Offended Christians, Anti-Mission Churches and Colonial Politics: One Man’s Story of the Messy Birth of the African Orthodox Church in Kenya

In: Journal of Religion in Africa


Thomas Nganda Wangai’s personal account of the beginnings of the Orthodox Church in Kenya gives a first-hand narrative of the Kikuyu resistance to mission Christianity and mission-imposed education that led to the break with the mission churches and colonial-approved mission schools. The subsequent creation of the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association and the Kikuyu Karing’a Education Association as well as independent churches attempted to create a new identity outside the mission church establishment in colonial Kenya. This desire to remain Christian while throwing off the yoke of Western versions of Christianity led Nganda and other early leaders to seek out a nonmission form of Christianity that reflected the ancient purity of the early church. Nganda tells the story of how a schismatic archbishop of the African Orthodox Church provided the initial leadership for the nascent Orthodox movement. Nganda charts the interrelatedness of the search for an ecclesiastical identity and the decision to align with the Alexandrian Patriarchate and the growing political conflict with the Kenyan colonial authorities. The paper concludes with Nganda’s description of the Orthodox Church’s response to the declaration of Emergency in 1953, along with the hardship and suffering that the subsequent ten years of proscription imposed.

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  • 6.

    Padwick 2003: 6. Padwick modifies David Barrett’s definition of the African independent churches previously capitalized as those ‘churches which claim the title Christian in that they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, and which have either separated by secession from a mission church or an existing African independent church, or have been founded outside the mission church as a new kind of religious entity under African initiative and leadership’ (Padwick 2003: 5-6); see Barrett 1968: 50. Padwick’s and Barrett’s definition of AICs suffices for the purposes of this article. However, both are part of a larger discussion as to how one might further characterize this massive movement of indigenization among African churches. Many, including Barrett and Padwick, would see this as a tribal phenomenon in which breakaway Christians revert to pre-Christian modes of tribal identity to characterize this new expression of Christianity. Others, such as Jomo Kenyatta and David Sandgren, suggest multiple causes for the emergence of AICs beyond a simple tribal explanation. See Kenyatta 1971: 263-264; Sandgren 1989: chapters 6-7. However, resolving this discussion is beyond the scope of this brief article. For an overview of the issues see Githieya 1992: 4-6.

  • 10.

    Nganda 2009: 182.

  • 12.

    Nganda 2009: 182.

  • 18.

    Nganda 2009: 184. I doubt the C.S.M. missionary pastor to which Nganda refers (probably Dr. John William Arthur of Thogoto, see note 23 below) would have understood himself as a ‘padre’. This likely is a projection of a title from the days of Archbishop Daniel Williams back onto this early Presbyterian pastor.

  • 19.

    See Murray 1976: 92-104. Nganda’s account of this explosive issue is cursory and does not go into as much detail as one might wish. For a fuller description of the controversy see Githieya 1992: 77-86.

  • 20.

    Nganda 2009: 184. Thogoto was the main Church of Scotland mission station in the area. The term ‘Thogoto’ comes from early unsuccessful Kikuyu attempts to say ‘Scotland’. While many studies refer to the seizure of Kikuyu land by settlers as being a primary force behind the growing discontent of many Kikuyu with colonial policy, Nganda does not mention it. Instead, his telling of the story revolves around the affront to Kikuyu culture and the power exercised by ‘those whites’ over Kikuyu Christians in his church and school. Githieya provides wider context for Nganda’s growing unhappiness The Freedom of the Spirit (1992).

  • 23.

    See Walls 1998: 30.

  • 24.

    Nganda 2009: 186.

  • 27.

    Sandgren 1976: 263. Quoted also by Githieya, 1992: 87.

  • 29.

    Walls 1998: 30. See also

  • 30.

    Tillyrides 2005: 58. See also the fascinating study by Kamuyu-wa-Kong’ethe, ‘The Role of the Agikuyu Religion and Culture in the Development of the Karing’a Religion-Political Movement, with a particular reference to the Agikuyu Concept of God and the Rite of Initiation’ (1981).

  • 31.

    See Theodore Natsoulas 1988: 219-233. See also Natsoulas 1998: 289-306.

  • 32.

