Christian Ecumenism, Swazi Nationalism, and a Unified Church for a United Nation, 1920s-1970s

Joel Cabrita. Journal of Southern African Studies. Volume 44, Issue 2. April 2018.

The Swazi monarchy has long been a patron of Christian ecumenism, energetically sponsoring unity among the country’s many churches. During Easter 1959, a several-day religious ‘council’ meeting was hosted at Lozitha Palace. The participants were the Paramount Chief of Swaziland, Sobhuza II, and ministers within the League of Churches, an ecumenical federation comprising black-led churches independent of European missionary oversight, and who practised Christian faith-healing known as ‘Zionism’. One day was reserved solely for ‘Bible reading’, during which the Paramount Chief Sobhuza met with Zionist ministers within the League in study of the Bible. Two questions dominated the agenda in 1959: ‘what basic Bible teaching should the Swazi follow in order to be saved?’ and ‘which Bible commandments must be kept and which set of laws followed?’ The purpose of debating these questions was to help Zionist ministers to formulate an understanding of Christianity beyond the specific teachings of particular denominations. The goal, approved by Sobhuza himself, was to access the universal teachings of the Bible that transcended doctrinal dogmas of particular denominations. As one participant in the meeting stated, ‘only the pure truth of the Gospel without any additional paraphernalia should be followed’.

Sobhuza’s support for these ecumenical endeavours may be explained by the Council’s perception that Zionist ecumenical unity was linked to the issue of independence from Britain (obtained a decade later, in 1968). The unity of Swaziland’s churches—transcending denominational squabbles through common commitment to the core essentials of biblical Christianity—was thought to provide a basis upon which the nascent Swazi nation could emerge as an independent political entity. Indeed, the climax of the meeting was a unanimous vote that ‘the Swazi as a Nation can only get its salvation through following not the various dogma of the different denominations but by finding for themselves what Christ meant by his teachings and follow these’. Sobhuza himself closed the meeting by reminding ministers that Christian ecumenism and Swazi nationalism were tightly intertwined projects: ‘ministers should interpret the Bible in a way that is going to help the Swazi nation’.

By focusing on little-studied events such as these, this article offers new insight into the history of nationalism in 20th-century southern Africa. It illuminates the convergences between Swaziland’s Zionist Christians, who amalgamated their churches under the auspices of ‘biblical Christianity’, on the one hand, and the ambitions of nationalist entrepreneurs in the form of Sobhuza II, who aspired to craft a unified Swazi nation in common obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ, on the other. Traditional leaders such as Sobhuza II are usually cast in the mould of ethnic patriots who mobilised the ‘invention of tradition’ to legitimate their rule and to provide an ideological foundation for their post-independence countries. Much attention has focused on Sobhuza’s revival of Swazi ritual, and his efforts to cast authoritarian monarchical rule as ‘natural’ to the Swazi people.

Yet ethnic nationalism and ecumenical Christianity were not divorced from each other. As the example of Sobhuza’s contemporary, the Zulu monarch Solomon ka Dinzulu shows, traditionalist leaders of the early 20th century realised the utility of a ‘national’ church that could amalgamate different denominations in common obedience to Jesus Christ as well as in allegiance to an earthly political leader. Alongside reified notions of custom and tradition, Christian ecumenism was an invaluable resource for those attempting to rationalise new states. Moreover, while most histories of African nationalism focus on the educated African Christian elites linked to mission churches or proto-nationalist ‘Ethiopian’ organisations, this article awards new prominence to the role of popular evangelical Christianity as epitomised by the Zionist churches. Underscoring the lively spectrum of competing Christianities in early 20th-century southern Africa, largely uneducated Zionist ‘prophets’ frequently clashed with mission-educated Ethiopian Christian elites owing to their invocation of a Christianity that valued the leading of the Spirit rather than education.

There were, however, limits to the alliance between Zionist ecumenists and Swazi nationalists.While this article focuses on top-down, institutional approaches to ecumenism, Casey Golomski’s article elsewhere in this special issue highlights the informal ‘grassroots’ ecumenism among Swazi Christians. Accounts of Swazi society that focus exclusively on the authoritarian and centralised state do so to the detriment of the multiple publics that flourished alongside the nation-state. But the greatest obstacle to Christian ecumenism in Swaziland lay in Zionist theology itself. In quintessentially Protestant fashion, the Zionist tradition was characterised by contradictory impulses of both unity and division, ecumenism and denominational fragmentation. Zionists’ evangelical conscience-driven ethos, whereby they professed loyalty to the Bible and to revelation by the Holy Spirit rather than to church hierarchies, led them to break frequently from established denominations and form new organisations in fidelity to dreams, visions or revelations. The result has been a divided, plural religious movement; David Barrett’s 1968 study enumerated thousands of Zionist and Zionist-type churches throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Yet it is less often remarked upon that Zionists were also characterised by their urge to unite with rival denominations, returning to a ‘biblical’ Christianity that existed prior to the formation of denominations. These seemingly opposite impulses—denominational proliferation and religious ecumenism—were mutually reinforcing dynamics integral to Protestant identity. Paradoxically, then, evangelicalism simultaneously thwarted Sobhuza’s aspiration for a single church for the Swazi and provided a theological impetus towards denominational unity.

In order to understand this bi-faceted evangelical phenomenon better, we now turn to the origins of Zionism in the divine healing movement of 19th-century North America. While Zionism is often cast as indigenous to southern Africa, many of its features, including its characteristic tension between unity and diversity, evolved within a transnational religious landscape.

