As long promised, we’re finally bringing back The Bulletproof Project, our series on mass movements that instructed their followers that magic could counteract modern weaponry. Today’s entry is one we’ve been researching for ages: Northern Rhodesia’s Lumpa Church, a messianic Christian movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s headed by a woman named Alice Lenshina (pictured at right).
Much has been written about the Lumpas since they suffered greatly at the hands of the Northern Rhodesian military during a 1964 suppression campaign. In fact, there is an ongoing debate in the nation (now familiar to y’all as Zambia) regarding whether or not then-president Kenneth Kaunda should be tried for war crimes. Though we have no doubt that Kaunda’s forces behaved barbarously when confronting the Lumpas, Lenshina deserves blame for filling her followers’ heads with the idea that a verbal incantation could render the immune to bullets. We’ll let a 1964 dispatch from Time fill you in on Lenshina’s charismatic ways, as well as her tragic insistence that those who believed in her could become invincible:
Alice, now a plump 40, founded her cult among Northern Rhodesian tribesmen eleven years ago, after having—so she claimed—died and risen from the dead. As the story goes, the rapid spread of her fame dates from the day she ordered her followers to strip naked during a violent rainstorm. She said she would cleanse them of sin, but those beyond redemption would be struck dead by a bolt of lightning. According to the legend, no sooner had she spoken than lightning struck a nearby tree, killing two. As the story of the “miracle” spread, Alice’s following snowballed; at one time it had as many as 75,000 adherents, though its membership has dwindled since.
She wins her converts with a doctrinal haggis of African witchcraft and Christian teachings she learned from Church of Scotland missionaries. Alice condemns adultery, polygamy, drinking, smoking, singing dirty songs, dancing for fun. The rallying cry of her followers is “Jericho,” a word that she guarantees will protect them from death by turning bullets into water…
The magic word was not much help in last week’s fighting, touched off when a teen-age Lumpa was thrashed by his uncle, a Kaunda man, for playing hooky from school…From the capital of Lusaka, 450 miles to the southwest, came 2,000 soldiers and police to restore order. The troops surrounded the Lumpas’ headquarters of Sione, named for the Biblical Zion, demanding immediate surrender. Instead, the fanatical Lumpas charged, brandishing spears, axes and ancient rifles. “Jericho!” they yelled, doubtless expecting a damp spray in return. Not water but lead was the soldiers’ reply, and soon 65 Lumpas lay dead, 50 wounded.
To her credit, Lenshina surrendered soon after the incident described above. She would spend much of her life’s remainder in Zambian prison, while her followers retreated to the Congo, where some still live and worship to this day (though they’ve redubbed their organization the New Jerusalem Church).
We highly recommend you check out this archive of contemporary news accounts, though all are obviously taken from government sources sympathetic to Kaunda. The president was always careful to note that he didn’t object to the Lumpas faith, but rather their use of violence against those who refused to adhere to the sect’s strict rules of behavior. But we suspect that his real objection was to Lenshina’s influence in the country’s north, and thus her potential to develop into a political rival. Kaunda simply chose to nip that problem in the bud, using the most brutal force possible—an effort aided, of course, by Lenshina’s sad delusion.
(Image via here)