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Protestant Replications: The Conversion, Ordination, and Schism of a Zulu Bishop in Colonial Natal

In: Journal of Religion in Africa
Author:
Ingie Hovland Department of Religion and Institute for Women’s Studies, University of Georgia Athens, GA USA

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Abstract

This article examines the story of Mbiyana Ngidi and his five-decade conversion career, leading up to his establishment of an Ethiopianist church in 1890 – the first African Initiated Church in the Colony of Natal in Southern Africa. I focus on three events in his life – conversion, ordination, schism – and suggest that one way of reading these events is as different forms of replication: conversion as identification, ordination as imitation, and schism as reproduction. I engage with the idea in the anthropology of Christianity that Protestants desire a certain type of originality and therefore shun repetition. I argue the opposite, namely that Ngidi’s story shows us how Protestants seek out replicated relations.

Abstract

This article examines the story of Mbiyana Ngidi and his five-decade conversion career, leading up to his establishment of an Ethiopianist church in 1890 – the first African Initiated Church in the Colony of Natal in Southern Africa. I focus on three events in his life – conversion, ordination, schism – and suggest that one way of reading these events is as different forms of replication: conversion as identification, ordination as imitation, and schism as reproduction. I engage with the idea in the anthropology of Christianity that Protestants desire a certain type of originality and therefore shun repetition. I argue the opposite, namely that Ngidi’s story shows us how Protestants seek out replicated relations.

Around 1890 on the southeastern coast of Africa, in the northern hinterland of the British Colony of Natal, Mbiyana Ngidi pronounced himself bishop. He called his church the Zulu Mbiyana Congregational Church, and it is the first African Initiated Church that we know of in Natal. However, just as Ngidi was taking this innovative step, he set up a church that was, for the most part, a reproduction of the American-led Congregational mission church that he had disowned. He left a Congregational church to set up a Congregational church. He created a mimetic drama. Why this replication?

My inquiry into Ngidi’s story is ‘a historical project with anthropological objectives’ (Mosse 2012, ix). I frame this story as a series of events within an event. There are certain happenings that are easily recognized as eventful in Ngidi’s life: his conversion, his ordination, his schism. However, I want to place these in a larger context. They occurred in institutional fields – the mission station, the church, the chief’s territory, the colonial purview – that might also be seen as historical events since they shaped patterns of relations, authority, and ‘groupness’ (Handman 2015, 43). They occurred in concert with similar actions by others: in hindsight we can include his church in a broader ‘Ethiopianist’ movement of independent Protestant churches, which is itself an event in the history of African Christianity. Moreover, the events of his life occurred within a broader arc, unfolding over five decades, that we might call ‘the problem event’: the juxtaposition of a certain Christian ‘problematic’ with certain historical circumstances (Bialecki 2014, S195). The story of Ngidi is many things, but most importantly for my purposes it is the story of the Protestant problem of ‘getting it right’ as this unfolded in a particular African space over particular decades in the nineteenth century.

At first glance, Ngidi’s church might seem like a strange historical detail on which to focus. He established it in a rural area on the edges of the Natal colony. It did not gain many followers, never had its own church building, and only lasted around five or six years. It may be easy to agree with church historian Bengt Sundkler’s (1961, 45) assessment that it was simply ‘one insignificant secession as early as 1890’. However, I would like to make the case that there are at least two reasons for looking at this apparently unsuccessful church, and its bishop, more closely (cf. Tishken 2014).

First, we have some information about Ngidi’s life over approximately five decades, most of it prior to his establishment of the Zulu Mbiyana Congregational Church.1 The archival material is admittedly patchy and has been put together under specific circumstances. The colonial-era mission archive is heavily based on missionary letters that usually gave the view from the mission station, from the viewpoint of a white male missionary who became the protagonist. African actors such as Ngidi did not usually write documents that were archived. That being said, it seems to me that in this case the five-decade archival trail allows us to explore aspects of Ngidi’s lifelong ‘conversion career’ (Gooren 2010, 43) that might otherwise go unnoticed. Rather than focusing on one event alone – his conversion, his ordination, or his schism – the trail allows us to consider relations between these events over time. This makes it possible to think through conversion in relation to changes in the long postconversion lifespan, changes that are arguably more important than conversion itself for an understanding of how African Christianity was shaped in the nineteenth century (Houle 2011; Kollman 2010b).

Second, taken together, this material presents a question that is relevant to the anthropology of Christianity: what is the role of originality in Protestantism? A Protestant emphasis on originality – that is, an emphasis on individual, intentional, and sincere faith, commitment, or expression (though created, authorized, and judged by God alone) – is sometimes taken for granted by scholars. For example, in his classic work Bantu Prophets in South Africa Sundkler includes a diagram of Congregational secessions in Southern Africa, beginning with the Ethiopianist schisms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Borrowing the words of sociologist Malcolm Spencer from the 1940s, Sundkler comments that the frequent schisms demonstrate how, for these Protestants, ‘the most real embodiment of the divine is in the religious individual. Life is more unquestionably evident in that which is original, novel, individual’ (1961, 46, citing Spencer 1943, 59). Versions of this idea have continued to resonate in anthropological conversations about Protestantism until today. In this view Protestants emphasize originality, and regard sincerity and imitation as opposites. For these Protestants a sense of life comes from novelty. However, this article considers the opposite possibility, namely that from a Protestant point of view a sense of life can come from replication. Granted, the theme of originality does weave through Ngidi’s unusual story. But I argue that his story is also about the urge to replicate, and to do so repeatedly: to use conversion as identification, ordination as imitation, schism as reproduction.

Why these replications? I suggest that one reason, among several, for Ngidi’s seeking out these replications was his desire to get Christianity right. ‘Getting Christianity right’ is admittedly an imprecise term, but I use it to broadly encompass both ‘the problem of Christian authenticity’ (Bielo 2015) as well as the ‘critical, social work’ of Christianity (Handman 2015, 24). In short, it denotes the tendency within some Christian traditions to be preoccupied with the question of what Christianity ‘should be’ (Tomlinson 2010, 755), to turn this question into a topic of discussion within the group, and to critique one’s own or other Christian groups on the basis of this discussion. These concerns are especially prevalent in certain strands of modern Protestant (especially evangelical) and Pentecostal Christianity,2 but I draw the term from Caroline Humphrey’s remark that ‘getting it right was of shattering consequence’ for the Russian Orthodox Old Believer schismatics (2014, S219). Courtney Handman also uses a variant of this term to describe the concerns of Pentecostal schismatics in Papua New Guinea, who put considerable effort into ‘getting the group right’ (2015, 3). I hope to show that Ngidi, as one of the first African Protestants in Natal, also seems to have grappled with the problem of getting Christianity right, and that the different replications he enacted were ways of engaging and reengaging this problem through social relations.

There is a risk associated with writing about replication: mimicry can be interpreted as subservience. Many might agree with L.N. Mzimba, the son of the founder of an Ethiopianist church, who in 1928 stated that Ethiopianism aimed ‘to plant a self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating African church which would produce a truly African type of Christianity suited to the genius and needs of the race, and not a black copy of any European Church’ (1928, 89, cited in Pretorius and Jafta 1997, 212, my emphasis). The idea of replication in Africa was scandalous to Mzimba, as it is to many anthropologists and historians today, because it seemed to confirm the colonial claim that African ways were inferior to European ones. One response has been to reinterpret African imitations of Western practices as resistance, parody, or appropriation of power (Taussig 1993). James Ferguson (2002) instead argues that mimicry may more straightforwardly be viewed as a claim to equal membership in a global community. Drawing on Ferguson’s suggestion, it seems to me that the Protestants I am studying do not see imitation and authority as opposites, but instead see imitation work as authority work (or author work) within social relations marked by power dynamics. Moreover, the Africans in this story are not the only ones engaged in such mimicry. The white evangelical European and American missionaries also reproduced memories of their conversions, aspired to ordinations, and endorsed schisms, all pointing toward repetitive series of replications within their social relations. While I trace replications in the particular story of Ngidi, I use this case as an example, suggesting that it may show us how replication serves as an important move in Protestant relations more broadly.

1 Christian Independency in Africa

The scholarly division of African Initiated (or Independent) Churches (AICs) into typologies is problematic in many ways.3 Nevertheless, it can be useful to place Ngidi’s church in the history of African Christian independency. After European and American Protestant missions began establishing mission stations on the southeastern coast of Africa from the 1840s onward, it did not take long before there were African initiatives toward greater Christian independence in the mid-nineteenth century. However, the first African secessions from mission churches in Southern Africa did not occur until the 1880s, when we know of at least four (Anderson 2001). The first AIC we know of within the area of Natal was Ngidi’s church, founded in 1890 (or, perhaps more accurately, Ngidi’s church was the first that was explicitly disowned by white missionaries and therefore made its way into the archive).

