University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Education, Equality and Development (EED) Group Seminars > ‘Writing from the Mouth’ Arguments over Literacy and Discipline in the Early South African Nazaretha Church

‘Writing from the Mouth’ Arguments over Literacy and Discipline in the Early South African Nazaretha Church

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In the early twentieth century, Isaiah Shembe, the prophetic founder of the South African Nazaretha church, sternly criticized the dominant African literate culture of the day as a disruptive, anti-social force. The target of his criticism were educated, Western amakholwa (‘the believers’), also known as the izifundisa (‘the learned’), for many of them were educated at prestigious missionary-sponsored schools in Natal and Zululand. These elite Zulu literates aspired to the privacy of individual reading and writing practices as a mark of their enlightened progress. A key component of their claim to ‘modernity’ was their membership within these highly individualized reading and writing publics. Isaiah maintained that the amakholwa rhetoric of educated modernity dislocated young literates from their obligations to family, rural areas and communal ‘tradition’. He criticized amakholwa literates as the ‘clever ones’; a largely young generation of literates, who, by virtue of their mission-school education, sought an atomistic modernity, unhinged from the obligations and burdens of their collective pasts.

By contrast, far from a solitary act, undertaken in the privacy of a ‘room of one’s own’, Nazaretha converts’ reading and writing practices were deeply enmeshed in the social landscape of the early twentieth century church. In particular, Isaiah used the power of literacy to discipline his converts. He drew upon scribes to fashion texts which exercised his authority over an increasingly educated, and frequently unruly, younger generation, as well as over a recalcitrant body of ministers. Letters were a particularly important admonitory genre. Written with the assistance of scribes, these documents were the medium of Isaiah’s ‘spoken’, and frequently scolding, ‘Word’ to obedient recipients. A popular idiom in contemporary sermons was of the miraculous ‘golden letter’, a magical missive with which Isaiah commanded unruly youths living in cities to return home to the rural areas, their families, and broader social obligations. In its widest sense, Isaiah’s use of youthful amanuenses to craft texts such as these signaled the prophet’s ability to transform the potentially alienating sphere of modern literacy into an important vehicle of ecclesial and generational discipline.

This talk is part of the Education, Equality and Development (EED) Group Seminars series.

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