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The following article appeared in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society.

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by Stephen Hayes

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Over the last thirty years or so there has been a great deal of study of the so-called "African Independent Churches" and there has also been much discussion about the terms used to describe the organisations and movements being studied.

Bengt Sundkler's Bantu prophets in South Africa, published in 1948, was one of the first monographs to deal systematically with what we know today as the African Independent Churches. In the introduction to the second edition he points out that the official term is Native Separatist Churches (Sundkler 1961:18). Sundkler finds this unsatisfactory, partly because the term "native" was offensive to blacks in South Africa at that time and also because he thought that it might suggest that white secessionists were not "separatist". He therefore proposed to speak of "Bantu Independent Churches". Later writers have generally preferred to speak of "African Independent Churches", partly because "Bantu" soon became even more offensive than "native" to blacks in South Africa, as it became closely linked to the apartheid ideology of the South African government. There was another reason for rejecting the term "Bantu". Until it was adopted by the apartheid ideologists it was mainly used as a linguistic rather than as a racial category. The "Bantu" languages were those in which the word for "people" was similar to the Nguni word "abantu". The independent churches Sundkler described were indeed to be found among people who spoke Bantu languages, but similar movements were also to be found among people from other linguistic groupings and indeed throughout the African continent. "African" therefore seemed preferable and was used partly in a racial and partly in a continental sense.

Others have preferred to speak of African Indigenous Churches, African Instituted Churches or even of new religious movements (Makhubu 1988:1). My contention in this article is that the terminology used to define the phenomenon being studied may actually distort the study and impose a set of categories that effectively marginalise a large number of African Christians. Ekpo (1980:12) points out that "The very terms used to name and designate convey powerful meanings. In addition, the different arrangements of these terms into classes and sub-classes, construct and localise a new reality."

Sundkler makes it clear that he is thinking in racial terms. Even though he uses different terms, the bodies he studies are still those that were classified by the South African government as "Native Separatist Churches". Sundkler himself describes the various and changing attitudes of white governments. It appears that a significant turning point was the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The first few years of the twentieth century marked the zenith of European racist imperialism. The new imperialism, which gained momentum in the 1880s and dominated the 1890s, began to ebb after 1905. The new imperialism led to the scramble for Africa on the part of European powers and was characterised by racism and chauvinism. Even though the political force of the new imperialism began to wane after that time, however, it continued to influence people for many years afterwards. The scramble for Africa led many Europeans to write books about Africa for their fellow-Europeans. These books were often the first descriptions of the people and places of Africa to be read by people in Europe and they shaped the European perception of Africa for decades to come. This literature was strongly influenced by the new imperialism and the attitudes conveyed in the literature also affected missionaries from the countries that were engaged in the scramble for Africa, who came to see themselves as members of a superior race and the Africans as inferior, and not really to be trusted with the future of the church (Bosch 1991:302).

An example from West Africa can illustrate this. In the mid-nineteenth century a Yoruba from what is now Nigeria was liberated from a slave ship by the British and taken to Sierra Leone. There he became a Christian and took the name of Samuel Crowther. He was ordained an Anglican priest and eventually became a bishop and then, after many years, returned to his home country as a missionary. He was the first black Anglican bishop in Africa and indeed one of the very first Anglican bishops in the continent (Groves 1954:49ff). His colour was not seen as especially significant at the time. Henry Venn, the secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), is well-known for his advocacy of planting self-governing, self-supporting and self-extending churches and saw the appointment of leaders like Crowther as a means of achieving this. Some years later, however, at the time of the new imperialism, a new breed of British missionaries arrived in West Africa. They were imbued with the notions of European (and in particular British) superiority and regarded Crowther's consecration as a bishop as premature. They revised the history of Crowther's mission to fit in with their views (see Walls 1992:19). To them it was very significant indeed that Crowther was black. Any weakness or failure in the mission he led was ascribed to this cause (see Williams 1990:213). Though there was a significant minority among the missionaries who had a different opinion (Williams 1990:205, 232), the revisionist view prevailed. It dominated the CMS headquarters, and came to dominate the church in Africa for the next seventy years. Even Stephen Neill (1964:377-378), writing in the post-colonial era, accepted their judgement without question.

