James M. Dwane (1848-1915), born in the Cape Colony, was one of the African church leaders who in 1892 founded the independent Ethiopian Church of South Africa, a powerful movement which linked Christianity with political action.
Originally a leader in the Wesleyan Mission Church, Dwane opposed the racial segregation he found practiced within the white controlled church. He had also quarreled with the Wesleyan authorities over the expenditure of funds he had raised for the church during a visit to England. He resigned from the Wesleyan Church in 1892 and, with other dissatisfied church members, proceeded to establish the Ethiopian Church.
An eloquent speaker, the Rev. Dwane became interested in the African Methodist Episcopal (AM E) Church which had been founded by African Americans in the United States in 1816. It was decided at a conference of all independent church leaders held in Pretoria in 1896 that the Rev. Dwane and two other African churchmen, one of whom was Mangena Mokane, should go to the United States to obtain affiliation with the AME Church. Only Dwane, however, was able to raise funds for the journey. He sailed for Philadelphia in 1896. Dwane presented his case well in America and the Ethiopian Church of South Africa was formally incorporated in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Before his return to Africa, Dwane was appointed general superintendent of the South African member church.
Back home from his successful mission, Dwane succeeded in persuading all the leaders of the Ethiopian Church movement to follow him into the AME fold. In addition, his church was granted recognition by the government of the Transvaal. Dwane’s objective was to extend mission work from the Cape to Cairo. A tireless worker, Dwane approached Cecil John Rhodes for the right to extend his church to Rhodesia, and Rhodes gave his approval. (Rhodes, the British colonial governor in South Africa, was both intransigent and unpredictable when dealing with the Africans. Not long before his meeting with Dwane, Rhodes had legislated that “ … the Native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. “)
In 1898 an AME bishop, the Rev. H.M. Turner, an advocate of the “Back to Africa” movement among black Americans, visited South Africa. During his 35-day stay Turner ordained 65 ministers, consecrated Dwane as acting vicar-assistant bishop, and bought a site for a future center for higher learning in Queenstown. Tumer’s visit increased the membership of the church to over 20,000. In 1899 Dwane visited the United States once again. His aim was to obtain financial support from African American churches for the independent Ethiopian Church back home.
Dwane was not satisfied with being relegated to a position of acting vicar-bishop. But what prompted Dwane’s break with Tumer’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which took place in 1900, was his realization that his consecration as bishop had not received the full recognition of the other African American bishops. He interpreted this attitude as a rejection by the American clergy. He terminated his affiliation with the AME Church and formed the Order of Ethiopia, under the auspices of the Church of the province, even although the Anglicans did not make him a bishop.
Throughout history, black churchmen in South Africa have been misunderstood by their white counterparts. For instance, the South African author J.C. du Plessis stated that the Africans in the independent Ethiopian Church were under the influence of communism. Another author, Bengt G.M. Sundkler, tried in vain to discredit exponents of black religion such as Dwane by claiming that the main characteristics of the Ethiopian Church movement were to gain political freedom for black people and to recover their land from the white man. Dwane is remembered as one of the great black leaders who challenged whites for preaching to Africans the gospel of subjugation and subservience.
Enoch W. D. Duma
Chinweizu, The West and the Rest of Us, New York, 1975; Alex La Guma, Apartheid, New York, 1971; B.G. M. Sundkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, London, 1964; Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa, The African National Congress 1912-1952, Los Angeles, 1971.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-Swaziland. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.