In the West in the 20th Century, many people may consider religious leaders to be nuts, but they are rarely committed to mental institutions, exiled, imprisoned, or killed — at least, as long as recent cases in Waco, Texas and Montana are ignored.
In colonial Africa, European rulers saw Christian preachers and prophets as serious threats to their leadership.
An obscure African woman by the name of Nontetha (“Someone who speaks a lot”) fell sick during the 1918 Influenza Epidemic known as Black October, which killed hundreds of thousands of South Africans, as well as hundreds of thousands of people around the world. During Nontetha’s illness, God appeared to her in a vision, told her the epidemic was a judgement, and called her to form a new church that preached purification from sin.
Nontetha attacked tobacco, excessive beer drinking, adultery, witchcraft, traditional dancing, and eating pork or the meat of any animals who had been killed or had not died of natural causes. She adjured her followers to listen because Jesus would return soon for Judgement Day.
It was her call for African unity that made the white South African authorities nervous.
Members of the Church of the Prophetess Nontetha still gather for worship today, even though colonial authorities committed her to a mental institution in 1922, where she died in 1935. The historians who unearthed her story (and her unmarked grave in 1998) argue that because she was a woman, authorities decided she was mad; if she had been a man, she would probably have been exiled, imprisoned, or killed, as had happened to so many male African preachers and prophets (Edgar and Sapire, African Apocalypse).
The influenza epidemic, which killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world, prompted many prophets to preach messages of resistance, redemption, and renewal. But they were not the first millenarian churches in Africa.
Those of us who live in the West often imagine men and women in white robes, heads shaved, filing down a corridor with a single lit candle in their hands when we hear of apocalyptic prophets, millenarian movements, or eschatological churches. We fear these religious movements because they so often end in death, as the Heaven’s Gate movement did. The ideology of these movements seems irrational or superstitious. The word “cult” conjures up imagines of Jonestown and poisoned Kool-Aid.
But apocalyptic religion holds little of the negative connotations for Africans that it holds in the West. In fact, apocalyptic Christianity — as well as other religious traditions in Africa — has held out hope and encouraged resistance to oppressive governments.
It is possible to say that millenarian and apocalyptic messages, even in their twisted and dangerous forms, are evidence that people have had their hopes dashed, their rights abridged, their speech silenced or censored. The birth of such churches or cults can be symptoms of desperation; but like all types of religion, more often than not, they were born as a way to form community. In their true and positive form, whether Christian or Islamic or Buddhist, they form significant and sometimes life-saving support systems.
Like churches in the American South that led the way in civil rights movements, millenarian or apocalyptic churches became popular as a form of resistance to colonial rule. Mission churches usually divorced Christianity from African culture and denied Africans the right to pastor or preach. As one African said, “To conform to all the missionary teachings forced one to become unAfrican. To be a Christian [in the mission churches] meant that you always had to be apologizing for being an African (David Sandgren, p. 184).
Millenarian churches, like other African Independent Churches, offered African leadership, pride in African culture, and support and encouragement to resist the colonial powers. Yet it offered all of this within the context of the new religion many Africans had embraced.
Colonial officials soon began to fear the leaders of these groups, as well as the way members of these churches encouraged each other to resist the law.
For example, Kenon Kamwana, who formed the Watchtower or Apostolic Church in 1909, urged his followers to refuse to pay taxes. We must not be afraid to break the law, he told them, because as children of God, we are not subject to the law of the colonial rulers.
The Rev. John Chilembwe was caught and killed after he organized a violent rebellion in 1915. Hundreds of his followers attacked and killed several white settler farmers in Malawi. For ten years after his ordainment, he had tried to work within the colonial framework, but finally, he proclaimed that colonialism made a mockery of Christianity. In particular, he condemned how Africans workers were treated by white settlers and the way Europeans conscripted Africans into service for WWI. Though Chilembwe died in 1915, his uprising and death predicted how churches and individual African Christians would become involved in liberation struggles around Africa in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, risking death and imprisonment in their willingness to disobey unjust and cruel treatment.
The Rev. Wellington Butelezi encouraged his S. African followers to look to the Americans for help in the 1920’s. African Americans, he claimed, would arrive in airplanes to help liberate them from white domination. Though he was arrested and deported, his movement spread, as well as the hope that black Americans would arrive in South Africa to assist Africans struggling first under white domination and then under the even more oppressive apartheid system.
Millenarian/Pentecostal leaders emphasized healing, prophecy, and possession by the Holy Spirit. Their message often focused on spiritual liberation as much as on political liberation. Nevertheless, the hundreds of African leaders who pastored millenarian churches formed an integral part in the backbone of African resistance to colonial oppression and rule, as evidenced in their messages and by the fact that so many of them were exiled and arrested by the government.