This paper attempts to reassess the general significance of the Thembu church by setting it in its political context. It examines the early career of Nehemiah Tile and the origins of this earliest of independent churches in southern Africa. In the 1880s Tile was not only the leader of the church, but also the chief figure behind a movement of political protest which sought to free Thembuland from Cape magisterial control. After his death, the church continued, and whites saw it as a real threat to their interests. But in the late 1890s the history of the church became increasingly obscure. There is some evidence to suggest that the church was less completely ‘tribal’ than usually maintained. The paper concludes that the church should be seen both as an expression of African reaction to the imposition of white rule on the Cape eastern frontier and as an element in the development of African nationalism.
* The research of which this paper is a product was aided by St Antony's College, Oxford; the Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University; and the Abe Bailey Institute of Inter-Raciai Studies, University of Cape Town.