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The East African Revival at 95

At the onset of the New Year, I attended a meeting of the East Africa Revival Movement at the open grounds of Bishop James Hannington Cathedral in the Diocese of Mumias, Kenya. I desired some fresh spiritual energy at the beginning of the year for leading a largely rural diocese in Western Kenya, with all its challenges and opportunities. I was not disappointed.

The East African Balokole (saved ones) has been described as Africa’s foremost conversionist and revival movement within Protestant churches. The Christian conversion movement started in northern Rwanda and southern Uganda in 1929 as a response to what was perceived as the deadness and decay of conventional religion, associated with the missionary church. It sought to bring vigor to Christian life.

I approach the East Revival Fellowship as a lived reality, and my Christian journey has been influenced, to a significant extent, by this movement. As a little boy attending Sunday school at St. Paul’s Parish in Lubinu, western Kenya, I grew up observing and listening to the singing by Tukutendereza (We praise Jesus), as members of the movement are referred to in my context. My turning point as a Christian, at age 19, involved a personal appropriation of the Christian message to my life. Although I was all by myself, walking along a little dusty path in my village, the conviction that I needed to begin a new journey with the Lord overwhelmed me.

On the Sunday after my conversion, I turned up at the local church in Mumias and publicly testified that I had been saved by the Lord. Since then, repentance, confession, and fellowship have preoccupied my mind and ministry, despite my many inadequacies. Today, our diocese hosts monthly revival gatherings in our open-air garden. Many parishes across the diocese have smaller groups of members of the East African revival meeting regularly for prayer. Many of our most dedicated Christians, including canons in our diocese, are members of the revival fellowship. While composed mostly of Anglicans, the movement encompasses Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed and African Inland churches, varied Pentecostal groups, and African-initiated churches.

From the mid-1940s through the late 1970s, the revival expanded well beyond East Africa as teams of African leaders carried the message to an international audience, from Brazil to Asia. Thus, the revival has influenced Christian public expression well beyond East and Central Africa, shaping spirituality and social discourse at the international level. It maintained momentum into the 1990s and remains a remarkable influence on language, personal morality, and spiritual practice across different denominations.

Experiencing Revival in Mumias

On the morning of the fellowship, hundreds arrived in groups, hired buses, and some personal cars. Most arrived by public transport, while others walked to the venue. Several walked with difficulty, a sign of aging and its accompanying challenges. I was delighted to see over 30 young people, recent converts to the movement, following a meeting in Malaba, near the border of Kenya and Uganda. They gathered for their new year’s thanksgiving meeting at an open field in Mumias, the center of revival meetings in western Kenya.

The excitement and sense of fellowship was palpable — plenty of hugs among brothers and sisters, with their signature greeting Tukutendereza (Praise Jesus), which pervades interpersonal encounters. It is expected that upon testifying, one will close with the phrase. It signifies total surrender to the lordship of Jesus and is deeply embedded in the ethos of adherents, functioning as a rubric for everything they do or say. On this day, the brothers and sisters gathered may have numbered over 700, representing different regions of western Kenya.

They were from Bungoma, Butere, Katakwa, Kakamega, Mumias, Nambale — from all over the larger western region. This was the first of three huge meetings that they would hold in this new year. There would be smaller and more regular meetings in local churches, sometimes in each other’s homes, akin to the early church in Acts. They gather weekly, sometimes even monthly.

The leadership of the revival, a smaller team of about 15 people, had spent the previous evening at our diocesan guest house, listening to testimonies and the Word of God and planning for the larger meeting that would follow. The Rt. Rev. John Okude of the Diocese of Katakwa, also a child of the revival, was among them. He would be among the three main preachers during the three-hour meeting on the day that followed. I was delighted to welcome him as a friend who has invited me to his diocese.

Lay Leadership

The movement is largely a lay-led fellowship characterized by an ethos of public confession, repentance, and testimonials. Without any formal training in religious sciences, the preachers’ claim to authority is based on their claim to conversion experiences and their ability to expound biblical texts.

I listened to three sermons from around 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Because it was the beginning of a new year, they chose to reflect on Psalm 116, focusing specifically on the theme of gratitude to God. Each sermon ended with the signature Tukutendereza song, accompanied by spontaneous lifting of hands, and an extensive testimony from a member. Some had been saved for the last 50 or 60 years. Others were more recent converts, especially the youth.

This year’s major events were announced, including a meeting in Mumias on April 27. There would also be a mission to the far-flung Lodwah Town in Turkana County, north of Kenya. Some of the planned meetings will be held outside Western Kenya, including a huge East Africa Convention on August 15-18.

The meeting was organized in this sequence: a song, testimonials, a first sermon, extensive testimony, a second sermon, more testimony, and a third sermon, and more testimony.

There was a moment of introducing over 30 young people who had recently accepted Jesus as their Savior at a meeting in Malaba. Some wore jeans, ordinarily anathema among the revival brethren. Some women had plaited hair, once disallowed in the revival ethos, as it was seen as embodying worldliness and violating biblical verses about modesty (1 Tim. 2). But these were new converts and they were excused; they will be mentored along the way in the proper ethos of the fellowship: not to plait their hair, not to keep a beard, not to keep long and painted nails, not to drink alcohol, but to live in sobriety in the honor of the Lord.

