It is the 20th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1977.
In Uganda, the year was marked by celebrations for what was being called “Christianity’s 1st Century” in the East African country. The church was established 100 years prior, in 1877. It had been one of the last African countries to embrace Christianity, but it would be one of the most Christian nations on the African continent within the century.
The Ugandan church was, however, in a state of crisis. Janani Luwum, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda/Rwanda/Burundi/Boga-Zaire, had become the church’s foremost spokesman and a critic of the dictator Idi Amin. A showdown was looming. To get to the event in 1977, let’s go back to 1877 and introduce Christianity to Uganda.
A couple of notes on Uganda: The country is located in central, sub-Saharan Africa with Kenya to the east, the Congo to the West, Sudan to the north, and Tanzania to the south. Uganda is on Lake Nalubaale, also called Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, next to Lake Superior. The East African country is about the size of Minnesota, with almost ten times Minnesota’s population.
By the 14th century, various tribes had settled into three dominant kingdoms in the region. In the 19th century, British and Arab settlers moved into the area. The Ugandan king initially favored the Arab Muslims. Still, soon inter-African rivalries and the threat of Muslim Egypt led to Uganda embracing the British Christians as a counterbalance to the perceived Egyptian threat.
While foreign trade would flourish, the highly centralized state only became a protectorate of Britain when the European powers sliced up the continent around the end of the 19th century.
Uganda’s internal cohesion and adaptability to new “regimes” allowed the country to stay relatively independent from foreign powers. The story of the church in 20th century Uganda is a mixture of regional and local alliances grafted onto larger world-historical religious trends. The Ugandan distinctions between the Buganda, Bunyoro, and Ankole remained static while “Catholic,” “Anglican,” or “Muslim” were more fluid. Eventually, the Anglican Church became a de facto state church, although the independent Ugandans would keep their own culture inside the colonist’s church.
Across Africa, the Mid 20th century was witness to a large-scale “revival” of sorts. Charismatic and indigenous churches exploded on the scene in a manner unprecedented in Africa and the rest of the world. If the established church were going to tap into this indigenous revival, it would need its native clergymen.
Enter: Janani Luwum, who would become the most influential Ugandan church leader in the 20th century. Luwum was born in 1924 to Christian parents in an otherwise non-Christian region of the country. On account of his parents, he gained access to a missionary training school where he learned to read and write. He was nominally Anglican but did not consider himself a Christian until a revival service in 1948. He attended the local seminary and was identified as a bright light in the Ugandan Anglican Church.
Luwumi was ordained as a priest in 1955 and then spent time in London before being named bishop of Northern Uganda by the Anglican Church. Luwum’s success partially came from navigating the Anglican bureaucracy while remaining a thoroughgoing Ugandan priest to his Ugandan flock.
Luwumi’s ascent, unfortunately, paralleled the ascent of the British-backed Idi Amin. By 1971 Amin’s coup was successful, and Luwum would be one of the few to call out Amin’s brutal and genocidal actions that would eventually lead to a body count of about 1/2 a million.
Now Archbishop Luwum arranged for an interfaith meeting amongst Ugandan’s religious leaders to discuss the bloody regime of Amin. They decided to confront him, as the chairman, Luwum, hand-delivered a letter to the dictator.
Within days Luwum was arrested for treason and sent to an interrogation center. Officials claimed that Luwum was killed in a car accident on the way to the center, but Time magazine reported on his bullet-riddled body and suggested that Amin himself pulled the trigger.
He was killed on the evening of the 16th of February. 4 days later, on this, the 20th of February in 1977, thousands attended public funeral services— across Africa— for the Ugandan martyr Archbishop Janani Luwum.
The reading for today comes from Henry Vaughn, “The Revival.” (Note the parallel of both spiritual and seasonal revival.)
Unfold! Unfold! Take in His light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys which with His day-star rise
He deals to all but drowsy eyes;
And, what the men of this world miss
Some drops and dews of future bliss.
Hark! How His winds have chang’d their note!
And with warm whispers call thee out;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle’s voice;
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear!
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man currently selling single-origin coffee from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Kenya… he is Christopher Gillespie at Gillespie.coffee. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.