Ecumenism and Division in North American Christianity

The ‘divine healing’ movement of the late 19th century, or the Protestant renunciation of doctors and pharmaceuticals in exchange for praying for health, exemplified the ecumenical impulses of evangelical Christianity. Divine healing was a product of a wider evangelical disillusionment in North America and Europe with the stultifying formalism of the established denominations. These reformist individuals sought to restore the ‘essentials’ of Christianity that existed prior to the formation of separate churches, returning to the supposedly purer faith of the early Apostolic community. For these transatlantic Christians, dispersed among different Protestant denominations, one route to accessing these essentials was to gather within pan-denominational associations to practise and debate divine healing; international conferences of practitioners of divine healing from a range of denominations, for example, were a hallmark of the movement. Widely circulating ecumenical periodicals featured articles, letters and editorials on the importance of healing miracles in restoring a supposedly ‘primitive’ Apostolic Christianity; these publications united believers across denominations and marked out their opposition to the ‘dead’ dogma of denominational Christianity.

The Australian Scot John Alexander Dowie was divine healing’s most famous figure. After a short career as a Congregationalist minister, Dowie struck out on his own and founded the divine healing ‘Christian Free Church’ in Melbourne, convinced that the formalistic hierarchies of established denominations impeded authentic biblical Christianity. Upon relocating his healing ministry to Chicago in the 1890s, Dowie continued his ecumenical enterprise by founding a North American church named ‘The Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion’. His choice of ‘Catholic’ exemplified his urge to return to an original common Christianity unmarked by denominational differences, while ‘Apostolic’ signalled Dowie’s desire to restore a ‘primitive’ Christianity characterised by healing miracles. Dowie argued that the organisation was far from yet another new church among a plethora of irrelevant denominations. As he stated in the 1890s, ‘there can never be a new church unless it is a false church’. True Christianity lay in the common core of a simple faith that predated denominational organisation. The church was patronised by working-class northern European immigrants and African Americans in Chicago who railed against the spiritual apathy of the Protestant and Catholic denominations that they had belonged to before discovering Dowie’s healing church.

In addition to repudiating denominational divisions, Dowie’s church also pitted itself against hierarchies of class, wealth and race. By 1900, Dowie and his thousands of followers founded Zion City near Lake Michigan, an escape from worldly Chicago and an effort to recreate the faith of the first Christians. As well as banning doctors and druggists, Zionists aspired to return to what they considered the radical egalitarianism of Christ’s early followers. As first- and second-generation immigrants and blacks, many Zionists had first-hand experience of discrimination from white, native-born populations, and of demoralising work in the city’s factories. Relocated to Zion City, these believers sought to eradicate class by starting a lace factory within which workers held a greater share of the profits and created a racially mixed environment by building residential areas repudiating Chicago’s ethnic enclaves. While Dowie publicly attacked churches that condoned racial segregation, he and his followers also denounced the Protestant establishment—Episcopalians, Methodists and Baptists were targets—for their worldly attachment to denominational orthodoxies rather than to the faith of early Christians. Dowie’s urge to return to ‘pure’ Christianity took a surprising turn. In his search for undiluted spiritual power, he pronounced himself in 1901 the incarnation of an Old Testament prophet, dubbing himself ‘Elijah the Restorer’, and, in 1904, a latter-day Christ the Apostle.

Dowie’s ecumenical anti-establishment teachings circulated across the English-speaking world through missionaries and the Zionists’ periodical, Leaves of Healing. In the years following the South African War (1899-1902), a conflict between Boers, Britons and Africans for control of the Witwatersrand’s gold mines, Dowie’s church became popular in the South African Transvaal. Primed by the existing circulation of evangelical teachings (the Dutch Reformed Church was a major conduit), many embraced divine healing as a more spiritually potent faith than that represented by older denominations. In Johannesburg, Arie van Woerkom left the Methodists because in Zion he found a compelling Christianity as practised by Jesus himself: ‘I do not regret that I left the skeleton of Methodism … instead God led me to the heart of Jesus, to the real living Zion’. For other converts, especially those drawn from black society, it was the church’s message of equality that was particularly attractive. Dowie’s message that racial divides were as meaningless as denominational differences resonated with aspiring peasant farmers eager to claim greater status in colonial-era South Africa. Elijah Lutango, for example, observed that such free mingling of the races was largely unknown in other denominations, including his own Methodist Church. Lutango celebrated the fact that in Zion he found ‘the True Love which does not separate brethren because of difference in the colour of their skins’. In addition to communion among local Zionists of different races, close contact and exchange existed between believers in South Africa and the USA; correspondence and visits sustained their sense of membership within an ecumenical multiracial fellowship of ‘Apostolic’ Christians.

By 1907, Dowie’s vision of a worldwide Christian family collapsed. While Zionists, as evangelical Christians, pursued a potent faith unmediated by denominational strictures, the flipside was a highly empowered laity that cast aside respect for clerical hierarchies and ecclesial structures. Lacking an institutional centre and dissatisfied with ‘orthodox’ religion, Zionists were confident in their ability, grounded upon revelation from God and the Bible, to improve upon the religious establishments of the day, including even their own Zion tradition, which internal reformers could lambast as ‘dead’ status quo religion. The same qualities that prompted Zionists to pursue a religious experience ‘beyond’ church also rendered them prone to splintering off from their brethren and forming new denominations. For example, many early Zionists invoked the direct promptings of God straight to their ‘hearts’, independent of ecclesial hierarchy, to criticise Dowie’s claim to be the prophet Elijah. Zion City’s top lawyer left the church after a personal revelation from God outweighed the ecclesial leadership, who affirmed Dowie’s declaration. After Dowie’s death in 1907, and the ascent to leadership by an even more autocratic figure, several reformist groups in Zion City broke away from the original church as a false corruption of the true Gospel, starting organisations more faithful to Apostolic Christianity. An extraordinary state of denominational proliferation ensued: by the 1920s, there were 20 rival Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion organisations in the town.

