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The Kimbanguist Church

The Kimbanguist Church, an indigenous Zairian religion, emerged from the charismatic ministry of Simon Kimbangu in the early 1920s. Kimbangu was already a member of the English Baptist Mission Church when he reportedly first received his visions and divine call to preach the word and heal the sick. Touring the lower Congo, he gained a large following drawn both from members of Protestant churches and adherents of indigenous religious practice. He preached a doctrine that was in many ways more strict than that of the Protestantism from which it evolved. Healing by the laying on of hands; strict observance of the law of Moses; the destruction of fetishes; the repudiation of sorcery, magic, charms, and witches; and the prohibition of polygyny were all part of his original message.

Unfortunately, the extent of his success caused increasing alarm among both church and state authorities. Numerous preachers and sages appeared, many of them professing to be his followers. Some of these preachers and possibly some of Kimbangu's own disciples introduced anti-European elements in their teachings. And European interests were affected when African personnel abandoned their posts for long periods in order to follow Kimbangu and participate in his services.

In June 1921, the government judged the movement out of control, banned the sect, exiled members to remote rural areas, and arrested Kimbangu, only to have the prophet "miraculously" escape; the escape further amplified his popular mystique. In September he voluntarily surrendered to the authorities and was sentenced to death for hostility against the state; the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and Kimbangu died in prison in 1950. His movement, however, did not die with him. It flourished and spread "in exile" in the form of clandestine meetings, often held in remote areas by widely scattered groups of congregants. In 1959, on the eve of independence, the state despaired of stamping Kimbanguism out and afforded it legal recognition.

The legalized church, known as the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu (Église de Jésus-Christ sur Terre par le Prophète Simon Kimbangu--EJCSK), has since succeeded in becoming one of the only three Christian groups recognized by the state, the other two being the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Christ in Zaire. The Kimbanguist Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1969. Estimates of its membership vary depending on the source. The church claims 5 million members; yet its own internal figures indicate no more than 300,000 practicing members. Individual congregations are scattered throughout much of the country, but the greatest concentrations have always been in Bas-Zaïre; some villages there have long been totally Kimbanguist.

Since being legalized, the Kimbanguists have bent over backward to curry favor with the state. The church's head, Simon Kimbangu's son, regularly exchanges public praise with Mobutu and has become one of the state's main ideological supports. Structurally, the church organization has been changed to parallel the administrative division of the state into regions, subregions, zones, and collectivities. The Kimbanguist Church deliberately rotates its officials outside their areas of origin in order to depoliticize ethnicity and centralize power, a policy taken directly from the state. An insistence on absolute obedience to the leader and a ban on doctrinal disputes also are shared by both institutions. In many ways, the Kimbanguist Church and the Roman Catholic Church have exchanged places in their relationship with the state; the former outlaw has become a close ally and the former ally an outspoken critic.

Data as of December 1993