The independency movement escalated quickly after this, and by 1904 independent churches in Southern Africa had already attracted around 25,000 members (Pretorius and Jafta 1997). These early independent Protestant churches came to be known as ‘Ethiopian’ (or ‘Ethiopianist’),4 and, like Ngidi’s church, were characterized by their great similarity to the Western mission churches in theology, baptismal practices, liturgy, hymns, church organization, biblical interpretation, devotional practices, and in the Protestant church names they chose (such as Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran). However, they were intentionally different in one important respect: they were led by Africans instead of white Europeans or Americans. In today’s Southern Africa the Ethiopianist church movement has largely disappeared, giving way instead to the continued status of the Protestant and Catholic mainstream (previously mission) churches, as well as the more experimental independent Zionist or Apostolic churches that appeared from the 1910s onward, and the explosion in recent decades of new Pentecostal/charismatic churches.

Why did the Ethiopianist churches appear? Historians have suggested different reasons, which can be divided into roughly three types. The first set of reasons has to do with the colonial context. Given that these new churches chose to be led by African instead of white pastors, it is not difficult to see that they were reacting to the wider colonial situation as well as specifically to the racism that had started to pervade the mission churches by the late nineteenth century. They were protest churches (Anderson 2001; Sundkler 1961; Tishken and Heuser 2015). In this capacity some of the Ethiopianists developed connections to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States (Chirenje 1987). At a practical level, the Ethiopianist churches also offered a possible source of income in the colonial context since many opportunities for African financial entrepreneurialism were stymied in and around Natal from the 1880s onward by an oppressive legal structure that, for example, severely limited Africans’ ability to purchase land (Etherington 1979; Sundkler 1961).

A second set of reasons has to do with the history of Protestant denominationalism. The African converts in southeastern Africa could observe firsthand that just over a decade after the Colony of Natal was formed in 1843 there were already seven separate Protestant missions in the territory (Etherington 1979). Two of these societies – the British Anglicans and the Norwegian Lutherans – even initiated schisms within their own organizations while in Natal. From this perspective, the Ethiopianist church secessions fit into the Protestant institutional pattern the converts had learned by observing the missionaries (Anderson 2001; Sundkler 1961).

Third, we might consider indigenous African reasons for Ethiopianist churches rather than seeing them primarily as reactions to European colonialism or European Protestant institutional patterns. For example, we can view early African independency as Africans’ response to the writings of the Bible (Volz 2008), or as Africans’ way of meeting local cosmological concerns such as what to do with the ancestors (Houle 2011). At other times such indigenous spiritual reasons have been described as an identifiable African charismatic ‘trail of ferment’ (Kalu 2005). From this perspective, Ogbu Kalu argues that the Ethiopianist churches should not be described within Western frameworks as ‘emancipatory’ (using colonial terms) or ‘schismatic’ (using Protestant terms), but rather within an African framework as an expression of indigenous spirituality (Kalu 2005; cf. Anderson 2001; Kollman 2010a).

In this article I wish to add a further factor to these three sets of reasons: I suggest we could consider the Ethiopianist movement as a phenomenon of Protestant replication. This is closely related to the Protestant institutional tendency toward secession, but adding the concept of ‘replication’ gives different insight into what secession might have meant as a Christian act to the Africans who carried it out, and how they may have perceived this act in relation to other significant Christian events such as their conversions and ordinations. I suggest that Ngidi’s schism was driven not only by colonial-political, Protestant-institutional, and African-spiritual concerns, though these were clearly important. His schism was also part of a repeated series of Protestant replications that engaged the problem of getting Christianity right in the midst of and through his social relations.

2 Christian Replications in Anthropology

I make this argument about replication in the context of conversations in the anthropology of Christianity. While I am primarily interested in Protestant groups here, it is helpful to include anthropological work on Pentecostal groups, given the similarities between Protestantism and Pentecostalism when it comes to questions of originality and replication.5 Some anthropologists emphasize that Protestant and Pentecostal groups are particularly oriented toward individuality and spontaneity in their relationship with God, and are wary of repetitions. Webb Keane (2007) shows how Calvinists in Indonesia avoid reciting repetitive written prayers because this might lead to an insincere act in which one’s words of prayer are not aligned with one’s inner state. Robin Shoaps (2002) finds among Assemblies of God congregations in the United States that personal, spontaneous, ‘authentic’ prayer indexed the presence of the Spirit more than routine, repeated, formulaic language. Bruno Reinhardt (2016) observes that Pentecostals in Ghana think of the Holy Spirit as constant flow, and therefore seek to avoid ritualized repetition.

Other anthropologists have suggested that, on the contrary, Protestants and Pentecostals are often drawn to repetition and replication. For example, several scholars have pointed out that Protestants and Pentecostals desire to mimic Jesus and other biblical characters (Cabrita 2014; Coleman 2000; Haynes 2020; Müller 2011). Protestants and Pentecostals often seek to make copies of and circulate the Bible and parts of the Bible in texts, tapes, videos, and so on (Coleman 1996; Tomlinson 2010). Matt Tomlinson (2010) suggests that ‘projects of replication’, such as replicating the biblical verse of Genesis 1:26 in sermons, prayers, conversations, life narratives, and speeches in Fiji, also help to resolve the Protestant problem of agency: does agency reside with the individual or God? In replicating the Bible verse, Methodists in Fiji can speak decisively and personally, yet simultaneously ascribe the origin to God. Moreover, other repeated actions, such as Fijian Methodists repeatedly engaging with ancestral curses, offer ways to navigate the Protestant tension between temporal continuity and discontinuity by fashioning action that is not quite continuous but also not quite a break with the past (Tomlinson 2014; cf. Bialecki 2014; Tomlinson 2019). Similarly, Hillary Kaell and James Bielo both point to the importance for Protestants of using replication to pull the past into the present. Walking where Jesus walked on a Holy Land pilgrimage or wearing the clothes Jesus wore is a way of making the incarnation (more) present (Kaell 2014, 2016). Immersing oneself in the sensory environment of a Holy Land replica in the United States can create ‘affective affinities’ with the ‘authentic’ origins of Christianity, thus actualizing and temporarily solving the problem of Christian ‘authenticity’ (Bielo 2015, 2016).

When looking across the anthropological literature on Protestant and Pentecostal replication it becomes clear that different repetitions may be perceived as harmful or beneficial in different situations. For example, an evangelical Jewish-affinity Christian community in North America may simultaneously be drawn to behaviors that replicate the Jewish life of Jesus, but distrust formal rituals that contain repetitive phrases (Kaell 2016). One type of replication is seen as bringing them closer to Jesus, the other as distancing them. Similarly, neo-Pentecostals in Sweden fear what they see as ‘mere repetition’ in less revivalist churches, but at the same time strive for repetition as ‘accumulation’ in their own lives – for example, repeating conversion narratives, or listening to the same recorded sermon ten times (Coleman 2011). While mere repetition is viewed as sterile, repetition as accumulation can store up spiritual power and suddenly result in novel events, such as personal renewal or the conversion of others (cf. Coleman 2019).

I draw on these latter approaches that highlight the complicated importance of replication in Protestantism, though I place somewhat greater emphasis than the scholars discussed here on the observation that Protestant replications necessarily occur in the context of social relationships. It seems to me that Protestants tend to make a complex, multistranded relation between themselves, God, and the material world (Hovland 2018). Here I want to extend this thinking on the complexity of Protestant relation-making to consider social relations between individuals and groups. On this basis I will make a soft distinction between replication and repetition. I use the term ‘replication’ to refer to the relational aspect of mimesis to highlight that the replication is part and parcel of a social relationship, while I use ‘repetition’ to refer to the temporal aspect of mimesis to highlight that something is repeated after a period of time. In this instance the terms ‘repetition’ and ‘replication’ do not denote exact replicas, but rather describe social phenomena that are sufficiently similar to be perceived in some sense as the same by one or more parties, notwithstanding the significant differences that may also be present.

Now let me begin the story of Mbiyana Ngidi. Of course, I do not know how he would tell it, but I provide my own anthropological framing and tell it in three parts, revolving around his conversion, his ordination, and his schism.

3 Conversion: Identification

The first authoritative act of Mbiyana Ngidi that we know of was his decision to be one of the first Africans in Natal to be baptized. The baptism was performed by the American Congregational missionary Samuel Marsh in the late 1840s at the small American station Itafamasi, where Ngidi also attended school (Etherington 1978; Oftebro, 26 March 1852, Norsk Missions-Tidende 1852/53, 45–46, hereafter NMT).6 My first methodological problem emerges at this point: the nineteenth-century missionary letters in general provide insight into why some Africans were drawn to the mission stations, such as seeking out Western literacy, medicines, or paid work, but remain somewhat opaque if we try to discern why some, such as Ngidi, were also drawn to baptism (Etherington 1996). The missionaries often framed these early baptisms in a narrative of conversion that was based on their own intensely emotional conversion experiences, born out of the Euro-American second-wave evangelical revivals. However, it seems unlikely that people living in nineteenth-century Southern Africa, with different historical traditions and social context, would have readily taken the foreign act of baptism to mean the same thing (Hovland 2013; Landau 1999). Therefore, we do not know exactly why Ngidi chose to be baptized.

