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The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church is a religious movement that originated in Jamaica during the 1940s[1] and later spread to the United States, being incorporated in Florida in 1975.[2] Its beliefs are based on both the Old and New testaments of the bible, as well as the teachings of Marcus Garvey, self-reliance, Afrocentricity and Ethiopianism. Their ceremonies include bible reading, chanting, and music incorporating elements from Nyahbinghi, Burru, Kumina[3] and other indigenous traditions. The group holds many beliefs in common with the Rastafari, including the use of marijuana as a sacrament, but differ on many points, most significantly the matter of Haile Selassie's divinity.[4]

The group expanded rapidly in the 1970s, under the leadership of 'Niah' Keith Gordon, attracting a new generation of white American followers to their "Gospel camp" in Jamaica.[5] The Coptic's pro-marijuana beliefs went as far as to consider distribution of the "herb" a righteous endeavour[6]: 125  and — assisted by the new arrivals — the group began to move ever-larger consignments of it from Jamaica to the United States.[6]: 122  These efforts enabled the Coptics to acquire significant land holdings in Jamaica,[7] as well as a luxurious 'embassy' in Miami.[5] They ran many farms, several businesses and provided badly-needed employment during Jamaica's turbulent 1970s.[7]

The group attracted widespread publicity in the early 1980s, when several of its members were prosecuted for importing marijuana to the United States.[8][9][10] The movement continues to this day, but went into decline when a large number of the American members were incarcerated in the 1980s,[11] followed by the death of Keith Gordon in 1986.[12]

Despite its name, the group is in no way affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church or any other established Christian congregation.[13]


Early history under Louva Williams

The Coptic mansion emerged out of Jamaican chapters of the Ethiopian World Federation during the late 1940s. It was founded by Lovell Williams, known as Brother Louv, who first laid out the key doctrines of the group.[14] Brother Louv established the first headquarters at Mountain View Avenue[1] on the eastern side of Kingston at the foot of the Wareika Hills. It was one of many Rasta camps to the east of Kingston, including Count Ossie's, which had a different character from those in the west of the city.[15] These were typically squatter camps, set up on 'captured' government lands.[16] Brother Louv engaged in many 'reasonings' (discussions) during this time, both within the group and outside,[1] which were often accompanied by ganja smoking.[5]

The group continued with a small, dedicated group of followers throughout the 1950s and 60s, living a simple life in accordance with their strict beliefs. While it was an offshoot of the broader Rasta movement, many Coptic teachings conflicted with 'mainstream' Rasta belief, and neither side considered the other to be one and the same.

Later growth in United States

It first established its organization in the United States in Star Island, Florida with a commune of around 40 members. The commune follows a combination of teachings from the Bible, Old and New Testament, which have been compared to Billy Graham's fundamentalism, and Kosher law.[17] Similar to the Rastafari Movement, the Coptic's views are based on the teachings of Marcus Garvey and they use cannabis as sacrament.[18] It is a misconception that pious Rastafarians smoke marijuana recreationally, and some (in particular, the canonical Ethiopian Orthodox and classical Elders) do not use it at all. However, many Rastafarian teachers have advocated for controlled ritual smoking of 'wisdom weed' in private as a meditation tool and communally from 'chalice' pipes as an 'incense to please the Lord.'[19]

In 1979 the group was accused, tried, and convicted of smuggling massive amounts of potent cannabis from Jamaica to Miami in actions that kept the Jamaican economy afloat that decade. The then-Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga told a U.S. interview "It's just a little sinsemilla that it keep the country going right now". The Coptics published a free newspaper promoting Garveyism and the decriminalization of marijuana titled "Coptic Times". They also appeared on 60 Minutes on October 28, 1979. The group's leader was Niah Keith Gordon, and its spokesman in the US was Thomas Reilly, also known as Brother Louv. During the same year, The Supreme Court of Florida found: "(1) the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church represents a religion within the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and (2) the "use of cannabis is an essential portion of the religious practice."[20] "Further, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church is not a new church or religion but the record reflects it is centuries old and has regularly used cannabis as its sacrament".[20]

In 1986 the organization participated in the Drug Enforcement Administration's hearings on cannabis rescheduling in the United States.

On January 19, 2017[21] James Tranmer, a member of the group, was pardoned and released from prison by Barack Obama before he left the office of the President of the United States. Tramner had received a 33 year prison sentence for possession of cannabis because he defended the sacramentality and goodness of cannabis without repentance. Today many are grateful for his sacrifice and his release is an acknowledgement in the paradigm change that has taken place since the majority of the population now see that to fight against a medicinal plant is a detrimental social policy.

