The Gospel in South Africa #10: Genesis of the African Independent Church

Melville Koppies African independent Church

Melville Koppies African independent Church

The following is an excerpt from Dr Kevin Roy’s book “Zion City RSA” with a few alterations, additions and subtractions by me to make it more suitable for the blogging format. For the full bibliography see the bottom of the article

This is the tenth in a series of posts I am doing on pivotal moments for the Gospel in South African history. If you would like to read the first in this series click here

The earliest African independent churches were often referred to collectively as ‘Ethiopian’. The name is derived from Ps 68:31 (AV): ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God’, a text greatly beloved by early African Christian leaders. In 1872 about 150 members of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society congregation at Mount Herman in Lesotho split off from the society to form an independent church. The schism did not last long, but it was a portent of things to come. Few, if any, at that time realised how significant the movement towards African independent churches would become in South Africa. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is easy to see the inevitability of major departures from white instituted and controlled churches. The close association of the mainline and mission churches with the politically and economically dominant white community meant unavoidably that resentment against the latter would lead to the rejection of the former. Indeed, one of the very few areas where blacks could achieve independence from white control and dominance was church life. The trickle of African independent churches quickly swelled to a mighty torrent.

The division of Christians along racial, cultural and socio-political lines is not unique to South Africa but has sadly afflicted the church from earliest times. The great division in the eleventh century between the Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West was largely along cultural, ethnic and linguistic lines. The Greek-speaking Byzantines and the Latin-speaking Westerners could hardly understand one another, and the attempt of the West to assert its authority over the Eastern Church only exacerbated the problem. The great division of the western Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was again significantly influenced by cultural and political factors. The predominantly Germanic Protestant North (Germany, England, Scandinavia, Holland) resented the interference of an Italian prince and Roman bishop in their affairs. Their rejection of the papacy arose in part from a nationalistic desire for autonomy in ecclesiastical matters. The Latin speaking Catholic South (Italy, France, Spain, Portugal), on the other hand, retained its ties with the Roman church with which it had a closer cultural affinity.

We could examine the histories of many Christian divisions and find at the root of many of them cultural factors, in sad reversal of the apostolic ideal: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are

all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:28). South Africa has experienced this fragmentation of the Christian church to a peculiar degree. Possible reasons for so many blacks separating from white instituted churches are as follows:

1. The relatively large immigration of Europeans into the area and the subsequent loss of land, power and status by the black people led to deep, underlying resentment of whites by blacks.

2. The close association of Christianity, the church and missionaries with the white colonial community led to profound tensions within the African soul between a positive interest in the gospel and a negative reaction to the bearers of the gospel.

3. Attitudes of paternalism and the lack of a positive appreciation of African culture were all too prevalent among many missionaries leading to frustration and discontent among many black members of missionary instituted churches.

5115as05tiny4. Excessive caution hindered the development and ordination of indigenous leadership in the church.

5. Many Africans desired an African church that would fully reflect African culture and incorporate African traditional religious practices, a church initiated and governed by Africans.

6. The arrival in South Africa of many different missionary societies and denominations, not always working in close cooperation, provided for the African people a model of a divided Christianity.

7. African society itself had a tradition of aspiring leaders breaking away from established chiefs to form a new tribe. Such patterns were transformed to the ecclesiastical realm all too easily.

The separatist groups experienced phenomenal growth in the twentieth century. In 1904 there were only three independent groups with about 25 000 adherents. By 1925 the number of separatist churches had increased to 130, which multiplied to 1 300 with more than a million adherents by 1946. In 1982 approximately three million adherents were gathered in about 3 000 groups and by 1997 the numbers had swelled to more than ten million adherents gathered in an estimated 6 000 churches.

Let us now look at part of the story of the pioneer of the African independent movement

It was a cold morning in 1833, as ministers gathered for the first conference of the Weslyan Methodist Church of South Africa. Nehemiah Tile and some of his minister colleagues were concerned and frustrated. Today they would bring up some issues troubling them: they sat and discussed how they would bring up the ordination of black ministers and the appropriation of funds, with the white missionaries. Nehemiah felt particularly disturbed; he had been refused ordination even though he had completed the three years of theological training at Healdtown, as well as his probation period. But perhaps the thing which most worried Nehemiah as the men sat and spoke was the fact that he was facing a disciplinary investigation. Nehemiah was the nearest counsellor to Chief Ngangelizwe, and this kind of political activity was unacceptable to the missionaries.

The disciplinary investigation came. After much back and forth, Nehemiah Tile was charged with stirring up agitation against the magistrate in Thembuland, addressing public meetings on the Sabbath, and donating an ox for the circumcision of Ngangelizwe’s son, Dalindyebo. Tile did not respond, but left in seeming submission, but soon after left the church.

thembulandIn 1884, Nehemiah established the Thembu Nation Church with the Thembu paramount Chief as its visible head; probably influenced by the British who had their sovereigns as heads of their national church. After the founding of the church, Nehemiah lived another 7 years and died on the 21st of November 1891. Though it never grew to any significant size, it demonstrated the possibility of an African instituted church and was the forerunner of thousands more. For this reason Tile is widely regarded as the father of the independent church movement.

In the Eastern Province of the Cape, near the former Great Place of the Thembu Paramount Chief, a tombstone bears the following inscription:


Founder of the Ethiopian Church of Africa in 1884

Died 21 November 1891.

L. M. Mzimba, who founded the Presbyterian Church of Africa, another black independent church minster said this of Nehmiah:

“The first definite movement of the independent spirit started forty two years ago. Rev. Nehemiah Tile separated himself from the Wesleyan Church, and founded a Church of his own organization. We are told that his movement began with Native assistants. Their position was a trying one. In many stations they did most of the work, but as they were not ordained, they could not celebrate marriages, baptize or dispense the Lord’s Supper. They had also a lower salary and status than the White missionary. They felt much more isolated both from the blacks and whites. Being somewhat educated they wished to better their position, and the more ambitious wished to make a rapid ascent of the social ladder. They had also an awakening sense of power and racial responsibility. Social and political avenues were closed against them, but the Church seemed to offer a highway to increased influence. They were no doubt also moved by the bearing of the white man, many of whom would not worship in the same building as them.[i]”


[i] Crafford, D. Trail-Blazers of the Go
The Source for much of this post is found in, and large sections can be found verbatim in: Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa. Page 84-85. (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000) Pg 100-102; Hofmeyr, J. & Pillay, G. J., 1994. A History of Christianity in South Africa. Pretoria: HAUM Tertiary
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