Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 2 January 2003

Mahalia Johnson

Mahalia Johnson is interested in ministry in Kenya. Presently she is taking courses in Missions for her future missionary career. She has visited Kenya on a short term missions earlier. She plans to go again to Kenya for her internship.



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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

A Discourse on the Struggles in Kenyan Christianity

Mahalia Johnson

"When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the Land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible". -Jomo Kenyatta (Stein, 79)

Africa Map


Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of what is now called the Republic of Kenya. He was a Kikuyu who was affected first hand by the expansion of the western form of Christianity in Kenya. In this Kenyatta statement, one can see the inherent struggle between the foreign Missionary and the National.

It is a struggle that has been evident from the time the "coastal missionaries" arrived in Kenya in 1844, to the inland churches that began in 1900s. It is a struggle that spawned such bloody uprisings as the Mau Mau revolt and finally manifested itself with a permanent break between Kenya and England. It is a struggle that is only now beginning to wane through a new generation of missionaries that is willing to step back and let the nationals define what Christianity looks like to them. It is a struggle that is not unique only to Kenya and, for that reason, it contains lessons for the whole mission world.

This paper narrates the story of that struggle between Missionary Christianity and the refugees that were born of that institution.


Kenya Map

Kenya is a country in East Africa situated along the coast. Because of its geographical placement, Kenya was largely untouched by outside religion until the split of the followers of Islam in the 900s AD. Because of the disagreements over Islamic issues, Arab traders decided to settle in Kenya. They brought with them the religion of Islam and, even today, Somalia, a neighbor of Kenya, remains largely Muslim. The raw materials in Kenya encouraged these traders to stay on and to retain control over Kenya. The Arabs enjoyed undisputed reign in Kenya until the first Portuguese sailor stumbled upon "The Land of enchantment"(Stein, 56).

The European explosion in Africa, once began, was impossible to stop. Gradually, century by century Portugal lost its hold on Kenya, and power was divided between the different national powers. Kenya was to wait over 1000 years from the time of the Arabs to 1963 to be self-governed again.


The Arabs came for spices; the Portuguese came for materials. The Germans sought not to take but to give. It is the Germans who are credited with sending the first missionaries to Kenya in 1844, and it is in this year with a missionary by the name of Krapf, that our story begins.

Krapf originally started his work in Ethiopia, but soon became interested in Kenya. He wrote a Swahili grammar and worked on a translation of the Bible in Swahili while waiting for his co-missionaries, Johann Rebman and Erhadt to join him, (Shaw)

In 1849, after Erhadt and Rebman had joined Krapf, Krapf came up with the idea of mission stations. These would focus on education, teaching against sin, and about Judgment. A mission was born. Soon though, his message against sin and about judgement changed to incorporate love. These early attempts at converting the "savage" failed, however.

Krapf anticipated the loss of lives that would come through the attack on these stations through out the coast of Kenya, yet he was undeterred. Eventually, though his spirit was willing, his flesh was weak, and after the deaths of his two missionary co-workers, he returned to Germany, and later died from an illness. Though Krapf was the first missionary to Kenya, he is not remembered. Kenya remained resistant to the gospel and the coastal people remained largely Muslim.


With these first missionaries to Kenya, the eyes of the European world were opened to what David Livingston would soon call a "human sore". This was known as the African Slave trade. Though Livingston himself fared hardly no better than his predecessors in Kenya, his dying words on the conditions of the slave trade in Africa inspired the great movement towards missions in Africa in 1873, digging Kenya one level deeper into the trenches of the Western World.

In 1873, Frere Town was started. It was a mission station founded by Barte Frere after he began his ministry in Kenya in the year of 1872. He had no regard for what he saw as over-spiritualization and actually made a push towards making Christianity practical. His work was one of the first attempts to actually bear fruit.

Freretown, though it was simply a mission station in nature, became a haven for runaway slaves. This angered Arab slave owners. These run-away slaves were taught a trade and Swahili, which was and is the language of commerce and of the educated in that century (Shaw)


Samburu Warrior

In 1880 Frere Town was attacked by the Muslim Arabs who were so angered at the loss of slaves. At this point, opposition to Christianity and the missions grew. It was out of Persecution and opposition that a new or "refugee Christianity" (KOG) was born. It goes by the name of Kitro Christianity. This term was used to distinguish between Missionary Christianity and the nationals who came to faith in God but were not in agreement with Christianity, and was used to refer to the practice of saying one thing and doing another.

