ISAIAH SHEMBE AND THE AMANAZARITES

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THE TEACHINGS OF THE ISAIAH SHEMBE

From The Scriptures of the amaNazaretha of EkuphaKameni edited by Irving Hexham and published by the University of Calgary Press, 1993:

Copyright Irving Hexham 1993


A few notes on the background to the work of Isaiah Shembe by Irving Hexham.


The growth of African Independent Churches is one of the amazing social developments to the twentieth century. The first recorded indigenous religious movement was that of the Xhosa prophet Ntsikana (1780-1821). Exactly what happened to cause him to begin preaching a Christian type message is unclear. What is certain is that he underwent a conversion experience at a time when he had no contact with whites, missionaries or other Christians. His life changed dramatically and he began an itinerant preaching ministry which involved the giving of prophecies and composition of theistic hymns.

The traditional explanation for Ntsikana's behaviour is that he received a message from God by direct revelation and that his teachings were entirely due to the Holy Spirit. In her study of his "Great Hymn" Janet Hodgson argues that this commonly held belief is wrong because there are oral traditions which indicate that following his conversion Ntsikana had extended contact with missionaries. Although Hodgson makes a good case her evidence is not conclusive leaving the possibility that the traditional account of his mission is correct.

What is certain is that Ntsikana developed a theistic theology which went well beyond the ancestor worship and traditional beliefs of his contemporaries. It is also clear that while he made few lasting converts many Xhosa flocked to hear his preaching which prepared the way for later missionary activity. Therefore although he did not work for any mission organization and never formed his own African Independent Church there seems little doubt that his teachings predisposed many Blacks to accept Christianity (Cf. Janet Hodgson, Ntsikana's Great Hymn: A Xhosa Expression of Christianity in the Early 19th. Century Eastern Cape, Cape Town, University of Cape Town Centre for African Studies, 1980).

Thirty years later the events known as the Xhosa Cattle Killing took place leading to severe disruptions in many traditional societies. From the religious viewpoint the cattle killing episode appears to have gained legitimation from a synthesis between traditional beliefs and Christian preaching. Yet as with Ntsikana's work it left no lasting religious movement in African society.

The first genuine African Independent Church was that of the Methodist preacher Nehemiah Tile who disagreed with his white supervisors in 1833 and founded his own church in 1834. An essentially Thembu movement Tile's movement combined Christian teachings with Thembu nationalism. Unfortunately this brave experiment did soon disintegrated after Tile's death in 1891 (C.C. Saunders, "Tile and the Thembu Church: Politics and Independency on the Cape Eastern Frontier in the Late Nineteenth Century," Journal of African History, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1970, pp. 553-570).

From the 1880's onwards many African Independent Churches appear to have developed. But, most of these were small affairs which attracted few followers and soon failed. It was not until the turn of the century that African Independent Churches finally took root among Blacks in South Africa ( Cf. B.G.M. Sundkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, London, Oxford University Press, 2nd. edition, 1961, Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists, London, Oxford University Press, 1976; and G.C. Oosthuizen, The Birth of Christian Zionism in South Africa, KwaDlangezwa, University of Zululand, 1986).

Today literally thousands of African Independent Churches are thriving in South Africa. The majority of these are very small affairs with their own prophet and a handful of members. Others, however, are large well organized movements which have stood the test of time. The oldest major African Independent Church is the Nazareth Baptist Church of the amaNazarites founded in 1912 by Isaiah Shembe....

David Chidester estimates that in 1990 "over 30% of the Black population of South Africa" belonged to African Independent Churches ( David Chidester, Religions of South Africa, London, Routledge, 1992, p. 114). This figure represents a doubling of Independent Church membership in the 30 years since 1960. During the same time period membership of African Traditional religions dropped from 22.6% of the Black population to 16% (Cf. Human Sciences Research Council, Religion, Intergroup Relations and Social Change in South Africa, Pretoria, Humans Sciences Research Council, 1985, p. 27). In other words, African Independent Churches are growing at the expense of mainline Christian Churches. Not surprisingly mainline Christian writers do their best to minimize the importance of the Independent Churches who are clearly infringing on their market share....

...the Nazareth Baptist Church of Isaiah Shembe, the ama-Nazarites, which is the oldest major Independent Church and second largest African Independent Church in Southern Africa has around half a million members the majority of whom are Zulu...(pp. xii-xiv)


The full text of the above essays and Londa Shembe's complete translation of selected passages from the sayings of Isaiah Shembe can be found in:


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