Carl Olsen ran for governor in Iowa, as a Libertarian, in 1994 and for the U.S. House of Representatives, again as a Libertarian, in 1996. He is currently a priest in the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, and resides in Iowa.

The EZCC is not associated with either the Coptic Orthodox Church or the Coptic Catholic Church, both based in Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church has an Ethiopian sister church, which is also unrelated. The Garveyite Coptic were most closely tied to the African Orthodox Church than to Egypt. The EZCC gets its namesake from a 1959 mission to Ethiopia in which the archbishop brought a group of young Ethiopian priests and deacons to study in American universities. However, the clergy cut ties with the Garveyite Coptic organization in New York and set up its own parishes that addressed the needs of Ethiopian immigrants.[19]

The Zion Coptic Church appeared in the 2011 Billy Corben documentary Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, whose first section concerns the group and features interviews with former members. In Brazil there are the First Niubingui Church Etiope Coptic of Zion of Brasil.

External Links


  1. ^ a b c Barnett, Michael (2017). "Chapter 3 - The different mansions of the Rastafari movement". The Rastafari Movement: A North American and Caribbean Perspective. ISBN 1-138-68215-2.
  2. ^ "United States Tax Court Memo 1989-593". Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Archived from the original on January 12, 2024. On April 15, 1975, ZCC was incorporated in the State of Florida
  3. ^ "Salvation Story" (video). Patrick White.
  4. ^ Barrett, Leonard E. (1998). The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 239. ISBN 978-0-8070-1039-6. By 1976 the church had adopted Rastafarian-like beliefs without accepting the divinity of Haile Selassie
  5. ^ a b c Hiaasen, Carl (August 2, 1981). "The Law and Brother Louv". Miami Herald. Archived from the original on January 13, 2024.
  6. ^ a b Middleton, Clifton Ray (January 2, 2021). Ganja Warrior Priest: Genesis. ASIN B08RY4X1CY.
  7. ^ a b Williams, Lloyd (April 26, 1981). "The Coptics - a country within Jamaica". The Sunday Gleaner. p. 8. Archived from the original on Mar 28, 2024.
  8. ^ "Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church Members Arrive to Court (September 8, 1980)" (video). youtube.com. September 8, 1980.
  9. ^ "News reports on EZCC" (video). youtube.com.
  10. ^ Dickey, Christopher (November 10, 1980). "Offbeat Church, Outgrowth of Marijuana Trade, Prospers on Island". Washington Post. Archived from the original on January 15, 2024.
  11. ^ "Nine members of the Jamaica-based Ethiopian Zion Coptic church were convicted by a federal jury". United Press International. June 19, 1981. Archived from the original on January 15, 2024.
  12. ^ "Woman, son stabbed dead". The Daily Gleaner. Jamaica. September 20, 1998. p. 1. Keith 'Nyah' Gordon, the leader of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church who died around two years ago.
  13. ^ Akladios, Michael (October 11, 2020). "Holy Smoke: Egypt's Copts Discover the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church". Egypt Migrations. Archived from the original on March 29, 2024.
  14. ^ Barnett, Michael (June 1, 2005). "The many faces of Rasta: Doctrinal Diversity within the Rastafari Movement". Caribbean Quarterly. 51 (2). doi:10.1080/00086495.2005.11672267.
  15. ^ Lee, Hélène (2004). "28 Count Ossie". The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism. p. 248. ISBN 978-1-55652-558-2. Up until this point, Wareika and Rockfort had been the towns of the free thinkers among the Rastas. According to Verona Reckord, the movement's "Big Three" were Count Ossie, his saxophonist friend Big Bra Gaynair, and Bro Filmore Alvaranga (today the patriarch of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari). To those must be added Brother Love, a Rasta elder who used to preach in Mountain View on the western slope of the Wareika Hills.
  16. ^ Wells, Walter W. "Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, History in this Present Generation". Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Archived from the original on January 12, 2024. most of our Camp sites were on captured government lands. We were in those times called squatters by our religious and political oppressors and society as a whole.
  17. ^ "Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, CBS News - 60 Minutes, Volume XII, Number 7, Oct. 28, 1979". Retrieved 11 October 2022.
  18. ^ Marijuana and the Bible
  19. ^ a b Hugh Redington, Norman (1994). "Rastafarians and Orthodoxy" (PDF). Retrieved 11 October 2022.
  20. ^ a b "Town v. State, 377 So.2d 648 (Fla. 1979)". November 1, 1979. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
  21. ^ "Commutations Granted by President Barack H. Obama (2009-2017)". 12 January 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2022.