ZION CHRISTIAN CHURCH (Religious Movement)

The Zion Christian Church (ZCC) is the largest African Indigenous/Initiated Church in Southern Africa with over 5,000,000 members. It was founded in 1924 by Ignatius Lekganyane (1885-1948), known to many of his followers as Engenas, who was born sometime between 1880 and 1885. He died in 1948 after which two separated churches emerged from the organization he founded.

Lekganyane’s mother was the daughter of Marobathota Raphela, a well known traditional healer who many believe was of Swazi descent. After he founded the ZCC critics said that Ignatius was really a traditional healer like his grandfather and not a true Christian. This charge seems totally unfounded.

As a child Ignatius attended school in Matlhanthe reaching grade 3 before having to begin work. By that time he could read and by the standards of the day had a relatively good education for a rural African. Throughout his youth however he was troubled by an apparently incurable eye infection that threatened him with eventual blindness.

Then, in 1912, he had a dream in which he was told that he must go to Johannesburg where he was to join a church that baptized ‘three times’ in the name of Jesus. If he did this his eye problem would be cured. Ignatius followed the advice he received in his dream and journeyed to Johannesburg to find work in the mines. In Johannesburg he lived in a Black township where he attended numerous churches and Christian meetings before encountering a church that practiced triple baptism. This was the Zion Apostolic Church (ZAC) an offshoot of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion (CCACZ).

The CCACZ was founded in 1896 in Chicago, USA, by the English-born Australian evangelist and forerunner of the Pentecostal Movement, John Alexander Dowie (18471907) who had visited South Africa in 1888 on his way to America. Emphasizing the importance of healing in Christian ministry he published a magazine the Leaves of Healing that was widely read in South Africa.

In 1903 Dowie also commissioned the American Rev. Daniel Bryant, a former Baptist, to a ‘prophetic office’ and sent him to South Africa. Early in May 1904 Bryant traveled from Durban to the farm of Petrus Louis Le Roux (b. 1864) in Wakkerstroom. Le Roux had resigned as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1903 following a dispute about his views on spiritual healing and ministry to Blacks. Together they held a revival meeting and began baptizing African converts in the nearby Snake River. A few weeks later, on 31 July, in Pretoria, Bryant ordained Le Roux as an evangelist in the newly formed Christian Catholic Church in Zion (CCCZ).

Elias Mahlangu (1881-1960) was among the first converts baptized by Bryant and Le Roux and, according to tradition, became Le Roux’s interpreter. He traveled to Johannesburg around 1911 to found the ZAC. When Ignatius Lekganyane met him he made a profession of faith and was baptized. From that time on his eye problems were cured. He soon became an evangelist within the ZAC and was ordained probably in 1916. According to a popular, yet disputed, tradition Le Roux was present at the baptism.

Because he had theological problems with Elias Mahlangu’s insistence that members of his church remove their shoes during worship, wear special ‘heavenly’ gowns, and that the men were to grow long beards Ignatius came into conflict with the leaders of the ZAC. These conflicts came to a head in 1916-17 when, encouraged by their leaders, many ZAC openly declared that Germany would defeat Britain in World War One. Ignatius opposed this view claiming that he had received a vision telling him that Britain would be victorious. The defeat of Germany in 1918 enhanced Ignatius’ prestige within the ZAC while increasing the tension between him and Mahlangu.

As a result Ignatius resigned from the ZAC to join the Zion Apostolic Faith Mission (ZAFM) led by Edward Motaung. He made a pilgrimage to the ZAFM’s headquarters in Lesotho to meet Motaung in 1920 where he was appointed the ZAFM’s Bishop for the Transvaal. Problems with the ZAFM’s teachings and practices including who appointed ministers and determined their stipends resulted in Ignatius being recalled to Lesotho in 1924. Essentially the dispute was about leadership of the ZAFM in the Transvaal where Ignatius was seen as a threat to the Lesotho based church hierarchy. Following these conflicts Ignatius decided to form his own Church, the ZCC, which he founded in 1924.

The ZCC was organized in a highly traditional manner with Ignatius performing the functions of a traditional chief. Organizationally it was based on traditional social structure with elders advising the chief. After forming the ZCC Ignatius sought official Government recognition for his church and engaged a firm of lawyers in Pietersburg to carry out the necessary negotiations. Several attempts were made to secure official recognition between 1925 and 1943 when at last the church was given Government approval.

On each occasion that the Church sought recognition they were required to provide accurate membership figures. Thus in 1925 the ZCC claimed to have 926 members of which 411 were female and 515 male. Ten years later the church had 2,000 members. By time of the third application in 1940 the membership stood at 8,500. Two years later when a further application was made the Church had 27,487 members grouped into fifty-five congregations. Finally in 1943 they were able to list over 45,000 members. One of the reasons for the rapid growth of the ZCC during World War Two appears to have been Ignatius’ reputation as a prophet capable of foretelling future events. His successful prediction of the outcome of World War One was recalled and used to create confidence in his teachings.

