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Isaiah Shembe and the Nazareth Baptist Church - Memories from Inanda

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Birth of Isaiah Shembe
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The Nazareth Baptist Church, also called the Shembe Church (iBandla amaNazaretha) and the oldest African indigenous Church in South Africa, was founded by Isaiah Mdliwamafa Shembe, born of Zulu parentage in 1867 near Estcourt, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In an interview with Edward Ximba, current Secretary General of the Ekupakhameni branch of the Church, he relates that Shembe’s mother, S'theya Radebe, fell pregnant mysteriously after she had eaten a beautiful flower from the forest where she was collecting wood.


Birth of the Shembe Reilgion and Church

Around 1910, under the influence of Nkabinde, a former Lutheran
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who was regarded as a prophet, Shembe developed a healing ministry that eventually led to the founding of iBandla amaNazaretha (Nazareth Baptist Church) – he was 43 years of age. In 1914 he acquired a farm where he established the holy city of Ekuphakameni. Says Edward Ximba: “He [Shembe] met God through a vision and God instructed him to meet with Him at Mountain Nhlangakazi, which is about 80 km from here, from Ekuphakameni to the Ndwedwe area. When Shembe met God, He gave him instruction to start this new movement, Nazareth Baptist Church, it was in 1910. He met God in person and God gave him instructions to lead his people, and they would be called amaNazaretha.”


Shembe the Prophet

Shembe was well known for his parables, miracle healings and visions. Through visions he produced many hymns that were later compiled into a hymnbook. He could not write but “he used to call some assistants staying with him so that when he sees a vision like a hymn, he would wake up in the morning and call whoever was around and ask them to write down what he dictated.” He also composed music and provided his followers with a rich liturgical tradition based on modified traditional Zulu beliefs.


Ekuphakameni Church

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The church building at Ekuphakmeni, built in 1945, houses 8000 people but has now become too small for festivals and people now worship outside among the trees. Also in the grounds of Ekupakhameni is a building which is the “holiest shrine for amaNazarethi.” Built in 1929, the foundations were dug by the amaKhozi and the Zulu Kings. It is in this building that the Arc of the Covenant, the holy vessels and the holy chair of the Prophet are kept. The white stones in the grounds symbolize the presence of God place - it is holy ground and you are required to remove your shoes when you walk around.
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Another building at the Ekuphakameni, the House of the Tabernacle (Ekhumbini in isiZulu), houses more holy vessels. When the pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain begins, building is opened and the holy vessels are carried in the arc to the mausoleum where the prophet Isaiah is buried “to tell the prophet that now we are proceeding to the mountain to honour the word of God as it was instructed by God to him in 1910.On the extreme left is where the prophet is buried. In the middle on the left hand side, Nkosi JG Shembe is buried, on the right Nkosi Londa Shembe".


Annual Pilgrimage

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The prophet established an annual pilgrimage to the sacred mountain of Nhlangakazi where Isaiah Shembe was first told by the Holy Spirit to form the Church. So the Shembe people begin every year with this pilgrimage on the first Sunday of the New Year. Members taking part in the pilgrimage and festival are clad in white robes, covering the 60 km to the mountain barefoot.  Men carrying the Ark of the Covenant lead the way, followed by the other men in the procession, then the young maidens, while the wives and mothers form the rearguard.  On the second day of the pilgrimage when they reach the mountain the climb to the top where a services is held next to the great cairn of stones, after which each pilgrim adds another stone to the cairn.


Shembe Family and Successive Leaders

Mr Ximba remembers that “Shembe initially had 4 wives but on his return from Harrismith there were only three – Mashabalala, the mother to Sthamila, heir to the prophet, Maskhasa the mother to Amos Shembe, who eventually became the regent after the death of his brother Johannes Galilee Shembe, and then the third wife was Mangwenya, the mother to Jonas Khaylisha Shembe. Shembe made it a point that the children attend school because he was seeing the difficulty he was finding himself in everywhere he was going trying to spread his word of God. People would not listen to him properly, saying he was not educated, he was mad, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So he made it a point that his sons go to school.”
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Edward Ximba remembers “The prophet’s son JG [Johannes Galilee], who succeeded him after his death, started school around here in Inanda, there was an Indian School here, from there he went to Lovedale College. Because Shembe wanted him [closer to home] he brought him to Adams College where he completed high school. From there he went back to Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape to do BA and eventually BA Hons and then B Ed. So at the time he became one of the best educated black people of his era. At the age of 29 he became the Rector at Adams College, the same school he attended before. Two years later his father died. He had been recommended by Shembe’s confidante Dr Dube to take over the work of God and so on 30 July 1935 JG Shembe took over and became the new leader of the Church. [Thus it came about that] when the prophet Isaiah Shembe died on 2nd May 1935 the church was led by his son, Nkosi Johannes Galilee Shembe.”

In 1976 JG Shembe died intestate and his brother Amos took over the leadership of the church until one of his sons Nkosi Londa Shembe, Shembe the 3rd as he was commonly known, was elected to take over from his uncle Amos on 9 October 1977. He was a law graduate from UNISA and also completed a Diploma in Theology. Secretary General Edward Ximba says: “He was my mentor [and I] learnt a lot under his leadership, I think that was the reason why the new leader, who is a son of Londa Shembe, appointed me as Secretary General and his personal assistant".


Ximba with Mwelela Cele

Photo Gallery



Sources

  1. Interview with Edward Ximba, Secretary General of the Nazareth Baptist Church
  2. National Digital Repository. Available at http://ndr.org.za/indigenous-knowledge/stories/74 [Acessed 9/8/2010]