Kimbangu, Simon (E)
Simon Kimbangu (circa 1890-0ctober 12, 1951) was the leader of what is generally considered the most important independent Christian religious movement in central Africa. Although active only a few months before being arrested and imprisoned by the colonial government, Kimbangu developed a following which later developed into a large organized church named “l’Eglise de Jésus-Christ sur la terre par le prophète Simon Kimbangu” (“The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu”).
Simon Kimbangu, who belonged to the Kikongo group, was born at Nkamba, a village about 50 km (30 mi) north of the present Mbanza-Ngungu. Both his mother and father died when he was very young so he was raised by his grandmother Kinzembo. Kimbangu attended primary school at the nearby Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) station of Ngombe-Lutete where he was baptized and where he learned about the Bible. For a time he worked as a Baptist evangelist, teaching and preaching in local villages. About this time, he married Marie Mwilu who bore him many children, including Joseph Diangienda, Charles Kisolokole, and Salmon Dialungana Kiangani.
During a flu epidemic in 1918, Kimbangu received what he interpreted as the call of God. In an attempt to evade the call, he fled to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). Because the call continued even in the capital, however, and because life in the large city was difficult, Kimbangu returned to Nkamba where, on March 18, 1921, he received a vision asking him to proclaim the gospel. Other visions followed and Kimbangu finally answered the call to preach and heal. People responded eagerly, bringing many sick to be healed. It was widely reported that Kimbangu performed miracles, cured the infirm, and even was able to raise the dead. Kimbangu became known as a prophet with a special mission from God, and his village of Nkamba was called the New Jerusalem.
In the services he led, Kimbangu emphasized singing, praying, Bible reading, and a sermon. An important element of his ministry was healing and as he laid his hands on the sick, Kimbangu was seized with trembling. Kimbangu’s teachings, based on the Bible, centered on three themes: destruction of all fetishes, prohibition of polygamy, and worship of one true God. Identifying God with Nzambi, the African Supreme Being, Kimbangu portrayed God as being closely linked to Africans.
Immediately, Africans from as far away as Léopoldville, the French Congo, and Angola began flocking to Nkamba. Because Lower Congo (now Lower Zaire) had been deeply affected by the impact of colonialism, Kimbangu’s message was eagerly received. Not only had people from the Lower Congo region been heavily recruited to work on the railroad and plantations, they had also been exposed to intense and often competitive mission activity. As Kimbangu’s reputation grew, Africans abandoned their fields, deserted their jobs and journeyed to Nkamba where they listened to an African prophet describing a God who was concerned about the needs they felt as Africans.
Under pressure from the Catholic missions, especially the Redemption Fathers, who feared the excessive zeal of an untrained lay preacher, and from plantation owners, who were disturbed by absenteeism, the colonial administration was compelled to investigate the affair of Simon Kimbangu. On May 11, 1921, the administrator Morel came to Nkamba to assess the situation. Arriving at a time when Kimbangu was preoccupied by a religious experience, Morel was treated rudely and ignored by the prophet. For a time, the colonial government tried to halt the flow of people to Nkamba by prohibiting the transportation of the sick as a hazard to public hygiene. As the pilgrimages continued, however, government agents were ordered to arrest Kimbangu. When the agents arrived at Nkamba, on June 21, 1921, Kimbangu escaped and went to live clandestinely in the village of Nsanda near Léopoldville. During the time Kimbangu stayed at Nsanda, the movement developed xenophobic tendencies and a hostility towards the state. This was in spite of Kimbangu’s counsel to submit to the authorities and pay taxes to the government.
On September 14, 1921, Kimbangu was captured at Nkamba where he had returned voluntarily to await arrest. Before a court-martial held in Thysville (now Mbanza-Ngungu), presided over by a single judge, Commander Rossi, Simon Kimbangu was condemned to death for “having disturbed the security of the State and the public peace.” Inflamed by a vindictive press campaign launched by l’Avenir Colonial Belge (“The Future of Belgian Colonialism”), the political atmosphere in the Congo became extremely tense; machine guns were mounted in Léopoldville to prevent a possible uprising on the part of the African population. In spite of pressure from whites in the colony, King Albert of Belgium (reigned 1909-34) commuted Kimbangu’s death sentence to life in prison. Kimbangu was transferred to jail in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) where he remained until his death on October 12,1951.
