Shembe and the Early Zionists: A reappraisal.
MetadataShow full item record
The IBandla lamaNazaretha (Nazarites) are one of the largest and best-studied African-initiated churches in southern Africa. Despite considerable scholarly efforts, the biography of Isaiah Shembe, who founded the church in 1913, has remained difficult to unravel. Shembe and his successors have maintained that he was a prophet sent directly by God to the Zulu nation, and a large corpus of church scriptures emphasizing this have obscured our understanding of his background. This article argues though, that Isaiah Shembe was neither a prophet (as his believers maintain) nor someone who developed his religious ideas autochthonously (as most academics maintain). Instead, the decisive factor in the emergence of Isaiah Shembe as a religious leader was his involvement with the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) in the Orange River Colony and its leader, John G Lake from 1910-1911. As a member of the AFM who travelled with its leadership, Shembe had the opportunity to examine and study its American-derived tent revival style, which made extensive use of “faith healing” and other orchestrated “signs and wonders” to win over the masses. Shembe also absorbed the rhetorical style of the AFM, which emphasized prophecies and direct revelations. Three aspects of Shembe’s ministry appear to derive directly from Lake and the AFM: his sense of divine calling, his wide repertoire of faith healing techniques, and his conscious reshaping of his autobiography. Shembe’s dramatic healing campaigns in Natal, after he struck out on his own in 1911, utilized all three of these key elements from the very start. Shembe’s ideology and evangelical techniques, then, derived from the early “Zionist” missionaries, although he was careful to obscure his relationship with them.