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African Bantu Prophets and Ethiopian Churches

Luke 5:37-39

“And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.

But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better”

B.G.M. Sundkler explained in his book, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, the formation of independent churches in Africa in the early 1900’s and their theology, with reference to the Zulu people. 

 "...To the main type belong most of the organizations which call themselves by some of the words "Zion", "Apostolic," "Pentecostal," "Faith" (this word sometimes misrepresented as "Five", "Fife", "Fifth"). I describe these organizations as Zionists, which word of course has nothing to do with any modern Jewish movement. The reason for the use of this term is simply that the leaders and followers of these Churches refer to themselves as "ama-Ziyoni", Zionists. Historically they have their roots in Zion City, Illinois, United States. Ideologically they claim to emanate from the Mount of Zion in Jerusalem. Theologically the Zionists are a syncretistic Bantu movement with healing, speaking with tongues, purification rites, and taboos as the main expressions of their faith. There are numerous denominational, local and individual variations... they may yet combine a general dislike of the Whites as being ritually unclean, with a high esteem of some American Zion Church leaders. John Alexander Dowie, "First Apostle", and to a lesser degree, W.G.Voliva, are on their way to becoming modern church fathers in Zululand. As far as their attitude to the Zulu heritage ...they combat the use of the inyanga's medicines and they fight against the diviner's demons of possession. But the weapons with which they fight the struggle belong to an arsenal of old Zulu religion. One strong section of the Zionists is deliberately nativistic, and Churches of this kind in the end become the bridge back to the old heathenism from whence they came" 8. 

"The Ethiopian churches were tribal or nationalistic churches, with many of the founder’s being evangelists, preachers, teachers and lay members of the Wesleyan Church. The first "Ethiopian" church was founded on the "Witwatersrand in 1892." To some who embraced their theology, it meant the promise of the evangelization of Africa. To many natives, it meant the self-government of the African Church under African leaders." 9

Explaining the difference between Zionist and Ethiopian Churches, Dr. Lanternari states:

“The principal difference between the Zionist and Ethiopian churches is in the fulfillment of their messianic hopes: the Ethiopians promise a united Christian Africa ruled by the Lion of Judah, King of Kings, whereas the Zionists look to the Judeo-Christian land of Palestine, to which Moses and John the Baptist will lead them. The Ethiopian churches are governed by men who fulfill the traditional role of king in an aristocratic hierarchy, whereas the Zionists… choose their religious heads from among the preachers, healers, clairvoyants or sworn enemies of witchcraft.” 10.

“A tenent common to Zionist churches expresses the need for revolt from within against the present status of native society in order to make way for the New Jerusalem.” 11.

Historian, Dr. Lanternari investigated the cults and churches, which, according to him, have formed in a militant struggle against alien rule and their often-found ‘gospel’ to be a mixture of the Christian and the pagan.

This information, confirmed by other authors, shows that while various individuals have accepted Jesus Christ, many do not desire what they perceive to be, not just a white man’s religion, but oppression and removal of cultural and economic freedom. The well-documented information provides such insights as how “the South African government favoured repression of the autonomous long before the Union was created in 1910,” and “…the Ethiopian preachers had a hand in the Zulu uprisings of 1906 and used the pulpit to incite the people to rebellion.” 12.

In other words, just as a “Christian” social gospel developed in Britain and North America that included Unitarians, communists and others, so too Africa and many other “native” groups globally developed a similar agenda. The difference was that for many tribal groups, the goal was to reclaim their land and culture from the “white man.” Many ‘preachers’ used this goal to manipulate and control the populations of the various groups. Just as the pulpit and their form of religion were used to manipulate the people into rebellion, we see that same scenario today, with many “Christian leaders” agitating the people to “take back America” etc. for God.

For many, the acceptance and assimilation of some of the teachings of Christianity was a matter of expediency, no different than with any other people ‘groups’, including North Americans, British or Europeans. 

Mark Mathabane wrote in his autobiography, “Kaffir Boy, that this same expediency was witnessed even within his own family, particularly his mother. Unable to obtain a job, it became apparent that those who went to the missionary meetings and professed acceptance of their beliefs, got jobs and other privileges. Even after becoming ‘nominal Christians’ with the Full Gospel Church, Mark described his mother recounting tribal folklore, “…she would tell of chiefs, witch doctors, sages, warriors, sorcerers, magicians…These stories were set in mythical African kingdoms ruled by black people, where no white man had ever set foot. She would recount prodigious deeds of famous African gods, endowed with unlimited magical powers; among them the powers of immortality, invincibility…”13  

David Lamb described what it was like for some who went to particular meetings,

  “…missionaries provided schools, churches and hospitals…One African convert recalls an Anglican missionary in Uganda…who frequently descended from his pulpit during service to cane African latecomers…’ 14. 

