African Independent Church (A/C’s)

Origins and History

The ‘Ethiopian-type’ churches were the first African Independent Churches in Southern Africa. They are the earliest breakaways from the missionary churches, mainly on nationalistic grounds. In our context, an African Independent or Indigenous Church (AICs) means a purely black-controlled denomination with no links in membership or administrative control with any non-African church. However, various black churches reaching across the Atlantic from America, at the turn of the century, originally influenced a number of them.

The Ethiopian-types (name said to derive from Psalm 68:31: ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hand to God) include The Lutheran Bapedi Church, the African Anglican Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

When many people think of AICs, (African lndegenous Churches) they think of the ‘Zionist• type’. Zionists are explicitly identifiable by the uniforms they wear; by the long white dress, girdles, with crosses and sometimes with the star and moon-shaped ribbons or patches sewn on their backs. They can sometimes be seen carrying bundles of sticks tied together with a sash of wool cords. For the Zionists, church services are characterized by drum beating. Zionist men usually do not shave their beards and hair. They seek the image of the prophets of old. It is common to find groups of Zionists at riversides, near dams or at seashores performing their cleansing ceremonies. Zionist churches are too numerous to be listed here (it is thought that there are at least 7 000) and these churches are continuously mushrooming all over the townships and rural areas of South Africa.

The ‘Apostolic-types’ are commonly confused with the Zionists. Unlike the Zionists who wear colourful uniforms, Apostolics wear plain white robes, with no inscriptions on them. Apostolic are not generally open to ecumenical co-operation with other AICs. More particularly, they tend to look down upon the Zionists. It is thought that their title is due to their emphasis on the re-enactment of the miracles, which were performed by the early prophets and their leaders, and pastors are referred to as apostles.

The ‘Evangelical-PentecostalType’ churches were found as splinter groups from the evangelical                       missionary and churches, mainly the Baptist Church, Apostolic Faith Mission Church and the Assemblies of God. These churches distinguish themselves by emphasizing righteous Christian living. Things like cigarette smoking, alcohol and polygamy are prohibited.

The Zionist Christian Church

This is a group that is most difficult to identify and differentiate from others. This church skillfully blended some of the practices of the Zionists, the Apostolic and the Ethiopians. This merging is not necessarily in the articulation of their beliefs, but rather in their type of church practice. Certain scholars classify them as Petacostal because they have established a citadel at Moria, north east of Polokwane (Pietersburg) in the Limpopo Province. Other factors that identify their religion are the belief in faith healing and triune baptism.

Numerically the ZCC is the largest African Independent Church in Southern Africa. Unlike other AICs it is financially self-reliant. Consequently it is not interested in alliances with other AlCs.

Identifiable Practices of the ZCC

The spirit of prophecy is emphasized in the church, but it is only the leaders of various ranks who can exercise the gift. They prophesy without the emotional noise (of other churches) and speaking in tongues. Their prophesying is orderly. It is also directly related to the Bible readings. Like the Ethiopians, they use hymnbooks. Dancing is a special ritual mostly practiced by the male members. It is a very crude but orderly kind of dancing which is performed while wearing shoes especially blessed for this purpose by the church. Healing and exorcism are primary emphases. All the elements used by the AIC’s are used; but in addition they drink special tea and coffee, which is processed, at a church-owned factory at its headquarters in Moria (Limpopo Province). They also use fire as a healing element. The healing ministry and the promise of prosperity to members has been the main reason for attracting adherents to this church. The practice of polygamy is another reason.

The ZCC is said to have between two and three million members.

The Lekganyane family has always led this church. The founder was Revd Engenues Lekganyane. He began as a preacher of the Bantu Baptist Church. But he had a gift of healing and used it in conjunction with African medicine. This duality, combined with the practice of polygamy, attracted crowds. When he died, he was expected to come to life again. It is said there was a hut where he kept his medicine. Very few people were allowed into it. After his death it was burnt, together with his corpse. This may explain why his two sons Edward and Joseph did not continue the African medicine aspect of the healing process. Traditionally the medicine bags are not destroyed, but are handed down by the family members. After the founder’s death, the usual leadership problem seems to have arisen. Edward took over the leadership of the main group. A star lapel badge on a piece of green and black ribbon identifies the main group.

Joseph led the small breakaway group. A perched dove circle with a laurel identifies Joseph’s group, a symbol of peace pinned on two pieces of black and green ribbon. The significance of this ribbon lies in the belief that before the Rev Engenues Lekganyane died his cloak was cut into small pieces and these pieces are all bits of the original cloak. The use of black is unique to the ZCC (and Ethiopians) as none of the other Zionists would ever use the colour black as they consider this colour to indicate evil and disease. The rest of the uniforms are a distinct green and yellow for the woman and khaki suits black caps and boots for the men. The headquarters of the churches are on adjacent farms. Joseph’s group is not as prominent as Edward’s group. After the death of Edward, his son Barnabas assumed leadership. The other group is now led by Engenas, his cousin (his brother, according to African custom).

The late Edward was a flamboyant man who had twelve wives. His son Barnabas (a graduate from the University of the North at Turfloop) is more retiring. The late Joseph was on the quiet side too. So is his brother Engenas. He and his church are very seldom in the news. These leaders seem to be over-protected by their advisers and they never make any political statements other than encouraging their flock to vote.

A theology of the African Independent Churches

Theology is not an abstract engagement to the AICs; it is a way of life. All concepts used are practical and not theoretical. African people are a notoriously religious people. They cannot live without worshipping something. Today it is acknowledged that even before Christianity came, they knew God. He was called by different names by the different ethnic groups. In most of Southern Africa idol worship (as is prevalent in West Africa) was unknown. God was known to be the unseen creator, who gives life, rain, crops, everything. It is enough to know that He exists. The wish to see Him was never expressed, because it was held that to see Him is to die. This Supreme Being is accepted without question. Nature and His deeds in the history of the people have revealed Him. Missionaries did not have much difficulty in teaching about the Creator and the Supreme Being in Africa.

In African religion, the ancestors, in order of seniority to the senior man who died, most recently, are believed to communicate all messages, of different kinds, to God and so Africans did not find the Christian practice of prayer to the Father through Jesus strange. The idea of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob as the Old Testament records, confirms the AIC’s practice of praying through ancestors and Christian leaders. Thus one finds people praying to the God or Shembe of Lekganyane. This does not make these last-named people messiahs of semi• gods (more like saints are understood in Catholic of Anglican churches). The concept is that of mediators between God and the living. They are go-betweens. The custom of not approaching the king or any senior person directly creates the mental attitude with which an African would approach God. No ordinary man could talk to the king or chief face-to-face (this was considered to be extremely disrespectful) thus someone must act as a go-between.

Ancestor Worship

Although most of the AICs believe in the existence of ancestral spirits, they do not worship them. There are those who mix Christian religion with ancestor worship, but they are a very small minority Their syncretic worship uses the ancestors as intermediaries to convey prayers and requests to God instead of Christ or angels.

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