Crossroads of Western Quakerism in Africa

Robert Juma Wafula

For One to Understand the History of a Place, One Must Know the People Involved

The history of the foundation of the Quaker movement in East Africa is straightforward and easy to understand. At least it seems so, basing oneself on face value research. But in reality, with its combination of a variety of theological ideals, it is a complex one.

One cannot comprehend African Quakerism unless one studies how Western Quaker theological ideas have changed and shaped the African people’s life style. Despite the fact that it is a carryover religious practice engraved in Western culture, Quakerism has become a part of our modern social life. I use “our” because as an African, I happen to be a descendant product of Western theological metamorphosis.

It Takes One Person to Have an Idea, One Idea to Have an Impact,
And One People to Make a Difference

It was Arthur Benton Chilson, born on June 16, 1872 at LeGrand, Iowa, who conceived the idea of exporting Quakerism to East Africa. Influenced by Willis R. Hotchkiss who had just returned from Africa, Arthur’s idea was incubated at Cleveland Friends Bible Institute where he was enrolled as a student (1898). The Institute was then under the able management of Walter and Emma B. Malone. (It was later moved to Canton, Ohio and changed its name to the present Malone College, after its founders). Arthur shared the conceived idea with his colleague, Edgar T. Hole, also enrolled at the Institute. The former had also nursed the urge of being a missionary abroad (Chilson, 10).

United in mind and in spirit, and sharp in theological intellect, the three young men began to map out plans for the establishment of what later came to be known as Friends Africa Industrial Mission (FAIM).

Under the wise counsel of the Malones, the valiant trio was made ready with blessings from a group of Friends and well-wishers gathered in Cleveland Friends Meeting House. Arthur Chilson gave a moving speech/sermon drawing his text from Psalm 91. One outstanding remark was noted that day, “In the plan of God, nothing happens. God’s plans move smoothly and according to order.” Arthur felt that as they went out, with their trust and confidence in “one who never failed nor been late in fulfilling His (God’s) plans,” God would keep them, guide them, uphold them, sustain them, and let nothing come or happen to them that was not for the good of God’s glory (Chilson, 10).

On April 23, 1902, in the witness of the Malones and a number of Brooklyn Friends in New York City, Arthur Chilson, Edgar Hole, and Willis Hotchkiss were on board the St. Paul Steamship bound for London. Their destination was Mombasa, East Africa. In his diary marked that day, Arthur wrote, “I bless God for His multiplied blessings and the honor He has bestowed me in appointing me a representative of His to bring His message of hope to the hopeless ones of Africa. It seems too good to be true that at last after years of waiting, I am on my way to help start an industrial mission in Africa” (Chilson, 10).

Just like any other evangelistic missionary, Arthur’s perception of Africa was not any different from the Western world stereotype. To him the African people were hopeless simply because their beliefs and worship of God were different from the Western style. And it is amazing that Arthur could judge his audience in this category even before he got to meet them.

In his continued diary inscription, Arthur Chilson claimed to have been bound by the everlasting arm of God and his heart was full of God’s glory. However, the pain of leaving his loved ones and the country he cherished all his life could be felt from a distance, “for it may be that I will never see them again here, yet I would not exchange places with any of them” (Chilson, 10). This was the most ambivalent moment for him. Arthur’s feelings bring to the memory the feelings of Jesus Christ when he said to his own nuclear family that those who did the will of God in Heaven were his mother and brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:46-50). Arthur’s family situation can also be compared to the agony of abandonment for Jesus’ family and his friends, more especially when he told his disciples that “where I am going you cannot follow me, but you will follow later” and that they were not ready to drink of the cup he was about to partake (John 13:36b; Matthew 20:22).

On May 3, 1902 Arthur Chilson, Willis Hotchkiss, and Edgar Hole attended Dublin (Ireland) Yearly Meeting. Spending time in London, they met with Bishop Taylor, an Anglican bishop in Africa, who gave them tips about the colonial government, the African people, and what to do and what to expect at the port of entry. On June 16, 1902 they boarded Bundersrath steamer at Naples. And like St. Paul, Chilson and his team sailed past Stromboli, a volcanic island, and Crete. They traversed the eighty miles from Port Said to Suez and the Red Sea (Chilson, 15).

And on June 24, 1902, the trio touched anchor in Mombasa, a major port of entry in what was then known as British East Africa, now Kenya. In his diary on this day, Arthur wrote, “I feel like I am getting near home now, for Africa is more home than any place on earth, for my life work is here, be it long or short.” After setting his foot on the African soil, for the first time Arthur saw the people whom he had been reading and hearing about. His perception was struck. He confessed: “I believe I know my master better tonight than I ever have before” (Chilson,18).

It took the three missionaries a total of 583 miles by train to arrive at Port Florence (present day Kisumu), on Lake Victoria, from Mombasa. With the help of the native porters who were coerced into the job, they trekked, covering another eighty miles towards the north. And on August 17, 1902, they pitched their tents at Kaimosi, a mission station that later came to claim an important part in the Quaker historical world map (Chilson, 29).