In prison, Kimbangu was known as a kind, peaceful, and quiet man. While other prisoners expressed anger and resentment at their plight, Kimbangu showed patience and love towards the authorities. While other convicts fought among themselves for larger portions of food, he shared his rations. A fellow inmate, a murderer who later became a Protestant minister, described a dramatic moment when Kimbangu divided his piece of precious meat and distributed it to the other inmates. By this act Kimbangu demonstrated not only his unselfishness, but also his courage because sharing food was strictly forbidden in the prison. After this symbolic act, Kimbangu walked into the warden’s office a place which was absolutely off limits to prisoners, saluted the official, and returned to his cell.
Following Kimbangu’s arrest, members of the movement found it difficult to continue the teachings of the prophet. Not only were they harassed by government officials who placed Nkamba under martial law and forbade anyone to express allegiance to Kimbangu, they were also troubled by heterodox tendencies as various prophetic personalities arose to claim leadership in the sect. André Matwua began Amicalism in 1926, Simon Mpadi founded the Mission of Blacks in 1939, while Toko Simao Gonzalves started Nzambi Mapapu in 1947. Xenophobic in their preaching, these leaders encouraged Kimbanguists to resist taxes, expect firearms from God, and return to polygamy. In general, Kimbangu’s emphasis on the Bible was ignored in favor of direct visions as the primary source of religious authority.
In spite of these difficulties, Kimbangu’s son Joseph Diangienda was able to organize the diverse group of people loyal to the exiled prophet into a single Christian ecclesiastical organization. In 1948, Diangienda was allowed to visit his father, who apparently named Diangienda as his successor. From 1951, Diangienda systematically reestablished contact with the followers of the prophet who were organized at Nkamba and Léopoldville under the name Kintwadi. In 1954, Diangienda became leader of Kintwadi. Because the colonial administration officially had ordered tolerance for sects that did not disturb public order or state security, in 1955 the Kintwadists under Diangienda organized public demonstrations in Léopoldville to gain government acceptance of Kimbanguism. From 1955 to 1957, they also tried to build support for their cause in Belgium and other Western countries. Then, in September 1957, Joseph Diangienda published a restatement of Kimbanguism in which he affirmed the politically neutral and exclusively confessional nature of the movement. Finally, on December 24, 1959, Belgian authorities signed a decree lifting the prohibition against the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu.
After the Congo won its independence in 1960, Kimbanguism became increasingly important in the life of the nation. Besides operating a seminary, and primary and secondary schools, the Kimbanguist Church developed an ambitious program of social services in Lower Zaire and Kinshasa. Together with Protestantism and Catholicism, Kimbanguism was recognized by the Zairian government as a major religious organization. Unlike Protestants and Catholics, however, Kimbanguists relied on their own constituency in Zaire for almost their entire leadership and financial support.
Efraim Andersson, “Messianic Popular Movements in the Lower Congo,” Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia, XIV, Uppsala, 1958; G. Balandier, La sociologie actuelle de l’Ajrique Noire(“The Present-Day Sociology of Black Africa”), Paris, 1963; J. Banda-Mwaka, “Le Kimbanguisme en tant que mouvement pré-politique chez les Kongo” (“Kimbanguism as a Pre-Political Movement Among the Kongo”), Bulletin du C.E.P.S.I., 1972; E. Bazola, “Le Kimbanguisme,” (“Kimbanguism”), Cahiers des Religions Ajricaines, I, 1968; C.A. Chome, Kimbangu, jondateur d’Eglise (“Kimbangu, Church Founder”), Brussels, 1960; Levi Keidel, Black Samson, Carol Stream, Illinois, 1975; M. Martin, “Le Kimbanguisme” (“Kimbanguism “), Cahiers des Religions Ajricaines, 2, 1968; P. Raymaekers, “L’Eglise de Jesus Christ sur la terre par Ie Prophete Simon Kimbangu,” (“The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu”), Zaire, XII, 1959.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Two: Sierra Leone-Zaire. Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1979. All rights reserved.