Zionists in South Africa underwent a parallel process of denominational fissurisation. After Dowie’s controversial ‘Elijah Declaration’, many South Africans transferred their loyalty to one or another of the breakaway churches in Zion City, while some joined local Zion churches that existed independently of the North American organisation. As racial segregation hardened across the region, new Zionist churches sprang up when black believers broke away from white-led local Zionist congregations in protest at racially divided worship. But principled dissent on theological grounds also spurred many African breakaways from black-led denominations. Unschooled migrant labourers on the Witwatersrand found resources within Dowie’s anti-establishment legacy to critique and separate from middle-class African churches, including the prominent ‘Ethiopian’ churches. By the 1920s, about 60 Zionist-type churches existed on the Rand, mainly founded by young men claiming the guidance of the Holy Spirit to subvert clerical supervision, hierarchical strictures and the false teachings of denominational Christianity. By the end of the 1930s, there were around 300 rival Zionist organisations across South Africa.

Zion in Swaziland

From an early date, migrant labour networks facilitated the circulation of this pluralistic Christian tradition to the British Protectorate of Swaziland. As elsewhere, this occurred when migrant labourers in Johannesburg carried their new faith home upon termination of their contracts. Moreover, as Zionism had much early success in the Transvaal town of Wakkerstroom, close to the Swazi border, a lively channel of migrant labour between the Transvaal and Swaziland also disseminated divine healing to the Swazi. Indeed, until the end of the 19th century, the eastern Transvaal had been part of the Swazi polity, and consequently had many Swazis resident. But in 1895 Swaziland became a protectorate of the Boer Transvaal Republic (to whom it had already lost two-thirds of its land), and, following the Boer defeat of 1902, was administered as a British protectorate with the Swazi monarch retaining nominal power as Paramount Chief. By 1907, a controversial ‘re-scheduling’ of land for African occupation further reduced available territory for Swazis, a policy born of government officials’ efforts to drive landless Swazis into the labour-hungry Witwatersrand. Zion thus arrived in Swaziland via the men and women who crossed the border into the Union to work in Johannesburg or the farmlands of the eastern Transvaal. A figure known as Daniel Nkonyane, himself of Swazi descent, dominated Zionism in the latter region. In the 1920s, Nkonyane had founded an independent Zionist church near Wakkerstroom, which subsequently sent evangelists into Swaziland. An early emissary was Johanna Nxumalo, a Swazi schoolteacher in Wakkerstroom. Another was Stephen Mavimbela, a Swazi Methodist, who met Nkonyane while working as a policeman in Wakkerstroom. Another evangelist was Andrew Zwane, a preacher for the evangelical South African General Mission, who converted to Zionism in Johannesburg and introduced Zion to Swaziland in the 1920s.

Zionism’s claims to restore an ancient tradition of ecumenical Christianity found great success among peasant farmer Swazis. Its founding parents in Swaziland—Nxumalo, Mavimbela and Zwane—tapped into this rural base by tramping the countryside; church tradition remembers that Mavimbela died astride a horse during a missionary journey. Swazi Zionists still echoed Dowie’s commitment to a simple biblical faith detached from denominational orthodoxies. A 1936 government enquiry asked Swazi Zionists why they carried wooden staffs during worship and were directed to the ‘Bible teachings of Jesus who said “take up thy cross and follow me”‘. Moreover, the turbulent 1920s and 1930s, decades that saw land dispossession, urban migration and increased disease cause an outbreak of witchcraft accusations, led many Swazis to see Zion as a bulwark against evil forces in society. Zionists became renowned for their ability to divine, or ‘smell out’, the witches and sorcerers thought to lie behind sickness and disorder. Zionists’ expertise in treating the root cause of illnesses meant that they gained converts from existing Christian denominations. The evangelical Church of the Nazarene—one of the missionary societies active within the Protectorate alongside the Methodists and Anglicans—offered medical provision for Swazis in the form of a new hospital in the colonial capital, Bremersdorp. But Swazis responded with scepticism to missionaries’ bio-medical ministrations, perceiving them as ineffectual against witches and sorcerers. As one medical missionary noted in 1928, ‘most natives thought to themselves, “What good is it [to go to hospital], even though our sickness can be cured, if the culprit is not ‘smelt out’ and ostracised from society, or cleared out of the way?”‘ European missionaries thus ‘had nothing favourable to say about Zionists’, who, as colonial police observed in 1937, ‘are largely taking the place of witch finders amongst the Natives … they go to kraals where people have died and point out persons who have caused the death by non-natural means, ie witchcraft’.

This was also the period in which Zionists gained a following within the Swazi royal family. The sympathy of Sobhuza II towards Zionists must be situated amid the ethnic-cultural revivals of these years, part of Sobhuza’s effort to preserve Swazi autonomy in the face of European governance. A 1923 Swazi deputation to London attempted to reverse the controversial 1907 Land Partition; its failure led Swazi royalists to view ethno-cultural revival, rather than territorial integrity, as key to avoiding Swaziland’s assimilation within the Union of South Africa and subjection to its racist legislation. Sobhuza and his advisers were also concerned at what they perceived to be the breakdown of Swazi society by youthful labour migration to the Witwatersrand and the corresponding demise of chiefly authority. Sobhuza attempted to rebuild the prestige of the Swazi monarchy, deliberately reviving old monarchical rituals, such as the annual rainmaking Incwala ceremony and the regimental age-grade system, imibutho, which required men to serve the Paramount Chief at a palace. Christian missionaries’ provision of western education was criticised for ‘causing the Swazi scholar to despise Swazi institutions and his indigenous culture’. Sobhuza’s search was for a Christian identity that would bolster, rather than undermine, as missionaries did, nascent cultural nationalism.