Initially the ZCC grew in and around Lekganyane’s birthplace near Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal where it used buildings that had originally belonged to ZAFM. This led to a dispute about the ownership of the property which Lekganyane eventually won, but the experience caused him to encourage the practice of worship under trees and in the open without the use of a formal church building. This policy was a great success and appears to have attracted many poor people. As a result even today many ZCC congregations do not possess a church building.

Because formal registration with the South African Government required that churches provide the authorities with a written constitution Lekganyane asked his lawyer, P.W.Roos, to help him write one in which the organization and theology of the church was clearly stated. The result was a highly orthodox statement that conformed with the basic tenets of historic Christian theology. Throughout his ministry Ignatius preachedfrom the Bible and taught about Jesus. Oral testimony confirms that he spent most of his spare time reading the Bible and many hours discussing its meaning with his followers.

Within the ZCC healing played a central role. According to Prof. Elias Khelebeni Lukhaimane over 80 per cent of converts joined the church as a result of illness and the promise of healing. Water was frequently used in healing ceremonies. It was sprinkled and poured over people seeking healing and used in baptism as well as being drunk during purification rites. Various types of water were used and many people were asked to go on a pilgrimage to the Orange River or the sea to get the water needed to heal them.

Converts and members of the church who underwent healing rituals were given visible tokens to protect them from attacks by evil spirits. Walking sticks were blessed, straps and special clothing were worn, and copper wire was placed on gates to protect them against lightning. Most important of all the confession of sins was seen as an essential prerequisite to healing and believed to have the power to heal in itself.

So successful was Ignatius Lekganyane’s ministry of healing that many people began to attribute divine power to him. As a result some of his followers began calling him ‘Messiah’ while others seem to have regarded him as God. Not surprisingly critics of the ZCC claimed that it taught and practiced a disguised form of African traditional religion and was pagan at its core. Further, belief in the badimo, or spirits of the ancestors and the church’s recognition of the power of witchcraft, even though its ministers sought to defeat the power of witches through faith in the Holy Spirit, added to the criticisms. Equally contentious was Lekganyane’s decision to allow church members to participate in traditional animal sacrifices to the ancestors and practice polygamy. All of these things created the impression among members of mission churches that the ZCC really was a new religion and not simply an African expression of Christianity.

Members of the church responded by arguing that the leadership should not be held responsible for the beliefs of their followers and that misunderstanding were bound to occur among uneducated and illiterate people. They also claimed that many of the disputed beliefs and practices had a biblical basis and pointed out that the ZCC’s firm belief in and reliance on the Holy Spirit was entirely orthodox. Within the church, they stressed, Jesus was referred to as the Son of God, or God, and given the prime place in worship and that while people spoke about of ‘the God of Engenas’ this was no different from biblical expressions like the ‘God of Abraham’.

Further, as proof of their biblical orthodoxy they pointed out that the use of the Bible within the ZCC was governed by the level of literacy in congregations and that as literacy increased so did the use of the Bible in sermons and Church rituals. This interpretation appears to be correct because over time the beliefs of ZCC members seem to have moved closer to its written constitution and the Bible. As a result it is perhaps correct to view Lekganyane’s role as that of a spiritual mediator similar to that of the great saints in Roman Catholicism.

Within the ZCC the term used to describe preaching is understood as meaning ‘to comfort’. Similarly, both baptism and communion are believed to have the functions that go beyond those normally recognized by most churches. These added spiritual benefits include the forgiving of sins, cleansing from sin, and healing. Baptism is by threefold immersion in running water if possible and takes place immediately after a profession of faith.

From the beginning the church took Paul’s injunctions about Government, found in Romans 13:1-7, seriously and prayed for local chiefs and all levels of government. This had the effect of gaining sympathy from local magistrates and eventually the central government. Unfortunately, this teaching created major problems during the liberation struggle when the ZCC rejected the armed struggle and any form of violence. Therefore, it was seen as a pawn of the State by its enemies and many members of the African National Congress. Following the collapse of apartheid and establishment of a Black Government the new rulers found that the Church fully supported them and quickly reached an accommodation with its leaders.

When Ignatius Lekganyane died in 1948 he had left the question of succession unclear while predicting that two churches would emerge after his death. Members of the church and its various congregations soon divided into two main camps, those following his eldest son Edward and those following his fifth and favorite son Joseph. Many rural congregations supported Joseph, while the important Johannesburg area congregations supported Edward. The final split occurred in 1949 with the legal partition of the farms and other property belonging to their father. Following the deaths of Edward and Joseph both churches managed an orderly succession to their sons Barnabas and Ignatius. Throughout this period until the present the ZCC has continued to grow and attract increasing numbers of converts from all sections of South Africa’s Black community making it the largest single church in the entire country.

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