From the book: Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945 edited by Cherryl Walker

By at least the turn of the century, African churchwomen across the denominations and throughout South Africa were becoming active in distinctive, often uniformed, Christian female organisations. In the 1950s an important sociological study of these church groups, perhaps somewhat extravagantly, described them as 'the oldest, largest and most enduring and cohesive not only of all African women's organisations, but of all African organisations in South Africa' (Brandel-Syrier, 1962:97). This early, widespread mobilisation and solidarity in manyanos (unions) - a Xhosa term for the Methodist 8 and frequently used of the phenomenon as a whole – constitute an important part of the social history of African women’s changing ideological, economic and religious roles.

African churchwomen’s zealous evangelism and fundraising provided a critical back-up and growth point for local congregations, but and large the women came together explicitly as mothers. Particularly in the eyes of missionary supervisors, such organisations had a vital part to play in safeguarding female chastity, marital fidelity, and maternal and domestic responsibilities. Accordingly these groups provide a window onto the ideological debates and economic conflicts that clustered around Christian concepts of sexuality, marriage and family as they were being imposed and self-imposed in the growing Christianised African community. As already pointed to in earlier chapters, obvious tensions emerge between the indigenous and mission sex-gender systems. In these organisations struggles over sexuality between older and younger African women can be discerned, together with conflicts over family life between the ruling and the dominated classes, mediated through mission and philanthropic activists.

The evidence strongly suggests, however, that these women's organisations, with their entrenched and fervent tradition of revival-style praying and preaching, must equally be seen as a demonstration of the enthusiastic, if necessarily gender-segregated, response of certain, mostly uneducated, African women to Christianity. Undeniably, of course - and here the spiritual and domestic aspects of manyanos reinforce one another - part of the appeal of the new message and the community it fostered was the priority and support it offered to motherhood in a time of economic and social upheaval (see Gaitskell, 1983: 249).

This chapter looks first, briefly, at African women's response to the coming of Christianity and some of the ways in which domesticity was enmeshed with conversion in late-nineteenth-century rural South Africa. The second section focuses on the growth of women's associations in the twentieth century in the very different urban setting of the Witwatersrand. In the third section, some ways in which Reef manyanos can be seen as subversive of domesticity are then suggested; while the fourth section points to the wider historic repercussions of such female mobilisation. The conclusion reasserts the importance of taking manyanos seriously as a religious phenomenon.


Missionaries to southern Africa settled first among the Xhosa and Tswana, in the 1820s; these were groups which eventually delivered a high proportion of converts. The southern Sotho and the Zulu, whom the mission frontier advanced in the 1830s, likewise in time came into the churches in large numbers. From 1850 the Methods were at work in the Orange Free State, while from 1860 German Lutherans laboured among the Pedi of the Transvaal (who remain in the least Christianised today). By 1880 the new faith was relatively, established in most 'tribal' areas and still predominant' orientated. Its literate African members were becoming teachers and if male, pastors (Pauw, 1974: 416-21).

As regards the progress of different denominations of European origin, census figures from the twentieth century provide a rough guide to trends, although it has been suggested that such figures are usually inflated by about one-third for actual membership half for active participation (De Gruchy, 1979:240). (Churches vary in their understanding of membership, which makes the comparison denominational as opposed to census figures unhelpful.) Thus just over a million Africans were reported as Christians in 1911 constituting just over a quarter (26,2 per cent) of the African population whereas by 1946, over four million were enumerated as church members, more than half (52,6 per cent) of the total African population.

Whatever the admitted shortcomings of the census figures overwhelming importance of Methodists and Anglicans comes through: at a combined strength of 1 560 977 (over a million of them Methodist), they embraced well over a third of all African Christians (37,8 per cent) in 1946. The dominance of 'mission' churches of European and American origin also remains striking - despite the astonishing growth of the African independent churches in this century, they still accounted for less than a quarter of all Africans recorded as Christian in 1946.

What, regrettably, is not as easily uncovered is the gender breakdown of this church constituency. However, membership figures worded by the women's groups (see below) give some idea of denominational and regional growth of committed adult women. What is also known is that with the increase in migrant labour from the late nineteenth century, laments at the depletion of male membership became a constant refrain from many rural churches. By the inter-war years Transkei Anglican missionaries were increasingly concerned at the disproportionate numbers of women and girls, as opposed to men and boys, who were being confirmed: 3 361 to 982 in that diocese in 1931, for example (SPG, Report, 1932).

The early stages of Christian missionary endeavour in South Africa have frequently been characterised as relatively unfruitful, with evangelists meeting indifference and hostility. Although far more detailed investigation is needed, in the Cape and Natal early converts were often already outcasts from 'traditional society' or came to mission stations because they offered a physical refuge or source of economic support away from the African community. Before the Cape and Natal Nguni were militarily broken and politically undermined, mission stations attracted, on the one hand, those seeking secular advantage in terms of employment, land, homes or material goods, with outcasts, refugees and misfits on the other. It seems fair though much more investigation is needed on this - that the self-improvers were mostly men, while, because of gender-specific life-crises, women featured prominently among the refugees.

