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Zion Christian Churches

Brief Overview

Please see following sub sections for details of the beliefs and practices of the two main types of Zion Churches. Each type has off-shoots and variations in practices.

Details of the other types of Zion Christian Churches follow in a separate section accessed from Main Contents Page

Traditionally, religion which included medical services was closely interwoven with everyday life. For example traditionally incidents such as human sickness, stock death, bad luck, crop failure etc., were often seen as mere symptoms of a deeper under-lying cause. Attention was drawn to such causes as dissatisfied Ancestors, breaking of taboos etc. often caused by severed human relationships. These traditional requirements of the traditional religious system were not fulfilled by  "modern" usually Western-orientated medical services nor by the orthodox Western-orientated version of Christianity. (The orthodox, Western-orientated, Christian Churches are those originally introduced by foreign missionaries.) This not only applies in Botswana but also elsewhere in Africa and other non-industrial societies, especially those experiencing rapid social change. The traditional religions of such societies on the other hand, provided a comprehensive system that enabled the individual members of these microcosmic societies to face and understand the incidents they were likely to encounter in their lives.

However, traditional religions, may fail to present adequate systems suited to "modern" Africa where the former isolated microcosmic societies have become increasingly affected by, and absorbed into, the large scale macrocosm of their nation and the international and global community.

This is a brief background of the circumstances in which new religious movements such as Zion Churches  have developed. Exploratory research has tentatively suggested that these new religious movements may well provide a system to fulfil the local needs of a belief system and at the same time the needs created by the "new" situation that has resulted through social change. It was within this context that Christian churches such as the various Zion Christian Churches emerged.

In the following sections, some of the Zion Christian  Churches will  be outlined and it will be seen how they not only fulfil a need to satisfy the requirements of both traditional values and beliefs  but also those of the “modern age” for their congregations. This perhaps demonstrates that far from exhibiting an example of social change they in fact exhibit a social continuity.

The Zion churches, despite their name, are black Christian churches, which although they seem to have grown rapidly in the 1920's and 1930's, have much earlier roots. Sundkler  took down from information he obtained from "first-hand" informants during his study of these churches in Zululand during the years following 1937. He states that the Zion movement can be traced back to an apocalyptic church in the United States, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion founded in 1896 by John Alexander Dowie, who held the title of "First Apostle and General Overseer". The main teaching of this church was "divine healing", “Triune Immersion" and that "the Second Coming of the Lord was near at hand". In 1906 there was a split in this church following an argument between Dowie and his second in command, W.G. Voliva who believed in a flat earth, amongst other things. This church eventually split into six different American groups. The overseer of one of these American groups, Daniel Bryant, baptized the first group of 26 Africans on May 8th 1904 in Johannesburg, and P.L. le Roux, a white man, also joined this church, which aimed to save “the African lingering in  utter darkness" . Whist still in its early stages, three missionaries arrived from the U.S.A. in 1908, it was claimed that "Zion taught immersion and divine healing, but not Pentecost". When Le Roux received his Pentecost (or baptism in the Holy Spirit) in 1908, the Africans in the new Zion Churches soon followed suit, and the Pentecost became an additional feature of these Zion Churches. From 1915 le Roux started to concentrate on conversion of whites while the African Zionists concentrated on converting black people.

Sundkler states that most of the present day Zion Churches can be traced back to off-shoots from this first church between 1917-20 and he gives the leaders of these five main off-shoots as Paulo Mabilitsa who founded the Christian Apostolic Church in Zion in 1920, Daniel Nkonyane of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Holy Spirit Church in Zion, J.G. Phillipps of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Elias Mahlangu of the Zion Apostolic Church of South Africa and Fred Luthuli whose church was an off-shoot of a Seventh Day Adventist church.

The name Zion comes from an idea originating from Zion City, Lake Michigan, Illinois, D.S.A., but members claimed that it is from Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Again according to Sundkler, by including the name "Zion" in the name of a church, the leader of a Zionist Church "defines it as a New,Testament church which in minute detail carries out the religious programme supposed to have been laid down by the central figure of the Zionist's Bible, John the Baptist. In fact very few of my informants were aware of these early beginnings and never mentioned any of the above-named American or African leaders. They all explained to me that Zion Churches became popular in the 1920's and 1930's because life in the locations*3  and mines was very dangerous. For instance in the mines there were many accidents, and off-duty there was little recreation other than drinking. Daily life was very dangerous and there was much stabbing and fighting. Life in the over-crowded locations (segregated urban areas during Apartheid era) was little better.

Black workers were worried about the conditions and some started Zion Churches, which were totally organized and run by black people. The Bible is claimed to be the absolute authority but, as will be noticed traditional doctors and Zion prophets seem to perform many of the same functions. Although it would be an over-generalization to say that "traditionalists" use the services of a traditional doctor whereas Zionists use those of a Zion prophet, there is an amount of overlap, particularly in the case of (more especially stubborn illnesses and problems). For example,if a person is sick and does not receive successful help from a traditional doctor he may consult a Zion prophet/healer and subsequently be cured through Zion treatment. Although he may later go on to become a Zionist this is not necessarily the case.

However a Zionist is  unlikely to seek the help of a traditional doctor in the case of sickness, as the use of traditional medicines, particularly the “horned" ones* (those associated with harming  and stored in a lenaka - horn), is forbidden by the Zion Church. If a Zionist does use these he may later decide to leave the Church, finding that the power of the traditional doctor is stronger. But Zionists take part in certain traditional ceremonial occasions in their role as members of dikgotla (local community of patrilineal kin), for example, when they build a new lolwapa (household).