    Tillyrides 2005: 58. Other authors have been keen to separate the Karing’a education movement from any Christian identity. Murunga and Nasong’o state that ‘the Karing’a movement was against white domination and demanded total socio-cultural independence from the Europeans. The Agikuyu religion and culture played the primary role in the development of the Karing’a movement’. See Gecaga 2007: 66.

  • 33.

    Githieya 1992: 94.

  • 34.

    Tillyrides 1999.

  • 35.

    Githieya 1992: 94. Githieya also cites a 13 June 1934 letter from Archbishop Daniel William Alexander, who shall appear in our narrative shortly, from the archives of Pitts Theological Library, Emory University, which claims that the Kikuyu Education associations had 42 schools. Githieya 1992: 117, note 3.

  • 39.

    ‘In July 1933, KISA, under the direction of Daudi Maina Kiragu, wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Mombasa requesting him to allow two of their men to undergo theological training at St. Paul’s Divinity School, Limuru. In addition, they also asked the Bishop to send “a good African,” on an interim basis, to baptize those who had gone through instruction under the independent schools’ (Githieya 1992: 95).

  • 40.

    Newman 1983: 626.

  • 42.

    Hayes 1996.

  • 44.

    Hayes 1996.

  • 45.

    Githieya 1992: 97.

  • 47.

    Githieya 1992: 97.

  • 50.

    For Daniel Alexander, see Newman 1983: 615-630. See also the Web site for the Patriarch of the African Orthodox Church in Africa, Newman states that Alexander’s birth was on December 23, 1883. See also Johnson, 1999. T.D. Mweli Skota states that Alexander was born on 23 December 1880. See Skota 1932: 129. The Pitts Theology Library Archives and Manuscripts Department’s note on the archives of the African Orthodox Church states that Alexander was born on 23 December 1882. See There is obviously a lack of consensus as to the archbishop’s date of birth.

  • 51.

    Tillyrides 2005: 59. For more on the origins of the African Orthodox Church and of the AOC in the United States, see Tillyrides 2005: 60; Platt, 1989: 474-488; De Coster 2008, also published online at See also James Bramhan, ‘The African Orthodox Church’ (2009) at; and the AOC webpage,

  • 52.

    Tillyrides 2005: 59.

  • 53.

    See Wentink 1968: 33.

  • 54.

    J.R. Kigongno Dam-Tibajjwa 1975: 71. For Spartas, see the remainder of Dam-Tibajjwa’s article; see also Stephen Hayes (N.D.), ‘Spartas, Reuben Sebbanja Ssedimba Mukasa’ in Dictionary of African Christian Biography,, although this article is unsatisfactory because of its brevity and because Spartas’s later life is largely ignored. See also a parallel article in the same publication, Demetrios G. Couchell (N.D.), ‘Spartas, Christopher Reuben’ in Dictionary of African Christian Biography, This brief article corrects none of the defects of the other article on Spartas in the same source. The best brief source is ‘Christopher Reuben Spartas’ in Orthodox Wiki,

  • 55.

    Dam-Tibajjwa 1975: 72-73.

  • 56.

    Ibid., 74.

  • 57.

    Newman 1983: 626. Alexander was obviously aware of developments in Uganda and aware of the differences between his own ‘Orthodox’ Church and that of the Greek Orthodox Churches. Githieya states that at this time ‘Alexander wrote to Archbishop Isidore, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Johannesburg, informing him that he had been asked to help in establishing faith among the Africans in East Africa and that he wanted a letter of introduction to the Greek Orthodox Priest at Moshi, Tanzania and also the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. In the letter Alexander insisted that the introduction to those prelates would enrich the interfaith merger that he was seeking with the Greek Orthodox Church in South Africa. In East Africa, Alexander further explained, the independents comprised 14,000 church members and had 42 independent schools, and the union of the AOC in South Africa and the Greek Orthodox Church would be enriched by these congregations’ (Githieya, 97-98). What is less clear is why Alexander did not inform the African Orthodox Churches in Uganda and later in Kenya of the differences between his version of ‘Orthodoxy’ and the ‘Eastern’ or ‘Greek’ Orthodox Churches. Despite his efforts, the Greek Orthodox considered Alexander as a leader of a schismatic Monophysite church whose liturgy was more Western and Roman than Eastern. His efforts for a union, or at least an accommodation, went nowhere.

