JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On a rocky hilltop in Johannesburg, a priest leads his congregation in an all-night prayer vigil. His is not a religion for the fainthearted, but a marathon of African Christianity at its grass roots.
The congregation at the Edumisweni Apostolic Church of Christ venerates and fears ancestors who they believe can help or harm them. They are convinced witches and evil spirits walk among them. They look to prophets to heal the sick, and trust in the power of magic and the benefits of animal sacrifice.
At the core of their religion is the unshakable conviction that the Bible is a simple, straightforward road map to the hereafter.
“The Bible is the way it is. It doesn’t change. It needs no explanation. You just have to follow it,” said Molefa Mojela, the church’s priest.
There is no special training for the church’s priest.
“We don’t have to teach anyone religion,” Mojela said. “We just read the Bible together and discuss what it says.”
Late on a Saturday night with just the light of the African moon, Mojela’s faithful gather in the Melville Koppies, a wild and sometimes dangerous greenbelt almost in the shadow of the city center. They wear homemade robes emblazoned with a cross to help repel evil spirits and build small fires to ward off the chill. They face east and pray together while they await the rising sun, the symbol of the beginning of all things in life.
Their religion freely adopts what they consider important in African culture — veneration of ancestors, belief in witchcraft, faith in the power of magic, called muti, and the ability of prophets or sangomas to harness that power.
During the night-long vigil a new initiate, preparing for her baptism later at a dam below the hills, is doused with milk.
“It is part of a ritual cleansing of the spirit” said Mojela. “We believe in the power of prophets to use some substances to drive away evil spirits and change a person’s luck.”
The theology of Edumisweni is basically Pentecostal Christian with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, faith healing and speaking in tongues.
Allan Anderson, professor of global Pentecostal studies at the University of Birmingham in England, said in a telephone interview that African Initiated Churches, sometimes called Spirit Churches, first appeared near the beginning of the last century in reaction to the hegemony of white mission churches.
Today, estimates on the number of African originated churches range from 5,000 to 10,000 across the continent. They belong to two basic types, are independent of each other and are not members of any other global Christian movement. Researchers believe total membership amounts to at least a third of all black African Christians.
“We follow African traditional culture. Our religion adopts what is important from traditional African culture,” said Mojela. “Africans want their own religion. They want to pray and worship in their own language.”
At Edumisweni, he said the congregation speaks in tongues, believes faith can bring about healing, venerates ancestors and fears witches, who he said are people sent by the devil. And some, based on examples from The Old Testament, practice polygamy.
“We believe in witches and that they come from the devil,” said Mojela. “In some places they have been burned at the stake. But we believe the person can still change. We are not here to judge them.”
Faith healing, said Anderson, is a very common belief among adherents to the Spirit Churches. It offers hope often when medical science offers none. It is often the reason a person decides to join the church.
Polygamy, he said, is condoned because of the Old Testament examples and is sometimes used as an example of why the white mission churches were imposing European culture rather than teaching religion.
“They would say that the missionaries hid that from us and told us it was adultery,” said Anderson.
Mojela said the veneration of ancestors comes directly from the traditionally African belief that ancestors look after their descendants.
Ancestors can reveal themselves in dreams or their unhappiness with the living can be divined by a prophet or a sangoma.
Mojela said the faithful believe that animal sacrifice such as the ritual killing of a cow or the slaughter of a goat, chicken or sheep can appease an angry ancestor and in other cases help promote healing or to drive away evil spirits.
Anderson, who earned is doctorate in South Africa and who has done extensive research here, said there are two basic types of African Initiated Churches, the old one that appeared in the early 1900s as a protest to white led churches and another more modern version that began in the 1970s.
The newer version is still African, but it is closer to other Pentecostal movements and is part of the rapid Pentecostal expansion in Africa that has fostered a sometimes bitter competition for souls with mainline Christian denominations.
Across most of Africa, Spirit Churches such as Mojela’s are in decline, losing membership mostly to the newer African Initiated Churches that seem more modern and appeal more readily to younger people.
“They feel as threatened by the new Pentecostal Churches as the mainline Roman Catholics,” said Anderson.
“These churches are declining in the rest of Africa, but not in South Africa because the memories of apartheid are still fresh,” said Anderson, adding that the Spirit Churches are still growing here because they still offer something uniquely African to people suspicious of white culture.
“We are not fighting against anybody,” said Mojela. “We just want people to come worship. We need respect.”