It was aberrant for a woman in 'traditional' African society to live lone: as already described in earlier chapters, her productive labour AND reproductive powers as daughter, wife or widow belonged to her father, husband or son. But the mission station provided an alternative-set of protectors and an alternative economic base which made escape possible. The mission station was a magnet for young girls avoiding marriage (perhaps to rich old men, or pagans, or polygynists) for-cast-off wives; or for widows escaping the levirate. Because on marriage Nguni women moved to live among their husband's kin, they were more isolated and vulnerable as strangers there, and mission stations could provide an escape from the malice of co-wives, accusations of witchcraft or the shame of barrenness (see Williams, 1959:275-82 and Etherington, 1978: 95-9). It is important, though, to bear Etherington's point in mind - that it is often easier to identify why individuals came to a station than why they in due course sought baptism. It is also worth emphasising that the crucial generation of church expansion between the 1880s and the 1920s needs closer since school and church attendance spread far more widely then than in the pioneering conversion period (which hitherto has attracted, most research).

Was it less threatening to African communities to lose their women, as opposed to their men, to the new faith? It could be said that while the conversion of runaway daughters posed a threat to paternal domestic control (and the gaining of bridewealth), male conversion as anti-Christian chiefs well saw - constituted a greater political, military threat to chiefdoms. Further obstacles to male church membership were indigenous ideas of manliness associated with war fighting, the herding activities of boys (which prevented them from attending Christian schools), and the strictures against polygyny. In addition, as household and community leaders, men were inevitably more involved in traditional ritual and ceremonial (Pauw, 1974:422). So in a number of ways, women's relative powerlessness made them more open to conversion - and their Christianity might come under threat if it conflicted with traditional political and social mores and priorities.

This was exemplified in the life of one of the few early women converts who was not politically obscure and marginal. Emma Sandile. The daughter of a prominent Xhosa chief, she received Anglican baptism and education in the 1860s to prepare her for marriage to a politically important frontier chief sympathetic to Christianity pressure from his people, who refused to countenance his enforce monogamy, resulted in the marriage being called off. Sandile furious that the new religion had stopped the marriage and eventually forced Emma to return to 'heathen' dress and marry polygynist, rather than remain unmarried (Hodgson, 1987).

As other chapters in this volume make clear, Victorian Christianity offered a contradictory package to African women: a way to escape from some of the constraints of pre-Christian society and yet a firm incorporation into the domesticity and patriarchy of Christian family life. Nineteenth-century middle-class Christians from Britain and the United States were living through a revolution in and re-creation of their own domestic lives as a necessary basis for devout living (see Davidoff and Hall, 1987). The private female domain of the home, where women were dependent as wives and mothers, became increasingly separated from the public male world of work and independent citizenship. Viewed from this standpoint, African women seemed to be 'beasts of burden', 'slaves' working at their husbands’ behest, because of their predominant role in agricultural production.But it could be argued that there was an area of agreement between Victorian Christians and African communities as to the primacy of women's reproductive work. Despite the strand of mission thinking that stressed preparing girls for domestic service to settlers, a lifetime of wage labour seems not to have been the desired mission goal for female converts. African girls were seen as future spouses of Christian men, mothers of Christian children, makers of Christian homes. While not perfectly continuous with the precolonial economic centrality of women's fertility, as outlined by Guy in this volume, the mission emphasis on women as child bearers and homemakers overlapped in crucial ways with indigenous values.

Conversion was aimed at transforming the division of labour in African homes in order to fulfil these Victorian ideals of devout domesticity. As already described by Meintjes, when missionaries encouraged the adoption of the plough, the intention was that men should do far more of the 'heavy' farming seen as inappropriate for the more 'delicate' sex. This would free women to sew the clothes that betokened their new faith, and to create in exclusively monogamous homes a different, more 'companionable' type of conjugal relationship, one where the wife was 'helpmeet' rather than 'slave'. Thus Christian missionaries drew young African girls into their own domestic life, to learn about Christian womanhood and homemaking, both by hard work in service and by example. They set about eagerly encouraging their star pupils to pair off and fashion a new kind of marital comparison and Westernised home (Bean and Van Heyningen, 1983:14,25-7,114,125).

