Shembe, Isaiah

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SHEMBE, ISAIAH (c. 18701935), was the founder of the Zulu amaNazaretha church and the most outstanding figure in the independent church movement in South Africa. The large majority of the three thousand African independent churches are either "Ethiopian" or "Zionist." The Ethiopian churches are carbon copies of mission-related churches (mainly of a Methodist or Congregational type) that have seceded from white mission churches over the issue of apartheid in the church. The Zionist churches, whose name implies an identification with the holy mountain of Zion in the Old Testament, are largely charismatic prophet-led healing groups. Worship in the Zionist churches is an African variant of Pentecostal spirituality. Shembe is the outstanding personality associated with a very small group of churches, often referred to as African "messianic" churches, where the leader is ascribed by his followers with supernatural powers.

Fountains and mountains are the holy places where these prophets generally receive their calling. Shembe was told by a voice to climb a mountain, and it directed him to a cave where he had a dream. From this lofty position he was invited by the voice to survey the earth, and he there discovered his own putrefying corpse. The voice warned him against sexual sins, and he woke up exclaiming, "I have seen Jehovah." This experience on the mountain was to remain with him as a determinative factor throughout his life. By a divine call he had been set apart for a prophetic task on behalf of the Zulu.

These were turbulent times in Zulu society and South African politics, and Shembe was closely related to Meseni Qwabe, one of the militant leaders of the Zulu "reluctant rebellion" of 1906. At the same time he met W. M. Leshega, a leader of a newly formed African Baptist church, who was also one of the leaders of the "Ethiopian" movement. In 1911 Shembe founded his own organization, the amaNazaretha Baptist Church, which differed from Leshega's organization on one elementary point: Saturday rather than Sunday was observed as the holy day of the week.

In 1912, Shembe once again had a revelation and was compelled to climb a particular mountain, called Inhlangakazi, located inland from the city of Durban. This mountain retreat lasted twelve days. During that time Shembe felt that he was being challenged by mysterious and supernatural powers, but he met all their temptations with the answer, "No, I am waiting for Jehovah." Angels then brought him heavenly food in the form of bread and wine; having received these gifts, he knew that he had acquired a new identity and was now a new man. When he returned to his people he also discovered that he had received a new and surprising power, one which he interpreted as the characteristic gift of Jesus of Nazareth: that of driving out demons and healing the sick. To Shembe, these were fundamental experiences: the pilgrimage to the mountain with its asceticism and its nearness to God, the identification with Moses who had climbed another mountain and was then received as the liberator of his people, and the acquisition of the power of healing. He was now ready for his task as a prophet to his people.

Compared with other African charismatic church leaders, Shembe's originality stands out on a number of points. Especially noteworthy is his creative use of traditional Zulu culture in the life of worship within the church. During church festivals the whole congregation, divided into different gender and age-groups and arrayed in traditional Zulu dress, expresses its collective religious experience in a slow-moving, dignified, and solemn dance. The annual pilgrimage to the Inhlangakazi mountain provided an opportunity for intense group cohesion of the multitude arriving from near and far.

Hymns in other independent and mission-related churches are sometimes just mechanical translations of Anglo-Saxon revival songs or ancient ecclesiastical rhymes. Shembe's hymns, on the other hand, convey the very heartbeat of Zulu religious experience from birth to death. Shembe was highly auditive; new hymnsboth lyrics and melodies combinedoften came to him while he was sleeping. This was, indeed, his strongest motive for learning the art of writing. Having remained illiterate until he was roughly forty years of age, Shembe acquired this new ability in order to commit to writing these irresistible songs that would well up from his unconscious: solemn, simple, and searching. His congregationprobably without exceptionshared the feeling of being healed by the prophet, by his incisive exorcism, and his healing hand, mesmerizing the expectant crowd with his mystical black veil.

Shembe's Zulu hymn book, John L. Dube's biography of Shembe in Zulu, and Absalom Vilakazi's recent work (1986) are the main sources for a study of Shembe's faith and spirituality, and they remain a unique testimony that provides insight into the mind and spirit of an independent church leader of that period. The title Shembe claimed for himself was that of "the Servant," sent by the Lord to his deprived and despised Zulu people: "But I alone come from afar, / Sent by the Lord among you."

Just as Moses and Jesus had been sent to the Jews, so the Servant was sent to the Zulu. What once was biblical experience had now become a Zulu reality. "So it is also today / on the hilltops of Ohlange" (Ohlange being the place where Shembe built his church center called Ekuphakameni). In a manner that can easily be misinterpreted, he draws a comparison between himself and the biblical archetypes Moses and Jesus. One of his hymns comes close to being a creed for the amaNazaretha church. It begins "I believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit / and the communion of saints of the Nazaretha." Here the Son is omitted so as to provide room for the Servant of the Spirit. But it is important to emphasize that while referring to his own role as a servant, healer, and helper, he is at the same time aware of Christ on the throne in heaven. Shembe knew that he himself, "having come with nothing and leaving with nothing," would stand before the judgment seat of God.

In order to understand Shembe's relationship to Jesus the Christ one must recall that in hierarchial Zulu society, a visitor could not directly approach the king but first had to turn to junior chiefs whose task it was to introduce the visitor to the ultimate authority. According to Nazaretha belief, this is the task of Servant Shembe in heaven, concerning the approach to the King of Kings on the throne. The Zulu prophet is seen as having a mediating role. In the words of Shembe's hymns there is ambiguity and richness of meaning. And those words, no less than the totality of Shembe's religious practice, must of course be understood in the context from which they emerged: in the worship and struggle of the Nazaretha community.


Becken, Hans J. Theologie der Heilung: Das Heilen in den afrikanischen unabhängigen Kirchen. Hermannsburg, 1972.

Dube, John L. uShembe. Durban, 1936. A biography of Shembe, in Zulu.

Kiernan, J. P. "Prophet and Preacher: An Essential Partnership in the Work of Zion." Man 11 (November 1976): 356366.

Marks, Shula. Reluctant Rebellion: The 19068 Disturbances in Natal. Oxford, 1970.

Oosthuizen, Gerhardus C. The Theology of a South African Messiah: An Analysis of the Hymnal of "The Church of the Nazarenes." Leiden, 1967.

Schlosser, Katesa. Eingeborenenkirchen in Süd- und Südwest Afrika. Kiel, 1958.

Shembe, J. G., ed. Izihlabelelo zamaNazaretha. Durban, 1940. A hymn book, in Zulu, by Shembe's son, Johannes Galilee, who succeeded him as leader of the church.

Sundkler, Bengt. Bantu Prophets in South Africa. 2d. ed. Oxford, 1961.

Sundkler, Bengt. Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists. Lund and Oxford, 1976.

Vilakazi, Absalom. Shembe: The Revitalization of African Society. Johannesburg, 1986.

Bengt Sundkler (1987)

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Shembe, Isaiah

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