In the 1890s the various white-controlled governments in South Africa do not seem to have found the African Independent Churches a particular problem. At most there was some concern about the eligibility of clergy with a low standard of education to be marriage officers (Sundkler 1961:66). The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Z.A.R.) seemed to have a tolerant policy (Sundkler 1961:70). But the attitude changed in the 1900s in Natal, especially after the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906. There it was unlawful for any minister or member of a religious movement "not under European control" to "address meetings or assemblies of natives" (Sundkler 1961:70). Here is the origin of the defining characteristic of the African Independent Churches - the fear on the part of colonial officialdom, steeped in the values of the new imperialism, of any movement "not under European control". This defining characteristic has continued to dominate the study of a large group of Christians, not only in South Africa, but throughout the continent. It has defined the problem and imposed a set of categories that have marginalised these Christians for nearly ninety years.

In Southern Africa the apostle of the new imperialism was Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner, who, after having manipulated the South African Republic and the Orange Free State into a war, planned to ensure British hegemony for generations to come in his postwar reconstruction. Among the members of his famous "kindergarten" - the young Oxford and Cambridge graduates he imported as senior civil servants - was John Buchan, who later became Governor-General of Canada. Buchan's novel Prester John, first published in 1910, not only gives a very good impression of the official attitude of the British rulers towards the African independent churches, but propagated and reinforced that attitude among generations of white children who read it.

In the novel the protagonist, as a child in Scotland, encounters a black Presbyterian minister from Africa who preaches in church in the day, but practises dark heathen rites on the sea shore at night. Many years later the two men meet again in South Africa, where the Presbyterian minister is now leader of an Ethiopian politico-religious sect, about to make war on the whites. The novel contains little accurate information about the African Independent Churches, but gives a great deal of insight into the mind of white colonial officialdom. According to Walker (1965:522) the fear of black political and religious independence at least partly motivated the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, and it was only the divisions among the independent churches that caused whites not to fear them more than they did.

The "Ethiopian" churches started as schisms from white-led denominations because of what their leaders saw as racism or paternalism, while the "Zionist" and "Apostolic" churches generally broke away for primarily doctrinal reasons, in particular over the issues of healing and "Jordan baptism". Once they had taken on separate existence, the new denominations grew rapidly, both in members and numbers. This caused white missionaries to see them as a problem too, and denominational and interdenominational missionary conferences frequently had the independent churches on the agenda. Though they saw the problems from a somewhat different point of view from that of the political leaders, they nevertheless saw the defining characteristic of the new denominations as independency or separatism.

When one section of the Ethiopian church became affiliated with the Anglican Church as the Order of Ethiopia, the different motives and expectations on both sides caused problems. Among the Anglicans the tractarian or high church party held strongly to the vision of the catholicity of the church, which they saw as an inclusive fellowship of all races, nationalities, ages and classes, with a ministry derived by historic episcopal succession from the apostles themselves. One priest who held such views had managed to convince the Ethiopian leader James Mata Dwane that apostolic succession of the episcopate was essential to the church (Verryn 1972:30). Dwane and the Ethiopians wanted the apostolic succession without the catholicity, however, and their main concern was that the Anglican bishops consecrate bishops for the Ethiopians who would thenceforth maintain an entirely separate identity and jurisdiction. Some of the Anglican leaders were prepared to go along with this and saw it as the opportunity for establishing a "native church", while others, even though they may have seen it as possibly socially acceptable in the social and political climate of the first decade of the twentieth century, regarded such a course as ecclesiologically and doctrinally unacceptable (Verryn 1972:33). Eventually a compromise was reached, by which time the Order of Ethiopia had lost most of its members. At least some Anglicans saw the relationship with the Order of Ethiopia as an opportunity to "control" the Ethiopian movement (Verryn 1972:37). The larger proportion of the Ethiopians affiliated to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had its origin in the United States in 1816.

The Zionist and Apostolic movements, which started about fifteen years later than the Ethiopian movement, were different in origin and indeed share common roots with many of the white-led Pentecostal movements in South Africa. Though they eventually became racially segregated, this was a more gradual process, brought about by the pressures of South African society rather than any ideological conviction. What they shared with the Ethiopian movements was the characteristic of not being under "European control" and so they have been classified together as a "phenomenon", which has been studied by government officials, politicians, missionaries, social anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists and perhaps many others.

At first most of those who wrote about this "phenomenon" were largely negative in their judgements. For politicians, whether white or black, such movements have been suspect because of the threat of political subversion or civil disobedience. "Ethiopians" were suspected of complicity in the Bambatha rebellion in Natal in 1906 (Sundkler 1961:69) and these suspicions were reinforced by the Bulhoek incident in 1921 where 117 members of the Israelite church were killed when government forces tried to evict them from crown land (Sundkler 1961:73). The clash between Alice Lenshina's Lumpa church and government forces in Zambia in the 1960s provides a more recent example.

