Rainisoalambo c. 1830 to 1904

Lutheran Madagascar

 In the 19th century, the revival movements spreading across Europe also found their way to Madagascar, where they came to a man named Rainisoalambo. He lived alongside the Betsileo princes in a rural village called Ambalavato in what is now the Haute Matsiatra region. He was descended from a line of diviners who were responsible for educating the princes, and he was raised in their midst. Rainisoalambo was chief of the royal guard, and he served as the public voice of the sovereign because of his great gift for witty banter and public speaking. His skill in persuasive argument led many to demand his services as a kind of lawyer. He almost always won the case he argued, and people who needed someone to speak for them frequently hired him. Rainisoalambo was also renowned as a traditional healer and diviner. Around 1892, when he was about sixty, he left his work at the court and devoted himself to agriculture (rice, in particular), hoping to earn more money that way.

The London Missionary Society (LMS) [1] had already started a church in the village of Ambatoreny. When not in use for services, the pastor used the building as a school and served as the teacher. Pastor-evangelists like him were trained in the theological institutions of the LMS. They were very disciplined, wore European-style clothing, were paid, and were not subject to forced manual labor. In fact, to the local residents, they represented a new way of living.

 Rainisoalambo coveted their way of life and thought that he could become like them if he too became a pastor. He was an ambitious and intelligent man, and with the encouragement of his friends, he learned to write and to read the Bible. He was baptized in 1884 and hoped that he would become wealthy when he was ordained as a pastor. In the meantime, he did not abandon his pagan practices. After a six-month course of Biblical instruction, he was appointed as a non-salaried catechist to the parish. Disappointed, he went back to his former work as a farmer and healer/diviner.

In those days, the standard of living was very low for people in remote villages like the one in which Rainisoalambo lived. To make matters even worse, there was a famine at that time, and an epidemic of smallpox and malaria also swept through the region, killing many people. In addition to those tragedies, the Bara and the Sakalava [2] — two tribes living in the vicinity of the Betsileo tribe – – took turns attacking and plundering the surrounding villages. People were also burdened by taxation. The king required that all adult males pay taxes to help pay the fines imposed by the French colonizers. Charms and pharmacopoeia provided no relief from poverty, malnutrition and sickness.

Most of Rainisoalambo’s family perished, and soon he had only seven head of cattle left. His rice paddies lay fallow and uncultivated. He grew very sick and lived on next to nothing; his body was covered with painful sores that made it impossible for him to work. All his friends left him.

 From the depths of his misery and despair, Rainisoalambo called on the God that he already knew about. That very night, October 14, 1894, according to his testimony, he had a dream. In the dream, he saw someone dressed in a white garment that was indescribably white standing next to him, telling him to throw out his amulets and abandon the things he used for divination—objects that had served both to protect him and to give him his identity as a diviner.

The next day, at dawn, Rainisoalambo carried out the order and threw away his baskets full of pieces of wood, of grain and of pearls. Right away, he felt delivered of his pain, and his strength came back. He felt like a new man. All of this happened on October 15, 1894. In his words, Jesus delivered him from the depths of the pit and freed him of his pagan chains. He repented, and immediately felt like he had been freed. Rainisoalambo washed his body then cleaned his house and his courtyard.

Since he already knew how to read, he began to carefully read the Bible, especially the New Testament. He already knew certain things about prayer and the rites of the Christian church and community, but it was after he had spent many weeks studying and meditating on the Bible that he began to spread his message.

 Rainisoalambo first spoke to his family, as several of them were ill and were practicing the ancestral religion. The central theme of his preaching was that one needed to move away from idolatry and cling to Jesus Christ, the One who had appeared to him and spoken to him. He told them that if they wanted to be healed, they should throw out their fetishes. Many of them followed his advice and were healed. Rainisoalambo then went to the neighboring villages, visiting and praying for those who were so sick that they could not even pray. He laid hands on the sick, proclaiming that Jesus was the source of all healing, and they were healed. All of this took place between the end of 1894 and the first half of 1895.

On June 9, 1895, Rainisoalambo gathered the twelve people [3] who had first been healed after throwing away their idols and laying aside their pagan life. They prayed together, and they made a number of solemn commitments. They promised to learn to read and to count so that they could read the Bible by chapter and verse. They would clean their houses and courtyards, and they would also have separate cooking areas so that homes would be clean enough to meet in, honoring God. [4] The members of the group would also have their own vegetable gardens and sources of food, and they promised to start everything with prayer in the name of Jesus. Traditional burials were not only often an excuse for pagan drunkenness and debauchery, but they could also spell financial ruin for a family. They decided that funerals should take place in nice clothes and would be times for songs, prayers and exhortations. There would be no slaughtered cattle, protecting the grieving family against impoverishing themselves on such occasions. Rainisoalambo ended the meeting with Bible reading and prayer. That small but extraordinary meeting gave birth to the Mpianatry ny Tompo (Disciples of the Lord).