What we do know is that shortly afterward, in July 1851, Ngidi moved from the Americans to the Norwegian Lutheran missionaries to be employed as their ox wagon driver on the recommendation of the American missionary Andrew Abraham (Oftebro, 26 March 1852, NMT 1852/53, 46). Ngidi was likely around 20 years old when he accompanied Hans Schreuder of the Norwegian Mission Society to the site of the first Norwegian mission station, Umphumulo, in the northern part of the Natal colony, on the border to the independent Zulu kingdom. A local woman later commented that she had seen Ngidi arrive wearing a European-style shirt, trousers, and a hat, with a handkerchief tied around his head, and that she had thought to herself that surely he must dress like other black people when he went back to his own homestead (Larsen, report for 1855, NMT 1855/56, 93–94). Upon his arrival at Umphumulo, then, Ngidi was already identified as someone who curiously inhabited a boundary: a black man dressed as a white man.

The Norwegians perceived Ngidi as ‘a faithful, quiet, and industrious young man’ (Oftebro, 26 March 1852, NMT 1852/53, 46). As a wagon driver he received a higher wage than other station employees, and around 1851 he was allowed to have his own assistant, a young boy named Umatikalala, who worked with him for at least the next four years (Larsen, report for 1855, NMT 1855/56, 93–94). Thus Ngidi became an important member of the community at the Umphumulo station. The station space, which in many ways can be seen as a typical example of evangelical place-making, sought to be markedly distinct from its surroundings in certain respects (Hovland 2013, 2016). The Norwegian missionaries built a group of square houses instead of the traditional Zulu rounded houses, and this distinction afforded the square houses a certain moral connotation. Most of the young African employees on the station, who performed housework, farm work, and building work, wore European-style clothing (Larsen, report for 1855, NMT 1855/56, 86). Station life was ordered around the European 24-hour clock and seven-day week, and followed a pietistic timetable that included daily morning and evening devotions and time for daily reading lessons. On Sundays the missionaries led church services. While conversions were few and far between, the station was still a busy place. For example, people would come to sell corn, to have teeth pulled out, or to hear the latest news from the colony.

In March 1852 the Norwegian Ommund Oftebro wrote that Ngidi had ‘on his own initiative’ begun to hold morning devotions in the schoolhouse for those African employees who wished to attend (26 March 1852, NMT 1852/53, 46). In the same month the Norwegian Lars Larsen remarked that they had ‘temporarily’ allowed Mbiyana to hold these morning devotions, partly because he was better able to communicate with the station employees in Zulu than the missionaries were, and partly because ‘we wish to see which of our boys will follow him to the schoolhouse, without us calling them’. One young man who was working at the station, Umbulawa, refused to come when he realized he was not being paid to attend the devotions, and when Ngidi reprimanded him, he laughed. However, he did not dare refuse when the missionaries called him to evening devotions, though he grumbled (Larsen, diary December 1851–June 1852, NMT 1852/53, 110–111). We see here how the missionaries – and no doubt Ngidi – grappled with how far they could stretch the notion of identification between the African convert and the European missionaries, and how they paid careful attention to the authoritative differences that emerged between them.

Ngidi was allowed to take on a growing leadership role at the station, and four years later the Norwegian Tobias Udland reported that ‘when the driver is here he holds the daily evening devotion and the Sunday morning devotion and, with Mad. Larsen, school on Sunday mid-morning’ (January 1856, NMT 1856/57, 1). The phrase ‘when the driver is here’ indicates that Ngidi must regularly have been away on trips, possibly as a way of earning some additional income as a trader, as some converts did (Jørgensen 1990). Around the same time Lars Larsen reported that in the mornings when the young boys milked the cows and took them out to graze, ‘I have continued reading the English Bible with the wagon driver Umbijana, by which I learn Zulu words from him, and he English from me. We have now read through the whole New Testament and have come to the 18th chapter of Genesis’ (Report for 1855, NMT 1855/56, 87).

At some point in the 1850s Ngidi became engaged to a young woman, Mathenjwaze Shange. We first hear about Shange in the Norwegian sources in 1858, when she became the first African to express an interest in being baptized by the Norwegians, and whose request was accepted (Schreuder, 3 June 1858, NMT 1858/59, 203).7 It is unclear how long she had been at the Umphumulo station or under what conditions she arrived. She may be the young girl who was reported to be working for the Larsens at Umphumulo in 1852 and who had previously lived in a convert family at Umvoti, the mission station of the American Aldin Grout, for a couple of years. Ommund Oftebro commented that this young girl had sought work at Umphumulo because her father lived in the area (26 March 1852, NMT 1852/53, 46).8 However, in 1860 Mose, one of the young converts at another Norwegian station (Empangeni), asked what he was supposed to do if he wanted to get married, since as a Christian he could not marry ‘a heathen’. Should he, he asked, do ‘as Umbijane at Umpumulo had done’, namely choose a young girl and ‘place her at a station to be taught’ (Oftebro, 2 October 1860, NMT 1861, 55)? This comment hints at the possibility that there may have already been some agreement between Ngidi and Shange that she would be baptized to be married, and that she moved to the Larsens at Umphumulo for this reason, though this was either unknown or undisclosed at the time by the missionary letter writers at Umphumulo.

However, the pietistic Lutheran missionaries, who were not indifferent about motivations for baptism, did judge her ready. Mathenjwaze Shange was baptized at Umphumulo on 6 June 1858 as the Norwegian missionaries’ first convert. The service lasted around three hours and ‘tears streamed across the cheeks of the girl as well as others’ (Udland, 9 July 1858, NMT 1858/59, 221–222). At the same time as we learn this – the first mention of her name in the archive – we also learn that the following day she and Ngidi were married at Umphumulo (Schreuder, 3 June 1858, NMT 1858/59, 203; Udland, 9 July 1858, NMT 1858/59, 222). In that same year Ngidi built ‘an upright house’ for them on the Umphumulo glebe near its border, copying the missionaries’ rectangular houses instead of the rounded Zulu ones (Larsen, 31 August 1858, NMT 1858/59, 202). Their families were also involved: in 1860 Ngidi’s mother Unomaganga and Shange’s sister Unomise were baptized at Umphumulo, taking the baptismal names Uana and Utabita (Udland, report for the second quarter of 1860, NMT 1860, 206). This suggests they too were living at the station at that time. A year or two later another sister of Shange, also living at Umphumulo, volunteered to be taught in preparation for baptism. She wished to marry another convert. However, her father, Unondumo, was strongly set against the marriage and visited the station frequently to protest it (Larsen, 31 March 1862, NMT 1862, 188–189).

Ngidi and Shange’s conversions may have been many things, and were likely overdetermined. How can we understand them today? If they did not view conversion in the same categories as the missionaries, how did they view it? Much has been written about conversion to Christianity in the nineteenth-century African colonial context,9 and my own judgment of this discussion falls along similar lines as the two balanced summary points that Paul Kollman (2010b) suggests. First, conversion was likely neither subjection nor sovereign emancipation, but an outcome of situated, choice-encompassed agency, always incomplete, and a selective and creative expression amidst constraints. Second, it was likely neither wholly continuous nor wholly discontinuous with the preconversion lifeworld. More specifically, the conversions in nineteenth-century Natal seem to have been oriented more toward a change in spiritual and political allegiance rather than a significant change in beliefs about the world (Hovland 2013; Jørgensen 1990), making the African conversions somewhat distinct from the missionaries’ conversions but closely tied to the missionaries.

This leads us to a point that is not widely discussed in the literature. It seems to me that conversion was also often carried out as a form of identification, proclaimed – both by the convert and by the missionary – within the context of a social relationship. If Christian conversion is a ‘variable kind of event’ through which Christians organize their groups in different ways (Handman 2015, 195), it seems to me that it led to distinct group formations at the mission stations that were marked by identification. Those who undertook conversion, undertook identification. Identification helps achieve affiliation, though in so doing it implies a certain hierarchical relation with its lingering sense of ‘an original’ and ‘a copy’. In this type of social relationship notions of self may be subtly recast – the Christian God may provide ‘means for experiencing and evaluating others as aspects of selves, and vice versa’ (Klaits 2011, 146). Identification also has an intellectual component, leaving open the possibility that converts such as Ngidi and Shange were curious about the ideas of mission Christianity. At the same time, Ngidi and Shange took up the options of using European clothes and a European house as material forms of replication. They took on identificatory roles that developed in relation to the missionaries in terms of leadership aspirations and marriage rituals. In short, they achieved affiliation through their identification.

