Shembe, Isaiah Mdliwamafa (1869-1935)

Zulu religious leader and founder of the Nazareth Baptist Church

Shembe was born at Ntabamhlophe near Estcourt, Natal, South Africa, of Zulu parentage. After involvement with Wesleyans, he associated with Baptists and was baptized in July 1906. He seems to have acted as an itinerant evangelist prior to coming into contact with Nkabinde, a former Lutheran who was regarded as a prophet. Nkabinde led him to develop a healing ministry in 1910. A year later, he founded the iBandla lamaNazaretha (Nazareth Baptist Church), a controversial religious movement rooted in Zulu tradition. Shortly afterward he acquired a farm that became his holy city of Ekuphakameni and established an annual pilgrimage to the sacred mountain of Nhlangakazi. Shame was noted for his vivid parables, dramatic healings, and uncanny insights into people’s thoughts. He wrote many moving hymns, composed music, and provided his followers with a rich liturgical tradition based on modified forms of traditional Zulu dancing. Critics of the movement claimed that his followers regarded Shembe as the incarnation of God. Others, led by Lutheran scholar Bengt Sundkler, argued that Shembe’s theology was an Africanized form of Christianity.
After Shembe’s death a succession conflict occurred before leadership passed to his third wife’s son Johannes Galilee Shembe. More serious trouble erupted following J.G. Shame’s death in 1975, when the movement split between his brother, Amos Shembe, and son Londa Shembe. Amos Shembe took the title “bishop” and seems to have led his followers toward orthodox Christianity. Linda Shembe openly admitted that he was unsure whether his movement was Christian, a form of Judaism, or perhaps more closely related to some other religious tradition such as Hinduism. Today there are about one million amaNazaretha in southern Africa.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved. By Lothar Schreiner. By Irving Hexham.



Irving Hexham, ed., The Scriptures of the amaNazaretha of Ekuphakameni (1994).

Irving Hexham and G.C. Oosthuizen, eds., The Oral history and Sacred Traditions of the Nazareth Baptist Church, 3 vols. (1996-1997).

G.C. Oosthuizen, The Theology of a South African Messiah (1967)

Bengt Sunkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa (1961) and Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists (1976)

Absalom Vilakazi et al., Shembe: The Revitalization of African Society (1986).

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