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HISTORICIZING CHRISTIAN INDEPENDENCY: THE SOUTHERN AFRICAN PENTECOSTAL MOVEMENT c. 1908–60

  • DAVID MAXWELL (a1)
    • Published online: 01 July 1999
Abstract

Scholarly study of Christian independency in southern Africa began with the publication of Bengt Sundkler's Bantu Prophets in 1948. A rich literature subsequently followed, much of it deploying his now classic typology of Ethiopian and Zionist Churches. Nevertheless, the historical study of independency has been limited. As one scholar has recently observed, historians have tended to focus on the Ethiopian-type churches, leaving the study of the Zionist-type to anthropologists and missiologists. The neglect of Zionist-type churches by historians meant that early studies on this form of Christianity were historically weak. Missiologists distorted the whole area of inquiry with theological concerns, at first raising the spectre of syncretistic heresy, and more recently making claims about indigenous authenticity. Anthropologists initially viewed independent churches as fascinating examples of cultural resilience. The movements were seen as sources of community, loyalty and security in the face of the atomising and anomic experience of urbanization; or as foci for ‘the process of modification and adaptation’ taking place throughout rural society. But anthropologists rarely paid attention to independency's origins. Where historians did engage with Zionist-type independency, they did so through the spectacles of nationalist historiography in order to demonstrate independency's supposed proto-nationalist character.

By adopting an international and regional perspective, this article provides an account of the historical origins and early evolution of these churches. Where scholars in the past have tended to disaggregate the movement, essentializing its later racial and geographical boundaries, this paper will draw the early history of the movement together, illuminating its common origin and global character. The basic ingredients of this account have been available in the work of Walter Hollenweger, Jean Comaroff, Sundkler's later book, and more recently, studies by Jim Kiernan and David Chidester. Nevertheless, the historical implication that so-called African independent churches emerged out of the global pentecostal movement continues to be ignored.

The purpose of demonstrating the origins of southern African pentecostalism is not to make the now commonplace historical and anthropological critique of authenticity, although those pursuing a theological agenda which distinguishes African Independent Churches as a separate category of Christianity would do well to pay heed to that critique. Neither is it assumed that analysis of origins explains the meaning and appeal of different southern African pentecostal movements and denominations. Rather, this paper demonstrates that pentecostalism is a global phenomenon: a collection of vital and powerful idioms about illness and healing, evil and purity which make striking resonances with peoples sharing common historical experiences of marginalization from established religion and from the values of twentieth-century industrial capitalism. At the same time pentecostalism has also exhibited a remarkable capacity to localize itself, taking on very distinct meanings in different local contexts. At the heart of this paper lies a comparative analysis of the radically different responses which the movement engendered from the South African and Southern Rhodesian states.

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This paper was first presented at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies–St Antony's College Seminar Series on ‘Ecstatic Religion’ and the Henry Martyn Seminar on ‘Mission’ in Westminster College, Cambridge. I am grateful to Jeff Guy and Terence Ranger for their comments. The paper has also benefited from detailed responses by Allan Anderson, Harri Englund and Richard Werbner, and from lengthy discussions with Carl Hallencreutz. Thanks are also due to the two anonymous readers of the first draft for their most helpful comments. Colin Murray's editorial skills were also much appreciated. The research was funded by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council, grant no. R000235975.
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The Journal of African History
  • ISSN: 0021-8537
  • EISSN: 1469-5138
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-african-history
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