But first women's prayer unions seem to have evolved not from explicit educational efforts through the schools but from regular devotional meetings held by missionary women with 'uneducated' adult African churchwomen. Sewing schools for adult women were a weekly feature of mission stations among the Tswana and Zulu, for example from the 1830s, because to want to be 'dressed' or 'clothed' was synonymous with seeking Christian instruction or baptism. This widespread and significant emphasis on sewing probably acted from the first to bring women together in church groups-starting with the weekly-sewing class-in a way that never happen to men. In this way, the gendered assumption that clothes were predominantly a female responsibility served to create a distinctive Christian female, as oppose to male, group solidarity across the denominations. From meeting the practical need for clothing, women on to share their faith both with each other and with non-churchgoers. Already from at least the 1880in the eastern Cape, missionary wives were bring groups of baptized African women together in associations that met regularly for the sort of unstructured times of shared testimony, exposition of biblical verses and extemporaneous prayer that have been the life-blood of church meetings for thousands of African women over the past century. Such gatherings explicitly aimed by the early 1900s to help women in their new responsibilities as Christian wives and mothers. But they also seem, as in the case of meetings conducted by Mrs. Waters in Engcobo from the 1880s on into the 1920s, to have acted from the very beginning as an outlet to energetic and successful female evangelisation of 'heathen' women and to have been as well a vehicle for the denunciation of 'native beer and exhortations to total abstinence. The women's help in reporting and visiting the sick has also long been an appreciated feature of such female bands. So while white supervisors compared these gatherings with 'Mothers' Meetings' back in England, which similarly provided tea and buns for refreshment after some uplifting home-related talk their original rationale appears to have had four aspects: devotionalism (the prayer meetings), evangelism, temperance, and visiting sick.


At the turn of the century, African Christianity was still predominantly rural. However, particularly once the Transvaal became a British colony after the South African War, urban centers like the Witwatersrand, with its large population of African male migrants on the mines came to be seen as strategically important and potentially vitally growth points for the church. By the 1920s, over twenty-six missionary societies were at work in Johannesburg. Missionaries soon realised that it was not simply a matter of reaching male migrants. A few migrants had come with families while others had been followed to town by their wives; in addition unattached' women increasingly came to the Reef seeking a livelihood. As a result, by the 1930s the male-female ratio on the Reef was 4,32:1 whereas back in the 1890s it had been more like 10:1. Of the106 977 African females on the Witwatersrand in 1936, half those over 10 years old were officially returned as 'gainfully occupied'. Some of these 42 733 'employed' women were domestic servants (Union of South Africa, Sixth Census 1936: IX, xiii, xviii). The importance are of work for the churches is clear, and through hostels for domestic servants which provided housework training and job women missionaries attempted a Christian in put (Gaitskell, 1979)

The two other major income-earning activities for African women in Johannesburg, especially in the inter-war years, were not recorded in the official statistics - though possibly some washerwomen were enumerated as domestic servants. They were launch home from white suburbs, and illicit liquor-brewing, particularly-sale to male migrants. Married churchwomen seem to have done the former and inveighed against the latter, as in this example: It’s almost impossible for us to live decently in Johannesburg.... The temptation to sell this stuff [beer] is too strong. All the women around here are making a lot of money; buying pianos and gramophones and silk dresses. Because I am a Christian and try to go straight, I have to stand here day after day and kill myself washing (quoted in Phillips, 1930:136).

The long entrenched use of Thursday afternoons for manyano meetings may even have been related to the rhythm of the washing week: bundles were fetched on Monday, washed on Tuesday and ironed on Wednesday, freeing women for group prayer on Thursday. As already discussed in chapter 9, the beer trade was central to the social and economic survival of many Reef African women (Hellmann, 1948)

This gave the strong temperance strand in manyanos a different twist from that in the rural areas. All three churches focused this chapter forbade prayer women to brew, drink or sell 'native or other alcohol, and large annual interdenominational tem-ice conventions were held on the Reef under American Board auspices in the late 1930s. Resolutions on liquor legislation were passed by the Methodist manyano, which seems not to have taken a stand on other inter-war questions of government policy. But for both brewers and washers, a major incentive for working home in the yards and locations was that they could keep an eye their children at the same time, whereas female domestic workers invariably lived on their employers' premises and were not allowed to have children with them. Given the poverty of African families, a middle-class model of economically dependent Christian wifehood was impracticable: without whatever earnings women and children could make, families could not have survived on low male wages alone. Many women on the Reef, of course, as in urban working-class Britain, moved in and out of various part-time and full-time as family needs permitted. Yet the temperance rule of prayer unions certainly worked to reinforce the sexual division of labour deemed appropriate in Christian families: no devout mother could be a prosperous brewer - rather, husbands provided the main household earnings for wives and children dependent on them.

As the mission apparatus of schools and churches spread in town, the southern Transvaal began to see the emergence of the kind of women's organisations recently started in rural areas, with similar 'concerns for married women's domestic roles and responsibilities. However, for the three most prominent prayer movements in mission' churches in the Johannesburg area in the first half of this century (Anglican, Methodist and American Board), despite striking underlying continuities, the domestic slant came in slightly different ways.