Initially, however, it was the Ethiopian churches that Sobhuza viewed as allies in the creation of this new Swazi identity. These were organisations autonomous of European missionary oversight, and which espoused black racial pride. ‘Ethiopianism’ had emerged in South Africa in the 1890s, inculcated by elite, mission-educated male clerics who objected to their subordination to white missionaries. Appealing to an indigenous, ancient African Christianity—exemplified in their invocation of ‘Ethiopia’—these men formed churches that intermingled an older confidence in the civilising effects of western education with a bid to preserve the best of indigenous custom. Within Swaziland, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (with links to the USA) was active. But most significant was the Independent Methodist Church. Methodist missionaries had worked in southern Swaziland since the 1840s, and a prominent Swazi convert was the educated Daniel Msimang. In 1903, his son, Joel Msimang, separated from missionary superiors to form the Independent Methodist Church, prompted by his dislike of European missionaries’ unwillingness to cede power and financial autonomy to blacks. Overseeing branches across Swaziland and in the Transvaal and Gazaland, Msimang’s new Ethiopian church soon developed cordial relationships with the royal family; indeed, Sobhuza’s mother, Lomawa Ndwandwe, was a member. By the 1930s, Independent Methodists were touted by the royal family as an exemplary model of a black-led church, organised in orderly fashion, structured by a constitution, and intermingling educated progressiveness with cultural pride. Branches of the church in Johannesburg regularly sent greetings of loyalty to Sobhuza; in 1944, its annual conference ‘beg[ged] to express to you as King of Swaziland the assurance of our loyalty to you and Queen Elizabeth II’.

The Zionists seemed less likely contenders for the mantle of ‘national’ church. Not only did populist Zionists eschew education, so beloved by elite Ethiopian leaders such as Msimang, but their casting aside of traditional medicine and alcohol set them against traditional healers and local elders. Zionists’ peripatetic lifestyles, continually crossing borders to attend far-flung services, further alienated them from traditional authorities eager to shore up dissolving territorial boundaries. Swazi Zionist minister Soul Sibandze remembers that his father and others would travel on foot for days, hiking over high mountains to attend Easter services across the border in the Transvaal. A 1937 survey of Zionists in Swaziland noted that they ‘tend to be resistant to Tribal Authority and go wandering over the country’. Zionists also incurred the wrath of traditional authorities and colonial administrators on account of their popularity with women, many of whom left homesteads and male relatives to devote themselves to their church. The same 1937 inquiry claimed that Zionist men would assert that ‘the Spirit moves me to go into the fields with Mrs So-and-So, and pray … misconduct then takes place’. Sensitive to these criticisms, Zionists such as Mavimbela took great precautions during their evangelistic journeys to ‘never enter the homestead if only the wife of the homestead was at home. He would ask them to come out and pray under a tree. So everything is correct’. Yet many women still ‘would follow Mavimbela after he prayed for them … sometimes the husbands were angry’. Chiefs were warned by colonial administrators and missionaries that Zionist misconduct in ‘seducing’ young girls should be reported immediately. Sibandze recalls, ‘the white man said these Zionists are no good, they must be cast out, they are taking wives from peoples’ homes’.

Yet despite the distance between these radical evangelicals and traditional authorities—the former striving for loyalty to God’s kingdom, the latter attempting to secure territorial polities ruled by patriarchs—there were also convergences between Zionists and ethnic leaders. Many Zionists had close links to royals. Johanna Nxumalo was sister of Lomawa Nxumalo, the main wife of the Swazi regent Bhunu V and mother of Sobhuza, who would become Paramount Chief in 1921. Nkonyane’s other Swazi evangelists were similarly close to royal circles. Before his policeman’s career, Mavimbela had been a warrior in the regimental age-group cohort linked to King Bhunu. Mavimbela’s high standing with royalty was exemplified by his presence, garbed in clerical dress, within the Swazi post-war delegation to Pretoria in 1945 to welcome home General Jan Smuts. In being part of the King’s army, Andrew Zwane, too, was closely linked to royal circles. Indicating the cordial relationship between Zion and royal circles, from the 1930s, a contingent of princes from the royal kraal in Swaziland would journey annually across the border to South Africa to ‘kaNkonyane‘ (‘Nkonyane’s place’) for Good Friday service.

Well-connected Zionists enjoyed great success in healing members of the royal family. Johanna Nxumalo’s sisterly link to the Queen Mother meant, when the latter suffered from poor eyesight, that Daniel Nkonyane was invited to pray for her at the palace, restoring her sight and securing future invitations to attend on her. The former warrior, Mavimbela, is remembered to have divined the existence of harmful ‘medicine’ placed in the thatched roof of the royal residence by an ill-wisher, something that further increased Zionists’ standing in royal circles. Zionist prophets, with their reputation for invoking the Holy Spirit in discerning the cause of suffering, were viewed as protectors of the royal family. In the 1950s, a crisis hit Lozitha palace when the hut of one of Sobhuza’s wives burned down, an act attributed to a nefarious witch. Sobhuza called upon Zionists to deploy their ‘weapons’ against evil-doers. He cast the Zionists, armed with their divine healing prowess, as a new regiment, devoted to defending the royal family:

[y]ou are an army out to fight a beast, and when it begins to roar, you should say to yourselves: “I wish I could just get at it with my weapon.” This is a challenge for you and with your weapons of faith and prayer you are going to conquer … this is your battle as Christians, fight it and win!

