Zion Christian Churches Churches Liturgy Prophets Services Members

© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

Members and Membership

The method by which people join the Zion churches and become members is described in the Baptism and Uniform Services. In this section an attempt will be made to explain the attraction of these Zion churches and the type of people who are attracted to them. Information for this was collected by means of a survey. Members were interviewed either after church services or when they came to visit  my house. Thus in no way could the respondents be called a random sample. In fact to obtain a truly random sample would have been difficult as people are seasonally absent at their Lands, Cattle-posts, on contracts at the mines in South Africa» or working in the various urban areas of South Africa. The congregations are thus very fluid.

It should also be noted that as one of the main aims was to try and find out what attracted members to their Zion Churches» a certain rapport was necessary in order to gather reliable, often quite personal information, as the question on why they had first joined often involved personal explanations of sorcery. This survey was therefore not conducted until members were well used to seeing my interpreter and myself at their services.

However for all its difficulties and shortcomings, I believe that this survey does reveal some useful qualitative results. It too, can be compared with West's, which was conducted in similar circumstances in Soweto. Whereas his was administered to members in three churches mine was administered mainly to members at five different churches. His survey covered 60 members, mine covered 66.

Zion churches were, originally banned in Kanye until after Independence. The main mission church, particularly of the alder generation as it was the one to which the Chief's family were converted, is the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (U.C.C.S.A.) . This church was originally called the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.) which was established in Kanye in the 1840's. The other mission churches represented in Kanye are Seventh Day Adventist (1920's) which has a large following as it also runs  the hospital, and the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Churches which bath started in 1972. There are numerous types .of Zion and Pentecostal churches. Although very few people deny being Christians and, as has already been shown, even Pagans will be buried with Christian prayers and hymns by Christian ministers, people tend to regard themselves .only as members .of churches once they have started paying membership dues and have been baptized/confirmed (as appropriate ) in that church. So although many of my respondents (76 %) stated that they had no previous church membership this should not be taken to mean that therefore they were necessarily previously Pagans. Only about a quarter of my respondents had previously belonged to other churches the majority of whom had moved from another Zion Church not a mission church.

Reasons for Joining the Zion Churches

My respondents gave as their main reason for joining their church as sorcery. The symptoms of this were the usual traditional explanations, for example, personal sickness, sickness of children, problems at the Lands etc. were all seen as evidence they were suffering from sorcery. They would typically report that they had tried traditional doctors or the hospital but had failed to find help either from traditional or Western methods.

Here are a few examples of the replies to the question "Why did you choose this church?"

Mrs. K.M. (a widow), Bethlehem:"... I was sick with stomach pains. I tried the hospital and traditional doctors but they were no good. Then I heard from a friend that the Moruti of Bethlehem was very good at helping people and he cured me. I do not know what caused my sickness.."

Mr. M.)Bethlehem: "I was sick and the whole family was sick, we had been given sejeso (Setswana poison) by sorcerers. We tried the hospital and traditional doctors but were not helped. We heard this Moruti was good and were cured by him.”

Mr. S.M.)Bethlehem:"I was sick and my children were always dying. I tried the S.D.A. church and the hospital to cure them. 1 also tried traditional doctors, then I was healed by the Moruti of this church." (This respondent now has 5 young children.)

Miss R.C. - former Methodist from a Methodist family in Barolong Farms, now a member of Bethlehem: "1 found that only this Moruti could cure me. I was sick and had high blood pressure that caused me to become dizzy and faint. I would even fall into the fire (her leg was badly scarred from such a burn). I tried the hospital and traditional doctors but no one could help me. Then my mother heard of this Moruti. They prayed for me at the church and now the dizziness and fainting has been reducing."

Miss E.K.,Bethlehem:"I was very sick with heart trouble and would often go astray. The hospital failed to help me. Then one night my mother (an L.M.S. member) dreamt that she should bring me to Bethlehem to be healed. She did, and I have been cured."

Mr. M.R. B.U.C.Z:"1 was sick with heart trouble and felt like hanging myself. Lobatse (Mental) Hospital failed to cure me, also traditional doctors were no good. My mother brought me here when she heard that this Moruti was good. I was prophesied and the Prophets told my problems were caused by the continual quarrelling of my parents, who had been bewitched. I was healed by this Moruti."

Mr. C.J. B.U.C.Z: "I was sick, and had been given Setswana poison which was in my stomach. I saw someone who had been sick like me, and he told me that he had been healed by this Moruti. So I came to this church and was healed."

Mr. K.J., B.U.C.Z: "I was sick.. I was bewitched so that I was paralysed and could not even eat. I went to the hospital and even fainted there but they could not help me. Then I had a dream that I should join this Zion Church and if 1 was prayed for by the Moruti I would be healed. This is what 1 did."

Mr.O.O. B.U.C.Z: "1 had swollen legs, the swelling even spread up to my waist. The hospital failed to help me. My sisters were members of this church, so 1 tried to ask for help from this Moruti and was cured."

Miss N.,B.U.C.Z: "1 was bewitched in the stomach and eyes. The hospital and traditional doctors could not help me. A cousin told me about this Moruti and I have been cured.”