However, this identification was troubled by the attention directed toward race in the wider colonial context, which also raised questions at the mission stations. Ngidi and Shange’s conversions may have served as a means for them to reexamine certain African forms, such as familial relations or preconditions for marriage, by positing a different vantage point that was ‘beyond’ them (Handman 2015). The mission station space, with its white Norwegian missionaries living in square houses and following a pietistic timetable, demonstrated Christianity and ‘whiteness’, thus also saying something about Christianity and ‘blackness’ – but what? This question complicated the notion of identification. Identification started to become a matter of which identities were possible for which people, and who had the authority to decide, though these issues were not yet fully elaborated. It appears to me that Ngidi and Shange’s own authority at this point was the authority of ‘the copy’, while the missionaries were perceived to be ‘the original’. In hindsight, a certain colonial mimicry seems to have been both actively chosen by them and required of them in this social relationship.

I believe the category of conversion is a useful one for anthropologists and historians, provided we can continue to grapple with the type of positional work it has done and still does (Landau 1999). For example, it obscures anthropological understanding if we take on the nineteenth-century evangelical view that ‘one religion’ arrived in Southern Africa, clashed with ‘another religion’, and resulted in ‘religious conversions’. Rather than saying that religion led to conversions, it seems more accurate to say that the process of conversions led to a contextual elaboration of the idea of ‘religion’ (Landau 1999). The religion that became elaborated on and around the mission stations in Southern Africa was tied to questions of authority and ‘groupness’. It was also tied to practices such as morning devotions, industrious work, and marriage ceremonies. As practices were translated and reworked, the mission stations presented a world in which it was possible to think not just ‘religion’, but also how to ‘do religion’, and even how to ‘get religion right’. This ‘getting it right’ could not be done alone on the mission stations. It involved identification in the social relations of a dyad or a group.

4 Ordination: Imitation

In 1860 Tobias Udland noted in his regular report to the Norwegian Mission Society’s home board that Ngidi was about to leave Umphumulo to take the position of ‘missionary’ with the Americans (Report for the second quarter of 1860, NMT 1860, 207). The announcement was surprisingly brief. We are left to presume that Shange would leave with him. Ngidi was likely around 30 years old at this time and had spent almost a decade at the Norwegian mission station. Although the Norwegians did not explicitly comment on this event in their letters, we may perhaps read between the lines that there seems to be some tension surrounding the fact that they had consistently called Ngidi ‘the wagon driver’ when apparently he wanted to become an evangelist, and eventually left to do so.

Ngidi was taking on a new type of missionary position initiated by African Christians affiliated with the American Zulu Mission (formally the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions). These African converts had started holding Native Annual Meetings beginning in 1849 or perhaps a little earlier, mostly run by themselves (Dinnerstein 1976; Houle 2011, 2018). In 1860 this meeting voted to sponsor an African missionary. Ngidi volunteered, and the converts organized a Native Home Missionary Society to support him (Dinnerstein 1976; Etherington 1978; Houle 2011, 2018). Despite this separate institutional structure, there was still significant white missionary control: the American mission had the final say on who was employed by the Native Home Missionary Society and how much they should be paid. While the funds were donated by African Christians, a white missionary was appointed treasurer (Dinnerstein 1976). Africans contributed £260 during the first five years, making the operation self-supporting (Etherington 1979). After Ngidi had accepted the position, it took a little while for him to find a place to live as a missionary. Around the time of the Southern African winter of 1860 he went, together with the American Andrew Abraham, to look for a place in an unspecified area. However, the people living there told him that he was not welcome, though a white missionary might be (Udland, report for the second quarter of 1860, NMT 1860, 207). The differences in the way black and white evangelists were perceived again came to the surface.

During this time Ngidi and Shange had a baby girl, Thandekile (‘loved one’). One night in October 1860 Ngidi fetched Lars Larsen to come to their house to perform an emergency baptism because she was gravely ill. It appears she recovered initially and was then formally baptized at Umphumulo (Larsen, 4 April 1861, NMT 1861, 202–203). However, she died the following year. When the newly raised church building at Umphumulo was consecrated in November 1861, her grave there was ritually sanctioned by the Norwegian superintendent Hans Schreuder (Wettergreen, 30 January 1862, NMT 1862, 117–118), an important act of social recognition of Ngidi and Shange and their place in the Christian fellowship tied to the mission station.

However, Ngidi still struggled to establish himself as a missionary. In 1861 he started a church by the nearby Ihlimbiti river in an area with no wagon access (Houle 2011). That same year the Norwegian Paul Wettergreen said of Ngidi, ‘Now he is in a way a sort of catechist, he preaches every Sunday, naturally in the service of the Americans’ (30 January 1862, NMT 1862, 118). It was difficult even for such an eloquent writer as Wettergreen to conceptualize an African evangelist other than ‘in a way a sort of catechist’, and ‘naturally’ under white authority. It was similarly difficult for African chiefs to place him. In 1863 the Qwabe chief Musi refused to let Ngidi set up a station in his chiefdom near the Maphumulo mission station (Mahoney 1999). Ngidi then set up a station outside the Qwabe chiefdom, a few miles south of the Umphumulo and Maphumulo stations, in the area of a chief whom he had befriended and who allowed him to use the land (Etherington 1978; Houle 2018; Mahoney 1999).

At this station, which came to be known as Noodsberg, Ngidi built a wattle and daub church (Houle 2018). His first new church members were baptized in 1865, and his congregation then grew rapidly to 25 members over the next two years. In 1866 the American Josiah Tyler at Esidumbini station, near Maphumulo and Umphumulo, remarked that he knew of ‘no white missionary who has seen so great results in so short a time’ (Etherington 1978, 158), and in 1869 Andrew Abraham commented that ‘he is a real evangelist’ (Houle 2018, 360). During the 1860s and 1870s Ngidi converted more Africans than any of the other three American stations in the area – Maphumulo, Esidumbini, and Emushane (Etherington 1978; Mahoney 1999) – as well as more than the Norwegian station Umphumulo. This may have been linked to the pattern of work that he chose. Instead of maintaining the station and his own preaching as the central point of orientation as the white missionaries did, he rapidly established an outstation with converts and allowed others to preach in his absence, even at his station (Dinnerstein 1971; Houle 2018). In 1869 the American Katherine Lloyd wrote that ‘if all were like him our converts would count thousands’ (Etherington 1978, 158). However, she noted that American missionaries were also grumbling about ‘what Umbiyana wants racing all over the country’ (Etherington 1978, 159). It is possible that Ngidi still traveled to trade, as he seems to have done during his time at Umphumulo.

On one of his trips Ngidi traveled past Umphumulo just at the time of a new type of gathering there: in July 1868 the African converts of the Norwegian mission held a meeting that they had initiated. Again, the mission had to search for a proper conceptualization of this new development; it was reported to mission friends in Norway as ‘a “conference” or a meeting of believing natives who belong to the Norwegian mission’, with the more formal term ‘conference’ remaining in quotation marks (Udland, report for the second quarter of 1868, NMT 1869, 3–4). The African Christians had first asked Hans Schreuder for permission, which he had granted. Tobias Udland, who managed Umphumulo station, then asked that another white missionary also be present because he did not wish to be ‘alone’ during the meeting. Thus the Norwegian Ommund Oftebro came, as well as 37 converts from the Norwegian stations Umphumulo, Entumeni, Eshowe, and Inhlazatshe. Ngidi, who was passing Umphumulo on a trip to Pietermaritzburg at this time, was asked to preach on one of the evenings. He chose to preach on the theme ‘the Lord is near’ and reminded those present to prepare to receive the Lord (Udland, report for the second quarter of 1868, NMT 1869, 3–4). As in many cases, it is difficult here to interpret the sparse archival material, but perhaps we can read into Ngidi’s decision to emphasize that ‘the Lord is near’ a certain orientation toward the American and Norwegian missionaries’ evangelical Christianity, either in its personal form in which the Christian is close to God, or in its dramatic form in which the end-times may be at hand. Or perhaps Ngidi’s choice indicates that he was attentive to the possibility of himself receiving and ushering into the midst of the African converts a powerful lord.