Zionists, moreover, gained standing in royal circles also owing to their ambivalent stance towards European education. While mission churches and Ethiopian Christians stressed book-learning as part of the intertwined package of Christianity and ‘civilisation’, evangelical Zionists insisted that the only guidance for the people of God were the Bible and the Holy Spirit. With the exception of the schoolteacher Nxumalo, leading Zionist figures tended not to be educated; Nkonyane, Mavimbela and Zwane were not literate, something that their followers to this day emphasise as evidence of their piety. Western missionaries in Swaziland strongly criticised Zionists as uneducated, faith-healing ‘fanatics’. But, for a royal circle increasingly worried that mission education estranged Swazis from their national ways, Zionists’ reluctance to enter the educational enterprise was a welcome sign of independence from western culture.

A Unified Church for a Unified Nation

The monarchy, however, deeply disliked Zionists’ divided state. In typical evangelical fashion, while Nkonyane’s church was the earliest and most influential, it was not the sole representative of Zionism in Swaziland. By 1941, a colonial report estimated ‘eight to ten sects of the Zionist organisation operating in Swaziland’. In 1937, officials noted ‘[Nkonyane’s] was the original name of the Sect but now on account of schisms, they are split up into several independent bodies’. In the same year, Nkonyane’s Swazi deputies, Stephen Mavimbela and Andrew Zwane, struck out on their own to found independent Zionist churches. One of the major issues undergirding the split was the allocation of finances; the Swazi congregations increasingly resented sending their tithes across the border. Mavimbela and Zwane, moreover, were talented prophets in their own right, with Spirit-driven visions regarding an autonomous Swazi church. Further divisions proliferated. The Christian Apostolic Church in Zion was founded in Alexandra township by a Sotho migrant, Paulus Mabiletsa, who had parted ways from Nkonyane in 1920. Solomon Duba remembers how Mabiletsa’s church arrived in Swaziland via his grandfather, Joel Duba, a preacher in the Bethanie mission before he converted to Zionism. Another Johannesburg-based prophet, a Nyasalander, John G. Phillips, also had a following in Swaziland (his church being the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion), largely through the proselytising work of the Swazi Makhubu family, who carried Phillips’s church back to Swaziland. There were also local Swazi prophets who founded their own churches. During the 1930s, Luke Lushaba broke from Mavimbela to found an independent Zionist church, while, in the 1940s, Joshua Nyembe in turn seceded from Lushaba to start his own church.

The royal family perceived Zionist pluralism as not conducive to smooth governance and incompatible with their ambitions for a unified national church. Royal antagonism towards Christian denominationalism had been evident even before the fractured Zionist movement. A meeting in 1913, convened by Queen Regent Labotsibeni, gathered Swaziland’s missionaries and, ‘apprehensive and concerned’, enquired whether the multiplicity of Protestant denominations ‘indicated there were many Gods and not one God to be worshipped?’ Unease over missions competing for converts and breeding social frictions among the Swazi on the basis of denominationalism underlaid these concerns. Twenty years later, an influential Prince, Solomon Madevu, argued that the multiplicity of churches only sowed divisive confusion and impeded national cohesion: ‘we Swazis have sought to find the truth but have not been properly guided … Christianity has caused chaos in the land’. The royal family also recognised that a plural Christian milieu rendered churches harder to control, by both the British administration and themselves as the traditionalist intermediaries of colonial authorities. In the early 1940s, colonial officials investigated accusations regarding the alleged sexual impropriety of Zionist pastors. While policy was, as in South Africa, to ‘avoid Government interference with the establishment of churches’, officials introduced a system of ‘registration’ of churches, whereby ministers were vetted for improper conduct before receiving permission to purchase sacramental wine. The government referred Zionist ministers to the Paramount Chief for inspection: ‘the practice is to refer application to the Paramount Chief who requires the applicant to interview him and his Council before official recognition is recommended to the Resident Commissioner’. For Sobhuza, a fractured Christian landscape made his task as a bureaucratic intermediary of colonial powers much harder.

Furthermore, Zionist churches lagged behind in initiating ecumenism; the earliest efforts to build a national church came from the more elite Ethiopians. In 1939, the Swazi National Church, amalgamating all Ethiopian denominations in Swaziland, was founded under the patronage of Sobhuza, with Independent Methodist clergyman John M. Dube as Chairman. Sobhuza, however, soon became dissatisfied with the organisation’s narrow regional focus, aspiring to an ecumenical federation that included Swazis outside the Protectorate. During these years, Swazi nationalists were increasingly aware of their diasporic population in the Transvaal and sought to articulate a more expansive Swazi identity than one determined by territorial borders. Reflecting this, in 1944 the Swazi National Church was renamed the United Christian Church of Africa (UCCA), a name supposedly the invention of Sobhuza himself. The organisation was initially led by J.J. Nquku, a luminary of the black, educated political elite. The UCCA presented itself as a platform for a unified Swazi Christian identity in the service of a nascent nationalism. Christianity and Swazi ‘custom’ were affirmed as complementary; the new organisation’s constitution stated that ‘its foundation is indigenous and its doctrine is adaptable and adoptable to all environments and peoples. It tolerates all national customs so long as they are not inconsistent with Christian principles, and for its aim so far as possible intends to Christianize such customs’. Its architects hoped that a distinctly Swazi church, sympathetic to the best elements of ‘national customs’ while maintaining a focus on educated progressiveness, would undergird the broader project of ethnic nationalism. Sobhuza commented to a meeting of the Swazi National Church in 1939 that ‘England has its Church of England, Germany was represented abroad by its German [Lutheran] mission. So we in Ngwane [Swaziland] ought to have a Swazi Church and a Swazi Cathedral’.