Mrs. S. Gqosho, wife of the African minister in Potchefstroom, started the Wesleyan Methodist prayer union in the southern Transvaal in 1907. She brought a small group of women together 'for their families and for the common unity and for their sins as for protection for husbands and sons working on the mines for the uprooting of witchcraft and superstition. The manyano’s basics objects were 'to cultivate the habits of praying and to consolidate Christianity among the folks' (Manyano, 1959). But after the wife of the white chairman of the District was brought in from president, the focus on the domestic virtues of the devout wife and mother sharpened. Mrs. Burnet urged the delegates at the 1915 convention to 'show the power of their religion in the way they cask their husbands - many of whom are not Christian - and in an increased effort to train their children for the Lord' (foreign Field) February 1916: 133). Her concern for simple hygiene and propriety was reflected in the constitution in such elementary rules dropped, as:

(a) Sweep and clean the house every day. (b) Keep your things and your family in clean and good. (c) If you have children teach them the Christian faith not let them run naked (AP, 'African Women's Prayer Union (Manyano) (Rules').
Clearly, more than a gender dimension is involved here – the patronising tone suggests a marked class and race divide. There are repeated instances in mission work in Johannesburg where the echoes of middle-class church activities and attitudes towards the urban working class in Britain can be heard. Mrs. Burnet's daughter set out the Union's aims more formally in 1913, with a flavour of Victoria moral self-improvement:

1. To secure the due recognition of the place of a Christian home in a people’s life.
2. The inculcation of the moral duties of industry, honesty, truthfulness cleanliness and kindness by example and precept in the home.
3. The training of the younger women and girls to take their places as Christian in the national life.
4. The encouragement of individual Missionary effort among women not yet evangelised.
5. The consideration of any questions that affect the life of the native home and the morals of the people (Foreign Field, April 1913:251).

Even at this stage, it was probably the fourth aim of evangelism, along with prayer itself, which was the most meaningful to the African members, as accounts below of zestful evangelisation and indefatigable praying at conferences seek to illustrate. Nevertheless, domestic education was a perennial emphasis, exemplified by the sessions at the 1923 conference on 'Health in the Home' and ‘Duty of a Christian Mother to Her Children' (Transvaal Methodist, November 1923).

As for the second most important church on the Reef, work among Anglican women was pioneered by Deaconess Julia Gilpin from 1908. (She also started two other key female ventures in Johannesburg, St Agnes' School, Rosettenville, and a hostel for domestic servants.) After some preliminary weekly meetings - a short talk from her followed by some hymns and then prayers in which the women joined - she founded a society for communicants, to help them, she lead a better life. The stress was on building up regular devotional-habits and a Christian standard of life, for conditions in the mine locations rendered it 'almost impossible for a decent woman to her purity and self-respect' since so many couples living there in fact not married (USPG, WW Reports Africa, Dss Julia, 1908). (It must be remembered that before 1914 at any rate, the Witwatersrand-seems to have had a number of relatively loosely controlled mine locations, as opposed to compounds proper, where some sort of family life' was possible: 53 mines had 3 784 women and nearly as many children in their married quarters in 1913-14, according to Moroney, 1982:265.) In fact, with time, branches of the 'Women's Help Society' - they only linked up with the Mothers' Union from 1938 -existed in church congregations both on mine locations and in the of central town 'yards' and urban locations along the Reef as Springs, as well as in southern Transvaal centres like Potchefstroom, Vereeniging and Heidelberg. The majority of the early members had not been to school, and as the mission staff ended up too stretched to do more than visit most groups once every few these groups evolved in their own way under African leadership replicating the revivalistic style of other churches.
As have seen above, the Anglican women's society was meant to help married women 'retain their purity and self-respect'. The son emphasis 'purity', but this time in the sense of premarital chastity of teenagers, surfaced too in the third most important Protestant church in the Johannesburg area. The American Board Mission (ABM) which was Congregational, had its heartland in Natal among the Zulu. There, in 1912, a women's revivalist prayer movement called Isililo ('wailing') sprang up after African men at a church gathering accused their wives of being lax in supervising their children’s courtship practices: gladly accepting gifts from their daughters lovers and giving them 'opportunities for privacy' in return. Women admitted and repented of their shortcomings in this regard and then enlisted others on the new Christian basis that it was mothers who were responsible for their children’s immorality (Mbili, 1962). The ABM’s mothers’ meetings’ on the Reef, however, seem to have linked up with the Natal Isililo only in the early 1920s, and talks on ‘purity ’to Reef Isililo women were given mostly by women missionaries.

The other churches were also wrestling with the question of control of teenagers in the years before the First World War. Discussion about children at the 1912 Transvaal Methodist manyano convention, for instance, centred 'especially on the care of girls, who so often fall into evil ways' (Foreign Field, April 1913: 253). At this point the Anglicans were running penitents' classes for unmarried mothers. By the end of the war, their women's society was also trying to help mothers guide and direct their unruly daughters. In all three churches, special associations for unmarried girls were set up under the protective aegis of the mothers' organisations, to guard them from 'moral downfall' As more research is done on the beginnings of such associations in other regions of South Africa, this issue is bound to surface again. In Mothers' Union records for the Grahamstown diocese, for example, there is reference to a conference held in 1910, at the request of African women, to inaugurate the Union in Keiskammahoek. 'Very earnest was the Address about two weaknesses in Native Home Life viz, the lack of obedience among children, and of purity among the younger people.' The following year it was reported with satisfaction that the 'native people seem to have reached so simply and straightly the dominating idea of the Mothers' Union - united, prayerful guidance in the difficult task of the up-bringing of our children by precept and by example' (MU, 1910,1911).

