On April 6, 1921, Simon Kimbangu, a former Baptist catechist in Congo who had been trying to resist the call of God for several years, approached the deathbed of a young woman named Nkiantondo. Yielding at last “to the urge of Christ,” writes Aurélien Mokoko Gampiot in Kimbanguism: An African Understanding of the Bible, Kimbangu offered a short prayer and, taking Nkiantondo by the hand, ordered her to rise in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. It is said that “Nkiantondo rose at once,” continues Gampiot, “completely recovered.”
In the months that followed, Kimbangu performed a flurry of other miracles — helping the blind to see, the mute to speak and the deaf to hear — cultivated what Gampiot describes as “a theology of Black liberation” and amassed a devoted following, which struck fear into Congo’s Belgian colonizers. Kimbangu was arrested less than six months after his first miracle, and he died in prison 30 years later under circumstances still uncertain due to the lack of transparency when it comes to official records of the period.
Despite the colonial authorities’ concerted efforts to silence him, Kimbanguism — the church that recognizes Kimbangu as a member of the Holy Trinity (the Holy Ghost) — has 17 million followers across Africa and the world, according to the church. “Of all the African churches … born from a reaction to colonial domination, the Kimbanguist Church is, no doubt, the most remarkable,” wrote French ethnologist Jean-Claude Froelich.
“Kimbanguism takes African culture seriously,” says Asonzeh Ukah, a professor of Christianity and African Religion at the University of Cape Town, by providing a structure upon which Christianity can exist in Africa and transmitting Christian messages into the idioms of the place. “How do you explain ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ to fishermen?” asks Ukah. “How do you talk about snow to people who live in rainforests?”
Christianity reached Africa long before it got to Europe — indeed, before Europe as a concept existed. From the fourth to the eighth centuries, North Africa (especially Ethiopia and Egypt) was intensely Christian, says Ukah, explaining that “you cannot talk about the doctrines of Christianity without talking about Africa.” That said, the type of Christianity that reached Central Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries was decidedly European — and distinctly alienating to Africans. “The Bible was used not as a tool of emancipation,” says Ukah, “but as a tool of domination.” In Nigeria, for example, Yoruba translations of the Bible substituted “Satan” for “Èsù” — a popular Yoruba God of the Crossroads — and markets with a devoted following.
Most sources agree that Kimbangu — whose name means “the one who reveals the hidden meaning of things” in Kikongo — was born in about 1889, not on Sept. 12, 1887, as his followers believe. There is no doubt, however, that he was orphaned at an early age and raised by Baptist missionaries. He even worked as a catechist for a few years after his baptism and evangelized several villages. But God had other plans. For three years he resisted the calling to preach a different message, moving to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) and trying his hand at several jobs, which all ended badly. Eventually, he returned to his native village — but not before the colonial police had confiscated the eels he’d hoped to gift his relatives — and gave in to God’s will at Nkiantondo’s bedside.
Kimbangu was not unique in his quest to Africanize Christianity. The ibandla lamaNazaretha (Church of Nazareth) founded by Isaiah Shembe in South Africa in 1910 bears many theological similarities. But he was the first to bring a message of hope and inclusion to Congo, “both the heart of Africa,” says Ukah, “and the heart of Africa’s turmoil.” Of all colonialism’s atrocities, those wrought by the Belgian authorities in the Congo Free State were arguably the most abominable.
The missionaries, explains Ukah, thought that “to be Christian, you had to act like a European Christian.” This meant taking a name and a surname, adopting monogamy, wearing European clothes and speaking European languages. On a moral level, Kimbangu took some inspiration from the missionaries, imploring his followers never to dance or watch people dancing, to destroy fetishes and drums and never to bathe or sleep naked. Philosophically, however, he was a revolutionary. His hymns and sermons turned the missionaries’ understanding of light (good) and dark (evil) on its head by asserting “Blackness as an affirmation of the self against White domination,” writes Gampiot. As one excerpt from a Lingala hymn reads:
God’s messenger has come
To show men God’s love for the race which broke the Law.
Keep the Law, do exactly as you are told, Black person, wake up!
Cultivate love, do exactly as you are told, Black person, wake up!
Keep working, do exactly as you are told, Black person, wake up!
Kimbangu’s influence remained strong even when he was arrested and sentenced to death for disturbing the peace and the security of the state. Protests from his followers got his sentence commuted to life in prison, and after his death, his work was continued by his son Diangienda. Kimbanguism was legalized in 1959 — a year before Congo achieved independence — and the religion grew in importance in Mobutu’s Zaire, as the dictator who stressed “authenticity” above all else made Kimbanguism what Gampiot describes as “his pet church.”(Diangienda’s relationship with Mobutu would later sour).
In Kimbanguism, notes Gampiot, the “historical and geographical landmarks of the Bible are symbolically erased, removing it from its Middle Eastern locales and temporalities and injecting its message into Kimbanguists’ history and daily life.” Here, Ukah sees strong similarities with the creation of the New Testament, noting that all 27 texts were written not in Aramaic or Hebrew but in koine (popular Greek), “the most accessible language of the time.”
This is why, Ukah believes, Kimbanguism (and other African-initiated churches) are thriving. Kimbanguists, he explains, simply leveraged Christianity to “do an update” on traditional religion. “African Christianity is dynamic, evolving and flexible,” he says. “Not formalized in dead books.”
Amen to that.