Shembe worshippers make annual pilgrimage amid internal tensions

Also known as the Nazareth Baptist church, it is one of the largest and most respected African traditionalist churches
Worshippers of the Nazareth Baptist Church also known as the Shembe Church attend a mass prayer at the Moses Mabhida Football stadium on October 7, 2018 during Umkhosi Welembe, an annual commemoration of Zulu King Shaka ka Senzangakhona, a revered military strategist who united the tribes to form the mighty Zulu Nation. (Photo by Rajesh JANTILAL / AFP)

Members of South-Africa’s evangelist Shembe Church climbed the Nhlangakazi Holy Mountain in Ndwedwe on January 5th 2019. Together in their thousands, dressed in traditional white-robes, they welcomed the New year.

Shembe Church members, the majority of who come from the Inanda Township near Durban, make the annual pilgrimage – a barefoot trek of roughly 80 kilometres to their sacred mountain where they camp at foot of the mountain peak for up to four weeks. It is said that in 1913, Isaiah Shembe Preacher and self-styled Prophet visited Nhlangakazi Mountain for the first time, where he received the divine instructions from God to form his own church.

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Also known as the Nazareth Baptist church, it is one of the largest and most respected African traditionalist churches, founded with the intention of bringing Christianity and the quest for Zulu nationalism and culture together in South Africa. Followers revere Shembe, who died in 1935, as their prophet in 1935.

After arriving at the base of the mountain, worshippers journey up and down twice daily led by women followed by men carrying sticks and then children. At the mountain top they listen to sermons that encourage peace and unity. They also tend wayside graves, laying flowers.

In the past, the church which has over 5 million members was met with opposition from missionaries and other external forces that accused it of misguiding members and mis-using the gospel. Its history has also been marked by internal disputes that have divided the church into seven groups, which are often at friction with each other over leadership and access to the mountain, even to the point of prompting the monitoring of police authorities. In 2017 Shembe won a five-year court battle for the leadership of his church.

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