Perhaps inspired by their Ethiopian rivals, Zionists soon began organising into a single body. In 1939, Mavimbela, Zwane, Lushaba and others met with Sobhuza to discuss the prospect: ‘a meeting was held, representing all these sectarian groups, whereas it was unanimously resolved to amalgamate all sects of the Zionist movement into one consolidated and constituted body’. The name, again decided upon by Sobhuza, was the Swazi Christian Church in Zion of South Africa, reflecting, as was the case with the Ethiopian-dominated Swazi National Church/UCCA, the church’s ‘national’ character as well as members’ fluid movement between the Protectorate and the South African Swazi diaspora. In part, Sobhuza pressed for the amalgamation as a remedy to the recent ‘immorality’ scandals, a means to exert greater control over hitherto unregulated denominations. But the federation was none the less a loose one. Churches maintained their distinct denominational identities, including names and uniforms, and their own hierarchical structures. What was important, however, was that all churches would henceforth report to the Paramount Chief as their ultimate authority, including attending the Palace during Easter’s Good Friday, ‘they must come to the Royal Kraal to meet and worship God with the Ingwenyama [Sobhuza]’. While the tone of the UCCA promoted the mutual compatibility of Christianity, education and Swazi custom, the new Zionist federation was explicitly evangelical in its call for Swazis to express loyalty to the Bible rather than to Swazi custom or book learning—or, indeed, to the doctrines of any particular denomination. Its constitution stated that its ‘objects and aims are to preach the Gospel of Christ among the Bantu races of Southern Africa according to the religious tenets as prescribed in the Holy Bible … to enhance godly living as enunciated in Holy Writ’.

Significant tensions simmered between the Zionist and the Ethiopian federations, largely due to their differing attitudes towards education. In 1942, a new organisation, the League of Swazi Churches, was formed by Sobhuza and representatives of the leading churches as an umbrella federation that it was hoped would unite Zionists and Ethiopians. Echoing concerns of past years, Sobhuza asserted that the League would enable authorities to control the country’s churches better, thereby averting colonial condemnation of ‘unsupervised’ African religious activities. Sobhuza’s representative in the League, J.J. Nquku, stated in 1944 that ‘the good, the beauty and the utility of one integral Bantu church in Swaziland [was that it] could be governed by an elected president, the sects could be united by a common constitution, and a unified body would make matters easier for the King and the Government’. But the project was more than merely an expedient way to govern the country’s potentially disruptive evangelical-Pentecostal groups better. Sobhuza also discerned the nationalist utility of a single ‘Swazi Church’ bringing together both Ethiopians and Zionists. A unified church would encourage the Swazi to view themselves as a unified people. From its inception, an early activity of the League was to fundraise for a never completed national ‘cathedral’, or ‘tabernacle’, a site for the nation to worship as a unified body.

Far from representing the country’s churches equally, however, the League was dominated by educated Ethiopian figures. The leaders of a 1945 League meeting were all Ethiopians (including many from the African Methodist Episcopal Church), while not a single Zionist featured within the League’s officers in 1944. The few Zionists within the League frequently complained about being undermined by Ethiopians, who portrayed Zionists to the British administration as uneducated and lacking in discipline. In correspondence with the colonial secretary, the powerful Nquku ‘doubt[ed] whether it would be correct to encourage the wholesale registration of churches which are not properly established and under no good governmental control’. Damningly, he noted: ‘I fear by [encouraging Zionists’ registration] I may be encouraging mischief’. These tensions were fuelled by the class-based hostility of elite Ethiopians towards unschooled Zionist prophets. Thus one Zionist within the League, J. Mthethwa, complained that ‘the [Ethiopians] treated the Zionists as if they were children and ignorant … Mavimbela himself asked the leaders of other churches to guard against exploiting Zionists because they were illiterate and didn’t know how to organize their affairs’.

Within the next decade, however, Zionists had gained control of the League of Swazi Churches. Zionist success was partly due to internal fractures in the Ethiopian-dominated UCCA. Infighting between Nquku and Kunene, the federation’s top officials, weakened Ethiopians’ influence. In 1950, Ethiopians admitted that their ecumenical aspirations had failed: ‘the United Christian Church of Africa is United no longer’. Zionists’ new prominence within the League was also a result of the dramatically increased popularity of the movement. A 1960 survey found that Zionist churches ‘had grown considerably in numbers’ since the 1930s. The survey also revealed that while ‘the UCCA is sometimes described as the Swazi National Church, it appears to have singularly few adherents’. By contrast, the same survey found Nkonyane’s Christian Catholic Apostolic Holy Spirit Church in Zion had a far larger membership. The election of J. Mthethwa, a Zionist minister, to League presidency in 1950 reflected this growing popularity of Zionists and gave them new influence within League affairs. In elections for new League officials in 1954, half the elected individuals were Zionist. In 1959, at the Good Friday meeting of the League, an observer found that ‘other churches were swamped by emaZione [Zionists] and had to withdraw, now calling the League meeting Into ye MaZione‘ [‘a thing of the Zionists’].

Ecumenism and Ethnic Nationalism

Secure in their control of the ecumenical League, Zionist churches styled themselves as the national church of the Swazi, far exceeding a merely denominational organisation. But unlike their Ethiopian-UCCA rivals, the Zionist-dominated League of this period did not burnish their proto-nationalist credentials by emphasising their combination of the best of Swazi custom with western learning. Instead, largely uneducated Zionist leaders within the League used an evangelical rhetoric of ecumenism to lambast western Christianity for impeding Swazi unity, due its divisive denominationalism. These figures mobilised Dowie’s polemical, anti-church legacy to promote Zionism as the only true bastion of biblical Christianity, the sole church in Swaziland transcending the denominationalism inculcated by white missionaries. The prominent Zionist Prince Madevu, a powerful advocate of Swazi nationalism and president of the League in the 1950s, denounced the plural Christianity of the missionaries as a ‘misconception of the true Gospel of Salvation’. In like fashion, the country’s first independent minister of education, A.B. Gamede, a graduate of Wheaton, an evangelical US Christian college, announced that ‘secessionism, the divisive trend in Protestantism, came from the West’.

