GAFCON and the East African Revival

This week, GAFCON speakers spoke of the East African Revival as an ideal for GAFCON to emulate. While the mass conversions it produced are an amazing testimony to its fruitfulness, we should also note some of its other aspects. Brian Stanley’s article on the East African Revival (from the Churchman magazine) says:

In May 1936 ecstatic signs began to appear in the Gahini district. Conviction of sin began to be accompanied by dreams, visions, falling down in trances, weeping, shaking, and other phenomena of near hysteria. Hymn-singing sessions went on all night.

“Falling down in trances” is probably something that most ACNA leaders would frown upon and which would align us squarely within Pentecostalism. Further, Keswick’s theology was “the Victorious Life” of sinless perfection, brought about by “a second work” of the Holy Spirit. Both of these tenets should raise alarms for Anglicans. Stanley says of the British missionaries:

Keswick implanted in them a hunger for personal holiness, and an expectation of revival as a norm which Christians should constantly be seeking to realize.

And this rubbed off on the African converts:

A theological tradition whose constant goal was holiness and victorious Christian living proved enormously attractive to African Christians who knew that beneath much of the appearance of so called conversion lay an undiminished commitment to traditional beliefs and practices. Doctrinal teaching which came close to advocating the necessity of a ‘second blessing’ seemed to offer the answer to those dissatisfied with the results of conversion. But once they had been revived, the emphasis on a second blessing was in practice obliterated by the new distinction between those in the revival fellowship-the ‘balokole’ or ‘saved ones’-and those outside. To be revived and to be saved became virtually synonymous. Writing in April 1937, Joe Church posed the question:

As one looks at these two or three hundred changed lives in Ruanda and Uganda what is one to say? Were they saved before, and were now just revived; or were they never really born again? Almost everyone of them would answer you himself that the latter was his experience. All seem to state unmistakably that they only had a nominal Christianity before.

The division into the ‘balokole’ and the rest, provided the African Christian with a universally applicable spiritual standard of radical implications. Polarization within the Church was inevitable. Geoffrey Holmes, writing from Gahini in April 1939, lamented the division of the station into two camps:

those who are in with the ‘abaka’ … and those who are not in with them. Actually here at Gahini most of the native Christians are in with this new group. There is no real fellowship between those who are in this group and those who are not. Those who are in it are continually seeking to convert those who are not to their way of thinking, and every means of persuasion and moral coercion are employed.

As I have previously noted, in the Rwandan context, Keswick revival theology produced an apolitical Church that did not confront the evils being committed by the State, with the result being that they were silent prior to the genocide. Roger Bowen wrote:

The more conservative attitude to Scripture, and the associated controversy, led to an emphasis on evangelism rather than any engagement with the public life of the nation or critique of the sociopolitical context. Indeed, the missionaries were dependent on the goodwill of the colonial administration and sought to be apolitical.

In some cases, all Scripture in interpreted to give the same message, often interpreted through the lens of the revival experience, rather than letting the diversity within the Bible be heard. Inadequate exposure to the whole counsel of God has meant that Church leaders were often left without the theological tools to engage with the complexities of relating to newly independent African states, to issues of economics, development, justice, human rights, and ethnicity.

Bowen says that the practice of sharing testimonies from the East African Revival led “to a lack of Biblical input and instruction, with the danger that personal experience becomes more important than the Word of God.”

The East African Revival is over, however it lives on in the large and vibrant churches of East Africa. GAFCON is rightly looking for Anglican churches to wake up (or be revived) and exhibit obedience to Christ and his Word, however, I hope that in doing so we do not embrace the false doctrine of sinless perfection or the apolitical acquiescence to evil that we have seen in Rwanda – and are seeing again.






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