04 September 2021

Zionist origins in South Africa

The Daily Maverick recently published an interesting article about Wakkerstroom, the birthplace of Zionist Christianity in South Africa -- if you are not sure about the difference between Zionist Christianity and Christian Zionism, see here.

The Daily Maverick article, with the title Letter from Mpumalanga: Listening to history’s whispers by the river of enlightenment, has some interesting pictures of the places where Zionist Christianity started in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. It has since split into numerous different denominations, the largest of which, the Zion Christian Church, is the biggest single denomination in the country.

Around 1900, a Dutch Reformed missionary living in Wakkerstroom, Pieter Le Roux, became interested in the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. Zion was a utopian community dedicated to two chief propositions, both radical in their time: one, that doctors were unnecessary because Jesus could heal all ailments; and two, that all races were equal in the eyes of God.

Both propositions resonated with Le Roux, who spoke fluent Zulu and seems to have had unusually egalitarian ease with black Africans in that era. Le Roux tried to resign from the Dutch Reformed church, but they asked him to delay his departure until after the Anglo-Boer war.

The article is misleading in some respects -- first, while the church in Wakkerstroom was the first Zionist church in South Africa, it was not the first African independent church (AIC). There were several earlier AICs, such as the Ethiopian Church which started in Marabastad, Pretoria, about ten years earlier, and a movement started by Nehmiah Tile even earlier than that in the Eastern Cape. Secondly, the early history of Zionism has been fairly well documented in numerous books, including some by my erstwhile colleague Allan Anderson -- see, for example: Zion and Pentecost

zionist baptism

 What is significant in this article, though, is the description of the physical sites of early Zionist history, which should surely be declared historical monuments, and the Daily Maverick article is illustrated with some interesting photos of these.

There is also something that puzzles me, and I hope someone familiar with the sources of early Zionist history will be able to enlighten me. This article, and most of the books I have read on the topic, say that the first Zionists were baptised in the river that runs through Wakkerstroom -- the eponymous wakker stroom (wakeful or lively stream). But some mention the Slang River, which is over the mountains, and indeed, in those early days over the border in a different country, the then Natal Colony. The photo in the article clearly shows the same bridge in Wakkerstroom as appears in the old photo, So I wonder about the source of the mention of the Slang River, as something in the early history of Zionism that needs to be clarified. Did Le Roux and his flock flee across the mountains to Natal at some point -- and if so when, and for what reason? I am curious, partly because I was at one time quite familiar with Groenvlei in the Slang River valley and I used to visit the Anglican church there once a month for services, but that's another story, which you can read about here, if you are curious.

Anyway, I was pleased to see this article, and to see that some are beginning to take an interest in preserving the history of one of the most significant movements in South African Church history, and from which the largest group of Christians in South Africa spring. 

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