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Stephen Hayes

Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism


Sundkler's Bantu prophets in South Africa has been a seminal work in the study of AICs, and probably more people have read it than any other work on African Independent Churches in southern Africa. It has been one of the most influential and most quoted works, and has shaped most subsequent writing about AICs, not only in South Africa, but in Africa as a whole (Barrett 1968:40). It is important not only for its historical value as the first of its kind, but also for the factual material and empirical research that it contains.

In spite of its virtues, however, Sundklerís Bantu prophets has several serious shortcomings, some of which Sundkler (1976:304) himself recognised, and tried to correct in his later work. Unfortunately many readers of Sundklerís work do not read the second book, and even if they do, they are not really aware of just what the shortcomings are, and so some of the errors in Sundklerís first book continue to be repeated.

In teaching a course on AICs I found that many students took Sundkler's value-judgements and generalisations at face value, and regarded them as conclusive. I would not, however, say that students of AICs should not therefore not read Sundkler. There is a lot of very good material in his earlier book as well as in the later one. The problem always was to get students (and these were 3rd-year undergraduate and honours students) to read critically, and not to accept every statement at face value.

I also found that there were some views about AICs that had impressive support in citations in the literature. If so many scholars agreed with a certain view, if it had such a weight of scholarly opinion behind it, who could dare query it?

But when one traces those citations back through the layers of literature, eventually many of them end up in just one source - some unsupported assertion by Sundkler, perhaps reinforced by an "obviously".

It is therefore not enough to just warn people that they need to read Sundkler critically. Such advice can be unhelpful, because it is not specific enough. What do readers need to be on their guard against? What kinds of errors should they look out for?

I have therefore taken a particular theme from Bantu prophets in South Africa, a group of denominations Sundkler calls "Bethesda-type churches". and will examine this in detail.


Here are some notes I have made on Sundklerís description and evaluation of the Bethesda churches. The notes are stored in a computer database, and are reproduced here more or less as returned by the database. Most of them are quotations from Sundkler, and in some there are my own notes and queries on the sections quoted, but my main comments and questions will follow all the database entries.

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:201.

"It is the thesis of this section on 'Worship in Bethesda' that the propensity of the Zulu Zionists to total immersion is intimately linked up with the traditional Zulu ritual practices in streams and pools. These tendencies have been strengthened by the Biblical teaching of the Zionist churches on baptism. Zionist practices do, in fact, show the confluence of different streams of myth and rite, heathen and Biblical... Worship in Zulu Bethesda is not a fortuitous conglomeration of disparate ritual elements, but a wellknit system in which myths and rites fit of necessity together, and where beliefs and actions are organized around a single centre. That centre is the pool -- the Bethesda or Jordan. The Zionist Church is a syncretistic movement of baptizers."

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:204.

Sundkler describes a purification ritual by a Zionist prophet, Mateu Mthethwa, in a stream near Vryheid. "He stressed how dangerous the pool was, full of snakes and crocodiles and all the works of Satan. But in the name of the Lord he, Mthethwa, would enter the water and through prayer and ashes make it pure and holy... Mthethwa prayed in the water: 'Lord of Light and Glory, thou who reignest in the midst of the water, help us to kill all dangerous beasts that hide in this pool'. With his staff he chased away the imaginary creatures, saying: 'May there be peace in this water'".

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:205.

"The pool is the centre of this service in more than just the local sense. One Zionist bishop very aptly referred to his own organization as a 'water-church' (ibandla lamanzi). A striking feature of these rites is the view held by all those present that the water teems with mysterious monsters which the prophet -- another St George in shining white armour -- has to defeat in order to be able to do his work. This is one of the fundamental elements of baptismal theology in the Bethesda Church.

One could compare this with the Orthodox baptism service (which uses triple immersion), where the priest blesses the water, saying: "All creation magnifies thee, who hast manifested thyself. For thou, O our God, hast revealed thyself upon earth and hast dwelt among men. Thou didst hallow the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons who lurked there" (see Isaiah 51:9-11).

