Yearning behind the East African Revival Movement
The East African Revival Movement, which began in the 1920s and 30s, was ecumenical and sought racial harmony.
The Reverend Obadiah Kariuki third right) with other religious leaders when they paid a courtesy call on Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (centre) at his residence in Gatundu, Kiambu, in this pre-Indepedence photo. Rev Kariuki was among the first Kenyan cleirics to join the East African Revival Movement. FILE PHOTO | NMG
While the African Independent Churches created schisms within the mainstream churches and tended to be political in nature, the East African Revival Movement, which began in the 1920s and 30s, was ecumenical and sought racial harmony. Joe Church, as he was popularly known, is widely regarded as the father of the East African Revival.Born John Edward Church in 1899 to an English country clergyman, Church studied at St. Lawrence School, Ramsgate before entering Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a medical student in 1919. While a student at Cambridge, he had a conversion experience on the evening of 29 August 1920 following which he became an active member of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). This group had considerable influence among Christian students interested in foreign missions, an interest which had become a hallmark of Cambridge as a result of Dwight L. Moody’s famous revival meeting there and the missionary commitment of the “Cambridge Seven” in the mid-1880s.Church was deeply influenced by the teachings in the popular book How to Live the Victorious Life, which represented the Keswick theology that emphasised the post-conversion experience of a second blessing, or “spirit filling”, and a strong desire for the higher Christian life.In 1926 Church qualified as a doctor and sailed to Africa in October 1927 to serve with the Ruanda Mission of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).After serving two years at CMS Gahini Hospital, Rwanda, Church found himself in a state of spiritual dryness. The country had just experienced a terrible famine, his fiancée was ill in Britain and he had just failed his first language examination. Worn out and discouraged, he decided to take a break in Kampala, Uganda in September 1929.Church stayed with missionaries on Namirembe Hill and on the Sunday walked up to the cathedral where he found an African standing beside his motorbike whose name was Simeoni Nsibambi, a young Christian leader from Buganda. Church and Nsibambi shared a common dissatisfaction with the low spiritual state of the Anglican Church in Uganda. They spent the next two days together seeking “the filling of the Spirit and the Victorious Life” through prayer and Bible study after which they experienced the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.This meeting of Church and Nsibambi represented a merging of two streams in a convergence of European and African renewal traditions.
After the meeting Nsibambi left his job with the church and became a full-time evangelist, speaking to everyone. He sold his motorbike and stopped wearing shoes. Many thought that he had gone mad because everywhere he went he was asking people if they were saved. In spite of the criticism, he continued to evangelise, praying and holding Bible studies. On May 2, 1930 he organised the first Friday prayer meeting at the Synod Hall, Kampala which 35 of his converts attended.In the meantime, Church had returned to Gahini in Rwanda and the Holy Spirit began to manifest in a new way. In a letter he wrote in 1927, he had noted “how the crowds of people flock up that hill to communion on Sunday, who have no idea of what they are doing, and of the number of baptised Christians who are going to polygamy and witchcraft, and to worship with evil spirits. Christianity had become just a veneer to cover it all up, and that in many cases the only difference between pagans and Christians was that pagans sin openly and Christians hide it.”Church believed that Africans, like Europeans, could experience a second blessing. Through his evangelism many were converted including chiefs and those who practised witchcraft. One of the most notable pillars of the revival was the public confession of sin by those seeking to be born again. Many hidden sins were repented of, hypocrisies revealed and stolen goods returned ranging from money, hoes and even razor blades.In October 1933, the first Rwanda Missionaries convention was held near Kabale. The need for reconciliation between the clergy and laity became evident. The sin of prayerlessness came to the fore.The East African Revival began primarily as a small group of fellowship meetings in homes and villages, in which all participants shared freely their testimony of “spirit filling” experience and desire for a higher Christian life. There was love and fellowship with each other, regardless of class, station or race which provided a deeper and fuller conception of fellowship, the very essence of “koinonia”.The flames of this revival began to spread to Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanganyika but the first official date by many is June 1936 as the beginning of the East African Revival when the Anglican Church celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. It had been agreed that the revival was the only way to save the church from moral decadence; the celebrations provided a perfect opportunity.The most famous, triumphant revival hymn, “Tukutendereza Yesu” (We praise you Jesus), captures the essence of the movement, that is, salvation through being washed in the blood of Jesus.The spirit of reconciliation was seen to manifest during the Mau Mau period in Kenya. Leaders of the Revival insisted that Africans and Europeans must sit together because mistrust between the races must be broken. Obadiah Kariuki and John Gatu were some of the early Kenyan clergy to join the East African Revival much to the consternation of their European counterparts. While they were sympathetic to the African struggle for independence, they did not support the methods the Mau Mau used to push their cause neither did they condone the brutality on the part of the colonialists.Today, we are seeing Christians sinning openly and people who have acquired wealth through dubious means are given pews at the front of churches because of the large amounts of cash they contribute.Perhaps it would not be a bad idea if we had a National Revival where these folks can openly confess their transgressions and return the stolen assets to their rightful owners, the citizens of Kenya.