Alice Leshina (c. 1919–1978), was the founder of the African prophetic movement referred to as the Lumpa church. A barely literate peasant woman, Alice Lenshina Mulenga, from Kasomo village, Chinsali district, in the northern province of Northern Rhodesia, started the movement among the Bemba, a matrilineal Bantu-speaking people of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
In 1953, Lenshina claimed to have had a spiritual experience in which she died, went to heaven, and met a Christian spirit, described variously as Jesus, God, or an angel, who told her to return to earth to carry out God’s works. She told her story to the minister of the nearby Church of Scotland mission at Lubwa (founded by David Kaunda, the father of Kenneth Kaunda, the president of Zambia) and was baptized into the church, taking the name Alice. In 1954, she began holding her own services and baptizing her followers. Her meetings drew large crowds, and by 1955 her following was more or less distinctive from the Church of Scotland mission.
One characteristic feature of Lenshina’s movement was the singing of hymns, many of which were closer in form to traditional Bemba music than were the hymns of the Church of Scotland. Moreover, Lenshina’s followers believed that she could provide protection against witchcraft, the existence of which the Church of Scotland denied.
By 1956 the Lenshina movement, with a membership of more than 50,000, could be considered a church of its own. As the movement grew it drew members from different ethnic and religious backgrounds—matrilineal and patrilineal peoples, urban workers and rural subsistence farmers—and from a range of social statuses, although its appeal was strongest among the poorer, less educated sections of Northern Rhodesian society.
The movement spread along the line of the railroad into the towns of the Copper Belt, one of the main urban, industrial regions of central Africa. It also spread to the remote rural areas of the northern and eastern provinces, and poor peasants would walk hundreds of miles to contribute their labor and money to construct the monumental cathedral at Kasomo, Lenshina’s religious headquarters. Lenshina’s followers became known as Lumpa (a Bemba term meaning “excelling,” “the most important”).
In its early years, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, the Lumpa church, with its anti-European stance, was viewed as a political ally of the independence movement in Northern Rhodesia, and Lumpa meetings incorporated nationalist propaganda.
Afterward, however, the church became increasingly nonpolitical and otherworldly in its outlook, and conflicts developed with the United National Independence Party, a political party founded under the leadership of Kenneth Kaunda and the main political contender to establish Zambian independence from colonial rule.
In 1957 the Lumpa church, in its constitution, had stated that it was not opposed to the laws of the country; its solution to the problem of colonialism, African political nationalism, and rapid economic change was withdrawal. By 1963 church members refused to obey the laws of the colonial state or to join political parties.
They believed that the end of the world was at hand, and they withdrew from the secular world and built their own separate communities in anticipation of the end. These communities were believed to be sacred domains, immune from the evils of the external world, which was thought to be under the control of Satan and his evil influence and agents.
By 1964, at a time when Northern Rhodesia’s independence was imminent, both the colonial administration and the African independence movement attempted to control the Lumpa church.
This led to fighting between church members and the recently elected Northern Rhodesia government, and between July and October 1964 more than 700 people were killed. The Lumpa, armed with indigenous weapons such as spears, axes, and muzzle loaders, confronted soldiers with automatic weapons. As the Lumpa attacked they shouted, “Jericho!” in the belief that the walls of evil would tumble down and that they would triumph in battle.
As they were shot they shouted, “Hallelujah!” in the belief that they would be transported directly to heaven, only to return to rule the world. The Lumpa were defeated, the church was banned, and Lenshina herself was imprisoned. Some of her followers fled to Zaire, where the Lumpa church continued to exist.
In its beliefs and practices, the Lumpa church combined both African and European elements. Movements of this type were and are characteristic of southern and central Africa. At the core of such movements is a prophet who is believed to have had a Christian experience.
As is typical of such movements, Lenshina’s prophecy was ethical in that it imposed a strict, puritanical moral code upon her followers. She forbade adultery, polygamy, divorce, dancing, and drinking.
Lenshina herself was the ultimate source of authority, and some Lumpa hymns even represented Lenshina as the savior. Baptism, the most important rite of the church, could only be performed by Lenshina herself, using water that she claimed to have received from God himself. Baptism was believed to wash away sins and ensure salvation.
In Lumpa theology, God was viewed as the creator of all things. Satan was thought to have been created by God as a good spirit who turned against God. Witchcraft, thought to stem from Satan, could be safeguarded against by church membership.
Unlike the European mission churches, the Lumpa church did not deny the existence of witchcraft; instead it gave its members a means of combating it. Lenshina was believed to be the personification of good and to provide protection against evil. For the Lumpa, evil came to be the world outside their church, including the colonial administration, and the United National Independence Party represented evil.
The movement gradually acquired a structure, with Lenshina, her disciples, and spiritual and secular advisers at the center. Deacons supervised congregations, and within congregations preachers and judges ministered to the needs of local members and adjudicated their disputes. The church was itself a complete community, meeting its own spiritual, social, judicial, and economic requirements.
In the historical context of the struggle for Zambian independence, a movement that demanded the complete allegiance of its members was bound to come into conflict with secular authorities. The Lenshina cult was not an atypical African religious expression; what brought it into prominence and led to its destruction was its unfortunate timing and conflict with the movement for Zambia’s independence.
Source: Chishala Tumfweko