In the early 20th century, as the global color line hardened, transnational African and diasporic black Christian communities combined close readings of the Bible and the writing of their own sacred texts to create autonomous religious communities and prophesize a new Zion. They did so in both movements mostly framed in narrow political terms, and in supposedly apolitical religious communities whose very existence was nontheless inherently political.
For example, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the largest and most widespread black movement in world history. At its height in the early 1920s, the UNIA had an estimated two million members and sympathizers, and more than 1,000 chapters in 43 countries and territories, including Africa. Co-founded in Jamaica in 1914 by Amy Ashwood and her future husband, Marcus Garvey, the New York-based UNIA’s meteoric rise resulted in an agenda that included shipping lines, corporations, and universities; a Liberian colonization scheme; a resolute desire to reconstitute African independence; and a fierce racial pride, ideas and programs transmitted largely through the global circulation of the UNIA’s newspaper, the Negro World.
But the often overlooked, but deeply religious character of the UNIA was reflected in Marcus Garvey’s view that the UNIA was a civil religion, a “great, all-comprehensive, racial missionary movement, a holy cause to which every Negro should give undivided allegiance.” Garvey claimed to be a new Moses, ordained to lead the global black race to “African redemption,” in the form of African independence. He also later claimed clear parallels between himself and Jesus Christ: both were persecuted leaders of a revolutionary gospel that created a mass movement of oppressed peoples that would thrive long after their respective lifetimes. Garveyites across the globe regarded themselves as the modern-day Israelites in a covenantal relationship with God.
Garveyites also wrote their own sacred texts. Two Caribbean-born figures that migrated to North America illustrate this point. In the early 1920s, George McGuire, from Antigua, founded the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in the US. McGuire became the UNIA chaplain-general and the author of two UNIA sacred texts—the Universal Negro Catechism, which claimed that God had ordained the UNIA to “redeem” Africa, and the Universal Negro Ritual, which contained nearly 150 hymns, prayers, and songs for UNIA events. At the same time, Richard Athlyi Rogers, from Anguilla, founded the House of Athlyi (HOA), headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. Rogers also supplemented the Bible with his own sacred texts, such as The Holy Piby: The Black Man’s Bible. Eventually, this became a foundational text of Jamaica’s Rastafarian movement, the Holy Piby. The text notably interpreted the Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopia defeated Italy in 1896, as a sign of impending Black liberation.
Both the AOC and HOA established churches in South Africa, reminding us that these Garveyites were part of ongoing transnational flows of people, ideas, and institutions of global Christianity. By 1908, black and white Zionists—so named because they had roots in a church founded in Zion City, Illinois, USA, had come to southern Africa, but soon their mission foundered after initial interracial fellowships soon gave way to white-over-black racial hierarchies in South Africa. Yet, from these ashes rose the remarkable Isaiah Shembe, the foundational prophet of South African Zionism. Born Mdliwamafa Shembe in 1867, Isaiah Shembe founded the Nazaretha Church in 1910. He later cast his mother, Sitheya, as a latter-day virgin Mary that gave birth to him, a messianic figure. Just ass Jesus received the Holy Spirit and his healing powers during his baptism, Shembe claimed that he did too, and he soon adopted the prophetic name Isaiah.
From the donations of his increasing followers, Shembe bought large tracts of land to enable Nazaretha communities to maintain community cohesion and religious, cultural and socio-economic autonomy, minimizing the familial and community disintegration caused by large-scale African labor migration to colonial labor markets. In the context of state segregationist policy, land dispossession, and coercive taxes being deployed to to generate massive African labor migration, African land acquisition and autonomous community and labor organization was inherently political.
The Nazaretha drew their name from the Nazarites described in the Old Testament book of Numbers, who consecrated their lives in total covenantal devotion to God as part of the divinely ordained mandate to regenerate fallen humanity and to create an earthly kingdom of Zion. For them, the Bible was not just a completed record of a bygone biblical past chronicling the triumphs and travails of distant and foreign people, but an open book that prophesied future liberation. Like how the early Christian apostles spoke of, and wrote down, stories of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels and the Book of Acts, the Nazaretha recorded, transcribed, collected, and archived stories (izindaba) of Shembe’s miraculous works of faith healing. Their theological canon of gospel-like texts, hymns and other archived izindaba place Moses, Jesus and Shembe as an intertwined triumvirate, with Jesus advancing Moses’ edicts, and Shembe advancing Jesus’ ministry in a “post-Christian” contemporary period. Like the Garveyites, the Nazaretha read and wrote their way into prophecies of deliverance from white supremacy, envisioning themselves as divinely ordained leaders who would create a more just, humane, and moral world, a new Zion.