KIMBANGU, SIMON (1889–1951), African religious prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu. Kimbangu was born on September 24, 1889, in the village of N'Kamba, located in the Ngombe district of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Kikongo, the word kimbangu means "one who reveals the hidden truth." Many legends surround Kimbangu's youth and early religious activities. Some accounts claim that both his mother and father were traditional Kongo healers and that his visionary activities were related to theirs. Only since the mid-1970s has much of the original missionary and government documentation on Kimbangu's early activities become available to scholars.
Kimbangu attended a Baptist Missionary Society school at Wathen, near his home village. He became a Christian as a young man and was baptized on July 4, 1915, along with his wife, Marie-Mwilu, in the Baptist mission at Ngombe-Luete. He was trained as a catechist and religious instructor by the Baptist Missionary Society but failed his examination to become a pastor. During the typhoid epidemic of 1918 and 1919, in which many residents of his area died, Kimbangu is reputed to have received a calling to heal the sick. He is alleged to have heard a voice that said, "I am Christ. My servants are unfaithful. I have chosen you to bear witness before your brethren and convert them. Tend my flock" (Martin, 1975, p. 44). Frightened, Kimbangu was unable to respond and fled to the capital city of Kinshasa (then Léopoldville), where he worked briefly as a migrant laborer at an oil refinery.
Upon returning to his village, Kimbangu again received the calling to heal. On April 6, 1921, he performed his first public act of faith healing. He is reported to have laid hands on a critically ill woman and healed her. This act marked the beginning of Kimbangu's healing revival and six months of intensive religious activity. N'Kamba, the seat of Kimbangu's healing ministry, became known as the "New Jerusalem," and over five thousand local converts are reported to have flocked to him.
As the healing movement spread in popularity, colonial officials and merchants began to perceive it as a revolutionary threat. Missionaries were skeptical of Kimbangu's new teachings, and merchants complained that he incited followers to abandon their work and neglect the payment of taxes. With a small cadre of leaders to assist him, Kimbangu continued to preach and perform inspired acts of healing. On June 6, 1921, Léon Morel, a Belgian official, attempted to arrest Kimbangu and four of his most loyal assistants. Kimbangu eluded colonial officials until, prompted by a divine vision, he voluntarily surrendered on September 12.
On October 3, 1921, Kimbangu was sentenced to death by 120 strokes of the lash for sedition and hostility toward the colonial authorities. His court-martial was characterized by arbitrary proceedings and legal irregularities. In November, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by King Albert, who was reportedly influenced by the pleas of Belgian missionaries to exercise some leniency. Kimbangu was transported to Lubumbashi (then Elisabethville) in Shaba province, where he was imprisoned until his death on October 12, 1951, in the "hospital for Congolese." There is some debate concerning whether Kimbangu, whose teachings resembled those of fundamentalist Protestantism, converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. This possibility has been vehemently denied by his family and followers.
Kimbangu's arrest augmented the aura of mystery surrounding him as a prophetic figure and increased the popular appeal of his charismatic movement. Between 1924 and 1930, Belgian colonial authorities continued overt attempts to suppress the movement. Kimbangu's principal followers were imprisoned at Lowa, and others were confined over the years in thirty detention centers spread throughout the country. The Kimbanguist church estimates that there were 37,000 exiles, of whom 34,000 died in prison between 1921 and 1956. Recent scholarship, however, has established that this figure resulted from a typographical error in a newspaper article; the official exile and imprisonment figure was closer to 2,148. Although Kimbanguist detainees were isolated and kept under martial surveillance, the policy of detention eventually led to the spread of the Kimbanguist movement in various regions of the Belgian Congo.
The movement gained strength, forming itself into a group that became known as the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu. Followers were called ngunza ("prophets" or "preachers"). Kimbanguist offshoots, such as Salutism and Mpadism, and other manifestations of Kimbangu's influence appeared throughout the region among populations with whom Kimbangu never had direct contact.
Between 1955 and 1957, Kimbangu's movement experienced a renewal and continued to spread throughout the Belgian Congo. After the prophet's death, his youngest son, Kuntima (Joseph) Diangienda, assumed leadership of the church in accordance with Kimbangu's wishes. He formalized its doctrine, sacraments, and egalitarian organizational structure. In 1969, the Kimbanguist church was admitted to the World Council of Churches, and in 1971, it was proclaimed as one of the four officially recognized ecclesiastical bodies in the newly formed nation of Zaire. By the end of the 1980s there were nearly four million Kimbanguists in Zaire.
Simon Kimbangu's direct and indirect influence on African prophetic movements has been far-reaching. The Kimbanguist church is one of the most extensively documented African religious groups. It is possible to view the history and transformation of the Kimbanguist church as a prototype for many contemporary African religious groups that have made the transition from grass-roots movements to established churches.
Andersson, Effraim. Messianic Popular Movements in the Lower Congo. Uppsala, 1958. A historical account of Kimbanguism and other prophetic movements in the Lower Kongo; analyzes the history of religious protest in the area and describes Kimbanguism as a messianic movement in the context of offshoot and related groups arising between the 1930s and the 1950s.
Asch, Susan. L'église du prophète Kimbangu: De ses origines à son rôle actual au Zaïre. Paris, 1983. A comprehensive study of the growth and development of the Kimbanguist church. Contains a historical and sociological analysis of the transition of the group from a popular movement to a church, spanning the years 1921-1981. Includes discussions of the group's origin, changing organizational structure, distribution throughout the region, and relations with the colonial and postindependence governments.
Chomé, Jules. La passion de Simon Kimbangu. Brussels, 1959. An account of the life and trial of Kimbangu by a Belgian lawyer who studied the legal documents in detail. Parallels Kimbangu's arrest and sentencing to the Passion of Jesus and outlines the legal irregularities of Kimbangu's trial.
MacGaffey, Wyatt. Modern Kongo Prophets: Religion in a Plural Society. Bloomington, Ind., 1983. An analysis of prophetism among the Kongo, including a detailed discussion of Kimbanguism and related offshoot movements in the context of local cultural history and traditions.
Martin, Marie-Louise. Kirche ohne Weisse. Basel, 1971. Translated by D. M. Moore as Kimbangu: An African Prophet and His Church (Oxford, 1975). A history of the Kimbanguist movement in central Africa from 1918 to 1960, with discussions of responses to colonial authority, doctrine and ritual of the movement, and political attitudes of the followers. Contains a comprehensive bibliography on the Kimbanguist movement up to 1970.
Sinda, Martial. Le messianisme congolais et ses incidences politiques: Kimbanguisme, matsouaisme, autres mouvements. Paris, 1972. This book presents a comparative analysis of Kongo messianic movements as forms of religious protest. The author raises many interesting questions concerning leadership in prophetic groups and the history and motivations of African prophets and religious leaders in the context of the colonial government.
Bennetta Jules-Rosette (1987)