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:206.

"I have pointed out elsewhere that Zionists in Northern Zululand sing of Lutherans and Romans as being afraid of entering the water. This fear is said to be not an aversion from water as such but the terror of lurking river monsters. Obviously these monsters are identical with those known by traditional Zulu folklore: isiququmadevu or ukungqukubantwana or usilosimaphundu or isitshakamana or umnyama. The prophet's struggle with the monster can be seen to be related to the diviner's search for white earth which he finds under the inhlwati-snake in the pool. But we should also remember that the pool, and the snake are extremely common stereotyped symbols in Zionist dream life. To the student of Freud's psychoanalysis it seems evident that the water symbolism in the Bethesda Church, where women stay at the prophet's kraal to be cured principally of barrenness, has a hidden but very real sexual meaning."

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:151.

"The healing activities of the prophet and the corresponding

congregational need have given rise to a unique kind of Church fellowship, the 'Bethesda' type of Church. I use the term 'Bethesda' to describe the fellowship of the prophet and his followers who, as patients, stay at his kraal for a considerable length of time with a view to being prayed for and going through purification rites. The name Bethesda is the word most commonly used by the Zulu prophet; the pool or stream near his kraal is related by him to the healing Bethesda pool described in St John 5:4-9."

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:152.

Sundkler describes the healing activities of Malko Shabalala of the Sabbath Holy Apostolic Zion Church in north Zululand just on the Natal border. There were 14 patients and the daily routine was to go to the waterfall close by. After Shabalala has blessed the water, all drink from it until they vomit, singing hymns and speaking in tongues. Some mornings Shabalala takes his flock to the top of Enende mountain for prayers. During the day the women work in the prophet's fields. In the afternoon follow visits to kraals in the neighbourhood where they sing and pray, and Shabalala gives an evangelistic address.

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:155.

"A psycho-analyst would probably have much to tell us about the

significance in the Bethesda group life of the dream symbols which are most frequent in the Zionist Churches. The most common of these are the pool or stream and the high mountain. Because these symbols have been seen by both prophet and followers, they are convinced that the Spirit directs them to perform daily purification rites in the neighbouring pool, and occasionally to congregate on the Mount Zion of the Church to which they belong. One does not need to be a Freudian to understand something of the hidden working of their minds, expressed in such symbols. Further, the prophet who is a successful healer of the mental and gynecological diseases which usually bring these women to 'Bethesda' because, it is, as has already been said, the object of collective transference. Through this subconscious process there are created very strong and lasting bonds between leader and flock."

Worship in Bethesda.

Source: Sundkler 1961:155-156.

"The second traditional Zulu institution, on the pattern of which the Bethesda Church is evolving is the community of diviners (isangoma). I have shown above how the Zionist prophet's activities follow the Zulu diviner pattern in fairly minute detail. The routine of staying at the prophet's kraal for some considerable time, being prayed for, and going through purification rites can be demonstrated to be very closely related to the group life of diviner and novices... The dreams, visions and auditions of the individual half-Christian members of the Bethesda colonies are highly respected by the prophet, because in the last resort he and his followers have one and the same authority -- the 'Spirit'. The expectation of his people that he will be able to perform miracles makes ever higher demands of the leader and propels him further along the marshy path of Bantu syncretism, specially through belief in witchcraft and sorcery with its corollary, divining."

Comments on these texts

In the passages quoted above, Sundkler gives a lot of important factual material: the way the "Bethesda" Zionists baptise, the way they live and work together, the way they evangelise the neighbourhood, the relationship between prophet and patients, and the way they use water in healing and purification ceremonies. He gives details of a daily pattern of activities of a healing community -- going to the river, prayer, drinking the water, vomiting, working in the fields, and then going on evangelistic visits. He gives information about how people understood what they were doing -- that they believed the water was infested with dangerous animals that needed to be subdued by blessing the water.

