THE A SOUTH AFRICAN MOVEMENT
What is the connection between Ethiopianism in South Africa and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ethiopia?
If any of you have ever thought about the connection between the Ethiopian Church in South Africa and the main church in Ethiopia: the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, you have a more inquiring mind than I do! (Nearly half of Ethiopia’s population of 102 million are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). I had the privilege of leaving Liz at Lancaster for just over 2 weeks last year to visit Ethiopia – a destination which had long been on my bucket list. What an amazing country on so many levels.
The visit was planned to coincide with the Meskel Festival on 26th September (celebrating the Finding of the True Cross). For 4 wonderful hours we were part of a huge crowd who listened to the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the various Archbishops and political leaders speak, while waves of members of the different congregations swirled into Meskel Square accompanied by drums, music, dancing and ululating. It was mesmerizing.
And many of the white uniforms with green and blue sashes, belts and collars, reminded me of the Independent Churches back in South Africa. And it got me thinking about the Ethiopian Church in South Africa and its relationship to the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC) as well as the small independent church groups that celebrate in the various parks and open spaces in Johannesburg.
And I realized that to say that was I hazy about their origins and histories and the connection between them, was somewhat of an understatement. So I started to do some research. And here’s what I have come up with in a very simplified and summarized form.
What Is Ethiopianism?
Ethiopianism is a product of the shared political and religious experiences of Africans in British colonies.
Ethiopianism is a movement born out of necessity to lobby for political and religious freedom with a broader view of restoring Africa’s dignity and inculcate a sense of patriotism in the Africans. It dates back to the modern colonial era and manifested itself in the sub-Saharan countries. The movement was a channel through which the members of the sub-Saharan countries used to advocate for better treatment from their colonial masters. The movement was an avenue that the Africans used to air out the grievances and their frustrations on how they were treated; particularly being against any form of segregation by the colonial rulers. It was a movement to champion for inclusivity and freedom to practice what the local people deemed vital and relevant to them in matters of religion or politics.
Ethiopianism as a movement was initiated in the early 1880s with the main forces behind it being the South African workers who were doing missionary work. They came together and unanimously began forming independent churches which were composed of African members. Among the pioneers to use the term was Mangena Mokone who formed the Ethiopian church in the year 1892. Other pioneers were people such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and Joseph Ephraim who were passionate about African culture and ideologies. This movement was justified by the fact that the word Ethiopia could be traced in the Bible where it was referred to as Cush or Kush. The initiation of the movement triggered similar developments in the region with parallel developments in areas such as Nigeria and Cameroon. In Nigeria, the Native Baptist Church together with the Anglican United Native African Church was established.
The evolution of this movement saw political activities turn into political parties and trade unions with each organization having its own members and their own guiding principles to guide their undertakings. This was around the year 1920. Later on, the movement narrowed down and was now associated with one section of the independent religious movements such as the Zionist church. Gradually, the name Ethiopianism grew fainter and fainter to the extent that around 1970s, the term was rarely used beyond Southern Africa.
The movement, just as initially perceived by the proprietors, did serve its purpose to a great extent. It saw that Africans were liberated from harsh treatment by colonial leaders and ensured that retrogressive issues such as racial segregation were going into extinction. The movement played a key role in helping the Zulu rebellion become a great success in 1906 under the leadership of John Chilembwe. The movement also saw that Africans could now take up leadership positions especially in the churches putting them in a position to make influential decisions. The movement ensured that the slogan “Africa for Africans” came to pass with full inclusivity across the board; religion, political as well as social set up in the colonial era. Through the movement, Africa’s dignity was restored and now the current generations have a legacy to cling on and be proud to be called Africans.
Ethiopianism Origins and differences in South Africa between the separatist Ethiopian Church and Christian Zionism and Pentecostal Churches
It seems that black South African Christians took two different directions during the early 20th Century:
- one leading to Ethiopianism
- and the other to Christian Pentecostal Zionism. This movement in turn developed in two different directions:
- the Zion Christian Church known as the ZCC (and for another blog)
- and the churches who remained more influenced by Pentecostalism (also for another blog)
- some more formal congregations
- and others smaller informal ones who worship outdoors.
Ethiopianism – mission origin, middle class and pan-African
Ethiopianism grew out of mission congregations such as the Anglican, Wesleyan, Congregational and Methodist churches and schools. These produced an educated elite, many of whom became middle class and had the skills and training to adapt to entrepreneurship and urbanization. There was a lot of dissatisfaction amongst many black congregants as, despite Christian teachings of equality, there was significant racial disparity within these congregations. This led to breakaways by African church leaders with the cry of “Africa for the Africans”. The breakaway churches identified with Ethiopia as a symbol of independent African-ness as well as a symbol of African unity. These breakaway Ethiopian churches kept close to the theology and the practice of the mission churches from which they seceded. But in their stand against discrimination and in their support of the improvement and upliftment for their clergy as well as their congregations, they were a middle class protest movement. It was this aspect of resistance, as well as the political edge of the emphasis on African unity (over tribalism), that was seen as a threat by the colonial government.
Christian Zionism: working class, syncretic, emphasizing healing and prophecy and speaking in tongues
Whereas Ethiopian separatism grew out of local mission congregations and aspired to a pan-Africanism, the independent African churches had very different origins and took a different direction. The origins of Zionism are complex. A disaffected Dutch Reformed Minister Petrus Le Roux, was interested in the teachings of Dowie from the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion City near Chicago in the United States. In 1903, Le Roux, along with 400 Africans, started the first Zionist Church in Wakkerstroom based on Dowie’s teachings (which stressed the importance of divine healing). This direction was given further input with the arrival in 1908 of missionaries from the American Pentecostal and Apostolic churches .
Pentecostalism is based on the Book of Acts (Chapter 2), where Christ’s disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit with the accompanying speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing as signs of the baptism. In a belief system where ancestral spirits “speak” to believers, a religion where baptism takes place together with “speaking in tongues” and the holy spirit offers divine healing, it was easy for Pentecostal Zionism to attract new converts.
Christian Zionism: a-political emphasizing healing over protest
While the Ethiopianism was a largely middle-class protest movement, Zionismadapted to the needs of the poor proletariat emphasizing healing rather than political involvement. With the removal of land from black farmers as well the introduction of migrant labour for mines and urban industry, there were huge numbers of transient ‘homeless’ displaced people with no support or family infrastructure in the urban centres. It was the Zionist movement which provided a home for this poor and illiterate working class. In this a-political stance, the Zionist movement did not pose the same threat to the colonial and Apartheid government as the Ethiopian churches were seen to.
Since its inception Zionism has developed a huge number of offshoots so that there are now well over 4000 churches with an estimate of 30% of the total South African population being a member of an African Independent Church. The main Zionist Church is the Zion Christian Church which has some 6-8 million members in South Africa and has its annual pilgrimage to Moria near Polokwane every Easter.