New Dawn in East Africa: the East African revival

SEPTEMBER 1929 was an all-time ‘low’ for Dr Joe Church, missionary in the tiny East African slate of Rwanda. The country had just experienced the most terrible famine; his fiancee was ill in Britain and he feared she would not be passed fit for service in Africa, and he had just failed his first language examination. Worn out and discouraged, he decided to take a break in Kampala, the capita] of neighbouring Uganda.

Joe Church stayed with friends on Namirembe Hill and on the Sunday morning walked up to the cathedral. Outside it was an African standing by his motor-bike. His name was Simeoni Nsibambi.

’there is something missing in me and the Uganda church. Can you tell what it is?’ Simeoni asked Joe.

The two men spent two days studying the Bible and praying together. In a subsequent letter home, Joe wrote. There can be nothing to stop a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Rwanda now except our own lack of sanctification.’ Both men were transformed and Joe went back to Gahini in Rwanda a new person. Immediately conversions began to take place, and Christians started to confess faults and resentments to one another. Forgiveness was experienced and broken relationships restored.

The East African Revival had started. From Rwanda, it spread to Uganda and Kenya. Its effects have been more lasting than almost any other revival in history, so that today there is hardly a single Protestant leader in East Africa who has not been touched by it in some way.

A different revival

Revivals were by no means unknown in Africa in the early part of the twentieth century. However, with very few exceptions, they led almost immediately to schism and were often linked with anti-colonial feeling. The Africans, understandably, wanted a church of their own without interference from missionaries.

The East African Revival was different from this pattern. In their ‘quest for the highest’, the revival leaders turned their faces resolutely against schism. Because of this, many of them had to suffer misunderstanding, disapproval and outright opposition from their colleagues. Joe Church himself had his preaching licence ai one time withdrawn. Although much later the revival movement did produce some schisms, the mainstream remained firmly within the existing church.

In East Africa at this time there was much nominal Christianity, with low moral standards and a great deal of corruption. With the rise of African nationalism, relationships between the white missionaries and ihe Africans were often strained. The whole situation had been exacerbated by a split in the 1920s between two Anglican missionary societies. But the East African Revival brought everywhere healing and unity, and this was one of its great achievements. Missionaries were humbled, stripped of racial pride and able to enjoy deep Christian fellowship with African leaders, who also had such a deep understanding of Jesus’ reconciling death as to free them from resentment against the whites.

The revival bridged racial as well as spiritual divisions. The leadership became increasingly African, in the hands of men such as William Nagenda, Festo Kivengere (now a bishop), Yosiya Kinuka and many olhers. Later they were to have their martyrs in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, in Rwanda’s tribal disturbances and most recently in Uganda. One of these, Yona Kanamuzeyi, has had his name added to the lasting roll of tnodern martyrs in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The ‘fruits’ of the revival have mainly been in East Africa itself, though many Christians throughout the world have been enriched by its message and inspiration. Thousands of Africans were converted, nominal Christianity disappeared practically overnight, people openly acknowledged their sins and turned from them, and the church was thoroughly renewed.

The revival did not spread wider than the Protestant churches. Its teaching centred on the cleansing Jesus achieved for us when he died. But perhaps its finest contribulion has been the evangelistic zeal which has characterized it. It has played a crucial part in the expansion of the church in Africa.

Tukutendereza Yesu, omusaigwo gunaiiia. they sing. ‘We praise you, Jesus, your blood cleanses me.’

By Michael Harper

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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