All this information, gathered by long observation, is very interesting and useful to those who have not spent a long time with those Zionist groups as Sundkler had. Some have said that Sundkler's early views of Zionists as "bridges to heathenism" arose because he did not know them well enough. But that is not true. The observations show that he knew them very well indeed. The problem was not in his knowledge, but rather in his interpretive framework, his frame of reference.

The problem is not in what Sundkler reports on what the Zionists did and said. The problem is that he intersperses this with things that they did not do or say, and they are interspersed in such a way that people who do not know Zulus or Zionists will find them plausible, and will have no way of distinguishing between them. The prophets say that they believe the water is "full of snakes and crocodiles and all the works of Satan". "Obviously", says Sundkler, these monsters are identical with those known by Zulu folklore. Why "obviously"? If it is so obvious to Sundkler, why is it apparently not so obvious to the prophets? If the monster is isiququmadevu, would the prophet not say so? But it is Sundkler who says so, not the prophet.

Sundkler does not report whether he checked his interpretation with the prophet or not, but I suspect that he did not.

Then Sundkler rather patronisingly describes the prophet as chasing away these "imaginary creatures" with his staff. Sundkler describes all these Zionist beliefs and practices, and concludes that they show how far the Zionists have departed from "the historic Christian Church".

I suggest that what they show is not that Sundkler does not know Zionists, but that he does not know the historic Christian Church. Many of the practices Sundkler describes, and in particular the blessing of the water, have been practices of the Christian Church from the earliest times. And the Zionist prophets describe them in very similar terms to the Orthodox baptismal liturgy. "Obviously", one might say (following Sundkler) a Greek priest in a peasant village on a small island in the Aegean is chasing away isiququmadevu and other such imaginary monsters from Zulu folklore, or as some have in fact said, monsters from ancient Greek folklore.

Sundkler is patronising about the Zionists' lack of knowledge of the Bible, but in his description of the "Bethesda" churches, it seems that they are more familiar with the Bible than Sundkler is. Sundkler does not use the Bible to support his position, or to show that the Zionist position is "unbiblical". Instead, he uses Western post-Enlightenment scepticism ("imaginary creatures"), Zulu folklore, and Freud.

Perhaps one should turn the tables, and look at the position of Freud in Western European culture at the time Sundkler was doing his research and writing (the 1940s). Freud was very big indeed at that time. His wisdom was unquestioned by many people, and Sundkler himself seems to have adopted this uncritical attitude. Freud, and popular perceptions of Freudianism, formed a European folklore and mythology just as there was a Zulu folklore and mythology. And I would venture to suggest that what these passages I have quoted from Sundkler show is that the Zionists were more critical of their culture and its mythology than Sundkler was of his. It is Sundkler, and the European Churches, that are syncretist, rather than the Zionists. This is something that Sundkler (1976:317) himself came to acknowledge in his later book.

I do not think that the important difference between Bantu prophets and Zulu Zion is that Sundkler knew the Zionists better when he wrote the second book 15 years later. No doubt he did know them better, because he had done more research. But another thing that happened in between was that he came to know the "historic Christian Church" a bit better. The 15 years between 1961 and 1976 marked a major change in many Western Christian denominations -- they were swept by what is known as the "charismatic renewal", and that movement was at its height when Sundkler's Zulu Zion was published (Sundkler 1976:15). Some of the things that had characterised Zionists in the past were even beginning to happen among Lutherans, not only in Zululand, but in Europe and America. And one could hardly say that inhabitants of Scandinavia or Minnesota were looking for white earth under the inhlwathi snake.

As an Orthodox Christian, I would not describe this as the "full gospel", but it was certainly a fuller gospel than the rather truncated and syncretistic one Sundkler used to measure the Zionists against in Bantu prophets. What I find interesting is that when I read the passages from Sundkler that I have quoted above, I feel a lot closer to the Bethesda churches than I do to the kind of Christianity that Sundkler seems to be setting against them. I am not sure about the vomiting, but the rest of the life of the healing community by its pool seems very attractive, and not unlike a lot of monastic communities.

