Ethiopianism – A South African Movement

What is the connection between Ethiopianism in South Africa and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ethiopia?

If any of you have ever thought about the connection between the Ethiopian Church in South Africa and the main church in Ethiopia: the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, you have a more inquiring mind than I do! (Nearly half of Ethiopia’s population of 102 million are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). I had the privilege of leaving Liz at Lancaster for just over 2 weeks last year to visit Ethiopia – a destination which had long been on my bucket list. What an amazing country on so many levels.

Priests at Meskel Celebrations
Priests at Meskel Celebrations Sept 2017 Meskel Square Addis Ababa. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

The visit was planned to coincide with the Meskel Festival on 26th September (celebrating the Finding of the True Cross).  For 4 wonderful hours we were part of a huge crowd who listened to the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox  Church and the various Archbishops and political leaders speak, while waves of members of the different congregations swirled into Meskel Square accompanied by drums, music, dancing and ululating. It was mesmerizing. 

Male Congregation at Meskel, Ethiopia
Male congregation Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Meskel 26th September Meskel Square Addis Ababa Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Small Group at Meskel Celebrating
Small group at Meskel celebration Addis Ababa 26th Sept 2016. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

And many of the white uniforms with green and blue sashes, belts and collars, reminded me of the Independent Churches back in South Africa.  And it got me thinking about the Ethiopian Church in South Africa and its relationship to the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC) as well as the small independent church groups that celebrate in the various parks and open spaces in Johannesburg.

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And I realized that to say that was I hazy about their origins and histories and the connection between them, was somewhat of an understatement.  So I started to do some research.  And here’s what I have come up with in a very simplified and summarized form.

Origins and differences in South Africa between the separatist Ethiopian Church and Christian Zionism and Pentecostal Churches

It seems that black South African Christians took two different directions during the early 20th Century:

  1. one leading to Ethiopianism
  2. and the other to Christian Pentecostal Zionism. This movement in turn developed in two different directions:
    • the Zion Christian Church known as the ZCC (and for another blog)
    • and the churches who remained more influenced by Pentecostalism (also for another blog)
      • some more formal congregations
      • and others smaller informal ones who worship outdoors. 

Ethiopianism – mission origin, middle class and pan-African

Ethiopian Church in South Africa
Ethiopian Church in South Africa

Ethiopianism grew out of mission congregations such as the Anglican, Wesleyan, Congregational and Methodist churches and schools. These produced an educated elite, many of whom became middle class and had the skills and training to adapt to entrepreneurship and urbanization.  There was a lot of dissatisfaction amongst many black congregants as, despite Christian teachings of equality, there was significant racial disparity within these congregations. This led to breakaways by African church leaders with the cry of “Africa for the Africans”.  The breakaway churches identified with Ethiopia as a symbol of independent African-ness as well as a symbol of African unity.  These breakaway Ethiopian churches kept close to the theology and the practice of the mission churches from which they seceded.  But in their stand against discrimination and in their support of the improvement and upliftment for their clergy as well as their congregations, they were a middle class protest movement. It was this aspect of resistance, as well as the political edge of the emphasis on African unity (over tribalism), that was seen as a threat by the colonial government. 

Christian Zionism: working class, syncretic, emphasizing healing and prophecy and speaking in tongues

Leaves of Healing
Dowie’s publication The Leaves of Healing, October 8, 1904. This was accompanied by written testimony from Rev. Pieter L Le Roux Wakkerstroom, Transvaal, South Africa, August 27, 1904. For more see:

Whereas Ethiopian separatism grew out of local mission congregations and aspired to a pan-Africanism,  the independent African churches had very different origins and took a different direction.   The origins of Zionism are complex.  A disaffected Dutch Reformed Minister Petrus Le Roux, was interested in the teachings of Dowie from the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion City near Chicago in the United States.  In 1903, Le Roux, along with 400 Africans, started the first  Zionist Church in Wakkerstroom based on Dowie’s teachings (which stressed the importance of divine healing). This direction was given further input with the arrival in 1908 of missionaries from the American  Pentecostal and Apostolic churches . 


Baptism in North West Soweto
Dawn baptism and healing, north-west of Soweto. Source: Martin West Collection African Independent Churches

Pentecostalism is based on the Book of Acts (Chapter 2), where Christ’s disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit with the accompanying speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing as signs of the baptism. In a belief system where ancestral spirits “speak” to believers, a religion where baptism takes place together with “speaking in tongues” and the holy spirit offers divine healing, it was easy for Pentecostal Zionism to attract new converts.

Christian Zionism: a-political  emphasizing healing over protest 

While Ethiopianism was a largely middle-class protest movement,  Zionism adapted to the needs of the poor proletariat emphasizing healing rather than political involvement.  With the removal of land from black farmers as well the introduction of migrant labour for mines and urban industry, there were huge numbers of  transient ‘homeless’ displaced people with no support or family infrastructure in the  urban centres.  It was the Zionist movement which provided a home for this poor and illiterate working class.  In this a-political stance, the Zionist movement did not pose the same threat to the colonial and Apartheid government as the Ethiopian churches were seen to. 

Aerial View of Moria in Limpopo
Aerial view of Easter pilgrimage to Moria near Polokwane, Limpopo

Since its inception Zionism has developed  a huge number of offshoots so that there are now well over 4000 churches with an estimate of 30% of the total South African population being a member of an African Independent Church.  The main Zionist Church is the Zion Christian Church which has some 6-8 million members in South Africa and has its annual pilgrimage to Moria near Polokwane every Easter. 

More on the Zionist Churches in a further blog 

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