Most of the theological judgments were also largely negative. Sundkler (1961:53), for example, said of the Zionists that the weapons in their struggle against "the use of the inyanga's medicines" and the "diviner's demons of possession" were those of the old Zulu religion and that "one strong section of the Zionists is deliberately nativistic, and Churches of this kind in the end become the bridge over which Africans are brought back to the old heathenism from whence they once came." Here Sundkler says both too much and too little. While it is indeed the conviction of many Christians in Zululand, both Zionist and non-Zionist, that the spirits of the traditional Zulu diviners are demonic and that the diviners are trying to "cast out Beelzebul by means of Beelzebul", the diviners themselves do not see it this way. Sundkler blurs the distinction between a wizard (umthakathi) who tries to harm others by means of evil spells and the diviner or "witch doctor" (isangoma) who tries to detect such evil and remove it. And though Sundkler does not say that all the Zionist churches are the "bridge back to heathenism", many of his readers gained the impression that they were. Another writer, Oosthuizen (1979:3), says "These Churches have been variously described as 'independent', 'separatist', 'syncretistic', etc. and some of them have been referred to as 'post-Christian'. A few of these churches - one with a following of eighty thousand - do not wish to be categorised as 'Christian'. The author of Post-Christianity in Africa wishes to indicate this although the largest majority are basically Christian-orientated. It would be absolutely wrong to characterise the Afro-Christian religions as a movement as post-Christian." Until the early 1970s, however, most of the independent churches were regarded by church leaders of other traditions as "post-Christian". As Daneel (1971:455) points out, "The older generation of mission Church officials - European and African - tend to view the Separatists as their opponents, 'sheep-stealers' who rob members of their flock, and as 'twisters of the truth'. The Separatist acceptance of polygamy causes some to look on these 'Churches of many wives' as an inferior expression of Christianity, or as decidedly non-Christian."

Daneel, in his careful study of a group of independent churches in Zimbabwe, has clearly demonstrated the danger of over generalisation and points out that while terms such as syncretist, separatist or sectarian are relevant to some movements, they have a pejorative flavour. He stresses the need to guard against both pejorative terms and the danger of absolutising some tendency that constitutes only part of the overall picture (Daneel 1987:30). Since the publication of the first volume of Daneel's study in 1971 other writers, such as Sundkler and Oosthuizen, have either revised their earlier negative judgments, or qualified them by pointing out that they only apply to certain bodies and not to all the African independent churches.

Daneel (1987:31-32) prefers the term "African independent churches" because, even though it is provisional, it does not necessarily imply a value judgement. It is not in itself a pejorative term. But Daneel goes on to say that the term presupposes a demarcation of the field which excludes "protest movements" within the "historical" or "established" churches and such movements as Black Theology. It is precisely at this point that I believe there is a problem, which becomes more evident when Daneel discusses how one should define the churches that are not independent. Should they be called "mission churches", "older churches", "historical churches" or "established churches". Daneel (1987:32) says "Probably 'historical churches' would effectively pinpoint the distinction, not merely because it refers to historically earlier groups, but also because churches of this kind are more directly linked with the Christian community of past ages. By contrast, the Independent Churches have no such historical continuity with the early Christian church, although some of them naturally claim and experience a strong emotional and ideological bond with the first Christian community."

The problem with this view becomes clearer if we remember that the Ethiopian Church broke away from the Methodist Church about 100 years after the Methodist movement itself had broken away from the Church of England and that a similar period has now passed since the Ethiopian Church broke away in 1892. The Ethiopian Church therefore has at least as much claim to be "historical" as the Methodist Church itself did in 1892. Some of the Ethiopian leaders, such as Dwane, thought that historical continuity was so important that he sought to build links with other bodies, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of the Province of South Africa.

Whether one evaluates the "independent churches" negatively or positively is not the issue here. The problem is that the "demarcation of the field" has become too rigid. When people speak of "historical" or "mainline" churches in contrast to the independent churches, the implication is inevitably that the independent churches are "ahistorical" and "sideline". I have tried to point out that the original demarcation of the field was done because of the fears of white government officials and missionaries at the height of the new imperialism, where the defining characteristic was seen to be churches that were not under European control. It would be foolish to pretend that such distinctions were not made, or to treat them as if they had never existed. It was inevitable that the bodies that were first designated as "native separatist churches" and later as "African independent churches" should be studied as a group. But there has also been very little attempt to study them in any other way.

