Empire of Healing: South Africa, the United States and the Transatlantic Zionist Movement

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Divinity


My research will investigate the history of a twentieth-century Protestant faith healing movement called Zionism. It originated in the town of Zion, Illinois, in the largely white Midwest of the USA, travelled across the Atlantic Ocean, and became one of the most important influences in black communities of South Africa - today 30% of black South Africans are Zionists. In charting this still little-known story, my research aims to provide a new perspective on the dramatic twentieth-century expansion of Christianity in Africa. The shift of Christianity from Europe and North America to Africa in the twentieth century has been widely commented upon by scholars in religious studies, history and anthropology. Many interpretations emphasized the role of regional, continent-specific factors in the growth of Christianity in Africa. Scholars have pointed to Christianity's saliency for African nationalist movements and its resonance with indigenous African cosmologies.

By contrast to these localized interpretations, my research will pioneer a transnational approach to Zionism in South Africa. Charting for the first time the history of Zionist exchanges between South Africa and the USA, I will seek to show that Christianity's rapid growth in Africa occurred via linkages between Africa and different parts of the globe. In order to do this, I will use the notion of an 'Empire of Healing' to probe the dynamic translation of Zionist faith healing practices between Zion, Illinois and South Africa. In particular, I will focus upon the frequent arguments carried out between these disparate geographical sites. This theory of religious development occurring across geographic, cultural and linguistic borders will highlight both the utility and the limitations of the nation-state for understanding the movement of religious individuals, institutions, practices and texts. My approach will scrutinize links across terrestrial and oceanic regions, alert also to the socio-political and religious constraints that undermined efforts to build transregional religious communities.

My method is novel in two respects. First, Zionism in South Africa has long been treated as a regional religious movement, detached from its origins in North American Protestantism. My comparative approach will conduct historical and ethnographic research in both South Africa and the United States. I will seek to bring these two bodies of data into critical dialogue with each other, analyzing Zionism in its different sites as tightly-related components of a single phenomenon. Second, little historical scholarship exists on Zionism, both in its North American and South African contexts. My approach will be rigorously historical, using archives, printed material and oral traditions in South Africa, the USA and Sweden. In this way, I aim to illuminate the hitherto-untold story of Zionism's origins as a faith healing movement emerging in the late nineteenth century Anglo-Saxon world, as well as the complex processes by which it was transmitted to South Africa.

Through designing a transnational, comparative approach to Zionism - one which I aim to be applicable to other religious movements - I will seek to develop my intellectual leadership in the study of religion in Africa and North America. These skills will be enhanced by my mentoring relationship with a senior colleague researching related topics, and by building interdisciplinary collaborations with an international Advisory Group. I will undergo training in management skills and public engagement strategies. My findings will be disseminated to academic and non-academic beneficiaries in the UK and internationally by high quality research outputs (a monograph, peer-reviewed articles and an edited volume) and through network and public engagement activities. These will include an international workshop in the UK, public exhibitions in South Africa and the USA, and a public talk at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Planned Impact

Who are the six main non-academic beneficiary groups?

1) The UK public, and in particular, the attendees of the annual Cambridge Festival of Ideas (18, 500 in 2013)

2) Members of Zionist churches in South Africa, of whom there are approximately 12 million. In particular, I will focus upon the Zion Christian Church, one of the largest religious organizations in South Africa, with approximately 6 million members.

3) More broadly than Zionist believers, I aim for my research to impact members of the wider South African public.

4) My research will target members of the original Zionist church (now Christ Community Church) in Zion, Illinois, USA. The church has shrunk from its original membership of 6, 000 in 1904, to approximately 500 members today.

5) I will focus on members of three other churches in Zion, Illinois who trace their roots to this original church. These churches are the Grace Missionary Church, Zion Faith Homes and Zion Chapel. The collective membership of these groups is approximately 2, 000.

6) I will seek to impact the wider community of Zion, Illinois and its environs (approximately 24, 000).

How might these individuals and communities benefit from my research?

Communicating my research to members of the British public would enhance the nation's cultural life, education and its public discourse. First, through explaining the centrality of faith healing to African and American Christians, my research would expand public sensitivity and understanding of this little-known religious practice. Second, very few people in Britain have heard of Protestant Zionism (indeed, almost all non-specialists associate my research with the unrelated phenomenon of Jewish Zionism). My research would educate the British public about one of the most influential religious groups in contemporary South Africa. Third, through illuminating the intertwined histories of South Africa and the USA, my research would enhance public understanding of the connections between individuals and societies in different parts of the globe. More broadly beyond the life of this Fellowship, I will aim for this knowledge to provide opportunities for increased mutual understanding and tolerance, in Britain and further afield.