While Ngidi was becoming established as a missionary at his own station in the 1860s, questions arose about Christianity and traditional customs in the American Zulu Mission in Natal, such as whether converts could follow the custom of lobola (bridewealth), traditionally a gift of cattle given by the groom to the bride’s father. These questions of practice were directly tied to questions of authority. There seems to have been a greater sense among the converts at this time that Christianity could be imagined differently than how the missionaries presented it. Myra Dinnerstein (1976) suggests that this may have resulted from their more-frequent contact with other whites, their growing economic independence, and the increasing habit among non-Christian Africans of wearing European clothes and learning to read, thus blurring the significance of the perceived external markers of Christianity. In 1865 the American Zulu Mission printed the entire New Testament in Zulu, allowing converts to read all of it by themselves and to challenge the interpretation of the missionaries by using their own technique of arguing on the basis of biblical passages. There was also a range of white missionary opinions on particular traditional customs, and the converts were aware of this because they traveled between stations and held the Native Annual Meetings. This was especially the case for the custom of lobola. In fact, the range of missionary opinion on lobola was so wide that when Nathaniel Clark, secretary of the American board in Boston, was asked to deliver a verdict, he found it impossible to offer any definitive guideline on the matter. He instead sent back an oracular reply in 1868 that included the lines: ‘We must not expect to bring up our native Christians to our standard at once. Your work is not to make American but Zulu Christians’ (Dinnerstein 1976, 244).

In 1869 Nathaniel Clark also sent a letter directly to the African converts, encouraging them to preach to their people and telling them they ‘must not be babes and children dependent upon others but strong men’ (Dinnerstein 1976, 244). The white missionaries held a meeting with the African converts and outlined Clark’s desire to start ordaining native pastors. The African converts replied that they first wanted to know what stance such native pastors would be expected to take on lobola and polygamy. The roughly 40-year-old Ngidi attended the meeting and reportedly said, using language reminiscent of Clark’s:

They were told … ‘people in America wished them to be appointed missionaries’. They replied it could not be done until some grave questions were first settled. They then went on and told the missionaries that they tried to make American Christians of them instead of Zulu Christians – that they did not mingle with them nor love them – that they had taught the people not to respect black people, so they could not manage the stations and that while in the pulpit the missionaries said ‘dear friends and brethren’ as soon as they came out of the pulpit they would not call them that because they were black, but despised them (Etherington 1978, 150; cf. Dinnerstein 1976, 244).

This is a hard-hitting critique of the missionaries, and it is rather unusual that it was included in a letter that was sent back to the home board in Boston. It reveals Ngidi’s (and probably others’) specific criticisms of missionary practices at this time. However, Ngidi also seems to have been saying more than that. Although he does not spell it out, his line of critique is based on the premise that the missionaries’ practices were wrong because they were a sign of the missionaries’ misunderstanding of Christian relationships.

In hindsight, we may interpret Ngidi’s words as a theological argument about what he thought Christianity should be, as well as a claim that he understood this more fully than the American missionaries. His knowledge of Christian relationships was derived from the missionaries but had diverged from theirs. By making this clear he was asserting a type of epistemological authority that the missionaries had not granted him but that he had wrestled into being himself. Although he was still employed by the American Zulu Mission during this time, it seems to me that by drawing on his own Christian commitment and the different Christian authorities available, including not just the missionaries but also the board in Boston and the Bible, he had started a process of deliberately complicating the colonial dynamic of identification that existed between himself and the white missionaries.

Questions of authority constantly remained alive in the mission field. During this phase of Ngidi’s life we see more clearly how African identification quickly grew into something that might disturb the European and American missionaries: mimicry became menacing when it threatened to disrupt the colonial hierarchical relation (Bhabha 1994). Ngidi was now caught in the colonial ‘double bind’ that the missionaries enacted on the frontier: on the one hand, they held out the promise to their African converts that they could become Christians like the missionaries; on the other hand, they established practices that set up a hierarchy between the seemingly immutable identities of ‘white’ and ‘African’ (Hovland 2013). The colonially inflected process of identification that Ngidi had embarked on as he sought to become like the missionaries entered into that murky territory in which he was Christian like the missionaries, but not quite like the missionaries. His circumscribed authority during this phase was caught within this unsettling framework, the double bind of colonial Christian aspirational relations.

While testing his limited epistemological authority Ngidi had little institutional authority to fall back on. The Native Home Missionary Society ‘remained an essentially white enterprise’ (Etherington 1979, 116) and only employed two African preachers in 1869, neither of whom were ordained (Mahoney 1999). The lack of ordination meant that these preachers were not authorized to perform baptisms or administer Holy Communion, and also accorded them lower status than the ordained American pastors. Despite this lack of institutional authority, Ngidi apparently moved, or added a location to, his station without permission in 1870. This caused complaints from at least two American missionaries. Aldin Grout wrote, ‘Natives must be under the same control we are, and require both watching and counseling’, and Andrew Abraham claimed that Ngidi was seeking to found new stations to increase the land under his control (Etherington 1979, 118). This is perhaps not surprising, given the generally low salaries paid to native evangelists (Etherington 1979).

Ngidi also apparently sought to establish some of his own authority by not only moving or expanding but also renaming his station. There is some ambiguity surrounding this act of naming. His station was usually referred to as ‘Noodsberg’ (a Dutch-derived or Afrikaans local place name) in the American missionary sources,10 but in 1876 the American David Rood noted that Ngidi had named his station ‘Newspaper’ (Etherington 2002). The name ‘Newspaper’ also appears on a map drawn by the American Josiah Tyler (Tyler 1891). Why Newspaper? Norman Etherington (2002) suggests that Ngidi may have been drawing on – and appropriating – the power associated with print and printing in the nineteenth-century missions, as they placed great emphasis on printing catechisms, hymnals, portions of the Bible, reading books, grammars, and newspapers. In addition, I wonder whether the name ‘Newspaper’ may be tied to the perception among some Zulus that the missionaries brought a new indaba (Larsen, 1 October 1860, NMT 1861, 68), the Zulu term for an important matter for discussion. Perhaps the name Newspaper could indicate authority to declare news of this important matter. At the same time, it may also be a subtle refusal to replicate the station name used by the Americans: Noodsberg and Newspaper both start with the same sound, but then differ. However, we have to tread carefully when translating words from the archive. As Paul Landau observes, ‘capturing the word does not mean capturing its changing signification’, since expressions do positional work in their own context (1999, 19). Any analysis here of the name ‘Newspaper’ is an anthropological translation of an archival remnant of a missionary translation of Ngidi’s translation of his station’s mission. Ngidi named it, but the significance and status of the naming remain obscure.

Within the mission world, the next logical question in Ngidi’s career was the question of ordination. While it is difficult to tell in hindsight, it seems that there may have been a perception that Ngidi’s ordination could have been offered earlier, though we do not have Ngidi’s perspective on the matter (Dinnerstein 1971). The first Zulu minister to be ordained by the Americans was Rufus Anderson in 1870 (Houle 2011). Ngidi was not put forward for ordination until 1878, after working for the Americans as a paid evangelist for seventeen years (Etherington 1978; Mahoney 1999). At this time he was probably close to 50 years old. The apparent delay may be associated with some tension between Ngidi and the Americans in the 1860s and 1870s, likely tied to questions of power. Etherington suggests that ‘his quarrels with missionaries arose entirely from resentment at the curbs on his activities as a preacher’ (1979, 118), and Michael Mahoney states that he simply grew weary of ‘missionary interference’ (1999, 383). Robert Houle (2018) nuances this discussion by observing that the Americans may also have been hesitant to ordain him because his congregation at Newspaper/Noodsberg was not able to fully support him financially, as was typically expected of each Congregational church. Ngidi instead relied on supplemental funds from the Native Home Missionary Society.

The question of Ngidi’s ordination does not seem to have been related to any specific doctrinal dispute. In the year of his ordination Josiah Tyler wrote that Ngidi declared himself to be ‘“one with us” in sentiment and feeling in regard to certain customs which we are battling in the church and out of it’ (Etherington 1979, 118; see also Houle 2018, 360). He was alluding to the process of drawing up the ‘Umsunduze Rules’, which were sanctioned by the American Zulu Mission the following year in 1879. These rules were an attempt to systematically prohibit the customs of lobola (bridewealth), polygamy, levirate marriage, drinking utshwala (a mildly intoxicating drink), and smoking the insangu (wild hemp or marijuana) (Houle 2018; Mahoney 1999).