By contrast, Zionists in the League argued that their evangelical ecumenism reflected a Swazi Christian spirituality, free of western ‘Churchianity’. While Madevu denounced western Christians’ ‘misconception’ of Christianity, he announced that the Zionists and the League would present Swaziland with a more biblically grounded faith. Indeed, as early as 1915, he had founded a new Zionist church named Ibandla lama Krestu (Church of Christ). Using language that echoed Dowie’s restoration of the Apostolic model, Madevu claimed that ‘this new church derives its origins from that of the Early Christians from 42 AD where the Disciples were first called Christians … this organization treats church, dress, church buildings as materialistic approaches to religion … it aims not at Churchianity’. Forty years later, in 1959, and prior to independence, Madevu, now League president, called for ecumenical unity as the foundation of Swazi nationalism freed from western denominational ‘paraphernalia’: ‘the Swazi must establish their own Churches on the same principle as that of the churches established by St. Paul … the principle being the pure truth of the Gospel without any additional paraphernalia’.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, League meetings were the main forum used by these ecumenists to debate Christian unity and Swazi nationhood. Their ‘Bible Debates’ were opportunities for participants to explore how fidelity to Christ—rather than to a particular denomination—engendered Swazi self-determination. For example, the ‘main object’ of the debate of 1957 was to

find out and trace the right way which was laid down on earth by our Greatest and most exemplary leader, Jesus Christ, our Lord … to arrive at the vividly right and perfect religious Foot Print which is supposed to be taken and followed by the Swazis as a Nation. See John 17: 20-22.

(This is a passage in which Jesus commands people to be ‘one as your Father and I in heaven are one’). The call to the Swazi to discern the ‘Foot Prints of Jesus’ was taken up by Sobhuza himself, who frequently repeated the phrase while addressing League meetings. Music and song were also used to affirm the link between ecumenism and nationhood. P.M. Mkhwanazi was an important Zionist League minister and a talented composer. Many of his hymns celebrated ecumenism: his most popular song reminded Zionists that ‘we are simply Christians, nothing but Christians … wake up, believers, and be united’. Indicating the nationalist saliency of his musical call to unity, Mkhwanazi denounced the hymns of western missions as ‘dull … lacking in rhythm and action’. His hymns, by contrast, were aimed at ‘expressing an African concept’ not only in their ecumenical thrust but also in their ‘swing and good rhythm’.

In a surprising twist, Zionist ecumenists of the independence era also overcame their evangelical scruples about ‘heathen’ ways to style biblical Christianity as compatible with loyalty to a traditionalist monarch. Apostolic Christianity (which proponents promised would unify the Swazi people above the petty differences of western denominational churches) and Sobhuza’s ethnic nationalism (which sought to unify the Swazi through a centralised monarch) were presented as mutually reinforcing, overlapping projects. As Sohbhuza told League members in 1959, ‘[m]inisters should interpret the Bible in a way that is going to help the Swazi Nation’. The protection from their critics that the monarchy had afforded Zionists was a crucial factor in Zionists’ willingness to sanction the monarchy. Sobhuza was viewed by many Swazi Zionists as a divinely ordained patron who had rescued them from persecution by the colonial government and hostile white missionaries. In the 1930s, Sobhuza had publicly invited beleaguered Swazi Zion leaders to come under his protection. In a famous speech, he proclaimed that Zionists were ‘tinhlanhlatami‘ (‘my very own crazy ones’), thus turning on its head the common criticism that Zionists’ claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit meant that they were ‘mad’. A common saying among Swazi Zionists, still in use today, is ‘as a hen does to its chicks, so the King protected us under the wing of his arm from the British’.

The mutual approbation of Zion and the monarchy was displayed in other ways. Zionist leaders used a biblical grammar of divinely ordained kingship to argue for Sobhuza’s legitimacy. In 1958, a League delegate praised Sobhuza for ‘combining Kingship with religion … being a King himself he submits to the King of Kings’. And, in 1956, a prominent Zionist published rousing praises of Sobhuza in IzwilamaSwazi: ‘Sobhuza is like Solomon of old in wisdom and his grandfather, Mbandzeni I compares with Moses of old in Israel’. The League was even willing to sanction other aspects of Swazi tradition as consonant with Christianity. While evangelicals in theory denounced polygamy, Zionists were willing in practice to compromise on this cornerstone of Swazi society. In 1959, the politically influential Swazi National Council debated ‘the problem of civil or Christian marriage in Swaziland’. League figures argued that censuring polygamous marriage demonstrated the imposition of European culture, not Christianity, on Swazi values: ‘one was worried whether the customs of the Swazi were found so wanting that it became necessary for customs of other nations to be superimposed on Swazis’.

Moreover, far from being confined to the territorial polity of Swaziland, Zionists’ expansive ecumenism also aided in creating a larger transregional imaginary. Annual League meetings, including Good Friday celebrations, gathered Swazis resident in South Africa, many on the Witwatersrand. At these occasions, participants not only professed allegiance to their ecumenical identity as Zionists, but also affirmed diasporic Swazi allegiance to the Paramount Chief. At the annual meeting in 1958, one Bishop Dlamini, domiciled in Springs, near Johannesburg (an area colloquially known as ‘Swaziland’ for its large Swazi population), took the platform with church members to ‘sing a special song for the royal party’. Shortly after, another group of South African Swazi Zionists sang a hymn using the Old Testament text of Ezekiel, 37: 1-14, describing the scattered and dispersed ‘bones’ of Israel being unified through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. The singers hailed from different locations throughout South Africa—Bushbuck Ridge, Belfast, Sabie, White River, Breyton, Carolina—and one observer of the proceedings commented ‘there was great excitement about this song from the crowds’. Attendees were in no doubt about the nationalist significance of the song: ‘it can be understood in light of the fact that the Swazi nation goes beyond its present political boundaries’. The reunification of the ‘bones’ referred to by the singers (‘uHezekiawati: Matambohlanganani!‘, ‘Ezekiel said: bones come together!’) was taken by the assembled spectators, who included the Paramount Chief, to refer not just to Zionist congregations widely spread throughout Swaziland and its diaspora, but to the scattered Swazi nation itself. The song concluded that ‘the bones had come together to form the Army of Salvation for Sobhuza’.

