Zionist Churches

A unique blend of Christian and African traditional beliefs, practiced by millions across Southern Africa.

Zionist Churches are a group of Christian denominations originating from the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, founded by John Alexander Dowie in Zion, Illinois, at the end of the 19th century. These churches are characterized by their syncretic mix of Christian and traditional African religious beliefs, making them a significant religious movement in Southern Africa.


The roots of Zionist Churches trace back to the late 19th century when John Alexander Dowie founded the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. In 1904, missionaries from this church ventured into South Africa, attracting followers like Pieter Louis le Roux and Daniel Nkonyane of Wakkerstroom. These early adopters continued to evangelize even after the original missionaries left in 1908.

The movement further evolved when African members, who had encountered U.S. missionaries from the Apostolic Faith Pentecostal church, founded their own Zion Apostolic Church. This was partly due to the realization that the Zion Church lacked the second Baptism of the Spirit, a significant belief in Pentecostalism. The separation from its American counterpart was complete by the 1920s, and the movement in Africa gained autonomy. In the mid-1980s, a reconnection was attempted by the church in Zion, Illinois, now called Christ Community Church, through the agency called Zion Evangelical Ministries of Africa (ZEMA).


The Zionist Churches blend traditional African beliefs with elements of Protestant Christianity. Practices common among these churches include faith healing, baptism in rivers, and the wearing of ritual garments, often mostly white, accompanied by prophetic staffs. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of these churches are:

  • Use of faith-healing and revelation through dreams.
  • Food taboos, such as avoiding pork.
  • Acceptance of polygamy in some denominations.
  • Open-air worship and ‘wheel’ dances in smaller denominations.
  • Syncretic incorporation of African traditional beliefs with Christian doctrines.

Zion Christian Church

Among the numerous congregations, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) stands out as the largest. The ZCC is particularly notable for fusing African traditions and values with Protestant Christian faith, setting it apart from mainstream European churches. The church emphasizes independence and autonomy in theological and dogmatic approaches.

Key practices and beliefs of the ZCC include:

  • Strong emphasis on prophecy, healing, and spiritual counseling.
  • Unique mechanisms for faith-healing, such as the laying-on of hands and the use of holy water.
  • Distinctive church uniforms, varying according to the state, gender of members, and occasions.
  • Specific practices for worship and preaching, with women not taking part in Sunday service preaching.
  • A strong belief in redemption through confession, repentance, and prayer, guided by the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Emphasis on peace, as reflected in their greetings which often include the words “kgotsong” or “kgotso a e be le lena/kgotso e be le lena” meaning “peace be unto you.”