I have argued that, while the ABM women - uniquely, it seems -founded their movement on this issue, adolescent female sexual mores were not customarily the responsibility of mothers: it was the missionaries who preached that it should be. They themselves came from a culture which was laying increasing emphasis on female chastity and the almost exclusive identification of morality with 'sexual purity'. There is plenty of evidence that while African despaired of controlling their daughters and preventing premarital sex-play (allowed, even approved, among the non-Christian Nguni) and pregnancy in the very changed social and economic circumstances of the early twentieth century, they resisted being expected their daughters sex education and worse - having such matter about in church. But the burdensome and painful responsibilities of motherhood were at the heart of manyano spirituality (Gaitskell, 1982)

The manyanos are also well known for the distinctive uniforms members from different denominations wear. Although much more research is needed, the history of these movements makes it clear that the choice of outfit and the deep significance given to it, the complicated gradations of status denoted by small variations and additions to the official dress, are all-traceable back to the women themselves. By the first or second decade of the century each denomination wasevolving its own uniform, which in many cases became standardised and more formally adopted in the 1920s. Complex cultural borrowings were at work: the Natal Methodist women from whom Mrs. Gqosho of Potchefstroom took her inspiration, allegedly modelled their red, black and white uniform on British redcoats (just as the ABM Volunteers aped Boer War Volunteer dress). But later a more 'spiritual' interpretation of Methodist garb gained a currency it still retains: black skirts signifying sin, red blouses the saving blood of Christ and white hats the women's resultant purity. By the late 1920s, when the Anglican women had nearly 50 branches of their women's society in the Transvaal, they were bound to a uniform of black skirts and headscarves with white jackets (TSR, January 1927: 2). This seems to lave originated in the eastern Cape and was probably influenced by the habits of the nuns who supervised some early groups there.

White mission supervisors tried to standardise dress - sometimes, as with the Methodists, in the teeth of opposition - and then found themselves vainly criticising the members for 'over-emphasis[ing] the non-essentials, such as badges, uniform, rules for absentees' (The Watchman, February 1946:6). A Natal missionary primly observed, in a comment which underlined the domestic aim that was uppermost white minds, 'Considering the multiplicity of "uniforms" seen in Native country, members of the Mothers' Union would be well advised to make their homes distinctive, and keep their clothes commonplace’ (SWM Journal, April 1936: 8). Just as special church dress, I suggest below, marked out the devout at a stage when Western dress per se had lost its spiritual significance, so there were also periodic worries about prayer union sanctimoniousness - about a sense of superiority over other women which could lead to their being even stricter on one another than the general church disciplinary machinery provided for.

Among the first converts, the adoption of Western clothing signified commitment to new religious beliefs. As such clothing became more widely available, however, it could no longer be assumed to be an outward sign of inward spiritual grace. Categories blurred once more this reason church uniforms ought to be interpreted, perhaps, as the reassertion of a distinctive Christian dress, proclaiming the wearer’s spiritual allegiance. Being 'bloused' by the prayer union was a solemn milestone of religious commitment and a reward for upright living. For women it also advertised marital respectability: membership and the right to wear the prized uniform could be withdrawn for marital infidelity. Hence those who were seen wending their way in crisply starched uniforms to Thursday afternoon were proclaiming their conformity to the new ideology of Christian domesticity. There is yet another way in which prayer unions and Christian nations of home life interacted. The sociability and mutual support offered by the prayer group should also be seen as a desired supplement to the isolation and monotony of responsibilities in the nuclear family that was propagated by the missionaries. The Christian idea of domesticity ensured that it was primarily women who would face all the difficulties of the home; but with its stress on individualism and monogamy, Christianity cut them off from older, communal supports. Although southern Africa has no tradition of formal women's groups of the kind that operated in West Africa, and women in precolonial African society did perform many daily tasks - collecting wood and water, thatching grass, stamping mealies, etc.

- in a group with other women and girls. They also came together in more formalised agricultural work groups and in leisure activities such as dancing or singing (which was sometimes combined with the praise poetry that, I suggest below, seems a precursor of the manyano style of oral testimony). In Nguni communities particularly, where women married out of their lineage and went to live with husbands away from their families of birth, solidarity with other women was something of a necessity. Now, in changed circumstances, other Christian women substituted for kin at times of crisis, such as sickness and death, and provided mutual care. Hence the request of one manyano woman to her group to 'give me a hand to pick up the burden', and the resolve of another in trouble: 'I must get some strength from the mothers in this chain' (Pauw, 1975:96).


