The church in Uganda was born in martyrdom. The arrival of the Englishmen, Speke and Grant, in 1862 opened the Bugandan kingdom to outside influences, including Moslem missionaries from Zanzibar. H.M. Stanley arrived in 1875 and initiated the sending of missionaries by the Church Missionary Society. A party of eight missionaries was sent to Buganda in 1876, but through death and illness only two, Smith and Wilson, reached Uganda the following year. Later the same year Smith died. Wilson was joined in 1878 by Alexander Mackay, who became the real father of the gospel in Uganda - teacher, builder, evangelist, printer and pastor. Soon after Mackay’s arrival, Roman Catholic missionaries also came to the court of the kabaka, Mutesa, the Ugandan ruler. They were French White Fathers, committed to the evangelisation of Equatorial Africa.
The differences between Protestant and Catholic missions left Mutesa puzzled. He flirted with both missions, and the existence of pagan, Moslem, Protestant, and Catholic traditions provided a setting for considerable conflict. Nevertheless, Mackay made some progress. When Mutesa died in 1884, his son Mwanga, then only eighteen and lacking his father’s ability to wield power effectively, tended to equate the missionaries with colonial incursions into Africa and turned against the Christians. The potential rivalries in the court erupted into violence. Bitter persecution resulted in the deaths of about thirty of the pages at the court. Anglicans and Roman Catholics were slowly burned alive together on 31 January 1885.
The gospel continued to spread however. In October 1885, Bishop Hannington, sent out as the first bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, was murdered on the orders of Mwanga as he attempted to enter the country from Mombasa. There followed the most horrific period in the story of the Christian faith in Uganda. Some of Mwanga’s pages had become Christian and been baptised. Mwanga now systematically began to burn or torture them to death, partly because of their identification with the Christian faith, and partly because of their refusal to comply with the perverted moral demands he made on them. By now Mwanga regarded Christian influences as the cause of what he regarded as the disobedience of his subjects. In May 1886 he set out to destroy both Protestants and Catholics. Thirty-two, mainly young Christians at the court of Mwanga, perished, and many others died in the months of persecution that followed.
Mwanga’s rage was directed at Christian converts from his own people. Mackay and the Roman Catholics continued their work quietly away from the court. The situation in Buganda eventually degenerated into civil war, from which order emerged only in the 1890s. At the same time began the great missionary work of Apolo Kivebulaya (see 30 May), building on the foundations of the martyrs of Uganda. Today the martyrs, Anglican and Roman Catholic, are commemorated together. The known victims include Joseph Mkasa, who protested the murder of Bishop Hannington, Charles Lwanga, a court official who had baptised some of the pages and tried to protect them from Mwanga’s pederasty, Andrew Kagwa a catechist, and Matthias Murumba, a judge.
For Liturgical Use
The martyrs of Uganda were for the most part young baptised page boys of Mwanga, the king or kabaka (ruler) of Buganda. Both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, in their loyalty to Christ, died without complaint by slow burning or torture on the orders of Mwanga in the years 1885 and 1886. Mwanga identified their Christian faith with disobedience, and saw their allegiance to God as a threat to his absolute authority.
The Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Revelation 7:17
you made the blood of martyrs
the seed of your church in Uganda;
grant that, as they were steadfast in faith
and obedient unto death,
yielding a plentiful harvest,
so may we be encouraged by their example
to witness courageously to your gospel;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Praise to you, God of Africa,
for the martyrs of Uganda,
who stood, and stood firm
against the ruling and seductive power,
who by their persecution and death
inspired others to build your church.
Psalms 54 126
2 Maccabees 7:1,30-34,39-40 Dying with integrity
Romans 8:12-17 Suffering and glorified with Christ
Mark 8:34-38 Taking up the cross