However, it seems to me that while there may not have been explicit doctrinal disputes between Ngidi and the missionaries, there were some differences in theological judgment, and the Umsunduze Rules of 1879 are not necessarily indicative of Ngidi’s stance in the late 1870s. Josiah Tyler’s words that Ngidi declared himself ‘one with us’ can be interpreted to mean that Ngidi ‘adhered to a strict orthodoxy’, as Etherington (1979) suggests. However, there is another interpretive possibility: we may view Tyler’s phrasing as (perhaps intentionally) somewhat leading, since it seems to mask the range of opinions that existed even among the American missionaries, and the discussions that led up to and continued after the Umsunduze Rules (Houle 2011). For example, lobola was still defended and practiced by leading converts in the 1870s, and its prohibition was not uniformly enforced by all the American missionaries until the late 1870s (Dinnerstein 1976). Given the range of positions on lobola through the 1870s, it is not obvious which position Ngidi took on this question at the time. Similarly, there was extended debate surrounding the custom of drinking utshwala, a beer or thin soured mash made of corn or millet that was nourishing and mildly intoxicating. While the American Zulu Mission had always strictly prohibited liquor, they allowed utshwala during the first decades (Houle 2011). In 1877–1878, influenced by the growing temperance movement in the United States, the Americans asked African converts to make a pledge of abstinence. However, only one of the African preachers, Maduba Cele, was willing to sign the pledge – and he broke it almost immediately in 1878 when he fell ill and used utshwala to regain his health (Houle 2011). We know, then, that in 1878 Ngidi was in favor of allowing utshwala.

When Josiah Tyler was asked about the seeming delay of Ngidi’s ordination, he replied, ‘He lacks education. He is I believe a good man and has been successful as a missionary, but he has not received sufficient knowledge to give him the character we desire to see in ordained missionaries’ (Dinnerstein 1971, 152, original emphasis). Ordination was a troubled authority issue in the mission hierarchy, especially for African evangelists though also for those white missionaries who were dependent on superiors to receive ordination (Hovland 2013, 99; see also Schreuder, 3 June 1858, NMT 1858/59, 204). It appears the reasons for withholding ordination could quite often be summed up in that ambiguous term ‘character’. The use of ‘character’ can at times be read as a euphemism for ‘class’ in colonial contexts (Stoler 2002), where there was constant negotiation over how to position the white colonial elite in relation to, for example, wealthy white missionaries, poor white missionaries, people perceived as ‘mixed-race’, uneducated white settlers, mission-educated African intellectuals, or children of colonial officials who grew up in the colonies. The categories of ‘European-ness’, ‘American-ness’, ‘white-ness’, or ‘Christian-ness’ were not purely about perceived skin color, but about ‘tenuously balanced assessments of who was judged to act with reason, affective appropriateness, and a sense of morality’ (Stoler 2002, 6). It was difficult to ‘get it right’ when it came to Christian character if one did not already have authority. One needed the right character to gain authority, but those in authority judged what constituted right character.

The American missionaries offered Ngidi ordination in August 1878, and he was ordained as a Congregational minister in the church at Noodsberg/ Newspaper. Houle remarks that ‘for the small community of believers [at Noodsberg] this was a triumphant moment and they talked of expanding the church and even of acquiring straight-backed chairs to replace their hand-hewn benches’ (2018, 361). The rise in authority and acts of replication were working in tandem. There is little anthropological work on the phenomenon of Christian ordination, though Maya Mayblin has suggested that ordination in Catholicism could be viewed as ‘the quintessence of sacred repetition’ (2019, 135). Building on her suggestion, it seems to me that it can be productive to think of ordination as imitation: the fashioning of ‘the same’ authority handed along an institutional chain of relationships. On the one hand, it is not clear whether the potential equality of Ngidi’s ordination – potentially being of equal ‘character’ – was ever fully accepted by the American missionaries even as they handed it to him. On the other hand, Ngidi’s acceptance of ordination was, in a sense, his claim to equality, based on imitation work (cf. Ferguson 2002). During this phase Ngidi started using imitation as an authoritative act. He was a missionary, like the American missionaries, but he used this position to critique them. The relationship was still unequal since he had to wait for them to decide whether to ordain him, or to decide whether he had ‘received sufficient knowledge’ to have the right ‘character’, as Tyler put it. The imitation, although enlivening for both parties, was also threatening to both.

Meanwhile, what had happened to Mathenjwaze Shange? One day in or around October 1878, shortly after Ngidi’s ordination, the new Norwegian missionary Johannes Kyllingstad went out to preach to people living on the Umphumulo mission reserve together with Simon Ndlela, one of two African teachers at the station. Kyllingstad later wrote to the board in Norway that at this service he met ‘the wife of a native preacher, Umbiane’, who was there to visit ‘her heathen relatives’ (18 January 1879, NMT 1879, 142–143). Apparently he did not know (or perhaps did not wish to indicate that he knew) who Shange was. The African teacher Ndlela likely did know her since they had both lived at Umphumulo around 1860. They were both among the first converts baptized at that time and they took Holy Communion classes together in 1861 (Larsen, 4 April 1861, NMT 1861, 204). However, it is unclear whether Ndlela refrained from explaining Shange’s background to Kyllingstad, or whether he did but it was considered unimportant by the missionary. The Norwegian Mission Society’s editor in Norway did not add a note about who she was or who Ngidi was when publishing Kyllingstad’s report in the society’s periodical. Two decades after being the first African baptized at Umphumulo – an event that was made much of in the mission periodical and celebrated in Norway at the time – and after having her first baby buried in one of the first graves at the Umphumulo church, Mathenjwaze Shange was no longer part of the Norwegian mission’s collective memory. On the other hand, Pastor Mbiyana Ngidi could be relabeled at this point: he was no longer remembered as Umphumulo’s ‘wagon driver’; instead the Norwegian missionary found it acceptable to refer to him as ‘a native preacher’.

5 Schism: Reproduction

The final part of Ngidi’s story leads up to his schism. A short while after his ordination in 1878, he again initiated a break in the pattern of his career – both his paid career and his conversion career. Around 1880 he left his station Newspaper/Noodsberg in the British Colony of Natal and moved across the northern border to Zululand. At the time the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 had just come to an end, and the army of the British Empire had defeated the Zulu royal house. The British general Wolseley had arrived at a ‘settlement’ for Zululand that consisted of dividing the kingdom into thirteen territories under combative chiefs, a system seemingly designed to provoke a Zulu civil war, as indeed it did in the 1880s. It was in the midst of this shifting situation that Ngidi moved to the territory that had been put under the chieftainship of the Sotho chief Hlubi and started working there together with two other African Christian leaders from Natal: his cousin Jonathan Ngidi, who had left his post as principal evangelist at the Anglican bishop John Colenso’s station Ekukhanyeni, and Stephanus Mini, a well-known Methodist convert from Edendale (Etherington 1979).

Almost no information has been retained in the archive about the work of Mbiyana Ngidi, Jonathan Ngidi, and Stephanus Mini at Rorke’s Drift in Zululand. In this regard their venture may be typical of several independent African Christian initiatives in the mid- and late nineteenth century, especially in colonial borderlands (Houle 2011; Volz 2008). What we do know is that the American missionaries reacted somewhat negatively to Ngidi’s decision to strike out on his own. He requested an official posting in Zululand from the American Zulu Mission, but this was denied (Etherington 1979). The Americans considered him still formally responsible for the Noodsberg station, which they felt he was neglecting during this time (Houle 2018). Nevertheless, there does not seem to have been open antagonism between Ngidi and the American missionaries in the early 1880s. One missionary commended him for speaking well at the closing communion service of the Native Annual Meeting at Amanzimtoti in 1883 (Houle 2018).

In 1885 the Native Home Missionary Society tried to collect their own funds to support Ngidi at Rorke’s Drift, but were stopped by the American missionaries (Mahoney 1999). This may have been related to a more general tension within the American mission over the management of funds. African preachers wanted congregational funds to be managed by the leader of each congregation, and Judson Smith, who was then the secretary of the board in Boston, agreed, in line with common Congregational practice. However, white missionaries in Southern Africa objected; they wished to retain final control over the finances (Denis 2011; Houle 2018). The American missionaries’ hindering of financial support for Ngidi was likely also related to their concern over his continued absence from the Noodsberg station, and in 1886 they decided that a young African preacher, Upene, would begin working at Noodsberg instead (Houle 2018). At the same time, the missionaries suggested that a burnt-brick church with a corrugated iron roof should be built at Noodsberg. The mission had already donated chairs for the church and now promised they would also solicit a church bell from supporters in the United States (Houle 2018).

Ngidi remained in Zululand. In 1885 he started a new congregation that he called the Uhlanga Church (Mahoney 1999), which came out of his congregation at Rorke’s Drift (Denis 2011). The Zulu name ‘Uhlanga’ is an interesting choice (as was his earlier choice of Newspaper). The term was central to the Zulu creation myth as told in the nineteenth century. In the 1860s informants of the British missionary-ethnographer Henry Callaway told him that Zulus said the first people ‘broke off’ or ‘came out’ of their origin (uhlanga) in a bed of reeds (umhlanga) (Callaway 1884, 9). The term could also be used to refer to a tradition (Oftebro, 14 October 1859, NMT 1860, 43), or, as Sundkler suggests, ‘uhlanga’ in a church name might be translated as ‘national’ (1961, 94). In retrospect it is difficult to say whether Ngidi was placing his Christian vision within the frame of Zulu tradition by choosing the name ‘Uhlanga’ for his church, or conversely whether he was claiming that he was supplanting Zulu mythology by representing a new Christian origin.