It should be mentioned that in many ways the "ritual" and behaviour of a Zion prophet is probably influenced by that of traditional doctors. This will be seen in more detail in the following descriptions of the various services and "healing cures.", which may be compared with those described in the sections on traditional practices.

Many of the Zion Churches are quite small and may only have one congregation of 20-50 people, whereas others may have several branches in South Africa and the surrounding countries and may total several hundred or even thousands of members. Although they may be independent there appear to be seven distinctive similarities, most of which are not found in the former missionary  churches introduced from foreign countries and often still controlled by them) and the other independent churches. These seven features are as follows:-

1. Faith Healing.

2. Presence of prophets.

3. Use of drums.

4. Dancing and spirit possession during services.

5. Insistence on Total Immersion Baptism.

6. Holy Communion services at night only.

7. Wearing of special uniform

(N.B.These seven features are identified by Martin West)

Emergence of Zion Churches in Botswana

The Zion Churches were introduced into Botswana by returning migrant workers, particularly those who worked in the mines. They had joined a Zion Church whilst working in South Africa and so when they came home to Botswana they would either start a branch of their South African parent church or may even start their own church in Botswana.

At first these Zion Churches were outlawed in Botswana. In Kanye neighbours would report Zionists to the Chief. They were disliked by mission church members, who believed them to be more heathen than Christian, and by traditionalists, who feared that their Zion protections were causing problems in the kgotla (community of patrilineal kin) (e.g. the Zionists use of Zion Holy Water to protect their houses, families and property, rather than traditional medicines, was believed to attract lightning and misfortune to the whole kgotla.

At one time Zionists were even banished from Kanye in much the same way as sorcerers had been  exiled. There is, for instance, a village called Metlobo on the edge of the Southern (Bangwaketse) District, that was originally started by Zionists who had been banished. Other Zionists decided to move to sub-villages because of the persecution in Kanye. In the sub-villages they were freer to practise their religion unmolested and undisturbed, for example, in Lotlhakane, there is an area composed of Zionists. Lotlhakane is a sub-village of Kanye, its name means "you are mixed", because it is a mixture of peoples; some being refugees from the nineteenth century wars and are descended from those who were left behind when the Matebele armies moved north; others are Bakgalagadi; others moved from Kanye to escape sorcerers who were troubling them in Kanye; and others moved there because they wanted more space. etc.

Since independence persecution has stopped. People are now free to practise Zionism and in the same way as traditional doctors are able to register their churches at the Ministry of Home Affairs, so also may Zion Churches. Registration is what each church strives to achieve. In Kanye there are many different Zion Churches, some are branches of churches in South Africa while others may be branches of churches which have started in Botswana, others have only one church, in Kanye. Some, whilst being independent of each other, join together into associations for joint services and activities.

 Although all the Zion churches have most of the seven basic features there appear to be three basic types:

]. Zion Christian Church (Z.C.C.)

2. Zion Churches that do not use drums or have very much dancing.

3. Those Zion Churches that do use drums and do dance. These may be further sub-divided into:-

a) Those that believe in sacrifice.

b) Those that do not~believe in sacrifice.

3.a) and 3.b) are classified together because, although they do not agree over belief about sacrifice, they often join together for certain special services, whereas they do not join with category 1, and 2. for joint services.

Further Selected Reading:

Sundkler, Bengt (1961. First Pub. 1948) Bantu Prophets in South Africa Oxford University Press.

West, Martin (1975) "The Shades Come to Town: The Ancestors and Urban Independent Churches" in Religion and Social Change in Southern Africa (Eds) Whisson, M.G. and Martin West

(1975) Bishops and Prophets in a Black City. Rex Collings: London.

Concluding Remarks

In these  five churches all seven of West's features were found. The main distinction was whether or not sacrifice was practised. As all of these churches had branches, their social structure has developed beyond that of a Prophet Movement to that of a Religious Society. The special relationship that seemed to exist between BUCZ and Kanana churches indicates that in some ways BUCZ could be said to be an Ancillary Cult of Kanana, its members attending services at both. As there is no development as yet of a Holy City or New Jerusalem (as, for example with the Z.C.C. and Moria) these five churches have not developed into the Total Community Type. Special services where all the branches of one church come together for a joint service, such as at the annual church conferences, normally rotated between branches, who take it in turns to act as hosts.


These churches can be further sub-divided into two sub-categories but otherwise are very similar to each other. The major difference is over their attitude to sacrifice. Those churches that do not believe in sacrifice explained that they believe that Jesus Christ was the final sacrifice and so it is wrong to continue to make them. Those that believe in it, say that sacrifices help to please God so that he can give the prophets the gift of prophecy to "see" what is wrong in a case.(This is more similar to the traditional attitude to sacrifice, that the spilling of blood alerts and pleases the ancestors.) However, as will be seen, the sacrifices are always carried out according to procedure laid down in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. It should be noted that although they may disagree over sacrifice, they frequently associate for other types of special services. I became accustomed to and welcomed at  five of these churches. They were: -

Episcopal Apostolic Church in Zion of Africa - (Episcopal)

Bethleham City of Christ Church in Zion of Africa - (Bethlehem)

Botswana United Church jn Zion - (BUCZ)

God is Love/Kanana - (Kanana - it was renamed during fieldwork with the latter name)

Apostolic Africa Christ Church in Zion - (Africa)

All these churches had a basically similar pattern of ritual but first it is perhaps interesting to look at each in turn and at its leading Moruti (Priest).

Fuller details of these churches , are outlined  in the following sections.

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