November 7, 2013

James Hannington and the Legacy of Martyrdom in Uganda

Since the conclusion of the Global Anglican Future Conference in Kenya last week, I have been visiting the neighboring country of Uganda with a group of 25 Americans, mostly fellow Anglicans from northern Virginia.

Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with nearly half age 14 or below. It is also one of the most predominantly Christian, with 85 percent of the population identifying with the Christian faith — most of whom are worshiping in a church each week.

The participants on our trip, which include IRD board member Dr. Graham Walker of Patrick Henry College and Anglican Bishop of the Mid-Atlantic John Guernsey, have a relationship with Uganda Christian University (UCU), the flagship educational institution of the 8-million-member Anglican Church of Uganda. In 1997 when UCU was founded on the campus of a small theological college, its enrollment was just over 100 persons. Today, UCU has over 12,000 students spread over multiple campuses. It is the first government chartered (accredited) private university in Uganda.

Part of our trip has been to learn about Uganda’s Christian heritage, a legacy that came at great cost. Many are already familiar with Archbishop Janani Luwum, executed (some believe personally) by tyrant Idi Amin in 1977.

Luwum was not the first bishop to give his life for the Gospel in this east African country. In 1885, James Hannington, missionary Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, was speared to death along with fifty others as they attempted to bring Christianity to Uganda.

The site of Hannington’s martyrdom is one of two sites that we were able to visit on All Saints’ Day. Less than a year after Hannington’s death, a group of 25 men and boys, some Roman Catholic and some Anglican, were burned. The victims, some as young as 14 years old, were wrapped in reed mats, piled on a pyre and then burned from feet to head until they died.

The executions were carried out on the order of King Mwanga, incensed that the pages (future leaders being trained up in his household) had rebuked him for his debauchery and for Hannington’s murder.

While these two events were the most dramatic, they are only part of a series of martyrdoms that occurred over the span of three years. Today, the Martyrs of Uganda are remembered by the church for laying the foundation of the Christian Faith here.

The young men who died went to their deaths “laughing and chattering,” while Hannington’s last words were: “Go tell your master that I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood.”

The deaths of the men resonated deeply with those who witnessed their martyrdom, including the executioner Mukajjanga, who was later baptized as Daniel. The site is now home to an Anglican seminary. Today, the Church of Uganda is the second-largest Anglican body in the world.

Both American and Ugandan Christians experience pressures to embrace syncretism by putting one foot in the Gospel and another in the culture — be it secularism, materialism or another idolatry. The Ugandan martyrs offer the example of their lives as proof that standing entirely in the Gospel is costly, but will also lay a foundation for better things to come.


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