Simon Kimbangu was an infant when he received a blessing from a Protestant missionary and nearly 30 when he heard the divine call: "I am Christ. My servants are unfaithful. I have chosen you to bear witness before your brethren and to convert them. Tend my flock."

"I am not trained," he argued, though he had been schooled at a Baptist mission, "and there are ministers and deacons who are able to serve in this way." He fled his village to toil in distant oil fields, but the call hounded him.

Finally, he returned home to preach the Word. Women gave up their pagan fetishes. Men gave up all but one of their wives. Then in 1921 the healings began. A sick woman got out of her bed and walked. A dead child was reportedly raised to life. And a blind man named Ngoma regained his sight after the prophet daubed his eyes with paste made of soil and saliva.

Soon thousands of people left their jobs and flocked to N’Kamba in Central Africa to see the Holy Spirit's power and hear the prophet. Missionaries resisted his efforts. One charged the prophet with unforgivable sins against Caucasian Christianity: "Kimbangu wants to found a religion which is in accord with the mentality of the African."

Since there were no provisions for stoning native heretics, officials did the next best thing. They punished the prophet with 120 lashes and packed him off to a solitary cell in a far-off prison. They hoped that would take care of the “crackbrained” Simon Kimbangu and the gullible fanatics who followed him. But they were mistaken.

African advent

Simon Kimbangu was born in 1889, into a Central Africa already changed by the long presence of white foreigners spreading their often-conflicting notions of God, civilization, race, and commerce. Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao was looking for a route to India when he sailed into the Kongo River in 1482. Catholic missionaries arrived a decade later, and while they baptized kings and chieftains who imposed Christianity on their people, their success was superficial—the gods of ancient ancestors continued to reign supreme.

When Protestant missionaries began to arrive in the 1870s, they found a popular pagan piety lightly embellished with Christian touches, including a belief that crosses conveyed magical powers. Among these newcomers were British Baptists energized by England's evangelical revival. These came to Africa to save souls and fight the slave trade, but they nurtured a paternalistic and patronizing attitude toward the native people, viewing them as depraved children who needed the white man's correctives.

It was to a school run by these Baptists that Kimbangu's aunt took the young man when his parents died. He stayed at the British Baptist Missionary Society school and mission at Ngombee Lutete for many years. He was baptized with his wife at the mission in 1915 and became a lay preacher and evangelist there in 1918. It was also at the mission that he began experiencing the visions that would change his life.

The Kimbanguist church traces its beginnings to April 6, 1921, the day Kimbangu healed a sick woman. His fame spread from that day, and soon a movement formed around him. It did not take long for white religious leaders and colonial government officials to notice Kimbangu and his followers. They moved swiftly and forcefully to clamp down on a movement that they suspected taught unorthodox theology, and that they feared would cause declining attendance at other churches, labor stoppages, social disruption, and possibly even rebellion.

Kimbangu's message seems, however, to have been both orthodox and apolitical. None of his sermons survive, but followers described him as a humble and sober man who taught submission to authorities and racial reconciliation. Still, white missionaries began to investigate Kimbangu on April 26, and a governmental investigation followed in May. Colonial administrator Leon Morel slammed Kimbangu's creed as a “parody” of Baptist teaching; his critique sparked widespread Protestant opposition. But it was Catholic missionaries who most feared Kimbangu's message and most energetically sought Kimbangu's arrest.

The first attempt to capture Kimbangu came on June 6, but the prophet escaped in an episode followers describe as a miracle. Three months later, however, he voluntarily gave himself up. Charged with sedition and hostility to whites, he was sentenced to death. Concerned Protestants had the sentence reduced to life in prison, and Kimbangu languished in the Elizabethville prison in Lubumbashi for decades. He died there on October 12, 1951.

“We, the blacks, are prisoners”

"Just as the work of Jesus was carried on by the apostles after His death, the same was true of the prophet Simon Kimbangu," said Solomon Dialungana, one of three sons who guided their father's movement through heretical schisms and government persecution. Officials clamped down on Kimbangu's rapidly expanding following. They forbade them from holding public meetings, deported as many as 100,000 to distant areas of Africa, and killed as many as 150,000. “We have been forsaken by both Catholics and Protestants,” said one distraught follower. But the Kimbanguist movement kept growing.

