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Finding Zion in South Africa

Dr Joel Cabrita reports from South Africa on the background to her new book, the fruit of a two-year research trip.

My new book, Empire of Healing: South Africa, the USA and the Transatlantic Zionist Movement challenges stereotypes of Africa Christians as inward-turned by showing that African Christianity flourished in much broader settings than merely the nation-state. I argue that "Zionism", Southern Africa’s largest popular Christian movement, is shaped by transatlantic networks of Pentecostal faith healing.

zion

Founded in boom-era Chicago of the 1890s, the Zionist church taught that medicine and doctors should be eschewed in favour of exclusive reliance upon God for healing. This teaching resonated with Chicago’s working-class European and African-American migrants, eager to forge their futures in the new Northern industrial metropolis. In a period in which immigrants were attempting to carve out social and economic standing amidst hostility from entrenched white native-born populations, divine healing – with its repudiation of the learned expertise of doctors and medical professionals in favour of the humble prayer of common-place people – was powerfully attractive.

Far from being restricted to the American Midwest, Zionism then took off amongst a global population of newly industrialized city-dwellers. My book thus charts the transmission and reception of these populist Christian ideas in twentieth-century South Africa. Black mine workers in the new gold mining hub of Johannesburg found that Zion’s message of empowerment and the equality of all profoundly resonated with their concerns. Echoing the populist, anti-establishment character of Zion in Chicago of a previous era, recently urbanized Africans used the egalitarian resources of "Zion" to contest and subvert the authority of an influential African Christian elite who held sway in the city of Johannesburg. Being Zionist in this period came to stand for participation within a Spirit-driven religiosity that eschewed the decorous codes and hierarchies of black society, and the preferred churches of the African elite.