With the beginning of churches a pattern was established as to the history of these churches. At first, the Mission had complete control of the Church. Things were going well. Then the young church went through a search for identity and other struggles to work with the Missionaries instead of just being there "for" them. The missionaries then restricted the movement. This led to the emergence of national churches. This pattern was one that was repeated over and over, and had its beginning in the refugee movement.


Sunset in Kenya

In 1883, Kitoro Christianity had its first martyr who was shot down in a demonstration. Persecution has indeed proven to serve as an adequate fertilizer for the hearts of God's people. The more the Muslims attacked, the more true-hearted Christians were born. The number of national Christians grew from only a handful to over 2000 in just a few years.

The Refugee Christianity was called such because it was born out of desperation. It is Christianity that is lived by people who had to literally cling to Jesus for survival.


One of the Leaders in the Refugee Christian Movement was a man by the name of David Jones. He was a Kenyan who was in leadership over a mission. When opposition came from Arab slave owners to return the run-away slaves, he refused, but strangely enough, he was not backed by the missionaries under whom he served. The missionaries would not treat him as an equal. They told him he could not dress western or speak English, and they tried in every way to keep a father-child relationship with the church. Any attempt on the part the Kenyans to make a move toward advancement were discouraged. Eventually, Jones was pressured by the Missionaries to resign. His resignation signaled the beginning of an inevitable struggle between foreign missionary and the national church. (Shaw)

The East Africa Company ended the Movement of Refugee Christianity by gaining control in the issue of runaway slaves. In 1888 the slaves were bought from the owners, and, for a time, both slaves and the owners were happy. Persecution ceased, and refugee Christianity died, and was once again replaced by the superficial missionary brand.


In 1891, Christianity moved inward. These groups were primarily made up of what the national Christians called Missionary Christianity. This expression came to denote all western Christianity. It was a Christianity that Was very often seen as a father figure to rebel against, or Christianity that requireD submission to the laws and rule of England.


In 1900, so many different denominations of Missionary Christianity became present in Kenya that a committee agreement was drawn up to establish "territories" of influence. The BaptistS had their piece, as did the MethodistS and the Catholics.

In 1895, Peter Cameron Scott founded the first African Inland Church. This Church had its beginnings among the largely untouched and more responsive inlanders of Kenya. Unfortunately, he died a year later before he even saw the fruits of his labor. The 1900s saw Kenya as the Light of East Africa, thoroughly indoctrinated to Missionary or Western Christianity.

Though Kenya was outwardly the Light of East Africa it was in no way without its inner conflict. The struggle between the Missionary and the Convert waged on, and in the 1900s burst into all out war, resulting in Missionary Christianity becoming distinctly disassociated from the national churches.


After 1900 more and more missionaries came to establish their missions and to convert the heathen. The more missionaries came the more urge for independent national churches to free themselves from the form of Missionary Christianity grew. In 1920 Independent churches started popping up. These included schools without white leadership. Though these churches were vastly different they had two things in common. Disdain for white Christianity and a disorderliness that came from a too early, though understandable, break with missionary leadership.

As the 1900s went on and the 30s and 40s passed by, the inner fragmentation of the Kenyan world became more apparent (Shaw, 80). England had first come to Kenya to share God with the Natives but what was supposed to be Kenya's salvation, soon came to aid in the dissolution of what Kenyans treasureD most of all, Unity.

Though the Churches cannot be totally blamed for one of the bloodiest times in Kenyan history they certainly are not exempt from the blame. When Jomo Kenyatta said what he did about the missionaries (see opening quote), he was sadly not off the mark.

The Kikuyu tribe the largest tribe in Kenya, was one of the main targets for the big land grab by the Europeans. Though British prescience in Kenya was strong until the 1900s it was hardly restrictive. After Kenya was declared a colony of the Crown, England went beyond altruism in sending Missionaries to land seizures in Kenya. The Kikuyus, being avid farmers, had the fertile land for development and so their land was taken.