  • 59.

    Nganda 2009: 193. I do not know why the account switches at this point to the third person.

  • 63.

    Githieya 1992: 99-100.

  • 65.

    Nganda 2009: 194.

  • 66.

    Nganda 2009: 194-195. For details of the ordination service itself, see Githieya 1992: 102.

  • 67.

    Nganda 2009: 195. Gecaga appears to ignore the churches that formed after the expulsion of many Kikuyu from mission churches and schools. She also appears to conflate a later Mau Mau reaction against all Christianity with the earlier inauguration of the Karing’a and Independent Schools: ‘Renouncement of Christianity also contributed to the development of the Karing’a movement. To be baptized in the movement meant that one had made the decision to dissociate oneself from the missionaries and the abolitionists. As a result of the wide protest among the Agikuyu, the missionaries excommunicated members of the Karing’a movement from the churches and the children of members were sent away from schools’ (Gecaga 2007, 66). The fact that Nganda was a founding member of the Karing’a movement and chairperson of the Ruthimitu school would seem to call these assertions into question.

  • 68.

    Berman and Lonsdale 1992: 398.

  • 69.

    Githieya 1992: 100.

  • 71.

    Githieya 1992: 104.

  • 72.

    Githieya 1992: 104-105.

  • 74.

    Nganda 2009: 195.

  • 76.

    Dam-Tibajjwa 1975: 75.

  • 77.

    Nganda 2009: 196.

  • 78.

    Nganda 2009: 197.

  • 79.

    Githieya 1992: 106-107. Allan Anderson is mistaken when he states that ‘Reuben Spartas of Uganda and Arthur Gathuna of Kenya were pioneers in establishing links with the Coptic Church, first visiting Cairo in 1943’ (Anderson 2001,161). Spartas and Gathuna’s correspondence and interaction was with the Greek Alexandrian Patriarchate, of the Chalcedonian Orthodox movement. For an account of primarily Fr. Spartas’ relationship and correspondence with the Patriarch of Alexandria Melitios Metaxakis, see Tillyrides 1999: 180-181. As to the reason the Jacobite churches were considered heretical, following the 451 Council of Chalcedon, a minority of churches broke from the majority on an issue of Christology relating to whether Jesus Christ possessed one nature or two. The two-nature (‘dyophysite’) position prevailed at Chalcedon and remains the position of most of the world’s Christians. The churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, and some in Syria broke away on account of their one-nature (pejoratively labeled ‘monophysite’ by the majority, whilst those who maintain one-nature Christology prefer the label ‘miaphysite’) Christology. Together these churches are referred to as ‘Oriental Orthodox Churches’. The miaphysite churches in Syria became known as Jacobite churches after the successful evangelistic and missionary career of Jacob Baradaeus (d. 578), the sixth-century bishop of Edessa, who persevered in the face of intense opposition on the part of Byzantine authorities. This church is more properly known as the Syriac Orthodox Church. The differences between two-nature and one-nature churches have hardened ever since, although today many theologians on both sides will concede that the differences between the two are more political and historical than theological. For more on the Council of Chalcedon see Davis 1983: 170-206.

  • 80.

    Tillyrides 1999: 181-182.

  • 81.

    Tillyrides 1999: 182.

  • 82.

    See Metropolitan Nicolaos of Axum 2004: 172-201.

  • 83.

    Nganda 2009: 198.

  • 84.

    Wentink 1968: 37.

  • 85.

    Nganda 2009: 198.

  • 87.

    Wentink 1968: 37.

  • 88.

    Edgerton 1989: 54.

  • 89.

    Nganda 2009: 198-199.

  • 92.

    Nganda 2009: 199. Wentink adds, ‘In both the Orthodox Churches of Uganda and Kenya the religious protest aligned itself with political protest. Especially in Kenya many of the Orthodox have paid with their lives for the Independence of their country’ (1969, 37).

  • 97.

    Hayes 1996. See also

  • 98.

    ‘Memorandum’ 2009: 267.

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