No field of South African religious history has been as frustrated by problems of classification, terminology, and theological bias as the study of African initiated churches. Certainly, it must appear as a historical curiosity that such a wide range of religious phenomena, accounting by the 1990s for the religious commitment of over one-third of the black population of South Africa, should be classified as a single category simply on the basis of being independent from white ecclesiastical control. Nevertheless, the very notion that African independent, African indigenous, or African initiated churches formed a unified category emerged out of the concerns of white church leaders that African initiatives represented a Christian heresy, a political threat, and, as the Methodist Reverend Allen Lea warned in the 1920s, a "foolish desire to get rid of the white man's control" ( Lea, 1926). What the Reverend Lea called the "Native Separatist Church Movement" comprised a diverse array of African initiatives in religious organization, church building, and community formation. From a European missionary perspective, however, all that religious activity merely signaled the same general trend towards "separatism" among African Christians (see Loram, 1926).
Bengt Sundkler classic study, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, which originally appeared in 1948, pursued this interest in "separatism" by distinguishing between two basic types of churches--Ethiopian and Zionist--that had developed independent of white control. According to Sundkler, Ethiopian churches were churches of the "Book," while Zionist churches were churches of the "Spirit" (see Kienan, 1981). He also distinguished different leadership styles, identifying leadership in Ethiopian churches as "chiefly" and leadership in Zionist churches as "prophetic" (see Kiernan, 1975). Although Sundkler's detailed and sensitive account succeeded in defining an entire field of study, he