But to portray these remarkable, long-lived prayer unions merely terms of some normative Western family ideology or female group therapy is to risk missing the zealous and eloquent spiritual experience at their heart. That at least is what the historical record suggests. It is true that the accounts from the 1950s stress an atmosphere of weeping, sighing and mutual loud commiseration as women spoke about their troubles regarding children, family, sickness and death, as well as their struggle for survival. The impression created is of a cathartic 'self-induced frenzy of unpremeditated talking' (Brandel-Syrier, 1962: 15, 34-9; Brandel, 1955: 181-2). Insufficient evidence about weekly meetings prior to 1940 makes it hard to gauge widespread such a style of lamentation was in the earlier period. However, reports of conventions convey, in contrast, a sense vigorous enthusiasm and conscientious organisational upbuilding though women also wanted to be moved and inspired – which they frequently were, by each other’s oratory. The eventual routinised 'style' of manyanos across the denominations seems to have had its roots in late-nineteenth-century pietistic revivalist preaching, which sought to induce a kind of mourning in its hearers: they had to bewail and confess their sins, then publicly commit themselves to a fresh spiritual start. The African churches encountered this emotional type of service - highly participatory, preferably lasting all night - partly through visiting British and American evangelists in the Cape and Natal in the 1860s and 1890s (Mills, 1975: 25-7, 298 n.6; Christofersen, 1967: 93-4). As leading African Christian men translated the revivalist message into the vernacular, they picked up the oratorical style in the process. Medium and message took deep root in Nguni communities. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Scottish missionaries among the Mfengu found that 'from time to time a wave of spiritual conviction and surrender moved the district and swept considerable numbers in to the membership of the Church. These occasions often followed prayer meetings which were held by the people themselves and were carried on throughout the night' (Livingstone, 1918: 42-3). Fifty years ago, D. D. T. Jabavu characterised African Christianity in general as Devoted to the simplicities of religion: prayer meetings, hymn-singing, assimilation of Scripture texts and the constant calling of others unto repentance' (1932: 112-13).

Whatever its exact diffusion, the all-night revival service-cum-prayer meeting spread widely, being reported as far apart as St Cuthbert's in the Transkei in 1896 and north-west of Pietersburg in the Transvaal in 1905. In the 1920s Transkei Anglicans used revival services as their main means of attempting to convert the 'heathen'. "But wailing became entrenched in women's groups, it may not be fanciful to suggest, because weeping was deemed culturally more appropriate for women and wailing was how women behaved customary at Nguni funerals. Isililo ('wailing'), the striking term the ABM women chose for their movement (and clung to when the American supervisors wanted them to call it the 'Women's Group of the American Board' instead), is used of the protracted -ritual keening of women after the burial of the deceased. It is associated, reports an anthropologist, with the helplessness and sub-expected of women at such a time of sorrow (Ngubane, 1977: 84,93-4) Men traditionally ended mourning by an aggressive act of ritual hunting.) Throughout black African, wailing is regarded as typically female, and women are invariably the singers of stylized funeral (Finnegan, 1970:147-8)

But all was not submission and lament at the turn of the century, in this respect that the curious subversiveness of the manyanos shows itself. Indigenous male revival movements sprouted in Natal Methodists as early as the 1870s, in Edendale (Uzondelelo), and in the ABM in the 1890s at Umtwalume (the 'Volunteers'), and expressed a new, self-confident African Christian expansionism (Hewson, 1950:76-80; Christofersen, 1967: 92). The desire for greater responsibility and autonomy led to breakaways into independency among the Cape Presbyterians and Anglicans. Some 15 to 30 years later, in a delayed echoing (it appears to me) of this demand for more evangelistic opportunity and autonomy, laywomen and ministers wives held conferences and preached for converts. In a sense, prayer unions constituted a creative, self-confident impulse which generally stopped short of a breakaway into independence, partly because women could not found churches themselves if they wished to replicate mission models (which were heavily male-dominated), and partly because their leadership was generally not thwarted in the fierce way the new African ministry of the 1890s was. Women's marginality gave them a kind of freedom to experiment and learn from other denominations, making Christianity their own, because there was not such a fixed conception in each denomination of female as oppose to male ministry.

However, there were clashes between 1915 and 1930 with white women presidents and with white and black clergy and councils, who sought, with some success, to restrain what the African women would have liked to make a more unfettered autonomy. On the Reef, for example, white church leaders made sure they took titular and constitutional control of the unions. In 1915, in one location, Anglican women prayer-meeting members 'were reported to be praying tint no white priest or white woman worker should come to them at all (Pilot Letters, 1915: 32). Resentful African Methodist women were repeatedly reminded by their white president in the 1920s that each prayer group still came under the control of the local 'Leaders' Meeting' (Manyano, 1959).

The Transvaal Methodist manyano acquired its first African woman president by 1937, whereas the Mothers' Union, which had a small numbers of white members as well (in congregationally segregated groups), only obtained an African vice-president in 1948 African president in 1974. When examining the degree of organisational autonomy which African women were able to build retain despite the long-lasting presidency of white women missionaries, it is vital to bear in mind the growing number and geographical spread of these groups. Mission supervisors frequently commented that they could not possibly attend each weekly meeting personally, so in most cases these were left to the women to run themselves the leadership of the wives of the African clergy. In the case of the active and well-staffed Anglican 'settlements' in Sophiatown Orlando in the 1930s, the staff of white single women concentrated their efforts on children almost exclusively. In part this was because African wives did not see the unmarried among 'overseas’ mission personnel as having much authority in what was still a very family focused spiritual movement. Again, this served to reinforce African women's autonomy.