Mark Mathabane, whose story related apartheid in South Africa, shared that when extremely ill later in his life, his mother took him to a witch doctor for healing. The reality is, that no matter what our background, Biblical truths remain the same for each of us. We cannot have other gods, nor can we be involved in the occult or witchcraft. We cannot serve two masters.

Matthew 6:24 

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Dr. Lanternari suggests that there is a reason for changes in culture after a people is oppressed. The result is that their religious beliefs become a reflection of the desire for deliverance from the oppressor. Unfortunately, that is a need that has been reflected world wide. Many cults also result in varied forms of messianism.

“…premonitory religious movements of revival and transformation usually lie at the origin of every political and military uprising among the native peoples and take the form of messianic cults promising liberation….When a people us unable to repel the intruders who have seized its land, as in the case of the Plains Indians in North America or the Maoris in New Zealand, almost invariably a new religious cult springs into being which inspires the natives to express opposition to foreign rule. Thus, by making a display of their religious independence, the people strive to fight the racial segregation, forced acculturation, or destruction of tribal life imposed both by missionaries and by the colonial administrators.” 15  

"One example in the Congo in 1921 was Kimbangie who was called “God of the Black Man,” in contrast to the God of the White Missionaries; and although his evangelism was Christian in essence and baptism and confession were regularly adopted…his preaching was unmistakably nationalistic…[he] prophesied the imminent ousting of the foreign rulers, a new way of life of the Africans, the return of the dead, and the coming of a Golden Age to be awaited in the arms of the native church….the Christian doctrine of the dignity of the individual, learned from the missionaries, was interpreted as God’s promise that the natives would soon be delivered from the presence of the white man. The one God of the Judeo-Christian faith was grafted onto the traditional figure of the Supreme Being of the native cults; the Bible, recognized as religious authority, was used to stimulate popular demand for freedom…” 16

“…The attribution of magical powers to religious healing is a feature of nearly every new messianic cult rising among people subjected to foreign rule…” 17

One cult whose gospel that patterned after Jehovah Witnesses was called the Israelite Church by their prophet/leader Enoch Mgijima. Many groups end up rejecting the New Testament and identifying themselves with the Jews of the Old Testament. They either align their beliefs with the Jews or believe they are part of the Lost Tribes and their Jewish brothers will save them from the oppression they are in.

 “…he proclaimed himself it’s “bishop, prophet and guardian.” Rejecting the New Testament as a hoax perpetrated by the missionaries, the Israelites adhered to the Old; they celebrated the Sabbath and other Jewish feasts and regarded themselves as the chosen people of Jehovah, who would not fail to come to their aid when the time was ripe for throwing off the foreign yoke…”

“The Israelites of Bullboek were not the only natives attracted to a cult which, centering upon a single God and rejecting the New Testament, identified themselves with the Jews. This same phenomenon occurs in such distant and disparate places as among the Maoris in New Zealand, the aborigines in Polynesia, and the Kikuyas in Kenya…In all of them the impact of the West has awakened an urge to modernize the ancient heritage of myths and rituals without also having to accept the rigid antipagan code of the Christians. It also aroused them to the need for self-determination and liberation from the oppressive presence of their foreign masters. The Judaic pattern meets these requirements because it’s doctrine and rituals are sufficiently progressive and yet sufficiently attached to tradition to be comprehensible to the African natives, and also because, down through the ages, the Jews have established themselves as the unparalleled example of a people able to survive all manner of persecution, an image of anguish and successful survival with which the natives wish to be identified.” 18

“This identification is strongly shown in South Africa by the religious pattern of Zionist churches rising alongside the Ethiopian movement, differing from it in ritual and doctrine while sharing its messianic motivation and the expectation of the millennium destined to bring freedom from foreign rule.” 19  

As stated above, just as messianic groups are forming today, many were grasped in South Africa, because of a belief that the natives along with many other group’s world-wide, could be likened to the Jews, who also faced oppression.

“The messianic cults rose and multiplied in South Africa long before they developed elsewhere on the African continent. The Ethiopian Church founded in 1892…the founder had been an active member of the Methodist Church… Christian doctrine was re-interpreted to express the yearnings of the natives for liberty. Among the outstanding leaders of the Ethiopian Church was another Wesleyan preacher, M. Dwane, who played a major role in the movement by bringing about it’s affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States, founded by American Negroes in 1816…” 20

“…The hold of the tribal patterns coupled with the strong personalities of most of the church [Pan-African] founders caused the Ethiopian Churches to take on a hierarchial structure of Bantu society, in which political and religious authority is vested in a single leader, who could well have claimed the title King. Although the local churches operate independently, they are bound by a common purpose, part messianic and part nationalistic: the expulsion of the white man and the elimination of his social order…” 21

“In judging the messianic movements…one finds in every cult such phenomena as a prophet or guide who founds his movement on traditional myths which coincide with the substance of the revelations he had received. Revelations may come from the Supreme Being…the Great Spirit…or from national heroes who inspired such cults…Messianic cults all involve a belief in society’s return to its source…a belief in the rising of the dead, in the reversal of the existing social order, in the ejection of the white man, in the end of the world, and in its regeneration in an age of abundance and happiness…myth of the millenium, involves the coming of a Messiah in human form, whose redemptive action is to be the fulfillment of society’s hope that the traditional way of life can be restored. The Messiah, regarded as the re-creator of the world, is usually the personification of some national hero whose return has been long awaited, or the ancestor who founded the cultural lineage, that is, either Adam or Jesus Christ…” 22

What many people are waiting for is not the return of Christ, but the anti-christ. The mixture of truth and error in their teachings is evident. With the various groups believing they are part of the Lost Tribes, they readily embrace the concept that they are also God’s Chosen People.

“…Jehovah represents the Maoris’ belief that they are descended from the Tribes of Judah…the Maoris were the new “Chosen People of God,” that New Zealand was the land of Canaan…The day will come…when the paheka [British] will be cast out of New Zealand, thereby putting an end to the present world and ushering in the millennium…the Maori dead will rise again and the Jews will come to New Zealand to form with us a single people and to build a new life for all mankind…The connection was made even clearer when a missionary, the Reverend Thomas West, stated that certain somatic traits justified the assumption that Polynesians and Jews were of the same racial stock. [Footnote:..The idea was widespread among the Maoris that they represented one of the Lost Tribes of Israel; the Mormons contributed to this notion…] 23

Due to a desire to connect with racial roots and traditions, many native groups worldwide are embracing what they believe to be the source of their traditions, those being found in Africa.

”…although the Jamaican Negroes are almost universally Christian, there is an intense revival of pagan-type religions, linked to old African traditions. Among these derived from Euro-American Christian inspiration are the Church of the Brethren, Christian Science, the Salvation Army, the Seventh-Adventists, the Society of Friends, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Pentecostal Church, the Mission Church of God, and the Bible Students. Their following proves through that the natives are everywhere in quest of new religious ideas…in opposition of the strict orthodoxy…” 24 [Note: In Africa the Salvation Army was welcomed because they didn’t proselytize and the natives reportedly liked the drums.]

Many under the guise of ‘Christianity’ are encouraging the hanging on to the various traditions, which, throughout the world, are steeped in paganism. No particular group has any more or less embracement of the occult; it is merely adjusted to the social atmosphere. While some cultures are openly pagan and go after other gods, North America, Britain and Europe, etc., are no different with their idols, witchcraft, paganism, lust of the flesh, rebellion to God and rejection or acceptance of Jesus Christ and obedience to His Word. [See also: Taking the Mark]


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8. op.cit Sundkler, p.54-55

9. op.cit., Lanternari, p. 40

10. Ibid., p. 41

11. Ibid., p. 42

12. p. 78 , Kaffir Boy, An Autobiography by Mark Mathabane; Plume, 1986

13. op.cit, Lamb, p. 12

14. op.cit, Lanternari, p. 19-20

15. Ibid., p. 26

16. Ibid. p. 36

17. Ibid. p. 42

18. Ibid., p. 43-44

19. Ibid., p. 43

20. Ibid., p. 41

21. Ibid. p. 41-42

22. Ibid. p. 240

23. Ibid. p. 203

24. Ibid. p. 137


Copyright . All articles are the sole property of and Vicky Dillen. All Scripture King James Version unless otherwise stated.

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