Church historians who have studied the Anglican tradition in Southern Africa, for example, have dealt at length with the relations between the Church of the Province of South Africa and the Church of England in South Africa, but have paid very little attention to the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Zion, the Africa Church and other bodies that have shared the same tradition. Vilakazi et al. (1986:154) point out that many of the features that Sundkler claims to be characteristics of the Zionist churches "are found not only in Ethiopian churches, but in Mission Churches as well." Healing, speaking in tongues, all-night prayer meetings with prophecy and blowing of horns are to be found among Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists as well as among Zionists.

In my own observation of churches among Herero-speaking people in Namibia in the early 1970s, there was a great deal of overlap of theology and practice between independent churches and others. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded by the Rhenish Mission, could be said to be a "historical" church. The Mbanderu and Herero, following the Lutheran principle of cuius regio, eius religio, had formed the Church of Africa and the Oruuano Church, which inherited the Lutheran form of church organisation and might be classified by Sundkler as "Ethiopian". The Oruuano Church was in many ways influenced by prophetic movements from Botswana, such as the Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church, the St John Apostolic Faith Mission (founded by Ma Nku of Evaton, Transvaal), the St Philip Apostolic Faith Mission and others. Services of the Oruuano Church used the Lutheran hymn book, but they also sang choruses, some of which had been translated from other languages, while others were original Herero compositions. These choruses were sung in many different denominations and formed part of a common culture. Similar choruses are widely used in other African languages in different parts of southern Africa and they are also found among English- and Afrikaans-speaking Christians. I mention them as just one example of a common Christian culture that crosses denominational boundaries and the boundaries between the independent and the so-called historical churches.

Obviously one has to demarcate a field of study. Daneel's study of Southern Shona independent churches is valuable precisely because it is limited geographically and ecclesiastically so that he is able to make a detailed empirical study. Without such analytical studies, any evaluation of the theology and practice of the various churches would be simply guesswork. The problem lies not so much with analytical studies, such as Daneel's, but with synthetic ones, where there is evaluation and comparison. In synthetic studies the same demarcation is followed - generalisations are made about independent churches or new religious movements when the only thing they have in common is that they have been defined by scholars as a "phenomenon". Christian conferences are held where churches from many different countries in Africa are represented, but the "independent" churches are not represented, because they are invisible to the "mainline" churches. The "demarcation of the field" can so easily become a watertight barrier of exclusion.

I began with a question - is the designation of certain religious bodies as "African independent churches" judgement through terminology? I believe that the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because using such terminology to demarcate a field can lead to the isolation and exclusion of the bodies demarcated in that way; no, because writers like Daneel who have used the term have clearly indicated that it is not their intention to exclude anyone and they have consciously sought for non-pejorative terms.

It is the rigid demarcation of the field, rather than the terminology itself, that has caused distortions. Let me repeat Ekpo's (1980:12) words: "The very terms used to name and designate convey powerful meanings. In addition, the different arrangements of these terms into classes and sub-classes, construct and localise a new reality." There is a need for studies across the boundaries of the new reality that has been constructed. There is a need for detailed empirical studies and more general comparative ones. How, for example, have the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, the Church of England in South Africa and the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Zion developed their common Anglican tradition. A comparative study of a congregation of each denomination in the same area could be very illuminating. What are the similarities and differences between the white-led and black-led Spirit-type churches? (I should point out that such research is already been done by the Institute for Pentecostal Research at the University of South Africa). What are the continuities and discontinuities? South African church history has tended to be segregated, even within the so-called historical churches, into a history of isolated denominations or groups of denominations, without seeing how they have influenced each other, or contributed to the whole picture. As long the African independent churches are isolated and seen as a separate field, we will fail to see the whole picture. It is not only their existence and their particular contribution, but also their interaction with other Christian bodies, that needs to become visible.


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VERRYN, T.D. 1972. A history of the Order of Ethiopia. Pretoria: Ecumenical Research Unit.

VILAKAZI, A., MTHETHWA, B. & MPANZA, M. 1986. Shembe: the revitalization of African society. Johannesburg: Skotaville.

WALKER, E.A. 1965. A history of Southern Africa. London: Longmans.

WALLS, A.F. 1992. "The legacy of Samuel Ajayi Crowther", International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16:1 (January) 15-21.

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This article was originally published in Missionalia Vol. 20 No. 2 (August 1992), pp 139-146, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web

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