Monday, May 21st, 2012
by Jason Bruner
And such is the case with the East African Revival. (For Kevin Ward’s fine historical outline of the Revival, see here.)
“It is a delicate matter, to write up Revival!” So said Dr. Joe Church, and he would know. As an evangelical Anglican missionary doctor who spent decades working in Rwanda and Uganda, he was the Revival’s most dedicated historian. His eye to posterity led him to preserve thousands of letters, newspaper clips, photographs, sermon notes, and other sundries. And through his dozens of published editorials, pamphlets, booklets, and his quintessential revival history Quest for the Highest: An Autobiographical Account of the East African Revival, he has probably done more than any other single person to form the historical perception of the Revival, particularly in the West.
For Joe Church, the Revival was the outgrowth of a microcosmic exchange between himself and an educated Ganda man in Kampala, Uganda, Simeon Nsibambi, in 1929. The two sought a higher Christian life and spent a few days tracing Scofield’s chain references, by the end experiencing a more intimate relationship with God and one another. In the process, an African and European helped one another move towards a more victorious life of personal holiness.
As he tells it, Church soon returned to his mission station in Gahini, Rwanda, where he instituted a similar regimen of plain Bible readings and daily prayer, from which the pattern of the East African Revival emerged in the early 1930s. The message was then carried throughout East Africa by small bands of African preachers, who brought a message of the severity of sin and the need for individuals to confess their sins publicly and have them washed in the powerful blood of Jesus.
But accepting Church’s chronology would make the revival only 83 years old.
Church’s narrative efforts (and his status as the central European responsible for the movement) did not go uncontested. As conflicts between revived and non-revived Ugandan Anglicans approached a breaking point in the early 1940s, they drove the British Bishop of Uganda, C.E. Stuart, to counter Church’s historical ownership of the Revival’s origins.
Attempting to claim the credit for the revival’s spread across southern Uganda and elsewhere, Bishop Stuart argued that the revival didn’t really begin until he invited Joe Church and African Revival “brethren” to conduct missions for the Uganda Jubilee in 1937. Later, he also claimed that the training he provided to a handful of ordinands in Kampala in the early 1930s “softened the soil” for the revival to sprout in the late 1930s. The revival, therefore, was an outgrowth of his vision and efforts, though he never joined the revival personally. And his chronological imagination sought to bolster his contested authority as the bishop of a divided church.
For Stuart, the revival would be 75 or 80.
Then there is a history (unpublished, housed at the Henry Martyn Centre) written by Simeon Nsibambi in the early 1970s. Intriguingly, Nsibambi’s own accounts contest Church’s history by stating off the top: “The Revival in Uganda has been running for 50 years, that is from 1922.” For Nsibambi, the revival began when he received a personal blessing from God that drove him into a deeper spiritual quest and resulted in his greater attentiveness to prayer and Bible study.
But Nsibambi’s history is by no means politically neutral. He wrote during an age in which the revival itself was wrought by factions that formed in the late 1960s – factions which he worked, largely unsuccessfully, to reconcile. His narrative, therefore, asserts his preeminence as the progenitor and patriarch of the movement (sans Joe Church), which should heed his calls toward reconciliation.
Accepting Nsibambi’s story, this year the revival is a nonagenarian.
So, what do all these conflicting chronologies reveal about the Revival?
It is telling that all of these histories (in print or in a verbal testimony) of the Revival are personal. In written form, they trace the revival to the outworking of microcosmic exchanges between individuals or particular decisions: the singular conversion of Nsibambi, the meeting of Church and Nsibambi, a decision to organize a mission. For them, writing the Revival’s was creative act that was inseparable from theological convictions and claims to legitimate authority.
While it was personal, the Revival was also a biographical movement. As Derek Peterson has described, Revival fellowship groups taught ordinary folk how to compose their history for themselves – their story of how God brought them to salvation and maintained them in that salvation. But each revivalist had a story to tell. Microhistories abounded, and these histories might have little to do with the narratives composed by Church, Stuart, or Nsibambi.
Revival biographical histories reveal that the Revival is a movement that has a plurality of narrative beginnings, which attest to the internal diversity of the revival message’s appropriation. In fact, some Ugandans were keen to maintain that their “revival conversions” in the early 1930s preceded any preaching by a Revival preaching team sent from Gahini – they were “revived” before or apart from the Revival, so to speak. For them, the Revival started when they were awoken with a divine voice, or received a particular vision, and confessed, rid themselves of charms and fetishes, and began living a more devout Christian life. For one of these converts, the Revival might be 79 or 78 this year.
Most testimonies, however, were not written down for a variety of reasons. Some viewed this as a calcification of a story of God’s dealings with their heart that must, by definition, remain au currant. Many revivalists were simply illiterate. Others feared that writing and publicizing the movement might lead Satan to attack that person, thereby discrediting the movement. (Ironically, Joe Church held this view, despite his efforts to tell their stories.)
What, then, can we say about how old the East African Revival is?
Like many things, it depends on whom you ask, but the pursuit of an answer to this basic question has illuminated the historical ambiguities of this dynamic movement. The tensions and debates that wrote and re-wrote the Revival’s history point to the theological discrepancies among Ugandan Anglicans and personal rivalries within the Anglican Church of Uganda.
It is safe to say, however, that for the majority of those who found the revival’s message to be personally revolutionary, the chronological squabbling of prominent men is of little concern. Their own histories are far more important. This points to the need for the inclusion in historical scholarship on the Revival of the dedicated ordinary “historians” who have not had the privilege of print or status, but have nevertheless through their testimonies been composing the Revival’s history for decades. They know without a doubt when their story begins, often down to the hour they received salvation.
Joe Church certainly had one thing right: writing up revival is a delicate matter. So happy 75th, 79th, 80th, 83rd, or 90th (or other) birthday.
Jason Bruner is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Princeton Theological Seminary.