For individuals and communities in South Africa and the USA, I foresee three potential impacts of my research. First, accessibly communicated historical information to citizens of both nations would highlight the shared histories of South Africa and the USA. In providing tangible evidence of the reality of our connected world, I aim to provide individuals in both countries with material for high-quality public discourse on the enduring significance of global networks. Second, for members of Zionist churches in South Africa and the USA, my research will inform and enhance their understanding of their institutional histories. To date, Zionist organizations have not systematically charted the emergence and development of their respective communities. I therefore hope that my research will influence the content of education in these organizations. In particular, I seek to provide ordinary, non-elite members (rather than merely clergy) with resources for improved institutional self-understanding. Finally, through detailing the stories of African and American Zionist missionaries, converts and evangelists, my research will provide a creative public resource for family and social history. For beneficiaries in South Africa, Zionist history provides a unique window into working-class black society, often related in valuable first-person accounts such as letters, diaries and testimonies. Similarly, my research will supply American Zionists with resources for better understanding their own individual, family and community stories, including the little-explored history of Zionism's small but influential African-American population in the American Midwest.
Description My new book, Empire of Healing: South Africa, the USA and the Transatlantic Zionist Movement (currently under review with Harvard University Press) challenges stereotypes of Africa Christians as inward-turned by showing that African Christianity flourished in much broader settings than merely the nation-state. My key finding in this AHRC-funded research is that I argue that 'Zionism', Southern Africa's largest popular Christian movement, is shaped by transatlantic networks of Pentecostal faith healing.

Founded in boom-era Chicago of the 1890s, I have discovered that the Zionist church's principal teaching was that medicine and doctors should be repudiated in favour of exclusive reliance upon God. This teaching resonated with Chicago's working-class European and African-American migrants, eager to forge their futures in the new Northern industrial metropolis. In a period in which immigrants were attempting to carve out social and economic standing amidst hostility from entrenched white native-born populations, divine healing - with its eschewal of the learned expertise of doctors and medical professionals in favour of the humble prayer of common-place people - was powerfully attractive.
Far from being restricted to the American Midwest, I show how Zionism then took off amongst a global population of newly industrialized city-dwellers.

My research has thus successfully charted the transmission and reception of these populist Christian ideas in twentieth-century South Africa. Black mine workers in the new gold mining hub of Johannesburg found that Zion's message of empowerment and the equality of all profoundly resonated with their concerns. Echoing the populist, anti-establishment character of Zion in Chicago of a previous era, recently urbanized Africans used the egalitarian resources of 'Zion' to contest and subvert the authority of an influential African Christian elite who held sway in the city of Johannesburg. I have demonstrated that being Zionist in this period came to stand for participation within a Spirit-driven religiosity that eschewed the decorous codes and hierarchies of black society, and the preferred churches of the African elite.
Exploitation Route N/A
Sectors Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description I collaborated with a South African photographer, Sabelo Mlangeni, who produced a series of photographs depicting Zionist Christian communities in South Africa. We exhibited Mlangeni's photograph at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge between June - September 2017. We will also exhibit the work at Wits Art Museum in 2018 (July - October).
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description AHRC Follow on Funding
Amount £24,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2017 
End 09/2018
Description Newton Mobility Grant
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Funding ID RG82431A 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 03/2017
Title Archival research database 
Description Archival research/collection of archival documents at the University of Johannesburg, University of Uppsala, National Archives of South Africa, National Archives of Swaziland, private church archives in the USA and National Archives of Botswana. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact N/A 
Title Interview database 
Description One-on-one interviews conducted by myself in Swaziland, South Africa, Mozambique and the United States 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact N/A 
Description Appointed Research Associate at University of Swaziland 
Organisation University of Swaziland
Country Swaziland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Jointly conducting research (interviews in Swaziland and South Africa) with Faculty at University of Swaziland.
Collaborator Contribution Assisting me with conducting research (interviews in Swaziland and South Africa).
Impact Forthcoming journal article (venue for article to be submitted is as of yet undecided)
Start Year 2015
Description British Academy/Newton Grant 
Organisation University of Johannesburg
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Co-organized with University of Johannesburg two workshops on topic of Transatlantic Christianity, one held in Cambridge in September 2016 and the second held in Johannesburg in April 2017. The second workshop in Johannesburg focuses in particular on graduate student development and knowledge exchange. My collaborator at University of Johannesburg and I will co-edit a selection of the best papers in a special issue of South African Historical Journal.
Collaborator Contribution Co-organized two workshops with me, and will co-edit a special issue of South African Historical Journal.
Impact Workshop in Cambridge, UK - September 2016 Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa - April 2017, focusing on graduate student development and knowledge exchange. Forthcoming special issue in Southern African Historical Journal
Start Year 2016