In the years around independence, Zionists became useful allies for the monarchy as it faced political competition. Sobhuza encountered widespread labour unrest in 1963 and a proliferation of new political parties agitating for multi-party democracy. Confronted with the prospect of ceding power after independence, royalists positioned kingship as integral to an independent Swaziland. In 1964, Sobhuza formed the Imbokodvo national movement as the political wing of the Swazi National Council, denouncing (in words that echoed his criticism of Christian denominationalism) the new political parties as ‘foreign, divisive and hostile to Swazi tradition’. In the 1967 elections, Imbokodvo swept to power, the result of political intimidation and sustained ethnic mobilisation. Attacks in the press and in the introduction of new legislation put pressure on foreigners who imported ‘un-Swazi’ ways. The performance of the Incwala was also given increased prominence, and siSwati was promoted as a language in the new school curriculum. In 1973, the newly independent parliament voted to suspend the constitution and handed all power to the King, who instituted ‘traditional’ governance. All political parties were banned, a situation that persists in Swaziland today.

The ecumenical League helped to maintain the legitimacy of ‘traditionalist’ rule amid this internal political opposition. League leadership was still drawn from royal circles. The close relationship between Zionists and monarchy was exemplified in the career of one Masangange, a preacher in Nkonyane’s church and the post-independence League president. Masangane’s wife was a daughter of Mbandzeni, Sobhuza’s father, and he was a member of the powerful Swazi National Council, acting as liaison between Zion and royalty, being the one ‘who would confer with the King and the Queen Mother’. In the transition to independence, Masangane ensured that Zionist churches continued to support monarchical rule, organising entire ‘bus loads’ of Zionists to vote for Imbokodvo candidates in the crucial 1967 election. After Sobhuza’s declaration of a state of emergency in 1973, Zionist leadership once again strongly supported monarchical rule, deeming it in keeping with both Swazi ‘tradition’ and divine order. Good Friday League services regularly reminded tens of thousands of the divinely ordained nature of kingship: ‘it is good to respect your King, for even in heaven we shall not be equal, we shall still be made to stand around our kings of the earth’. The incwala continued to be a display of royal power and an opportunity for the League to demonstrate loyalty. Each year, the League urged Zionists to attend incwala in support of their monarch, and ministers maintained a visible presence at the ritual.

There were, however, limits to the League and the monarch’s plans for a single church undergirding a united Swazi people. Zionists proved resistant to being corralled into a unitary body, reflecting long-standing tensions between their pursuit of a primitive Christian unity that pre-dated subsequent denominational formation, on the one hand, and the urging of the Holy Spirit to subvert clerical authority by forming new organisations, on the other. In 1952, the League announced that no new churches would be recognised within Swaziland, given that the goal was unity of the many disparate churches and the creation of an Isonto le sive (National Church). Yet the League’s ambitions were frustrated. Zionist unity persistently escaped the architects of ecumenism in Swaziland, with many secessions continuing within existing Zionist churches. Especially well publicised was a tri-partite competition between Bishops Mncina, Lushaba and Nyembe for their Swazi Christian Church in Zion of South Africa to be recognised as the only valid church of this name. While Sobhuza unsuccessfully attempted to resolve these anti-ecumenical fractures, he and League officials also had to contend with the emergence of a powerful new Zionist organisation that overrode their restrictions on new churches. While working at a steel factory in Johannesburg in the 1940s, Eliyasi Vilakati had visions instructing him to return to Swaziland, break from Andrew Zwane, and start a new church. Founded in 1951, his ‘Jericho’ church emphasised above all ecstatic possession by the Holy Spirit. The League regarded Vilakati’s new church with great hostility, objecting ‘to the general scruffiness of his group’, a reflection of its largely working-class membership. Yet they were compelled to admit, only eight years after his church’s founding, that he ‘had great success in attracting followers’. The Jericho church grew to be Swaziland’s largest Zionist church, with 30,000 members in 1990. It has remained an outsider to League politics, never having had a minister of its church represented there.


This article has illuminated both the aspirations and the limitations of Christian ecumenism in Swaziland. While ethnic patriots and League officials argued for a seamless unity of the Swazi people, appealing to both Christian and nationalist rhetoric, their success was only partial. The enduring evangelical propensity for claiming personal revelations generated many new denominations as the century progressed. In a more recent development, many new Zionist churches now claim that heavenly guidance instructs them to eschew monarchical traditions as ‘satanic’. A new wave of Zionist churches maintains that attendance at the Incwala opens the ways for demonic influence in believers’ lives. These Zionists still prize ecumenism, but, at the same time, they argue with League officials about the compatibility between Christianity and Swazi custom. Finally, Zionist denominations in Swaziland are losing members to newer Pentecostal-Charismatic groups. These latter churches repudiate fraternity with the Zion-dominated League of Churches, denounce Swazi tradition as ungodly, are quietly subversive of the current King, and are more likely to form ecumenical alliances within a transnational network of global Pentecostals than with brethren in the Kingdom. The recent success of global Pentecostalism, highly critical of tradition and culture, may mean that the productive alliance between Christian ecumenists and ethnic nationalists in the Kingdom of Swaziland has at last seen its heyday.