Moral Economy in the Nazareth Baptist Church, South Africa

Keywords: African Indigenous Churches, ethnicity, morality, Shembe, un-rest, Zulu


Isaiah Shembe founded the Nazareth Baptist Church (NBC) in 1910, and this new institution distinguished itself from mission Christianity not least through the markedly different moral economy. With the church headquarters at the outskirts of Durban (South Africa), the church catered to black Afri-cans, dispossessed of their land and forced into the capitalist labor system. To them, Shembe preached a Protestant work ethic, while at the same time condemning involvement in city life and striving to acquire land and attain economic autonomy for his congregations. With female adherents running away from fathers and husbands, he started out as a ‘thief of women’, but soon gave religious support to the patriarchal authorities of chiefs, who granted the church land in native reserves in turn. Prohibiting members from joining labour unions, the church connected cities and mines with rural homelands and contributed to the stabilization of the migrant labor system. In addition, Shembe preached moral ethnicity, and hence partook in the creation of Zulu nationalism.
The ambiguous moral economy of the NBC persisted during apartheid capitalism and post-apartheid neoliberalism. My essay focuses on preaching and the heterotopic character of the large gatherings of the NBC, and I will also connect church morals with the wider Zulu traditionalist mi-lieu and, given the preoccupation of classic moral economy with riots and revolutions, conclude with some observations on the 2021 unrests in South Africa.


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1011-7601