So, plunging boldly into the pool of deconstruction, and approaching Bantu prophets as a readerly, and not a writerly text, I ward off the Sundkler-snake and come up with the white earth: what I learn from these passages from Sundkler is probably not what Sundkler was trying to say.

What I learn from them, and what amazes me, is that in many respects the Zionists have rediscovered and reproduced so many features of the early Christian understanding of water and baptism. Where did they learn them from? Not from the Western missionaries, who regarded these things as a return to heathenism. And not even so much from Zionist and Pentecostal missionaries, who, while they may have taught triple (which the Zionists called "triune") immersion, do not, for the most part, seem to have majored on monsters and baptismal regeneration.

I suspect that the Zionists learned these things from the Bible. And they were able to do this because they just had the Bible, and did not have a lot of dusty European professors to tell them what it meant. They had a sitz im leben rather than a sitz im lecture-hall. They probably did know something about isiququmadevu, and so the imagery of hacking Rahab in pieces probably made a great deal more sense to them than it did to Sundkler when filtered through Protestantism, rationalism and Freud.

So my readerly conclusion is that the Zionists were more biblical than Sundkler, and Sundkler was more syncretist than the Zionists.


My main object in writing this has been to show the continuing relevance of Sundklerís Bantu prophets, and at the same time to show that one needs to read the text in such a way as to distinguish fact from opinion. Sundkler (1976:316ff) qualified his earlier views on syncretism, and in effect invited readers to read the text in a new way. I have tried to show one way in which this could be done.

What seems to emerge from Sundklerís description of the Bethesda churches is a revival or rediscovery of something that belongs not merely to Zulu culture, but also goes a long way back in Christianity and can be found in other religions too. Sundklerís interpretation in Bantu prophets marks a momentary aberration, a brief break in this recurring theme.

The monsters from Zulu folklore -- isiququmadevu, usilosimaphundu and so on, are found in other places, in other cultures, and in the Bible itself. Perhaps they have an affinity with the monster that swallowed Jonah, the monster representing political oppression that emerged from the sea in Revelation 13, and Rahab of Isaiah 51:9.

Tabona Shoko, of the University of Zimbabwe, in a forthcoming book in the "African Initiatives in Mission" series, compares the healing practices of a Roman Catholic, an Anglican and an AIC community in Zimbabwe, Shoko notes the similarities and differences in approach between the three groups, in their interpretation of the causes of disease and healing. Shoko shows that, while denying that they are linked with African traditional religion, all three of these Christian healing movements describe their ministry in terms borrowed from Karanga paganism, but reinterpreted within a Christian framework.

Sundkler, in the passages cited above, is extremely critical of the "Bethesda churches" for what he calls their syncretism, and yet his use of Freudian psychology seems to be quite uncritical. He seems to assume that it is both true, and compatible with the Christian faith, and therefore a valid criterion for judgement.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from this is that before examining the inculturation of Christianity into other cultures, we should first examine how Christianity has been inculturated into our own culture. Or, better still, use the examination of this in other cultures as a mirror, which we can use to see how the process affects, and continues to affect, our own culture. Cultures are not static, and are constantly changing. Freudianism does not hold the same position in Western society as it did 50 years ago, and perhaps that is one of the things that makes Sundklerís views so easy to criticise today.

When we, as Christians, examine the inculturation of Christianity in cultures other than our own, what criteria do we use? And what kinds of assumptions are those criteria based on? How well have the assumptions been integrated with our Christian faith?



BARRETT, David B. 1968. Schism and renewal in Africa. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

SUNDKLER, Bengt G.M. 1961. Bantu prophets in South Africa. London: Oxford University Press.

SUNDKLER, Bengt G.M. 1976. Zulu Zion and some Swazi Zionists. London: Oxford University Press.

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