Miss M.R.Kanana:"l was ill in the stomach and always dizzy. The hospital could not help me. I had been given Setswana poison. I was brought here by my mother and cured."

Miss K.M.,Kanana: "1 was sick with heart trouble. Traditional doctors could not help me, so I was brought here by my brother who is a member."

Miss B.N. Kanana: "1 was sick in the stomach. The hospital failed to help me and then 1 heard from a friend that this church was helpful."

These were just a few of the typical answers that were given by respondents as their reasons for joining  these Zion churches. Most of my respondents are women as due to migrant labour at that time most of the men were away working in South African mines.

Healing was the chief reason for joining. But Kanye is a rural area and a number of the respondents had joined Zion churches on marriage. Marriages are still often arranged by parents in Kanye and it  is understood that a wife joins her husband's church.

Another question that is connected to the reason for the member originally joining, was that about the use of cords, specially prophesied: parts of church uniform, and use of Holy Water. All respondents used Holy Water either regularly or periodically. These are the common remedies given at the Zion Churches. The Holy Water is either drunk daily, or used for washing, or periodically for example during special individual healing or at general healing services. The cords and uniforms are always individually prophesied as remedies (For further details see sections on Liturgy and Healing Services)

The question that is also connected with healing is the one about Zion Special Services:- - “Have you or your family ever had a special service at your home?" However, here it should be remembered that in many families they would not host a Zion Service if they were using traditional medicines as well, i.e. in such a family where the owners of the home might be traditional and the children or younger generation are Zionists. Problems in such a home would usually be solved by a traditional doctor.

For example a traditional Badimo (Ancestral Feast) was held by one of my neighbours, as the owner of the home was not Zionist, although their sons and daughters were. However, their daughter and one son had both held Zion Botsetsi Services. Also if traditional doctors have failed to help a family, the Zionists may be called in, for example one Setlhabelo(Sacrifice) Service  was held in a family where the mother was not a Zionist and the father was dead. It should also be remembered that special services usually involve a certain outlay in food for the feast and/or sacrifice, therefore it would be more difficult for them to be held by poorer members.

Zion churches were originally banned in Kanye and in fact they originate from South Africa. A question to try to show the correlation of a family connection with South Africa, and hence a more positive attitude to joining something originating from South Africa, was the question “Do you have relatives working in South Africa?" It could be assumed that those who have relatives in South Africa would probably be more receptive to the idea of being Zionist i.e. when they were having problems they would be more likely to have friends and relatives who would successfully advise them to obtain help from the Zionists, after they may have tried other remedies unsuccessfully. Therefore it can be seen that the overwhelming majority of members have relatives who are working in South Africa.

Zionists are usually said to have a lower educational level than member is other churches. This is not a church usually associated with highly educated people. During the interview respondents were asked about their education level. In my survey of church members  the largest single group of 45.5% had never been to school, only  16 of the 66 respondents had passed Std. 7 (the final primary leaving certificate) and only 10 of these had received any secondary education.

There was little correlation between educational level and church leadership. Only one of the leaders had been to school, although all except 2 were to some extent literate. However the Secretaries were of necessity literate as their duties included keeping the church membership books and dues, and of course reading the Bible as directed by the leaders during services.

Therefore this leads on to the question as to what is the main quality of leadership. Other writers have already referred to this and it is this that appears to be the most important factor that attracts a new member to this type of church in the first place - the ability to heal.

Healing always includes prophesying. (More detail of the methodology of this is given in Sections on the Liturgy, Prophets and Services>) Preaching is also important. Some people who were able to preach could not prophesy, but all the prophets were able to preach.

Several writers have suggested the similarity between prophesying and being a traditional doctor. Members were also asked: "Do you have any prophets in the family?" And “Do you have any relatives who are traditional doctors?" Here a fairly strong correlation was found between being a prophet and having a relative as a prophet}and also between being a prophet and having a traditional doctor in the family. 12 of the 19 prophets interviewed had both prophet relatives and traditional doctor relatives

Attraction of Zion Churches

West among other writers mentions sociability as an important factor in the attraction of Zion churches to members in Soweto. As in West's study my informants said they had friends in their church and many  had relatives as well. West emphasizes the apparent importance  of the church as quasi-kin offering friendship, co-operation and mutual aid in times of need.This he says is a significant factor in an urban setting in attracting members, who further shared a common rural background. However this would be less important in a settled rural area such as Kanye where members typically live in their mainly paternal kin groups, and both maternal and paternal kin offer particularly co-operation and mutual aid,in times of necessity.

I attended a Badimo where sons were Zionists and a wedding where the bride was a Zionist. These were both traditional occasions and members of the Zionist congregation attended not as kin but as friends or quasi-kin, for example as quasi-kin they helped to cook, a job usually reserved for the true kin.

The opposite is also true for Zionist occasions; I attended a Zionist Botsetsi and Zionist Ditlhapelo(Prayers) and at each non-Zion kin were present, if not for the Zion service (although some did attend this) then for the feast which followed, and especially to drink the traditional beer which was necessarily brewed for the occasion even though taboo to the Zion Church members.