A Hunger For Holiness

HIS DREAM was to study abroad. So he applied for a scholarship, finished filling out the form, and placed the envelope carefully in the mail. With the posting of that letter, in ways he could not imagine, he was about to become the leading figure in the East Africa Revival, a 40-year awakening that changed the spiritual map of Eastern Africa.

Simeon Nsibambi was born in Uganda in 1897 to Walusimbi Kimanje, a chief of Uganda’s most dominant tribe, the Buganda. He received his formal schooling at Mengo High School and King’s College Budo. During World War I he joined the African Native Medical Corps and was decorated for his distinguished service. After the war, in 1920, he was made Chief Health Officer in the Bugandan king’s government. He excelled as an athlete in both football and wrestling, and as a singer and artist. But it was his natural leadership abilities that would loom largest in the future.

Nsibambi became a Christian in 1922, three years before his marriage to Eva Bakaluba, with whom he would have 12 children. But education—the one thing necessary to cement his status as one of Uganda’s elite—seemed to occupy this young rising star more than the gospel. Study abroad, in his mind, was essential.

The reply to his application finally came. He was turned down. His best hope for advancement had been dashed.

Deeply frustrated, Nsibambi turned to God for answers. A vision came. God spoke to him and asked him a troubling question. What value did a scholarship to study abroad have compared to what he already had been given, that pearl of great price, the gospel of salvation? Nsibambi was disturbed by this vision. Ashamed and repentant, Nsibambi began to preach on tree—studded Namirembe Hill, overlooking the busy center of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. On the street corners near the great Anglican cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle with its rounded dome, he proclaimed the themes of brokenness and renewal. With those sermons in the streets, the first leaves of revival began to stir.

Bigger winds of change were blowing across African Christianity in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the change was a reaction to a missionary Christianity that many African adherents felt was too Western and too rigid. In 1929, Reuben Spartas left the Anglican church of Uganda in reaction to perceived abuses by white leaders and founded the African Orthodox Church. Similarly in West Africa, the Aladura (praying) churches of Nigeria stressed the role of supernatural evil and healing in reaction to the mission churches that emphasized moral evil and personal justification. These churches were founded by African prophet figures dissatisfied with the missionary churches in which they had found their own salvation (see p. 35).

For African Christians like Nsibambi, however, the greatest challenges to faith did not come from missionary imperialism, witchcraft, or ancestral spirits. For a growing number of second-generation African converts in the 1930s and 1940s, the main issue was spiritual dullness. They confessed a Lord who rose from the dead. Yet many felt rigor mortis rather than resurrection power was the normative experience in their churches and in their souls.

A church with “higher life”

After his scholarship crisis and God’s call to preach, Nsibambi still struggled with an inner emptiness of soul. He longed to know the power of the divine will and a full experience of divine grace. Help came in the form of a white stranger.

J. E. Church, Joe to his friends, was a new medical missionary with the Rwanda Mission (an offshoot of the Church Missionary Society), working at Gahini Hospital in Rwanda. Like many who worked in the Rwanda Mission, Church was an Anglican deeply affected by the “higher life” teaching of the British Keswick revival, and openly critical of the spiritual state of the church in Uganda and Rwanda.

Keswick teaching had its roots in the 1875 Dwight L. Moody revival in England. It taught that the power of indwelling sin in a believer can be broken by a strong faith experience in which the believer both internalizes the death of Christ and surrenders to the control of the Holy Spirit. This faith experience, it taught, took place after conversion. After this experience, the believer enjoyed “victorious Christian living.” Without it, the believer lived in defeat as a carnal Christian.

In 1929, finding himself in a state of acute spiritual dryness, Church took some time off in Kampala. There he encountered Nsibambi.

Church wrote in his diary of the meeting with Nsibambi that would change his missionary career. “Yesterday a rich Muganda . . . in government service rushed up to me at Namirembe and said he had heard me speaking . . . about surrendering all and coming out for Jesus. He said he had done so, and had great joy in the Lord, and had wanted to see me ever since. And then he said in his own words that he knew something was missing in the Uganda church and in himself, what was it? Then I had the great joy of telling him about the filling of the Spirit and the Victorious Life.” Following this conversation, Nsibambi met with Church again to go over the Scofield notes on the filling of the Spirit and prayed to “quit all sin in faith.” After several days of prayer and Bible study with Nsibambi, Church returned to Gahini Hospital “in the power of Pentecost.”