Rainisoalambo started to teach the members of the group. As they learned, the members continued to work as farmers. Rainisoalambo taught with the help of tracts, including the Martin Luther’s Small Catechism translated by M. Burgen, which he obtained from Théodor Olsen, a missionary from the Soatanàna (« beautiful village ») Mission Station [5]. He also requested the teaching help of the pastor in Ambatoreny, who accepted and came to teach them every Monday and Thursday.

They organized themselves so that they could lead a life in community. They cultivated the fields and built houses to receive the sick. They preached the Gospel, healed the sick, and delivered the demoniacs who came to see them. In order to always have the Bible with them, they created white cotton bags that they carried slung over their shoulders.

They agreed together to live by the following principles: repentance, humility, patience, love of one another, prayer, communion, and mutual aid. In the early days, Rainisoalambo sent them out on short trips to evangelize nearby, but little by little, they traveled farther away on longer trips. His wish to have a missionary life was granted, but not as he had expected.

Near the end of October of 1895, having become acquainted with the community and their work of evangelization, missionary Théodor Olsen wrote: « Something that was cause for rejoicing happened in the village to the west of the station, because about twenty honorable pagans asked if they could be baptized. They had been coming to the Sunday worship service in the parish, and we could also see them studying the Bible and helping each other with readings and Bible studies during the week. One Monday when I went to visit them and to teach, there were about thirty or forty of them, all paying close attention to the sermon I was preaching about the love of God that He extends to sinners. » [translation by the author].

Rainisoalambo’s village, Ambatoreny, quickly became a magnet for many sick people. New converts exhorted them, prayed for them in loud voices and laid hands on them. Also, many of the “disciples” quickly went to their neighbors and families, telling them what had happened and encouraging them to do the same.

In 1902, due to the politics of the colonial situation, the « revival center » was moved to Soatanàna, where it still is today, so that it could be under the aegis of the Norwegian mission there and be integrated into the local Lutheran parish. Today at the revival center in Soatanàna, certain Biblical rituals are practiced, such as footwashing. All those who live there dress in white – the symbol of purity – and all the Soatanàna zanaky ny Fihohazana (children of revival) rigorously follow the same life principles. Men wear straw hats with a white ribbon. It is the custom that guests have their feet washed by a resident when they arrive at the center.

 Organized along patriarchal lines and submitted to rigorous discipline, the disciples of the movement profess the gift of healing by the laying on of hands. Starting from Soatanàna, the movement spread through its iraka, (“apostles” or “sent ones”) who went from village to village and from town to town on foot, preaching the Good News to all. In 1904, they numbered about fifty, and the number of converts kept on growing.

 From the very beginning, Rainisoalambo was at the head of the revival movement. Often worried about the future of the movement because of the everpresent winds of discord, he would frequently go to pray alone near the mountain that is to the west of Soatanàna. He decided to organize a general assembly of the movement’s delegations, which were spread throughout the island, and set the date of August 10, 1904. It would be a great prayer meeting, and would also serve to set up the organization of the movement. Intensive preparations began in Soatanàna for the construction of a large structure that would serve to welcome all the guests. The residents organized the rice planting as well, so that there would be enough food for everyone.

Rainisoalambo managed to direct the preparations for some time, but was eventually tired by the work, given his age. His lungs became afflicted with an illness that got increasingly worse. On the eve of his death, he asked once more to be brought to the construction site. He had to be held up on both sides, as he could no longer walk alone. The following day, some of his friends and his family came to be with him, and stayed around him singing and praying for him. On June 30, 1904, he breathed his last, praying for the movement in Soatanàna.

He was buried in Soatanàna even though his native village was not far away, so as to keep the rule of the movement, according to which one should be buried where one died. [6] The great assembly of August 10 took place without him. Soatanàna would become the first revival center in the land, and it is now a great center of yearly pilgrimage where people go for healing and prayer.

The revival movement shook up the social and economic life of the village and of the region. The number of illiterate people declined and increased respect for personal hygiene improved the general health conditions of all. The change in customs and behavior at burial ceremonies was an improvement for families. Soatanàna became a model village for the surrounding region.

Rainisoalambo is a remarkable figure. He spent most of his life as a diviner, and at first only became a Christian because he thought it might get him rich. When, however, he was at a point of desperation in his life, he found a source of power and inspiration in the Christian faith, leading him to spearhead the first major revival movement in Madagascar.

Original Biographies by Berthe Raminosoa
Rasoanalimanga from the Dictionary of African Christian
Biography, with preface by Michèle Miller Sigg, DACB
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