululand, to prevent a possible future destruction of these valuable materials by depositing photostats in the archives of his institute. He provided me also with photostats of the Zulu manuscripts for translation. And, cosponsored by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), his institute granted me a research fellowship to come to South Africa and to visit for six months all the old mission stations of the founder-prophet in preparation for the writing of this book. This grant and the untiring support, encouragement and personal care by professor Oosthuizen made this project viable.

I note my sincere gratitude to him for all this help. This field work was carried out from May to October, 1989. When contacting the present bishop of the church, A.K. Shembe, to discuss my plans to contact the members of this church and to acquaint myself with their local background, and when asking for permission to visit all the old villages of his father in Natal and Zululand, the archivist dug up from his records the prophecy by the founder of the church in a letter to his attorney Dickson written at Zibone on 22 August 1931. There he said:

I have places in Zululand, which I have been given by headmen, so that people could gather there, whenever I come, to listen to the messages of the Lord, and that I may pray for the sick in the name of the Lord (Mat. 10,7; Acts 8,6). I use to stay there for 2 or 3 weeks, and people come together from different places, young and old. Some sick people are carried to these places. Others come to listen to the Word of God and use to build temporary huts, in which they can stay. Now I got a notice from the government to disband all these stations within three months time from July.

I do not intend to resist this order of the government. However, I ask for your advice concerning what I intend to write to the government. For I am convinced, that a White lord will come from overseas, who does not contend against God, and who wishes, that God will be praised in Zululand....He will ask for the names of all these places; and it would be good, if he could find all these names written. Therefore, I intend to ask for permission to erect stones at all these places, on which I had written their names. My inner voice tells me to do this, but I would like to do it with the permission of the government. Kindly advise me, whether I should write this application to the government.

We do not know the advice, which he received from his attorney. However, more important than that old story is the meaning of this prophecy for our times. The prophet had predicted a future ecumenical cooperation. Endowed by this prophecy, we went together with office bearers of the church on a pilgrimage to these old places. We covered by car more than 7500 kilometres between the Transkei and the Mozambique border along the roads and tracks, where the "Servant" once had trod. At every place, we started with a devotion were he once had prayed, before discussing the local church history with the Christians of the respective congregations which are known as "temples."

During our long drives the church workers often relieved me from the steering wheel, and all the congregations received us with cordial hospitality and shared with us freely their experiences. We based our discussions on the testimonies written by the archivist, which are of great authenticity, for they were not subject to possible misunderstandings and manipulations by a foreign researcher. We never used a questionnaire in order to let our partners in dialogue decide on the topics of our conversations. This method proved fruitful, because they remembered also other facts, and new documentations came to the light.

This unconventional approach did not yield statistical material; Nazaretha Christians heed the warnings of I Samuel 24, and they are satisfied to have their names written in the Book of Life For them, their history is not a record of victories. Rather we learned by this exercise, that it is the question of mutual enabling for life possibly for survival.



Why Oral Church History?

The answer to this question was given by a resolution passed by the VIIth Conference of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS) at Rome in 1988:

It is recommended that IAMS members take seriously in the pursuit of missiology the recognition, gathering and utilisation of Christian oral tradition and oral theology, everywhere, in all their forms, because this is the basic expression of the response of the people of God to the Gospel in the local situation. Responding to this clarion, scholars from various fields of learning started research projects, not only on the church history of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America, but also of the West, especially of Northern America.

This trend is in line with the useful orientation on our road towards intercultural thought and action in mission between the Scilla of a vague global-ideological "spiritual humanism" and the Charybdis of a narrow particular contextuality. Along this road, they were led to new insights that changed old established traditional concepts. Current Western historiography usually holds that scientific historical research has to be based on written documentation from the past. A respectable book is to be crowded with footnotes referring to documents and to the writings by other scholars.

The value of oral history has been culpably underestimated by Western historians and theologians who almost exclusively looked for evidence in written sources. Modern scholars, however, tend to understand more and more, that many documents were condensed to writing after a shorter or longer period of oral transmission.(4)

Thus theologians no longer assume, that the Bible was written by Divine dictation. Rather by serious linguistic inquiry into the different underlying layers of oral tradition in the Biblical books, they search for a deeper understanding of the message handed down to us in these documents, and this helps to cast more light on their meaning. In this recording the oral histories, we did without extensive documentation. We simply reproduced the statements, as they have been given by the people, adding in brackets only translations or short explanations, which are helpful for a better understanding. And where the informant is not mentioned in the context, his/her name is given in brackets at the end of the testimony.

