Ugandan Church Waged Rebellion Against Tradition – Today’s Homophobic Views Are At Odds With History

On 26 May Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, assented to the “anti-homosexuality bill” of 2023. The bill’s aim is to protect the “cherished culture of the people of Uganda, (and the) legal, religious, and traditional family values of Ugandans”. In the name of family values the law punishes “serial offenders” with the death penalty.

The Church of Uganda’s archbishop, Stephen Kaziimba, has supported the bill, and when it was signed he expressed his church’s gratitude to the president. Anita Among, the speaker of parliament, celebrated the new law’s defence of “the sanctity of the family”.

But since when have Ugandan Christians sought to uphold the “sanctity of the family”? These are buzzwords drawn from America’s culture wars. They are not part of the Church of Uganda’s history. Church history in eastern Africa is full of dissident, rebellious, un-traditional Christians.

I’m a historian, a loyal member of the Episcopal Church (USA), and the author of a book about the history of east Africa’s evangelical Christianity. The ancestors of today’s Christians in Uganda were not obedient to their fathers’ and mothers’ definitions of proper conduct. Neither were their families narrowly organised within the cloisters of heterosexual marriage.

To the contrary. Ugandan Christians today are heirs to an anti-establishment history of resistance to cultural orthodoxy.

The east African revival

The formative influence on Uganda’s Protestant church is the east African revival, a conversion movement that began in northern Rwanda and southern Uganda in 1936 and spread through Kenya, Tanganyika, Sudan and other parts of eastern Africa.

The revival was led by African evangelists, many of them women. They burned their fathers’ shrines, destroyed the equipment of diviners, and flouted traditional standards of decorum. One of southern Uganda’s most emphatic revivalists was a young woman named Julaina Mufuko. She told me how, in the revival’s early days, she and other converts would sometimes see flames licking the tops of the hills, or the sun in the heavens shaking. And then, she remembered,

we used to shake, and there would be jumping and falling on the ground, and from that time we started cutting off the ornaments we used to wear, and we poured out the beer we were keeping at homes, and at night we went into churches, and we made a lot of noise, both men and women.

Paulo Ngologoza, the leading chief in the highlands of southern Uganda, put Mufuko and three other girls in prison, complaining that “everyone has been caught into this salvation, and women are disobeying husbands, and husbands are complaining everywhere”. She tearfully told me how she and her friends were whipped on six occasions. “They would beat me during the night, and that morning, I would be on top of the mountain, preaching,” she remembered. “The Lord was forcing us to go and speak, speak, speak!”

Converts were not respecters of traditional authority. Not even Chief Karegyesa – ruler of the Rujumbura kingdom – could force converts to accept his power. During the late 1930s several of Karegyesa’s lovers converted, confessing in public to their liaisons with the chief. Karegyesa warned his nephew: “This new kind of religion is dangerous. It invades your privacy. You have nothing left.”

Revivalists spoke openly about subjects that important men sought to keep secret. Julaina Mufuko described how female converts would “confess in public, right in front of the men they had committed adultery with!” Snapping her fingers to the rhythm of her words, Julaina described how the “Holy Spirit would show you spontaneously, say this, say this, say this!”

Counter-cultural beliefs

Revivalists would not abide by traditional standards of decorum and respectability. Neither did they live within the enclosures of family and kinship. Revivalists distanced themselves from their families, rejecting their kin and refusing to honour their ancestors.

Converts in western Kenya refused to lend clothing to non-converts. Neither would they lend cups or plates. They refused to take part in funerals, brushing off their obligations with the saying “Let the dead bury their own dead”. Elderly converts organised marriages for their youthful colleagues. In southern Uganda, converts were known as Abatarukukwatanisa, “Those who do not cooperate”.

All over eastern Africa, government officials and cultural leaders mobilised to suppress this dissident Christianity. In southern Uganda, the District Commissioner banned drum-beating in churches and made singing on the roadways illegal. By 1943 police in Uganda were convinced that revivalists posed a threat to government. Officials worried that the converts were “openly attacking persons in authority in the established church, and the next step may easily be against the authority of the state”.

In the end it was the political disasters of the 1960s and 1970s that undermined revivalist Christianity. Idi Amin’s disastrous regime brought about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Revivalists were among the many who suffered and died, most famously the Janani Luwum, archbishop of the Church of Uganda. In the wake of Amin’s fall in 1979 a new generation had to plot a path forward.