Considerable enterprise, vitality and self-confidence were involved in spreading the gospel, and the women's actions do not fit a cosy image of secluded homemakers. The Isililo grew because a group of women, led by Mrs. Gobhozi and Mrs. Kaula (though joined for part of the way at least by some men), walked, 'singing hymns and stopping for the night on the way ... like vagrant wanderers because if this great gospel of Isililo', to six ABM mission stations in turn Mbili, 1962). Mrs. Gqosho, founder of the Transvaal Methodist manyano spread it by holding revivals throughout the District, followed by a convention in 1908 arranged (evidently to the admiring surprise "(the white male superintendent) entirely by the women themselves. They brought 'their own food or money, and many of them slept on the floor of the church' (Transvaal Methodist, October 1938:3-4).

The Methodist annual conferences continued to be impressively organised affairs, lasting a week at a time. They were only kept from growing beyond their peak of 600 women (at Evaton, in 1920) by the firm (and resented) hand of white supervisors, who introduced quotas to keep numbers down. Women, some with babies, travelled hundreds of miles, sometimes taking up to five days and using a variety of forms of transport - though the railways were vital to feasibility - to reach these gatherings. Mutual greetings provided 'a time of great hilarity, and of joyous, affectionate expression' (Foreign September 1921: 233). The contagious enthusiasm of the large female assemblies, unattainable in small isolated church groups, the enjoyment of sociability, the sense of pride and freedom in setting off for conferences in style, as women together, all come through in the convention descriptions. As an ABM missionary wrote – somewhat patronizingly - of the Isililo annual gathering in Natal in the 1920s:

This their very first effort at self expression in the way of an organisation they have ever attempted you know, I am sure a lot of the delicious feelings of Woman's rights give spice to the occasion. You should see those Officers sitting up front, in their white caps and blouses and pink ribbon badges...' (ABC: 15.4 v.48, Amy Cowles to Miss Lamson, 22.4.1926). Although Anglican conferences on the Reef were never as big as the Transvaal Methodist ones (up to 200 women met for two days), in parts rural Natal and the Transkei gatherings of a hundred or more women (who might walk 30 miles to get there) would meet in annual conferences for a couple of days.

In 1919 a group of seven Johannesburg Primitive Methodist women raised 25 and went by train to Aliwal North and Zastron - a round trip of thousand miles - to thank the church for its support and hold revival services. The female secretary zestfully described the effective female preaching: Mrs. Kumalo's exposition of a text 'became a very strong sermon', while Mrs. Tsewo' s the next day was 'a piercing sword to the people'. She also counted heads of the new members enrolled as enthusiastically as any male church leader with the Methodist obsession with numerical tabulation: 'Total from Saturday evening to Monday evening we got 33' (MMS 1180, A. A. Kidwell, unsigned letter 24.8.1919).

It was also crucial to manyano formation in the Transvaal that the number of ordained African ministers grew substantially among the Methodists after the South African War (from 17 in 1902 to 35 in 1908), for prayer unions have long been dominated by ministers' wives. Interestingly, colonial Rhodesia provides a comparable example of both the role of emotional revivalism and the importance of ministers wives in the foundation of the equivalent female prayer unions there (Muzorewa, 1975). A growing number of ministers or clergy invariably meant a commensurate increase in spouses, who came to be regarded as 'ordained' themselves and found in manyanos a vital outlet for their new leadership status. (A Methodist history singled out and remarked on the 'uproar' from ministers' wives when the highest manyano office went to a 'lay woman'.)

This is one of many ways in which relatively high levels of female school attendance from the very start of mission education, plus intermarriage among pupils at elite schools, seem to have contributed to the scale of manyano formation. Manyanos also had committees secretaries and treasurers, both locally and regionally; like church everywhere for men, they gave women experience of more formal corporate organising and record keeping.

There are only scattered references to Methodist women wanting to preach to the church as a whole, but those who did faced opposition and lack of training until the 1940s; in contrast, thousands of men were able to channel their oratorical eloquence as 'local preachers’, a vital arm of Methodist expansion. Manyanos provided a segregated sphere of female spirituality. It is frequently remarked that Thursday is the women's day, as Sunday is the preacher's. Women clearly want to preach. As an Anglican nun wrote from the Transkei in 1916.

We have been making great efforts to guide and control the zeal of the Christian women who were described by one of themselves as 'thirsty for (the work of) preaching'. There is no need for paid Bible women here, for all the women want to preach, either to the heathen or to each other. Then excellent, but their knowledge is not always equal to it, and many of them possessed by the idea that souls can only be won through noisy ranting (S. Cuthbert's Mission, 1916). And yet even that supposedly safe separate arena of religious enthusiasm was regarded as unacceptable by African men. The fundraising contribution of the women was much prized but their desire for financial and organisational autonomy was frequently viewed with ambivalence. In the early 1920s there was a sharp division of opinion among black Anglican clergy on the Reef as to whether women's all-night prayer meetings should be blessed or banned. (The men did not like their wives being out all night.) The impropriety of the hour also perturbed women missionaries, for it did not conform to their view of appropriate female behaviour. Emotionalism' was an important bogey too: 'one hesitates to quench and discourage their eagerness to pray ... yet it is so much mixed up with a sort of excitement and it is so bad for women, mostly mothers of families, to get into the habit of being out all night' (USPG, E, 'Work amongst the native women in Johannesburg and the Reef, 1920).

White Anglicans (male and female) despaired at the African preference for praying 'corporately and vocally, not as we do, individually and silently' {Cape to the Zambezi, May 1937: 27). Activist Americans characteristically lost patience at times with the women's attachment to 'praying and preaching', because they wouldn't 'get down to Business' and take 'definite steps for bettering their home condition' (ABC: 15,4 v,48, Amy Cowles to Miss Lamson, 22.4.1926).

The appeal of 'praying and preaching', I argue, should also be seen in the light of the vitality of indigenous traditions of oral expression in which women shared - oratory, folk tales and praise poems vigorously 'performed' to a convivially responding group (Finnegan, 1970: 184,91 Scheub, 1975;Gunner, 1979) -as well as of spoken, corporate, spontaneous prayer (Shorter, 1975: 8), and democratic public participation. What is vital to realise is that lively participation in a manyano meeting required no special church training, not even literacy. Women their own hymns off by heart, spoke extemporaneously on biblical passages introduced by someone else and prayed spontaneously about immediate and personal needs. They did not need to be able to read or have formal educational qualifications to contribute. Their own eloquence and fervour could give them enough authority although formal leadership was in later years invariably dominated by clergy wives). Indeed, the first women's groups began among an older generation which had lost out on school. As a woman testified at a convention in the 1920s: I cannot read the Book. I took the red blouse and daily I am out preaching to the heathen' (AP, Mrs. Allcock to her family, 15.10.1924).

On account of the customary authority of grandmothers (and mothers-in-law, who prevented their young daughters-in-law from joining the Mothers' Union in its early days in the Transkei, for example), that age group often dominated women's groups. Similarly the room for acclamation as a good preacher, even if the woman was old and uneducated, helped entrench 'praying and preaching’, so much so that by the 1950s Anglican disquiet, not only in Johannesburg as noted by Brandel-Syrier (1962:92-5) but also in places like the Transkei, came to a head once more. Meetings teaching more 'practical' homemaking skills were widely introduced (not without difficulty), in part in the hope of attracting younger, 'more modern' women to the Mothers' Union, and uniforms were not to be worn (though in practice they were retained). Certainly the devotional style which I am enthusiastically characterising as the authentic appropriation of Christianity by African women in the early years of this century was being condemned by African Mothers' Union workers in the 1960s: 'they cannot read or write, the only thing they can do is to preach and pray', read a typical regretful report on one group in the Transkei (MU, 1962).

Despite the inter-war refrain from white missionaries about the Methodist manyano - The possibilities are great, but the need for effective and appropriate guidance is also great' - the response of white female Methodist supervisors to the uninhibited spiritual style of the movement was invariably enthusiastic, or at least tranquil in the knowledge that Methodism had a history of such emotionalism. It is certainly Methodist influence that has permeated the other denominations. At the week-long Transvaal Methodist conventions, prayer 'was the supreme business for which the delegates came' (Foreign field, September 1921: 232). At the regular four services each day (ranging from dawn prayer through evangelistic, temperance and testimony meetings to memorial and communion services), women from more reticent English backgrounds were struck by the African women's eloquence: These native women have a wonderful power in prayer and they use it to the full. The meetings for testimony were also very striking' (foreign Field, April 1913:253). 'Unlike many Christian friends of a lighter hue, there was no unwillingness to speak. On the contrary, no sooner did one sister finish her story, than two or three were on their feet' (ibid., February 1916:132). The singing, too, was 'indescribable' (Transvaal Methodist, November 1923:30)

Dorothea Lehmann has aptly observed that life in extended family groups has trained African women to find organising social catering for big festivals, and collecting money, very satisfying duties unions, (1963: 65). All these managerial tasks were the women's in prayer unions, particularly at convention time. The Transvaal Methodist manyano and the Natal Isililo both showed great keenness in collecting funds over several years to advance their children's security respectively, a Domestic Science School at Kilnerton (nearly 4 000 was given in annual shillings over 25 years) and a farm, which was bought at Umzinto in 1928 so that if their children became destitute they could live there (Mbili, 1962:5-8).


By about the middle of the twentieth century, African women's prayer unions, particularly in the Anglican and Methodist churches, had built up a considerable membership. In 1940 there were at least 45149 women in the Methodist manyano throughout South Africa, with numbers largest among the Transkei Xhosa (the Clarkebury District), the Sotho-Tswana of the Orange Free State and northern Cape (Kimberley and Bloemfontein District), and the Zulu of Natal.

Table I: South African manyano members by district, 1940