The testimonies were specific and spoke to the sinful past of the speakers. “Jesus found me when I had no respect for my parents.” “I had dropped out of school for no good reason.” “Many will discourage you, but I will walk with Jesus.” “I will not wear a trouser.” “I will not plait my hair.” A young convert told of how he engaged in acts of violence in school before being saved, to the extent of breaking his classmate’s hand during a fight. “I was a thief and a fornicator.” Others spoke of having harbored suicidal thoughts and even attempting suicide, until the Lord spoke to them miraculously.

Another member spoke of how he took pride in his parents’ salvation, until the Lord taught him that salvation had to be gained individually. Within the movement, individual appropriation of the Christian faith remains a strong emphasis, in a context where faith faces the danger of mere cultural relevance. The person giving his testimony said the biblical text that moved him was “The person who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20).

In their testimonies, some invoked the names of revival luminaries like the late Ugandan Bishop Festo Kivengere citing their important mentorship. While the revival is largely a lay-led movement, spiritual mentorship is highly valued and those who came to the Lord earlier and remain faithful are much valued.

There were moments of public repentance of more recent sins in the lives of the brethren, such as  fear, and a poor commitment to meeting in fellowship groups.

The songs were not the usual hymns. They had been composed over the years, through the fellowships of the East Africa Revival. The blood of the lamb was a common theme in the singing.

Epilogue

The East Africa Revival is a post-colonial expression of the Christian faith. As the revival spread under African impetus and leadership, it creatively melded with African tradition. Under independent lay initiatives within the mission churches, it formed communities of prayer and fellowship that focused on repentance, public confession, testimony, and restitution. It comes from the heart and finds expression in the personal encounters of converts with the Lord.

In this sense, the movement plays an important role in encouraging Christian fervor among adherents. Its hymns are not those inherited from the past. They are composed based on personal encounters with the Lord and varied experiences. Most can be sung spontaneously, signifying how deeply embedded they are in the life stories of converts. While the movement has clear leadership structures, it endeavors to exemplify egalitarianism. All are sisters and brothers in the Lord. It could be approached as a protest against hierarchical ecclesiology to a centralized association unified through its ethos of conversion and personal spiritual encounter. The revival breaks down tribal and political barriers, providing new opportunities for fellowship.

In this lay movement, a variety of people find a new life in Christ in the fellowship. The revival represents a recovery of the indigenous structures of the church, such as fellowship, brotherhood and sisterhood, and sharing.

The revivalists engage in radical acts of self-examination, a deep sense of our human sinfulness, evident in their testimonies.

The accommodation of young people that have not been fully integrated as evidenced by their difference in hair style may be a recent development and an indicator of the movement’s desire to reach young people. But clearly, much more needs to be done to pass on this wonderful Christian heritage to future generations.

The central place of the Bible in the movement is unassailable. Three sermons within three hours is not a small thing, without difficult exegetical questions, but the Word of God plainly speaks to the world. The sermons are given by lay people. Such open accessibility to religious texts has enabled people who have not studied theology to actively participate in teaching the Word of God.

The movement serves an important pastoral role, prayers for all members in need — the sick, bereaved, poor, and so on. But it also goes beyond prayer to practical interventions in the struggles its members face.

To some, the revival tends to be legalistic which puts off segments of potential adherents.

To the vast majority of devoted Christians, it is a bulwark against the coldness and maintenance mode of ministry in many of our churches, and a vanguard against growing secularism. They pride themselves on being a revival within the church that has no desire to break away. This desire is also evidenced in their relationship with clergy and bishops, who more often than not would be acknowledged respectfully and welcomed to sit in front of the rest. Their gathering is an extension of the churches, to which they already belong.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Bishop Joseph,

    I am grateful for this description of the continuation of the East Africa Revival. Early in my conversion, I spent a weekend in 1979 at a seminar led by Bishop Festo, entitled “I love Idi Amin.” This was just a little over two years after Archbishop Janani was murdered by the same Idi Amin. I was feeling that I had finally found a church home in the Episcopal Church, and this experience confirmed it—”I want to be a part of a church that produced a man like Bishop Festo!”

    Now a bishop, I have often declared publicly that we all have a lot to learn about mission from each other: Ugandans, Kenyans, Nigerians, Americans and many others. If we all could just lift our eyes beyond the one issue that prevents this, the Spirit would pour such an abundant blessing on us all.

    Once again, I have learned much from your wisdom, and I treasure our friendship in the Lord.

  2. Thanks a lot Bishop Wandera for sharing about the East African Revival movement and it’s impact in the Church in African.

  3. Thanks Bishop Joseph. While I was not a direct beneficially of the revival. I do resonate with your reflections. I wonder if these sessions would be expanded to other parts of Kenya to allow the new crop of believers hear live testimonies about that treasured past and explore the implications for the todays Bon again Christian. Just to say thank you

  4. Greetings mwalimu wangu St Paul 2006 – 2009.

    This is a mind provoking read and more especially looking into the revival aspect vis a vis localizing the message of the gospel.
    Joel 2:28 -29 comes to mind as I meditate on your words. Oh how we need to embrace our Afrucanism in the litargy and generally our worship as the body of Christ.
    I do take part inthe Revival movements and yes, the simplicity and humility of the brethren there is something to be emulated.
    My take home is the acceptance of the prodigy and blending in of the young in such a noble ministry.
    I am left with deep reflections of in leaving a legacy that can be passed on for generations.
    Thank you sir.

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