Only a few years later in 1890 Ngidi initiated what was to be the last break in his career, at around 60 years old: he returned to Newspaper/Noodsberg in Natal. Houle (2018) suggests that this may have been in response to a call from his erstwhile congregation there. In the late 1880s the Noodsberg congregation had come under the supervision of a new American missionary, Charles Holbrook, who had visited the station, gathered with them in the church, and berated them severely for – in his view – not following the American mission’s rules regarding polygamy, adultery, lobola, and utshwala or beer drinking. He urged them to expel some of their members from the community. As Houle perceptively notes, this must have been taken as ‘an assault on their community in the very space that defined them’, that is, in their station church (2018, 362). Perhaps the congregation called Ngidi, or perhaps Ngidi heard of the situation and decided to act. He returned to Newspaper/Noodsberg.

The Americans found out that he had returned when some missionaries arrived to attend a Native Home Missionary Society meeting at Noodsberg in 1890 and were unable to enter the church. Ngidi, along with several church members and other adherents, had occupied the church building and locked the door (Houle 2018). The matter was taken to the courts. Ngidi filed a civil suit against the Home Missionary Society (Mahoney 1999) and the American mission threatened to prosecute him and his followers with trespassing (Houle 2011), despite the fact that the American mission did not legally own the Newspaper/Noodsberg land (Houle 2018). Moreover, the Americans promptly ‘disfellowshipped’ Ngidi and announced the decision in a circular to mission workers in Natal and Zululand (Mahoney 1999). By this point the Americans’ assessment of Ngidi was emphatically negative. In 1891 Josiah Tyler suggested that Ngidi had earlier moved from Noodsberg simply because of accumulated debt, summing up the situation as follows: he ‘engaged in trading, became involved in debt, left his people, and took up his abode in the Zulu country’. In his recollections Tyler does not even give Ngidi’s name, instead simply informing mission supporters in the United States that this was one of two African pastors who had ‘not proved a comfort and joy to those who inducted them into the sacred office’. He added that this gave cause for caution when ordaining Zulu preachers: ‘Though they can talk eloquently and pray as if inspired from above, they do not all possess that moral backbone which is desirable’ (1891, 176, original emphasis).

Ngidi had originally been allowed to use the land at Newspaper/Noodsberg by the local chief, with whom he had a favorable relationship during his previous residency. The chief now took Ngidi’s side in the dispute with the Americans, and in 1892 tried to convince the British magistrate to expel the African preacher Thomas Hawes, whom the American Zulu Mission had placed at Noodsberg (Chirenje 1987; Mahoney 1999; Houle 2018). This was initially successful, but after ‘a long correspondence’ between the American missionaries and the colonial government the decision was reversed, and the American mission was granted a 42-year lease for the station land instead (Houle 2018, 349). In the end Ngidi had to cede control of his first station Newspaper/Noodsberg.

However, Ngidi founded a rival church in the area, the Zulu Mbiyana Congregational Church. This is the church that, as far as the archive tells us, is the first African Initiated Church in the Colony of Natal. This introduced a rift in the Christian community around Noodsberg/Newspaper, though many remained loyal to the American Zulu Mission (Chirenje 1987; Mahoney 1999). Again, Ngidi’s choice of name is intriguing. The name refers, as did Uhlanga, to the notion that some conception of Zulu tradition was central (though whether to be supplemented or replaced, we do not know). This time his own story was used as a central fulcrum since he included his personal name in the church name. This was placed immediately next to the information that the church was Congregational. In this respect, as far as we know, Ngidi used the same Christian rituals that the American Congregational missionaries did, including baptism of converts, Holy Communion, and weddings (Mahoney 1999). He also desired to reproduce the same type of gathering place. Ngidi’s congregation collected money and began constructing their own church building ‘within sight’ of the station church at Noodsberg (Houle 2018, 363), but it remained unfinished (Chirenje 1987; Houle 2011, 2018).

Ngidi seems to have retained most of the same doctrinal positions as the Americans, for instance in opposing traditional polygamous marriage. However, there were two exceptions: an American Zulu Mission report for 1891 accused Ngidi of allowing lobola (bridewealth) and utshwala (beer) among his church members (Chirenje 1987; Houle 2018; Mahoney 1999). It is difficult to tell whether this information is exaggerated; as Houle (2018) notes, even if it is accurate the information may have been selectively presented by the American missionaries to justify their rejection of Ngidi. Mahoney suggests that the information may be interpreted to mean that in this period Ngidi developed ‘an alternative, heterodox theology that bridged the gap between the traditionalists and the amakholwa [Christian believers]’ (1999, 384). I think perhaps another interpretive possibility is that Ngidi’s position might be a continuation of the Congregational practice he had formulated in the 1860s and 1870s, when lobola and utshwala were within the range of what was allowed in the American Zulu Mission. Gradually through the 1880s, after Ngidi had left for Zululand, it became more accepted among both white missionaries and African preachers in Natal that Christians needed to abstain from beer, including utshwala, and only in the 1880s were some congregants expelled from the American churches in Natal for drinking it (Houle 2011). In other words, it may have been the American Zulu Mission that had shifted its theology in this regard by the 1890s, rather than Ngidi.

We come now to the last naming decision of Ngidi’s that has been retained in the archive: in 1894 the American missionary W.C. Wilcox reported that Ngidi allowed his followers to call him ‘bishop’ or ‘apostle’ (Chirenje 1987; Switzer 1971). Congregational churches typically have a nonepiscopal structure, as Ngidi was aware; the American Congregationalists did not have a bishop in the United States or in Natal. However, as he also knew, there were other Protestant bishops in Natal who had become known for their critical, if also ambiguous, stances during the Anglo-Zulu War: the Norwegian Lutheran bishop Hans Schreuder and the British Anglican bishop John Colenso. By using the term ‘bishop’ or ‘apostle’ for himself, Ngidi seems to have taken authority into his own hands and augmented the nonepiscopal Congregational structure. Perhaps he was in some sense echoing the American missionaries’ taking authority into their own hands and breaking with Congregational structure when they required oversight over each congregation’s funds. Or perhaps he was making the claim that, like the apostles, he knew the will of Jesus and was seeking to ‘get it right’. He exercised this power by extending it. In 1895 and 1896 American missionaries reported that he was ordaining his own African pastors (Mahoney 1999). Needless to say, the Americans refused to acknowledge Ngidi’s Congregational church as legitimate, and did not recognize baptisms or ordinations he had performed (Mahoney 1999). And as far as I know, the Norwegian missionaries never mentioned his church in their letters and reports, though it was located close to the Umphumulo mission station.

This time Ngidi’s church did not attract a large following. Houle says of this church that ‘it failed … Ngidi failed to secure legitimacy for his claim of sacred authority’ (2011, 104–105). One important reason for his limited reach was undoubtedly the material realities of religious authority, as Houle (2018) has argued: the American Zulu Mission controlled the visible marker of the burnt-brick rectangular church building at Noodsberg, while Ngidi’s congregation met in a traditional Zulu rounded hut. Another reason may have been linked to the social capital that was desirable and available in the colonial context: if amakholwa (believers) in Natal left a mission church for an independent one, they ‘crippled their own claims of Christian legitimacy’ in the eyes of white colonial society and lost access to colonial respectability (Houle 2011, xxxii). It is also possible that Ngidi’s frequent absences affected the church, since he still spent much time in Zululand and appointed another preacher to hold Sunday services for his congregation in the Noodsberg area (Houle 2018). In 1894 Ngidi attempted to seize control of a different church building, this time at Impapala in Zululand where African converts from the American mission had established a congregation. They seem to have welcomed him at first, but then rejected him when they realized that he had broken with the Americans. He again failed to claim the church building (Houle 2018). Reflecting on this final phase of Ngidi’s career, we can see that in addition to the epistemological authority he had started piecing together for himself earlier, he was now also trying to reproduce the material basis on which he could claim institutional authority in direct competition with the mission church. However, he does not seem to have had success in creating his own material authority, at least as far as the mission sources tell us.

Mbiyana Ngidi died some time in 1896, likely nearing 70 years old. Afterward most of his congregation returned to the American Zulu Mission church, seemingly quite rapidly – perhaps a sign of the similarity that did after all underlie the two Congregational churches, despite Ngidi’s and the Americans’ protestations to the contrary. In January 1897 a charismatic Holiness preacher from the United States, Brother Weavers, visited the congregation at Noodsberg, and found them about to finish a new rectangular stone church, ‘the building serving as a visible symbol of their reconciliation’ (Houle 2011, 175).