The change in Nsibambi was visible and permanent. He quit his job as a public health worker and devoted himself full time to preaching and renewal. When Church returned to Kampala several months later he was confronted by an irate missionary who demanded, “What have you done to Nsibambi?” Church enquired what the problem was. She replied, “Oh, he’s gone mad and is going around everywhere asking people if they are saved. He’s just left my gardener.” She insisted Africans were not ready for this new teaching about sanctification and the Holy Spirit.

Revival fires

More and more Africans became attracted to Nsibambi’s message of total surrender to Christ and joined with him. Among these was his younger brother, Blasio Kigozi, who joined Church at Gahini in 1931 and began challenging his African colleagues to seek a deeper Christian life. But the message was not well received. One of Kigozi’s most vocal critics was Yosiya Kinuka, a hospital worker who resented being called a “Laodicean” or half-hearted Christian.

Kinuka was the son of a chief of the Ankole tribe. He was proud of his ancestry and resistant to the message that spoke of his sinful nature and demanded repentance. Yet he could not get the message out of his mind. Upon the urging of Kigozi and Church, he agreed to visit Nsibambi in Kampala. Kinuka described their meeting: “I had never seen such a fervent Christian before. We kept talking about the subject of being born again. Simeon had heard that the spirit of the hospital was bad and he asked me the reason. When I began to tell him he turned to me and said that it was because of sin in my own heart, and that that was the reason why the others on the staff were bad. . . . My sins became like a burden upon my back, and I yielded to Christ.”

Kinuka publicly confessed his sin of nominalism and spiritual pride. By doing so, he established a characteristic pattern of the East Africa Revival.

After Kinuka surrendered to God, Nsibambi and Kigozi spoke at a church convention at Gahini in 1933. At that convention revival fires began to blaze. A new kind of African Christian was born—the abaka, those on fire. From this convention, teams of revivalists carried the flame to neighboring countries. They were called the balokole, the saved ones.

The revival at Gahini in 1933 was a prelude to a greater outbreak of spiritual fervor at Kabale, Uganda in 1935. Kigozi, Kinuka, and Nsibambi shared the stories of the abaka of Gahini. Many confessed their sins publicly and sought the second birth.

Tragedy struck soon after. Kigozi traveled to Kampala in January 1936 to challenge church leaders with the need to zukuka (awaken). Before he could deliver his message he was struck down by tick fever. He died on January 26, 1936 and was buried on Cathedral Hill, in a crowded funeral ceremony officiated by Nsibambi. Inscribed on Kigozi’s tombstone was the word zukuka.

Despite the death of a key leader, the revival grew. In April 1937, Church and Nsibambi led a convention just outside Nairobi, Kenya. They sensed that the deepest corporate sin of the Kenyan church was hatred and mistrust between black and white. The team preached to responsive crowds, and many publicly confessed sin. As one participant said: “I have never before seen any white man admit that he had any sins.”

Nsibambi’s preaching at revival meetings emphasized two themes. The first theme was echoed in the oft-repeated phrase: Ekibi kibi nyo, “Sin is Sin.” The ugliness and destructiveness of sin was so clear to him. But of equal emphasis was the softly spoken ekissa, Luganda for mercy. The bridge between dealing with sin and receiving mercy was public confession of such sins as “debt, dishonesty, immorality, and hatred of Europeans.”

Meanwhile, the expanding revival was receiving mixed reviews among the missionary community back in Uganda. Many feared it was simply religious froth. Some thought public confession of sin was scandalous. Others worried it would split the church. The head of the Church of Uganda, Bishop Simon Stuart, was generally sympathetic, though sensitive to the voice of missionary critics. He envisioned the Church of Uganda’s diamond jubilee celebrations in 1937 as just the platform to promote the revival in the Ugandan church. Bishops, however, are not always prophets. Instead of an outbreak of renewal, a new wave of opposition broke over the church.

The Mukono Incident of 1941

The full force of that wave crashed upon one of the newest leaders of the revival, William Nagenda, a brother-in-law to Nsibambi. The timing of Nagenda’s emergence was critical. In 1941 Simeon Nsibambi fell sick with an undisclosed illness that Church simply described as a “weakness.” Nsibambi was to remain an invalid, confined to his home near the Namirembe Cathedral, until his death in 1978. Though he would continue to exercise an enormous role in the course of the revival, it was Nagenda who emerged as the heir apparent.

