- Isaiah Shembe’s Prophetic Uhlanga: The Worldview of the Nazareth Baptist Church in Colonial South Africa by Joel E. Tishken
The Amanazaretha, or the Nazareth Baptist Church, one of the largest independent churches in Southern Africa, has held fascination for scholars since the time of Swedish Lutheran bishop Bengt Sundkler, in the 1940s. This fascination stems particularly from of its perceived ‘‘syncretism’’ with Zulu pre-Christian religion and its promotion of African traditional values within the context of an evangelical background. Scholars, particularly western theologians, have branded the Nazaretha ‘‘post-Christian’’ and a bridge to traditional religious practices of pre-colonial Africa. This view was seen especially in the earlier works of Sundkler and those of South African Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Oosthuizen, but has permeated the literature on African independent churches ever since. Two books on the Church published recently, Joel Cabrita’s Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church (New York, 2014) and the one reviewed here, do not go in this direction and have broken new ground in the literature of this church. The Nazareth Church is arguably the most researched religious movement in Africa, certainly in South Africa, where there are thousands of African Independent Churches. One of the reasons this has been a ready subject for research is the Church’s willingness to be examined by outside researchers, especially through its archives and copious sacred writings.
The Church began in the early twentieth century, probably in 1910, with the remarkable ministry of its founder, Isaiah Shembe, in the eastern province now known as KwaZulu-Natal. This was also the time when Zionist and Pentecostal (‘‘Apostolic’’) churches were beginning to emerge in South Africa — churches that, like Shembe’s, emphasized direct divine revelation and the practices of spiritual gifts like prophecy, healing, and speaking in unknown tongues. Shembe was undoubtedly affected by the evangelical revivalism of the time, particularly those practices found in the new movements of Zionism and Pentecostalism, but it is doubtful whether his church could be described as ‘‘Zionist’’ as Tishken does (7), for Zionist churches have very different histories and antecedents. Tishken’s book, unlike that of Cabrita, focuses specifically on the life of Isaiah Shembe and his prophetic experiences subverting colonialism and oppression faced by Black South Africans at the time. It is based roughly on the two decades from the 1910s to the 1930s (Shembe died in 1935). Toward the end of his life Shembe began to employ young and educated scribes to write down his sermons and record accounts of his activities. These texts soon were accorded the status of sacred scriptures, especially after Shembe’s death in 1935. Soon after, Shembe was accorded divinity and the Church began to rely more on African tradition, although the texts themselves take on more legitimacy as ‘‘Christian’’ documents. Many of the Nazaretha texts [End Page 413] were later published by western scholars in academic presses. These texts and their amanuenses continue to play a significant role in South African religion.
Whereas Cabrita focuses on these texts and the connections the Nazareth Church had with Protestant revivalist Christianity, Tishken’s intent is to focus on the prophetic ‘‘worldview’’ of Isaiah Shembe and his uhlanga (‘‘creating source’’) out of which everything else flowed. Shembe’s experiences of the supernatural shifted his perspective so that all else seemed inadequate, including the colonial regime with its demands and restrictions. For Shembe, his calling by God subverted anything else because God was preparing a way for African people that transcended all things. This prophetic uhlanga also outlined a distinctive response for the experiences of the colonized to their situation. Tishken therefore dismisses the allegations of ‘‘quietism’’ and impassivity levelled against some African churches during the colonial and apartheid era as missing the point. Resistance to colonialism, no matter how harsh the conditions, was not Shembe’s primary concern. External political realities did not determine the worldview of Shembe and his followers; consequently, Tishken maintains that their...