What was Ngidi’s schism about? Jon Bialecki (2014) expresses well why anthropologists are not drawn to classify Protestant institutional changes using the Weberian movement from charisma to bureaucracy, which leaves us with a repetitive cycle from church to revival to schism to sect to church, and so on: this does not seem to take into account the actual diversity of patterns of transformation among Protestant social groups. Bialecki suggests we might instead consider how Christian groups continuously revisit ‘problems’ or difficulties that are never identical, but also not complete breaks. Handman (2014) and Humphrey (2014) also argue for the value of considering schism in religious terms rather than only sociological or political ones. For example, while the Old Believer schisms that Humphrey studies in Russia have been portrayed as a form of class protest against the elite, she makes the case that, viewed ‘from inside’, the schismatics themselves were intensely concerned with conviction, ritual, theology, and ‘getting it right’ (2014, S217, S219). Handman similarly suggests that Pentecostal schisms in Papua New Guinea may be seen as a form of Christian critique since schismatics work on the Christian community and its moral world to continuously ‘perfect the church’ (2015, 12). Handman has since deepened this argument, together with Minna Opas, by suggesting that while Protestants are indeed particularly engaged in denominational schisms they also feel morally ‘embarrassed’ by this fact because it does not reflect their vision of a unified Christian collectivity, and many may therefore downgrade denominational differences to matters of ‘secular identity’ (Handman and Opas 2019, 1004, 1009).

Extending this line of thought, I would add that while some Protestants feel moral embarrassment over the reproductions of denominationalism, others feel moral accomplishment. We see this in Ngidi’s story. Granted, Ngidi’s schism, like his conversion and ordination, was conflicted and overdetermined. There were financial and status concerns in play, and we need to analyze his religious moves politically and his political moves religiously. But his reproduced church was also aimed, I think, at the significant and broader problem of ‘getting Christianity right’, and doing so through Christian social relations. This was his final replication, but not because he had finally ‘gotten it right’. If his life had continued, we can imagine that he would have enacted further Protestant replications. In this sense his story is an example of how Protestant reproductions can constitute continuing acts of ‘transformative reengagement and reaffirmation’ (Tomlinson 2014, 166).

Let me return to Mathenjwaze Shange one last time. In 1890 Ngidi successfully applied for exemption from customary law in the Colony of Natal, and his application was endorsed by a European settler. He gave as reason ‘that in the event of his death his wife and children may be protected by the English government’ (Mahoney 1999, 385). If he was still married to Shange, this is the last oblique reference I have to her, and to her relationship with Ngidi, in the archive.11

6 Conclusion: Protestant Replications

Mbiyana Ngidi’s schism in 1890 appears to have been the last in a repetitive series of replications over the course of his career: conversion as identification, ordination as imitation, and schism as reproduction. Why these replications? Each replication event was troubled in different ways, and corresponded to different experiences of Christian authority and ‘groupness’. Each event demonstrates a different form of working with and making social relations within Protestant situations.

I began with Sundkler, who commented that a diagram of early Congregational secessions in Southern Africa shows us that in Congregational Protestantism ‘the most real embodiment of the divine is in the religious individual … original, novel, individual’ (1961, 46). This attention to individual originality and spontaneity clearly captures an important aspect of Protestantism, and we certainly see the themes of Protestant originality in Ngidi’s story. However, I argue that his story and the diagram of Congregational secessions also shows us the opposite. When we study the history of Protestant schisms breaking off left, right, and center – including Ngidi’s schism – I think we also see that the ‘real embodiment of the divine’ in Protestantism is in mimesis. Moreover, the Protestant work of mimetic, repetitive replications must necessarily involve a reproduced relationship in a dyad or group each time; it is ‘irreducibly social’ (Handman 2015, 3).

The Protestants concerned do not necessarily seem to experience this repetition or mimicry as insincerity, though that question is persistently present. Rather, perhaps we may say that they use replication in the context of social relationships as a social form of Protestant sincerity. Phrased differently, we may say that Protestants, always finding themselves in historical situations marked by specific power dynamics and subject positions, do not usually tend to separate moral agency from replication. This is part of the ongoing, relational work of making Protestantism.

Acknowledgements

Several people offered helpful comments and conversations regarding this article. I am especially grateful to James Bielo, Simon Coleman, Wayne Coppins, Hillary Kaell, Matt Tomlinson, and an anonymous reviewer.

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Notes

1

I draw on my archival research to describe the early part of Ngidi’s career, and then set this alongside other researchers’ descriptions of the later parts. In this way I hope to bring out the repetition that, I suggest, occurred over time. In this instance I have worked with one of the mission periodicals from the Norwegian Mission Society collection in the Mission and Diakonia Archives, housed at VID Specialized University in Stavanger, Norway. For the later parts of Ngidi’s life I have drawn on the work of historians – Chirenje (1987), Dinnerstein (1971, 1976), Etherington (1978, 1979, 2002), Houle (2011, 2018), Mahoney (1999), and Switzer (1971) – whose archival material in this instance comes mainly from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions collection in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. The Norwegian missionaries transcribed Mbiyana Ngidi’s first name as Umbijane, Umbijana, Umbiane, or simply Driveren (‘the driver’), and the Americans transcribed it as Mbiana or Umbiyana. The spelling ‘Mbiyana’ is commonly used today. I have not come across his family name ‘Ngidi’ being used in the Norwegian sources and would like to thank an anonymous reviewer of my book Mission Station Christianity for making the connection between Umbijane in the Norwegian sources and Mbiana Ngidi in the American ones.

2

Though see Mayblin (2019) for a thoughtful discussion of why dissent may be less visible yet still present in the Roman Catholic tradition.

3

For good discussions of AICs as a category see Anderson (2001), Cabrita and Erlank (2018), Engelke (2010), Etherington (1979), Kollman (2010a, 2010b), Meyer (2004), and Tishken and Heuser (2015).

4

The name ‘Ethiopian’ was first used in 1892 and alludes to Psalm 68:31: ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God’. I use ‘Ethiopianist’ rather than ‘Ethiopian’ to avoid confusion with churches from Ethiopia, following Tishken and Heuser (2015, 154n1). For further discussion of the Ethiopianist movement in particular see Anderson (2001), Etherington (1979), Sundkler (1961), and Tishken (2014).

5

For anthropological analyses of replication in Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic communities see especially Bandak (2014, 2015, 2017) and Mayblin (2014, 2019).

6

The mission periodical Norsk Missions-Tidende (Norwegian Mission Tidings), abbreviated NMT, was published by the Norwegian Mission Society for its supporters in Norway. The material I draw on here is comprised of letters, reports, and diary extracts sent by Norwegian missionaries from the mission station Umphumulo (and in two cases from the Norwegian mission station Empangeni) to the board of the Norwegian Mission Society in Norway and subsequently published in the periodical. This material is in Norwegian and all translations are my own.

7

In the Norwegian archival material her first name is transcribed as Umatendhjwaze, Umatenjwaze, or Umatenjwase, and her family name as Shange. I use the standardized spelling ‘Mathenjwaze’ for her first name.

8

The issue is unclear because Tobias Udland stated in 1858 that Mathenjwaze Shange had worked for the Larsens for about four years (9 July 1858, NMT 1858/59, 220), though this recollection may not be accurate since Lars Larsen reported in 1855 that no young women were working for them (Report for 1855, NMT 1855/56, 86–87).

9

For overviews of the literature on Christian conversion in colonial Africa see, e.g., Hovland (2013, 104–125), Landau (1999), and Volz (2011, 173–206); for relevant discussions of conversion in postcolonial Africa see, e.g., Engelke (2004), Kollman (2010b), and Meyer (1998).

10

Similarly, a map of the Colony of Natal from 1904 depicts the Mapumulo division with four mission reserves/stations, which are labeled Mapumulo, Emushane, Esidumbini, and Noodsberg (Mahoney 1999, 379).

11

Mahoney (1999, 385) notes that the application form states that Ngidi was married at Umphumulo in 1883 (the form can be found in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Secretary for Native Affairs file 1/1/132 1225/1890, Petition for Exemption from Native Law, Mbiyana Ngidi, 13 October 1890). It seems most likely to me that the ‘1883’ on the form is a handwriting error for ‘1858’, i.e., the year of Ngidi and Shange’s marriage at Umphumulo. It seems wholly unlikely that the Norwegians would have married Ngidi again at Umphumulo in 1883 since the new Norwegian missionaries at Umphumulo at that time (Nils Braatvedt, Hans Christian Leisegang, and Petter Nilsen) had no relationship with him, and the Norwegian missionaries were in general highly suspicious of converts who acted outside mission church purview as Ngidi had started to do by 1883.

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