In 1941 Nagenda was a student at Bishop Tucker Theological College in Mukono, Uganda, where he became campus leader of the pro-revival faction. He gathered a group of about 40 students who prayed for revival and spoke out bluntly against the immorality, theological liberalism, and high church worship on campus—all of which they saw as evidence of spiritual deadness. John Jones, the warden of the college, felt that he was the personal target of much of this criticism. He responded by banning revival meetings and preaching from campus. The balokole, Jones declared, were bajeemu (rebels). Nagenda and his disciples drafted a letter in December 1941 replying to the charges. They were not rebelling against school policies, they wrote, but against the modernist spirit at Mukono that “minimizes sin and the substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross, and mocks at the ideal of separation from the world to a holy and victorious life.” Jones expelled Nagenda and 29 others. The Church of Uganda polarized.

Bishop Stuart initially took the side of John Jones, whom he called “St. John,” and supported the expulsions. He removed the licenses to preach from a number of revival leaders including Nagenda and Church. These were not restored until 1944, after much debate over the Bishop’s 14—point plan of restoration. Many pro-revival Ugandans saw the document as just another expression of an authoritarian church attempting to destroy the revival.

On top of such criticisms, Nsibambi was soon faced with rogue elements of the balokole who began claiming they had reached a state of sinlessness. He opposed this group and was able to counter its teaching before it discredited the mainstream of the revival.

Nsibambi saw at the root of all perfectionism an inadequate view of the cross. When Nagenda visited Nsibambi and complained about his inability to crucify the old nature and achieve perfection, Nsibambi replied, “Don’t you know, William, that your old man was crucified for you, long ago, at Calvary. . . . Go home and rest . . . in the finished work of Christ.” Characteristic of Keswick teaching is the emphasis on overcoming sin through internalizing the death of Christ by faith. Nagenda’s striving for power over sin was doomed to fail, Nsibambi discerned, if he kept looking at himself rather than his Savior. Nsibambi had seen even in the search for sanctification a desire to develop a righteousness of one’s own, apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ.

The events at Mukono pointed in the direction of an inevitable split of the Anglican church in Uganda. As the tension reached its climax in 1943, Bishop Stuart issued a memorandum of reconciliation, published as The New Way, complete with a set of guidelines by which the revivalists and anti-revivalists could find common ground and avoid schism. Both sides agreed, averting division and ushering in the richest decades of revival yet.

Widening scope and enduring legacies

During the 1950s the revival reached its peak. Nagenda and Church traveled to India, America, Europe, Brazil, and all over Africa with the message of brokenness before the cross. Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya remained the epicenters of renewal.

Church writes that “leaders of Christian work and visitors to Kampala would not leave without a visit to Nsibambi, and would often return home with a new challenge and blessing.” Upon his death in 1978, Nsibambi was the patriarch of a movement that had altered East African Christianity. Millions of Christians had been touched by the revival, representing a new, vital Christianity, shaped by African leadership.

Sadly, the specter of separatism persisted, and some denominations broke apart. One prominent revival faction that emerged in Uganda in the 1970s called itself the Okuzukuka or Awakening. Leaders began to condemn as sources of spiritual coldness many indifferent things—business, insurance, farming, dogs, joining in cooperatives, and even certain kinds of dress and hair fashions.

More positively, the East Africa Revival served as forerunner to Africa’s explosive late twentieth- and early twenty-first century charismatic awakening. The humble beginning of this “next Christendom,” as Philip Jenkins has called it, can be seen in Tanzania. There, in the 1940s and 1950s, a leader named Festo Kivengere presided over an awakening marked by revivalists, open-air preaching, and conventions. Though many traditional denominations resented these new structures of renewal, they prepared Tanzania for the wave of Western Pentecostal missions that came in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Pentecostal preachers began new churches—rivals to the older churches. And once again, struggle between the faith of the older generation of saints and the new winds of the Spirit dominated the landscape of Christian East Africa. Simeon Nsibambi would have felt right at home.

By Mark Shaw

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #79 in 2003]

Mark Shaw is a professor at Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology and author of The Kingdom of God in Africa (Baker, 1996).
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