Kimpa Vita was a popular female prophet in the kingdom of the Kongo, a precursor of the prophetic figures of the independent churches, and the creator of a movement that used Christian symbols but revitalized traditional Kongo cultural roots.
The latter half of the seventeenth century was one of cultural disintegration and political disarray in the Kongo (which included parts of present-day Congo, Zaïre, and Angola). Portuguese forces had defeated the Kongo, the Christianity of AFONSO I had fallen into syncretism, a mix of Christian and African traditional religions, and three ruling families contended for power. Into this political and cultural vacuum a number of messianic prophets arose to proclaim their socioreligious visions. The most important of these was Kimpa Vita, a young girl who believed herself possessed by the spirit of St. Anthony of Padua, a popular Catholic saint and miracle worker. She began preaching in the Kongolese city of San Salvador, which she said God wished restored as the capital. Her call to unity drew strong support among the peasants, who flocked to the city, which Kimpa identified as the biblical Bethlehem. She told her followers that Jesus, Mary and other Christian saints were really Kongolese.
Kimpa conspired with the general of Pedro IV, one of the contenders for the throne, but she was captured. Both Kimpa and her baby - conceived by her “guardian angel” - were burned at the stake for heresy, at the instigation of Capuchin missionaries.
The Antonian movement, which Kimpa began, outlasted her. The Kongo king Pedro IV used it to unify and renew his kingdom. Her ideas remained among the peasants, appearing in various messianic cults until, two centuries later, it took new form in the preaching of Simon KIMBANGU.
Norbert C. Brockman
Dictionary of African Biography. Algonac, MI, and New York: Reference Publications, vol. 1, 1977; vol. 2, 1979.
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Thornton, John K. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.