It seems the European church in Kenya shot itself in the proverbial foot. To Kikuyu it was hard to reconcile the idea GODLY Missionaries versus the Land grabbers the British had become. This backfired on Missionaries and the tide toward independent churches and schools turned even higher.


The Mau Mau was a national group that started up after World War II. Because of the Black nationals having fought alongside English soldiers in the war, they no longer were content with the color bar. They grew discontent with the double standard brand of Christianity that allowed the white Missionary power in the Church and the White Man power in the Government. (Stein)

The Mau Mau abandoned Christianity and started taking the blood oath to win freedom for Kenya. This oath was generally done through midnight initiation ceremonies using animal or human blood. This oath was as serious as life and death.

The blood covenant of the Mau Mau began to take on a spiritual dimension in direct opposition to Christianity. Kikuyu Christians refused the Mau Mau oath on the grounds that if they are under blood covenant to Christ they cannot be in a blood agreement with the Mau Mau.

Clergy in Kenya spoke out against the Mau Mau but to no avail. Though the group was started in opposition to white power, it turned inward on their Kenyan brothers and sisters who dissented from them or who were seen as loyal to the English crown. The National Christians were seen as loyalist and were put to death.

Ironically yet again, though the English church had spawned the discontentment of the Kikuyu Mau Mau by taking their land, they remained largely untouched.

In 1952 a state of emergency was declared. Though Jomo Kenyatta spoke out against the atrocity of the Mau Mau, he was seen as having strong sympathies with them and was thrown in jail for the duration. Kenya was truly split and as always, the Missionary Christianity seemed to be at least in part to blame for the disunity.


Lake Victoria

In 1963 Kenya gained its independence. This independence signaled an end to violence, and Kenya even adapted Harambee as its motto which means "a coming together". Spiritually, the wounds have yet to experience this Harambee.

Today Kenya is home to over 200 different denominations and Christianity is described as a mile wide and an inch deep. Sadly, the bloody history of Christianity has taken its toll on the believers today. In this author's opinion, it is understandable that there is difficulty in relating to the Christianity that nearly threatened the existence of Kenya. So instead of a strong church in Kenya, there is a multitude of name-sake Christians.

Missionaries in Kenya today are now learning to serve the National Church instead of merely following the western idea. The Western church in Kenya is starting to have to rethink its philosophy of church planting and conversion. Missionaries in Kenya now serve as support but are more and more learning to step back and let Kenyans reach Kenya. This approach is leading to an explosion of active Christianity and a heart for missions in the passive Kenya church.


Church history is important to study so that we can begin to learn from the mistakes of the past. We can also learn what works, and yet what works for a time may not work later. Each country has its own story, its own bit of history. By studying what Christianity looks like in other countries, we can better get a grasp on the multicultural gospel instead of a Gospel that is meant only for the western Church.

From the lesson of Kenya one can learn that Christianity can and does have a huge impact on the moral, social, and governmental aspects of a country. How a Missionary presents the Gospel can potentially have the power to turn the tide of a whole government! It is something that we should remember and be careful about.

To be a Missionary one must learn to define Christianity by spiritual standards and not by those of cultural lines. Christianity on a Chinese man does not look the same on a Kenyan woman, and Christianity on me may not look the same as Christianity on you. Just as long as it is the same Jesus and that same Jesus is evident in all of us we will be able to make long strides towards gaining a Christianity that effects the hearts and lives of all who embrace it. Jesus speaks all the languages of the world and of all the tribes. It is our job as missionaries to prove it.


Hastings, Adrian. A History of African Christianity: 1950 - 1975. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1979.

Kenya: A Country Study. United States Government, Washington, D.C. 1984.

Kenya. Visual Geography Series. Learner's Publication Company, Minneapolis, 1988.

Shaw, Mark. The Kingdom of God in Africa. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI., 1949

Stein, R. Conrad. Kenya: Enchantment of the World. Children's Press, Chicago, 1985.


Mahalia Johnson
Bethany College of Missions
6820 Auto Club Road Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA