Apolitical African Christian sect, the Israelites, in resurgence in S. Africa

October 06, 1992|By New York Times News Service

QUEENSTOWN, South Africa -- On May 24, 1921, the men of an obscure black Christian sect called the Israelites put on their Old Testament white robes, strapped crude swords to their hips and followed their prophet into battle.

On a field of thorn bushes and red dust at Bulhoek, near this colonial outpost, the Israelites confronted the largest peacetime police contingent that had ever assembled in this country: 800 men armed with rifles, machine guns and artillery.

When the slaughter was over, few doubted that one of the more unusual experiments in African Christianity had ended.

But 71 years later, the Israelites are enjoying a remarkable resurgence, which black Christians say is part of a general exodus from mainline Western churches to those with indigenous African character.

The Israelites are gaining adherents with an abstemious way of life, a liturgy that borrows from the Old Testament and American black evangelism, and -- most surprising to an outsider, given the size of their historical grievance -- a conviction that politics, even voting, is taboo.

The Israelites are one of an estimated 3,500 independent churches in South Africa that have either spun off from missionary denominations or sprung up on their own.

"The mainline churches were led by whites from abroad who were very sweet on Sunday -- 'We are all God's children' -- then on Monday to Friday they were involved in making oppressive laws," said the Rev. Kenosi Mofokeng, general secretary of the African Spiritual Churches Association, with 500 member churches.

Enoch Mgijima, who founded the Israelites in 1907, was a lay preacher who left the Wesleyan Methodist Church after an apocalyptic vision of a war between blacks and whites. His disciples regard themselves as the real children of Israel, descendants of the biblical Jacob. They observe the Sabbath on Saturday and celebrate Passover as their main religious festival, but they are Christians. They hold that Jesus was black.

One of Enoch Mgijima's early disciples had been baptized in an American black denomination and through this contact the Israelites acquired African-American spirituals that they still sing.

Each year at Passover, the faithful from all over gathered near the prophet's home, in the shadow of a mountain called Ntabelanga. In 1919, they began locating there permanently, building a tidy settlement of mud-brick houses where they would await the end of the world.

The government of Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts, egged on, the Israelites say, by resentful Methodists, told them to disperse. God, they replied, had told them to stay.

"The prophet told us were going to die, and we were ready," said Reuben Nkopo, who is believed to be the last survivor of the 500 Israelite men who faced the guns with their biblical weapons. "At noon, there was one shot from the police side, and then we ran toward them."

The shooting lasted perhaps 20 minutes.

Those who were not killed or wounded, including the prophet Enoch Mgijima, were shipped off to jails, and the neat township was demolished. The Israelite survivors were a scattered tribe of broken people.

Today, the gleaming white Israelite church on the outskirts of Queenstown attracts more worshipers than the Wesleyan Methodist church from which the founding prophet defected. New parishes have sprouted as far afield as Cape Town and Natal and Soweto, drawing an estimated 15,000 members who vow to eschew drinking, smoking, fornication and politics.

"The mountain that the African National Congress is pushing is the same mountain we are pushing," Gideon Ntloko, a Queenstown evangelist. "But they are doing it in the flesh and we are doing it in spirit."

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