As noted already Nazaretha Christians do not live in a pure oral culture. Rather they experience the transition of their society to literacy. This is a global phenomenon. Uncontaminated oral history and tradition simply do not exist any more, except, perhaps, in a few very remote corners of this earth. In all other regions of this globe, oral history and literacy exist side by side. Christian mission has been very efficient in spreading literacy in oral societies by translating the Bible into the vernacular of almost every tribe.

The Bible is by far the most common and influential source of information. Only when this holy book was available in their own language, AICs could develop their own theology. No wonder, that oral societies often borrowed materials from the Scriptures and assimilate biblical motifs. So too in the testimonies reproduced in this volume, the reader will frequently observe that events are narrated in a style resembling the one used by the Gospels and the Acts.

Informants speak in a holy language where earthly events become transparent to allow the biblical message to be conveyed by the testimony. Strange as this form of expression may appear to the western reader, he and she should remember, that this is a genuine reception of the Gospel in a culture different from their own.

In the translation from the vernacular into the lingua franca English is only a weak, though a necessary bridge to communicate mutual understanding in ecumenical dialogue. We must remember, what John S. Pobee has said:

One of the most exciting things about Africa today is the AICs. They have a very living faith and a strong sense of mission. Their history is often told in the form of a story, mostly unwritten. But it is often the story of manifestations of the power of God in healing, exorcism, and glossolalia, precisely gifts which Christ bequeathed to His church, but which are somehow put in abeyance by established Christianity.

The Christians in Africa see the presence of their late ancestors as a matter of course, and their many reports of dreams emphasize, that they thereby receive divine guidance and spiritual insights, similar to what the apostles experienced according to the oral histories.

Through this translation of the testimonies, a tool is provided for the dialogue now due. Western historians may also complain that oral church history is only marginally concerned for calendar dates. Chronology is essential to history. It need not, however, be based on a Western calender.

This pattern of describing events is similar to the one used by Biblical writs. In the Bible we are given a relative sequence of events and situations. A more precise dating is left to later scholars who may use other written sources to date events and reports. In a similar way, we have to be satisfied when the testimonies speak only of "another day" or "to another time" in this documentation, and leave the more exact dating to later comparisons with written documentation.

On the other hand, these testimonies frequently refer to places, chiefs and other geographical items. These references enabled us to trace local church histories and traditions in various regions, where the church lives. They are meaningful in the African understanding of church history as the story of a movement crossing the tribal boundaries and finding different expressions in the respective regions.

For these reasons, we ordered the oral history to reflect: (1) in the core area of its activities around the church centre of Euphakameni and the holy mountain Nhlangakazi; and, (2) in the various local settings around the "temples" in the different tribal regions. Further testimonies will also be found in an additional volume of this series.

Oral history embodies the witness of religious experience and secures its historical continuity. The genuine reception of the gospel can be observed in that the oral statements do not just repeat the terminology used by western missionaries who admittedly did their level best to adapt the Christian message to African forms of expression and life.

African Christians use indigenous terminology, idiom and thought patterns, creating even new terms and names, which are not found in current dictionaries. The result of this process may sound strange, even heretical, to the ears of orthodox Christian observers in the West. It is, however, holistic, comprehensive and stratified, embracing the cultural self-understanding of the movement.

Taking seriously a people and culture, is a way of genuine inculturation which leads to the renewal of the community and enables a fruitful dialogue hundreds of individuals have contributed to this study by their testimonies and discussions, thereby carrying leaves, limbs and branches together, while I tried to join them into respectable looking trees. I am thankful to all who helped in this project for their valuable contributions to this documentation

Finally, I must now take the full responsibility for weaving the pieces into a mosaic. By this study, history is given back to the people in their own words. And giving them a past, it also helps them towards a future of their own making. Thereby, their history becomes more personal, more social, and more democratic. Now, to all who helped prepare these testimonies, and to all who read them, I wish to close with the words so often used by Isaiah Shembe:

"May the Lord bless you!"



Hans-Jürgen Becken,

Stuttgart

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

25 January 1996

1. Bengt G.M. Sundkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, London, International African Institute/ Oxford University Press, 1961.

2. Ibid. p. 329.

3. Ibid. p. 328-329.

4. For a full discussion of this issue in the Southern African context see:H.L. Pretorius, Historiography and Historical Sources Regarding African Indigenous Churches in South Africa, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.