Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


South-eastern Africa was a major locus of Christian missionary activity during the 19th and early 20th century and some dozen or more denominations took to the mission field among the Zulus.1 A Zulu man, Isaiah Shembe (c. 1879-1935) was one of many attracted to the Christian faith. His independent and questioning nature, however, did not allow him to fit into the structure of the white-led missions. Shembe founded his own church, the Nazareth Baptist Church (lbandla lamaNazaretha), around 1910. Its beliefs and practices are based on a unique synthesis of Christian, largely Old Testament, dogma and Zulu traditional beliefs. In addition to its specific theology, the Church is well known for the charismatic family, the Shembes, who have led it for some 85 years and the characteristic uniforms for worship and dance worn by its followers. This paper is concerned with the white cotton textiles which have been shaped into gowns known as umnazaretha, after their followers, the amaNazaretha or Nazarites.2

From Isaiah Shembe's humble beginnings as an itinerant preacher and healer, the Church now has some 300,000 members who live throughout south-eastern Africa.3 Church headquarters are in the black township of Inanda, near the port city of Durban, however, many Nazarites worship at regional branches throughout south-eastern Africa. They are served by a network of ministers and other Church officials who work with Isaiah Shembe's descendants to maintain traditions. The majority of the members are Zulu-speakers and the predominant language used in services is Zulu. Despite the Church's seeming emphasis on Zulu identity, as seen in their dance uniforms, people from other ethnic groups (such as Swazi and Shangaan, both culturally and historically linked to the Zulus) do attend services and often wear their own "traditional dress".