In The People’s Zion, Joel Cabrita tells the transatlantic story of Southern Africa’s largest popular religious movement, Zionism. It began in Zion City, a utopian community established in 1900 just north of Chicago. The Zionist church, which promoted faith healing, drew tens of thousands of marginalized Americans from across racial and class divides. It also sent missionaries abroad, particularly to Southern Africa, where its uplifting spiritualism and pan-racialism resonated with urban working-class whites and blacks.
Circulated throughout Southern Africa by Zion City’s missionaries and literature, Zionism thrived among white and black workers drawn to Johannesburg by the discovery of gold. As in Chicago, these early devotees of faith healing hoped for a color-blind society in which they could acquire equal status and purpose amid demoralizing social and economic circumstances. Defying segregation and later apartheid, black and white Zionists formed a uniquely cosmopolitan community that played a key role in remaking the racial politics of modern Southern Africa.
Connecting cities, regions, and societies usually considered in isolation, Cabrita shows how Zionists on either side of the Atlantic used the democratic resources of evangelical Christianity to stake out a place of belonging within rapidly-changing societies. In doing so, they laid claim to nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Today, the number of American Zionists is small, but thousands of independent Zionist churches counting millions of members still dot the Southern African landscape.