Our church year is dotted with a variety of commemorative feasts, days the church has set aside so that we can give thanks for the life and witness of special people, people who reveal to us something about what it means to follow Jesus. .
June 3 is such a day, the feast of the “Martyrs of Uganda”.
Christianity arrived in the kingdom of the Baganda people (now called Uganda) at the end of the 19th century.
The early missionaries, British Anglicans and French Roman Catholics, were warmly greeted by the Kabaka, King Mutesa, who was impressed that they behaved well and did not bring slaves.
The mission went well and the first Anglicans were baptized on March 18, 1882. But on October 9, 1884, Mutesa died.
The new king, Mwanga, was young, barely eighteen. He was suspicious of strangers and had a savage character.
In October 1885, after a dangerous land crossing from the coast of the Indian Ocean, the new bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, James Hannington, made the mistake of entering Uganda from the east, the point of entry traditional enemies.
He was arrested and executed on October 29 by order of Mwanga. But Mwanga did not limit his fury to strangers.
Already in January of the same year, Mwanga had three Anglican boys dismembered and burned because they worked for a missionary, Alexander Mackay, who had refused Mwanga’s protection.
The worst punishments, however, were reserved for Mwanga’s own servants. Many of the boys from the king’s court had become Christians.
They were called “readers” because they had become literate to read the Bible, which Mackay translated.
On May 25, 1886, Mwanga called in servants. Two pages entered, named Ssebuggwawo and Mwafu. When asked about their activities for the day, Mwafu replied that he had learned about the Christian faith from Ssebuggwawo.
Mwanga exploded. The king had learned the practice of sodomy from Arab traders and Mwafu was his favorite. Mwanga knew that if Mwafu became a Christian, he would no longer conform to it. Three Christian servants were beaten and killed that day; nine more were executed in various ways over the next week.
Thirty-seven were detained at the Namugongo execution site, knowing their end was not far away. The story of the last days of this mixed group of Roman Catholic and Anglican teenagers, led by young catechist Charles Lwanga, is a story of mutual encouragement, mutual support in prayer, unwavering refusal to retract.
The missionaries were heartbroken. They pleaded for the release of the prisoners. They were not forbidden to preach, but were told that all who were converted would be killed.
Finally June 3 arrived. Lwanga was killed at the place of detention, roasted slowly.
He is said to have told his tormentors that, although they burned him, it was as if they were pouring water on his feet: “Beware,” he said, “of the fire that lasts for. always “.
The others were led a mile away where they were rolled up in reed mats and tied up. Four of the younger boys were clubbed to death to spare them pain.
Five were pardoned at the last minute. At noon, the pyre was lit. Thirty-one martyrs were burned. The violence of the Kabaka’s persecution scattered other believers across the kingdom where more “reading” soon arose.
The faith of Ugandan Christianity, nourished by the testimony of the martyrs, has gone through more recent periods of violence.
The Amin and Obote regimes both claimed their victims: Archbishop Janani Luwum, assassinated by Idi Amin, is now commemorated with the young boys of the 19th century.
Today in Namugongo, on the outskirts of Kampala, there is a small Anglican theological college. In the late 1980s, in the last days of President Milton Obote’s regime, the director of this college was a man named Kasira.
One night, soldiers came to pick up students from this college. Kasira, claiming to be responsible for these students, refused to give information to the military. They killed him where he was standing.
In a world that continues to be a place of violence, the martyrs of Uganda remind us that there will be a day when every tear will be wiped away, but now we are called to mutual encouragement, to prayer, to unwavering faith and self-sacrifice. .
This article first appeared in The Niagara Anglican in June 1995.
Reverend Dr Grant LeMarquand has written and edited numerous articles and books, including Why Haven’t You Left? Letters from Sudan and a comparative study of the history of the bleeding woman in the contexts of the North Atlantic and Africa.