The forced deportations only spread the movement throughout the continent, as Kimbangu’s disciples won others to Christ through their piety and strict morality.

Persecuted followers poured their sorrow into hymns that were collected by the Belgian authorities: “Jesus was a prisoner,/ Jesus was smitten./ They are smiting us, too./ We, the blacks, are prisoners./ The whites are free.” Another hymn describing the armor of God was misinterpreted by colonial officials as a call for armed rebellion: “We who are carrying on our cause/ Let us be clothed and armed!/ Jesus will protect us./ Let us clothe and arm ourselves!”

As if these struggles weren't enough, a number of self-styled preachers claimed Kimbangu had appeared to them in visions and taught that indigenous pagan practices and polygamy were compatible with Christianity. Some of these “Ngunzist” preachers advocated labor strikes, tax revolts, hatred of whites, and the violent overthrow of colonial oppressors. (Such conflicts have given rise to often heated debates about “pure” and “pseudo-” Kimbanguism.)

It fell to Kimbangu's sons to guide the outlawed movement as well as they could until the church finally received official recognition in 1959. The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu (or EJCSK), the first indigenous African body to affiliate with the World Council of Churches, now has between 5 and 8 million members, leading Harvard's Harvey Cox to call it “the largest independent church on the continent.”

Historian Adrian Hastings has compared the evolution of Kimbanguists, who worshiped in other churches during the decades of persecution before forming their own independent church body in the 1960s, to early Methodists, who worshiped in Anglican congregations for decades (indeed, until after their founder's death) before launching out under their own denominational banner.

The ambassador's new church

Kimbangu's youngest son, Joseph Diangienda, became the official head of the EJCSK, and in the 1960s he concentrated on regathering disconnected followers, building a mausoleum for his father's remains in N’Kamba (the church's New Jerusalem), setting up preachers’ colleges and seminaries, and formalizing the church's doctrines and practices.

Diangienda also maintained the church's apolitical stance, steering clear of opportunities to become the “official” church of the Republic of Zaire, the despotic Mobutu regime, or the current People's Republic of Congo (which, according to the US State Department, has kidnapped and held church missionaries).

In the face of perpetual social chaos, the EJCSK has continued to emphasize a strict moral code that forbids polygamy, smoking, the consumption of alcohol and narcotics, and bathing—or sleeping—naked. Worshipers take off their shoes in church, and women and girls cover their hair.

Services are lively, though less ecstatic than those in more demonstrably charismatic congregations. In addition to lengthy sermons, services include joyous processions, the waving of palm branches, congregational prayers, the reading of the Ten Commandments, and enthusiastic singing accompanied by orchestras featuring flutes and drums.

There are three official church holidays: April 21 (the commemoration of Kimbangu's healing of a sick woman), October 12 (the day the prophet died in prison), and Christmas. These holidays are the only times church members celebrate communion, and they do so with uniquely African elements: cakes made with indigenous grains and vegetables, and a sweet honey-wine.

The EJCSK also emphasizes prayer and fasting, cell groups, rigorous church discipline, and the confession of sins to church representatives. The church is fully self-supporting financially, with both men and women serving in the ordained ministry.

Simon Kimbangu is revered much as saints are in the Catholic tradition. Though the church rejects the notion that Kimbangu is an African Messiah, they do call him "the ambassador of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Diangienda describes his father's role in the booklet “The Beloved City”:

“Our fathers cried for a ‘chief,’ a saviour, but no saviour came, until they said in resignation that God did not know us black people. He only knew the whites. … The people hid from the missionaries and remained in the grasp of fetishism, of witchcraft, and of other evil practices. Then on 6 April 1921, the first miracle occurred. …

“Through Simon Kimbangu, who was obedient to God, the promises of Jesus have been fulfilled and the Name of the Father and the Son has been glorified. Through him the Congolese realized that God and Jesus had turned to us in mercy. The sorrow and suffering of our fathers had been heard by God the Father, and our tears were wiped away.”

Some whites may still sympathize with the Belgian colonial rulers who felt Kimbangu's creed was too African to be truly Christian. Others would agree with the character in Barbara Kingsolver's best-selling novel The Poisonwood Bible: "You can't just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style without expecting the jungle to change you right back."

Steve Rabey is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado.