Zion Christian Churches Churches Liturgy Prophets Services Members

© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

Prophets and Prophesying

The presence of prophecy and prophets in these churches is one of the key factors in attracting new members  the majority of who come in search of healing. Many of the ones interviewed during the research  had relatives who were prophets and also relatives who were traditional doctors. These factors would appear to support the assertion made by some writers that prophets are a version of traditional healers. Another assertion that my interviews tended to support was that of the common backgrounds of prophets and traditional doctors.

West describes the typical history of a prophet as one who had suffered a long illness that was not cured either by Western medicine nor by traditional doctors, but eventually the individual was cured by a Zion prophet.  Following their cure, such individuals became members of the church, then they themselves discover a personal gift of prophecy. However, in Botswana this is perhaps as far as the common history can be taken.

There does not seem to be the same ritual training of prophets. This is perhaps because the Tswana traditional doctors are not the same as the Zulu-based Sangomas. In my survey 19 prophets said they had originally been ill and then cured by a prophet after other means had failed. Here follow  some individual case histories of prophets:

One typical example of this type of case history was from a male member of Episcopal.

Mr. O.E. "I was sick, suffering from Spirit. Traditional doctors told me I had Spirit. I felt as though I lived in a dream and would often fall down. At the hospital they also told me I had too much Spirit (probably they told him he needed psychiatric treatment). I had a dream that I should go to a Zion Church, but at first I did not obey and so my illness continued until I joined. I also had a dream that I should be baptized. My parents agreed although they do not belong to any church."

 Some time later he began to discover  prophetic powers, when praying on people he would have visions of their problems and futures.

The Bishop of "Africa" said: "Before 1 went to the mines I went to a traditional doctor for protection. Then 1 had an accident in the mines and was buried under rocks, my leg had to be amputated. 1 also suffered from body pains. The traditional doctors had failed to protect me and had cheated me, so 1 decided in 1959 to become a Zionist. Zion protections kept me safe, and in 1968 1 discovered that 1 could prophesy:."

The Mookamedi of Bethlehem told me: "When 1 was a boy my mother died and my father disappeared. He still has not returned to this day. 1 lived with my maternal uncles and grand-parents but 1 did not lead a happy life and got into bad company. 1 started to get prophetic dreams that came from God. The following day the prophecies would come true. Then 1 had a dream 1 should attend the church and become a member." (Since that time his life has improved.)

Mr. S.T. of Z.C.C. "1 was sick and had been poisoned by Setswana poison in the stomach by sorcerers. Neither traditional doctors nor the hospital could help me. I heard that the Z.C.C. were very good and that they could also help cattle and the family. I was examined by a Z.C.C. Moruti who cured me and then I too, joined the church."

The Secretary of Bethlehem (who became a Moruti in 1981) "My mother was very sick. She could not find help at the hospital nor from traditional doctors. Then she had a dream that she should come to this church and would be helped by the Moruti. I brought her to the church and she was cured. Then we all became members."

These above examples show how prophets could be said to share a common background of illness, then after being cured by a prophet they become prophets themselves. This is particularly so with the prophets who referred to how they received prophetic dreams or "too much Spirit" before they joined the church; when they tried to ignore these they became worse or continued. This is very similar to how traditionally Ancestors are believed to show a potential traditional doctor that they need him to start his training. However it should be noted that 4 of the 19 prophets did not share this common background. In fact they said they had first been attracted to their church by its teachings and by the love of God. Also I did not hear of any ritual training of prophets that could be compared  with the training of traditional diviners. What I did observe and hear of was that when people start to receive the gift of prophecy they usually find the Spirit hard to control and will tend to fall all over the floor, and leap into the air, tear off their uniforms etc. A more experienced prophet, on the other hand, does not exhibit this type of behaviour. Frequently at special services such as ditlhabelo (sacrifice services) inexperienced prophets were advised not to dance.

West also emphasizes the importance of the Ancestors in guiding the prophets. Although Ancestors are recognised as having power in the churches I visited, (frequent reference was made to them especially at ditlhabelo services and the owner of the Matshediso service also referred to how his Ancestors would now be pleased by the service) only 3 of my prophets admitted that their powers came from Ancestors. All three of these said that their prophetic powers also came from God.

