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A History of Christianity in Uganda

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A History of Christianity in Uganda

Presented to

Dr. G. K. Johnson


CHHI 302 – Church History II


James Bowers



Our account starts with Henry Stanley, an explorer and journalist, who was on exploration of Africa in late 1854, to look for the sources and nature of the Nile as well as lakes in central Africa.  It was on this trip that he met the Kabada (king) of Buganda, a central Ugandan tribe.  His name was King Mutesa and Stanley shares a story of Christianity with him.  The king became enthralled and requested that he appeal to Queen Victoria to send missionaries to Uganda.  It was this request that eventually brought Christianity to them.1    Compared to other areas in Africa, missionaries arrived fairly late to Uganda.   Especially since it was almost a century since the missionary impetus from Europe had begun.2

Kabaka Mutesa inherited the strongest region as his kingdom in 1856 and over a period of 28 years consolidated and enhanced its powers.  Under his rule Buganda was open to the outside world for trading.  They traded slaves and ivory for cotton cloth, guns, and luxury items with the Swahili and Arab traders from Zanzibar.  Along with the trade came the influences of Islam on religion and cultural lives of the people of Buganda.  When Christianity was introduced, Islam was already introduced having an impact on the Buganda people.3At first Mutesa learned some Arabic, attended and even led prayers in a mosque built at the court.  He was very curious about the teachings of Islam, but as a ruler his concern was largely with matters of state. He saw Islam as a religion in which he could enhance his own power.4That was until Egypt began wanting to include an area that of central Africa, including Buganda, into an Egyptian Empire.  It was during a visit in 1876 that the Egyptians started changing things.  They didn’t like the mosque in

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/563226/Sir-Henry-Morton-Stanley/6877/Discovery-and-development-of-the-Congo.
  2. Zablon Nthamburi , From Mission to Church: A Handbook of Christianity in East Africa, ed., published by Uzima Press (Imani House, St. John's Gate, off Parliament Rd., P.O. Box 48127, Nairobi, Kenya) in 1991.
  3. Kevin Ward, A History of Christianity in Uganda, http://www.dacb.org/history/a%20history%20of%20christianity%20in%20uganda.html.
  4. Zablon Nthamburi.

the court or that the King would lead some prayers.  Muslims were told to follow Islamic food laws and to refuse to eat meat slaughtered by the king’s butchers. Because of a number of young pages defiance, some 100 were executed at one of the traditional execution sites of Buganda.   This became a confirmation for Muteesa’s fear that Islam was becoming a political force.5

Two years after Stanley’s visit to Uganda, Christianity first came when eight missionaries from the Church Missionary Society arrived in 1877.  Misfortunes came upon the small band of missionaries almost immediately when they reached Uganda.  Two died, two were sent home, and one had to remain at the coast because of his health.  The remainder of the party marched for many months before reaching Mutesa’s court on June 30, 1877.  The reception that they received from the king surprised them and showed the eagerness to learn about Christianity.  One of them by the name of Wilson stayed at the court preaching the Gospel, while two others sail to retrieve the one left behind with the stores because of his health.  While on this trek, the two were murdered by natives of one of the islands in the lake.  This left only Wilson and Mackay, the one left at the coast.  It turns out that while Mackay was waiting he converted many.  He then met up with Wilson Uganda in November 1878.  After asking for reinforcements, they arrived in Uganda the following spring.6 

Eighteen months after the first missionaries reached the kings court, a group of French Catholic “White Fathers” arrived.  With the introduction of the rival movements now present, there would be a lot of finger pointing.  Church Missionary Society felt that the Catholics were trying to sabotage the Protestant missionary effort. The Catholics pointed out that they had been  

  1. Zablon Nthamburi , From Mission to Church: A Handbook of Christianity in East Africa, ed., published by Uzima Press (Imani House, St. John's Gate, off Parliament Rd., P.O. Box 48127, Nairobi, Kenya) in 1991. 
  2. A. F. Mockler-Ferryman, Christianity in Uganda, Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 2, No. 7 (Apr., 1903), pg. 276, Published by: Oxford University Press.

planning the evangelization of Eastern Africa for many years.  They felt that they were being out staged by Stanley’s letter that he wrote to the Queen in 1875.7  According to the Catholic’s it was superficial, but I say read it for yourselves.   It was printed in the Daily Telegraph newspaper of Britain on 15th November 1875.

“Oh! That some pious, practical missionary would come here! What a field and harvest ripe for the sickle of civilization….It is the practical Christian tutor who can teach people how to become Christians, cure their diseases, construct dwellings…and turn his hand to anything – like a sailor – this is the man who is wanted….You need not fear to spend money on such…a mission…”8

Still, we have to look at the two rivals and see that for centuries they have been engulfed with controversy and warfare in Europe.  Even so, the missionaries defended their own faith and this made the two groups fit in well with the traditional factionalism of court life. What we find coming out of this, is a zeal and competition between the Buganda converts that brought great success to the Christian movement.  It surprised many that such a zeal for the Gospel was fueled so much through prejudice and partisanship. There was lively interest in the two movements, it seemed like one complimented the other.9 



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