South Africans have for decades been hoodwinked by unscrupulous pastors. Recently a spate of incredible “miracles” by these self-styled, flashy miracle men offering healing and prosperity have again been in the headlines.
The latest prominent one is a “resurrection” perpetrated by Pastor Alph Lukau of Alleluia Ministries International. In a widely circulated video, Lukau called on a “dead” man in a coffin to “rise up”. It was so farcical that the #ResurrectionChallenge, in which people are mocking it, has been trending on social media ever since.
There have been other notable examples. Three years ago, Paseka Motsoeneng, popularly known as “Prophet Mboro”, claimed that he went to heaven and while there “he took pictures” using his smartphone – he charged followers US$340 to see “proof” of his “feat”. And five years ago the church of Nigerian Pastor TB Joshua collapsed in Lagos, killing 115 congregants. Among the dead were 84 South Africans followers.
Why, in particular, are South Africans so susceptible to the promises made by these evangelists? Why do South Africans flock to their churches?
Putting the psychology of belief and credulity aside, I believe a big part of the answer lays in the religious tradition established by the American evangelist John G Lake during his residence in South Africa from 1908 to 1913. Arguably the most influential religious figure in South African history, Lake introduced a host of new practices on his mission. These included faith healing, “raising the dead” and speaking in tongues. Lake also made use of an array of “signs and miracles” in his dramatic services.
His legacy lives on among those evangelists who adopted his emotional forms of worship ceremonies in order to convert the unsaved.
A disastrous early start
The elaborate religious stagecraft that Lake imported in 1908 was fairly new. It had been developed in the 1880s and 1890s by Lake’s former employer, the Australian huckster evangelist, John Alexander Dowie. Lake, as a very young man, appears to have got his start with Dowie by impersonating a minister to verify certain “miracles” Dowie claimed to have effected. Later on, he moved to Dowie’s theocratic utopia, Zion City, near Chicago, working as a carpenter and weekend evangelist for Dowie.
After Dowie died, in 1906, Lake, now a struggling insurance salesman, joined a small Pentecostal sect led by an early Pentecostal minister named Charles Parham. When Parham left Zion in early 1907, Lake became a leader of this “Parhamite” group of several hundred Pentecostals.
But in mid-1907 Parham was arrested for paedophilia and his Parhamite followers were thrown into a frenzy.
Meeting for days on end, they indulged in a series of ecstatic and orgiastic behaviour, believing that the “End Times” had begun. As matters proceeded some nine people went completely insane, with one committing suicide. Members of the sect believed that the other eight were possessed by demons.
Lake, feeling powerless stood aside, while other sect members proceeded to tie up the “possessed”, and then twist their limbs in an attempt to expel the demons from their bodies. At least three died before the horrific death of a third, Letitia Greenhaulgh, shocked the entire US.
Facing lynch mobs and mass denunciations in the media, Lake and the Parhamites fled the Chicago area. After regrouping in Indianapolis, Lake reshaped his persona. He began to claim that he had been a successful millionaire in Chicago, but that in response to a calling from God he had given away all his wealth and become a preacher. Next, he claimed that he had had two visions in mid-1907 (at the exact same time as the Parhamite debacle) calling him to lead a mission to South Africa.
After raising funds in the Pentecostal community, Lake’s party left Indianapolis for Johannesburg in April 1908, and ultimately inspired a religious revolution in South Africa.
Soon after arriving in the country Lake and his group founded South Africa’s largest Pentecostal church, the Apostolic Faith Mission. Adopting Dowie’s methods, they used emotional faith healing services in which the crippled, blind and terminally ill were dramatically restored to full health in front of the crowd.
Atheists and hypnotists were decisively defeated in tense supernatural standoffs. At the same time, Lake began to preach about having raised five people from the dead.
Due to complaints, a government official was sent to investigate four cases near the town of Pietersburg, where he found no substantiating evidence. Meanwhile, the fifth case, the teenage daughter of one of Lake’s top deputies, admitted to the Rand Daily Mail that she had not died but that she had merely been very sick.
During his life Lake claimed to have fomented numerous miracles, although he was also arrested for defrauding his church members and impersonating a “Mohammedan healer”. At times his extravagant claims were proved false in the press. Even so, he was extraordinarily influential in South Africa.
Lake justified his actions by maintaining that “the heathen has very little conception of the Christian God”, and hence services featuring “signs and miracles” were necessary,
to demonstrate the character and power of God unto mankind… Any man could understand a sick man being healed. He could see it!
This viewpoint has proven highly influential. Lake had a direct hand in training a host of faith healers not only inside his church, but also evangelists such as Isaiah Shembe and Edward Lion, who took his methods into the African-led Zionist religious movement.
In recent decades, while remaining a charismatic church, the Apostolic Faith Mission has become more mainstream and traditional. Since the 1960s they have not been guilty of the same hoodwinking and excesses perpetrated by the Lukaus and Mboros of the religious world. Although Lake left South Africa in 1913, these shiny-suited pastors are the ones keeping his religious tactics very much alive today.
* Barry Morton is Research Fellow in African Studies at Indiana University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.