Both prophets and traditional doctors have their special languages for talking to their Spirits or bones respectively. Examples were too hard to translate as the prophets frequently spoke in the “language of the Holy Spirit” - probably a mixture of Southern African  languages and the special language of the mines - Fanakalo - all of which they had learnt whilst working in the South African mines contracts.

Prophets receiving prophecy from the  the Holy Spirit

Helping the inexperienced when they receive the Holy Spirit, so that they don not injure themselves - novice prophets must learn to “manage” their bodies when they receive the Holy Spirit

“Listening” to revelations from the Holy Spirit

Experienced prophets use their prophesy poles to help inexperienced prophet control Holy Spirit

Receiving the Holy Spirit

A prophet with his prophecy pole

Forms of Prophecy

Prophecy takes various forms. Anyone (both members and non-members) is free to attend church services and ask for a prophecy when they have a problem. At all the services I attended there were always such patients and they would be given a time in the service to be specially prophesied by the prophets. Typically they would kneel in the centre, then the prophets would dance around them while the rest of the congregation would sing hymns. The singing, clapping and drumming were all claimed to be aids to call the Spirit to the prophets. After some time the dancing would stop and the individual prophets would reveal what they had "seen". Those prophesied would answer "yes" or "no" to the revelations  of the prophecy.

Similarities can be seen here between the method of prophecy of the Zion prophets and that of the traditional doctor divining with his bones. In both cases the patient does not reveal his problems, unless it is a generalized statement of what he is asking about, at the beginning e.g. the prophetee states they are asking for help .The traditional doctor’s  bones or the prophet's Spirit then "reveal" the "facts" to which the patient is  then asked to agree or disagree. In the same way as the traditional doctor will throw his bones a number of times especially when he wants to ask for further details of particular aspects; so will the prophets begin to dance again to receive more detail from their Spirit on certain points.  Both prophets and traditional doctors also "see" the remedies for the patient from their respective methods of divination.

Another form of prophecy is when a prophet "sees" an unsolicited prophecy. Sometimes the prophet on entering a church will "see" a prophecy for one particular member or even for people not present, for example at a Setlhabelo (Sacrifice) service the Moruti (Priest) had immediately “seen”, on entering the kgotla, that a family of that kgotla would suffer from lightning. Various prophets at different services predicted the death of one of the Chief's close relatives in 1978, then at the end of September the Chief's father's brother became sick and suddenly died.

Another example of this type of prophecy was from one of my non-Zion informants: a Zion prophet came to her home to reveal that he had "seen" that she would leave her training as a nurse before she had finished and not be able to find a job easily. As she was the only educated child from her family this was obviously bad news. Another prophet was cycling at the Lands and "saw" that a certain man would have a road accident in his lorry and be killed. He revealed this at the church and the congregation were called to pray hard. The man did have an accident but he only suffered minor injuries as  their prayers had been heard by God. Perhaps this type of prophecy can also be connected with dreams. Traditionally dreams are believed to be prophetic and certain dreams are taken  as definite signs and omens. If they are adverse ones a traditional doctor might be called to try and avert the predictions. This is what is also done in the case of this type of prophecy.

The third main category of prophecy is  where a family are advised to hold a special service. The form of this service is itself seen in a prophecy, for example, the type of setlhabelo needed - and several churches, including their prophets, will be called. The prophecies then will be directed towards the problems of that particular family. This type of service can be, although more rarely, held by both members and non-members. For example one of my neighbours held a ditapelo (prayer) service. The father of the home, a traditional doctor, had chronic T.B., He kept failing to finish drug therapy courses. A non-Zionist son who worked in the mines, held the service for his father, even though none of the family were Zionists.

Some of the prophets I interviewed, but particularly of those from churches of Type 2 (the ones I did not study in much detail) held "surgeries". Patients (again Zionist and non-Zionist ones) would go to them for individual consultations. West claims that this type of prophet is stronger than those who do their work during church services. However, I saw no evidence to support this claim as many people would attend church services specifically to ask for prophetic help whereas they could just as easily have gone for a private consultation. It should be noted that the leaders of the 5 churches I studied in most detail were all highly regarded as prophets.

Prophet revealing prophecies from the Holy Spirit to the family at a Sacrifice Service.

Prophets dancing to hymns to “call” the Spirit

Prophet pointing to position of “sorcery” in family’s roof and causing their problems. The Spirit has “shown” him this whilst dancing