The Overlooked Revival: The East African Revival Was a Mighty Move of God

File: Women chant in the Anglican Christ Church located in the center of Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania, August 8, 2014. The East African Revival, which began in 1929, deeply impacted Anglicans as well as other churches in East Africa.

By Faith McDonnell Published on January 29, 2023

The Jesus Revolution will hit theatres Feb. 24, telling the story of the Jesus People Movement, which roared to life in 1970. Other famous revivals include America’s First and Second Great Awakenings, the Brownsville revival and Azusa Street. There’s the 100-year prayer meeting of the Moravians. I’m aware of Christian leaders researching the significance of revivals including the Asbury College Revival, Cane Ridge, the great Welsh Revival.

But we don’t hear so much about the East African Revival, which ignited in 1929 and lasted for decades.

Pastor Dutch Sheets speaks of the “synergy of the ages.” What this means is that God does not want the lessons, the spiritual power, and the unique characteristics of each revival to be lost. Sheets and others say God is calling His remnant Body back to the “old wells” of revival. Some of their dreams have even included literal wells opening again.

“Worldly businesspeople would employ ‘saved’ East Africans in their homes and businesses, because they could completely trust them and rely on them to work hard.” — Charles V. Taylor

The East African Revival is a perfect example of the need for true unity in the Body of Christ because denominational divisions have kept this revival from being known for its role in the synergy of the ages. Hundreds of thousands in the worldwide Body of Christ are intimately acquainted with this revival. It is well-known and honored by thousands of American Christians that have never heard of the prophetic leaders who are now speaking about all the other revivals. (And who might view said leaders with caution!)

Tukutendereza Yesu — “We Praise You Jesus”

The East African Revival deeply impacted Anglicans as well as other churches in East Africa. This revival, also known as the “Balokole Revival,” (Balokole is Lugandan for “the saved people”) spread throughout the continent — and beyond — for decades. Its reverberations continue today. Most of the greatest and godliest Christian leaders in East Africa can trace their salvation story back to the East African Revival.

Just as the Welsh Revival has its song, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean,” the East African Revival has its song, “Tukutendereza Yesu.”

You can’t attend a worship service with East African Anglicans — especially Ugandans or Rwandans — without someone bursting into this song and everyone joining. Other than hearing “Tukutendereza Yesu,” I first learned about the East African Revival while writing Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children. In that book I said the more one learns about the East African Revival, the more complex and beautiful it becomes:

  • There were Divine connections and interventions in the revival.
  • The seeds that blossomed into the East African Revival were planted at the end of the previous century in an earlier African revival that began with British missionaries. By Easter of 1894 this visitation of the Lord had infused the Ugandan Church with a spirit of missionary zeal.
  • The Welsh Revival of 1904 and its emphasis on conviction of sin and repentance also helped plant the seeds for the East African Revival!

The Revival Started With a Conversation About the Holy Spirit

The East African Revival started when Joe Church, an English missionary doctor working in Rwanda, encountered Simeoni Nsibambi, a Ugandan Anglican, on his way to All Saints Cathedral in Kampala for morning prayer. The place where Church and Nsibambi met in September 1929 was a hill called Namirembe, which means “full of peace.”

Nsibambi had heard Dr. Church speak about the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life and wanted to hear more. The East African Revival: Overview (Yusto Kaahwa, Solomon Nkesiga, and Joan Hall, 2012. East Africa Revival Fellowship — Uganda) reveals:

Both Simeoni and Joe had a fire that burned in their hearts for the Lord. Both of them were aware of the shortcomings in their spiritual life and also in the Church in Uganda (which then stretched into what is now known as Rwanda, Burundi, and Boga in the western foothills of the Rwenzori mountains.) When they met, they sat together, read their Bibles, and God met them. Both men were transformed. Later Joe wrote, ‘He gave no special gift. The only special gift is the transforming vision of the risen Jesus Himself. Pray for a real conviction of sin, and then the outpouring of the Holy Spirit will follow.’

Their encounter resulted in the transformation of countless lives and started a revival fire in East Africa that has never gone out. An article from Christianity Today in 2006 quotes revival scholar Michael Harper as saying the revival’s effects “have been more lasting than almost any other revival in history,” and that “its impact would become legendary.”

“Saved” People Were Known for Being Trustworthy and Hardworking

According to another historian, the East African Revival “was characterized by a deep remorse for sin, a desire for holiness, and a close relationship with God, and treating other people with sincere love and honesty.” Charles V. Taylor, an Australian Bible scholar and linguist who experienced the revival in Uganda firsthand, explains that there was a real difference between those whose spiritual lives had been revived and others, even other Christians: “Worldly businesspeople would employ ‘saved’ East Africans in their homes and businesses, because they could completely trust them and rely on them to work hard.”

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Some of the hallmarks of the East African Revival included repentance and confession, restitution — putting things right — and a strong emphasis on a life that is lived “walking in the Light” as per 1 John 1:6-7. The revival Christians walked in the light with each other, sharing spiritual victories and blessings, confessing failures and weaknesses, sharing plans and aspirations; and seeking counsel and support. They also sought to live in humility and brokenness, and not to be “stiff-necked,” as Stephen declared the Pharisees to be in Acts 7.

They went on to pray with converts for the power of the Holy Spirit to give them victory over sin and an ongoing passion to know Jesus more and more.

This revival spread through Holy Spirit-touched Christians compelled by Christ’s love to share Him with others. But they were not content to see them only saved from sin. They went on to pray with converts for the power of the Holy Spirit to give them victory over sin and an ongoing passion to know Jesus more and more.

The Revival Spread Within East Africa, and Then to the U.K. and Beyond

The East African Revival: Overview reveals that in 1937 small evangelistic teams of the Revival Christians were invited to Kenya and Tanzania, and so the revival spread. “People who were saved in various places formed fellowships, had regular meetings, and went out to preach to others.”

In 1947, Dr. Joe Church and two of the Ugandan leaders of the Revival, William Nagenda and Yosiya Kanuka, went to the United Kingdom. These Ugandans were the first East Africans to ever go to the U.K. to share Jesus. The revival also spread to the U.K., Europe, and North America through Western missionaries who were deeply impacted by the testimony of the East African Christians.

Not a Revival to Overlook

In Girl Soldier I wrote that I believe God sent this revival to the Church in Uganda to strengthen it for the horrible trials that were to come some years later with the reign of terror of Idi Amin, to “steel” it “to wait for the consummation” of Christ’s Kingdom. (Book Of Common Prayer Prayer #69)

Today we are also facing horrible trials. God is using those trials to make His Body one, to train us for spiritual battle, and to steel us to wait for the consummation of Christ’s Kingdom. But first He has given us hope that revival is and will be breaking out worldwide, as it has done in the past, by reflecting on the past revivals. The East African Revival has unique spiritual gifts to contribute.

It is my prayer that the East African Revival would be a catalyst for unity in the Body. When the well of this revival is reopened, its spiritual gifts will again be available to the whole Body of Christ. The East African Revival is an important contribution to the past, present, and future work of the Holy Spirit and must not be overlooked.

 

Faith J.H. McDonnell is the Director of Advocacy at Katartismos Global (KGI), a non-profit ministry started by Rt. Rev. Julian Dobbs and his wife for the equipping of the saints for ministry. Faith is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).

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