This place was found to have productive soil, springs of fresh abundant water, and river falls. The forest had good indigenous trees for timber. The elevation is 5,300 feet above sea level, thus making it a healthful climate especially for the Western expatriates. The temperatures ranged from 48 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

A people who lived in this area were described to have been the most needy on earth yet they never complained or went on begging. They wore no clothes and lived in huts with their cattle but yet were healthy and not ashamed. They had no written language but yet were rich in oral tradition. These people were very religious in all aspects of life. They had a knowledge of God, the ultimate reality in their own understanding.

About 858 acres of land were purchased of the British government. (Kenya was still a British colony). Much of this land was forested. Later a leasehold of 40 acres of timberland was acquired (Foreign Mission Work of American Friends, 76).

Primary Objectives – The Sin Question

Every enterprise, as is a well-known fact, has to have objectives before its establishment. Before arriving on the point of discussing the main objectives, questions pop out in one’s mind. How different were the missionary plan designs from those of the secular white colonists and Arab merchants in the region? Were there any commonalities between the missionary and colonial approaches towards the African natives? Of course the missionary enterprise was a religious one. But then, what was it to do with a people who already had a knowledge of God, the Supreme Being? Was it meant to get the African to exchange his religion for the American and was it to admittedly assume that the white man’s religion was better than the black African’s? Was it that the white man’s God was more civilized and was to be introduced to the African man so he could discard the uncivilized and savage African God? Or was the enterprise simply meant to civilize the African man, to get him to wear clothes, to learn to read and write, to build and live in better houses, and to produce more and better crops?

These last were desirable things that bulked large in the missionaries’ hearts. Willis Hotchkiss would argue this point out to say that it goes deeper (Hotchkiss, 13). He compares the situation of an African with the plight of a paralytic man brought before Jesus to be healed (Matthew 9:1, 2). According to Hotchkiss, the paralytic man was in desperate need for the healing of his physical body. “But,” argues Hotchkiss, “he needed something else which was far more fundamental.” Jesus’ words, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee” go beyond the physical needs and touch on the spiritual and mental faculties. Therefore the paralytic man was not only healed in his physical but in his spiritual being, too.

In the African situation, Hotchkiss’ main concern was the “sin question which must be settled before we can cope with the multiplied problems of the social and economic need.”(Hotchkiss, 13). This therefore brings us to the missionaries’ main objectives.

The first of these was to evangelize the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Kaimosi, East Africa, to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. At least this was Arthur Chilson’s dream. But unfortunately he died (January 14, 1939), while on his second missionary enterprise in Central Africa. His undecorated tomb lies in Kibimba, Burundi (Chilson, 236). As a fulfillment of the notion of total ministry, the industrial feature was introduced into the mission work which was also aimed at establishing a solid, self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-sufficient Christian Church in the region. This called for the launching of four departments within the Mission Station: Evangelistic, Educational, Medical, and Industrial. The first chapel, school, and dispensary were crooked umbrella trees under whose shade the African people met for learning, worship, and treatment.

In spite of the fact that the African people were already grounded in the knowledge of the ultimate reality, in the eyes of the missionaries, one crucial aspect was missing – that of Christology. Jesus Christ was introduced into the already saturated spiritual life of the African men and women. And I use “spiritual” here in a broader sense. To a native African of the time, life was intrinsically spiritual in the sense that every part of it was in some way related to the spirit world. The native African’s universe, according to the missionaries, was peopled by spirits who dominated the African’s thought and controlled the African’s actions.

To the white missionaries, this was far from the true Christian sense of being holy. The African person in this respect needed the ONE WAY, the illuminating word of Jesus Christ. This point illustrates the obvious fact that the missionaries’ concept of holiness was limited to belief in Jesus Christ.

Before the Coming of the White Missionaries
Into the East African Region

Before the coming of the white missionaries into the East African region, African people had already been solidly grounded in the knowledge of God, and the concept of Trinity was evidently present in their day to day worship. For example, the Bukusu, an ethnic group in western Kenya, among whom Jefferson and Helen Ford, M. Estock, and Fred and Alta Hoyt worked as missionaries, the Supreme Being was addressed in three dimensions: Wele Baba, Wele Mukhobe, and Wele Murumwa (God the Father, God the Herald, and God the Messenger respectively). God the Father, Wele Baba, was also adorned with a variety of attributes such as, Muumba, meaning The Creator. The name God the Herald, Wele Mukhobe, carries with it the concept of spokesmanship. Wele Murumwa has the attributes of the Holy Ghost, who was sent as a messenger to reveal the mysteries’ secrets to the people.

The number three was a symbol in high esteem in the African religious heritage. Each of the three personalities mentioned above functions with equal power. Just as each of the three traditional firestones served important but equal roles in supporting and providing balance to the cooking pot, none of the three persons of the Trinity was subservient to the other.

Every time an African old man or woman went out on safari at dawn, he or she would enter the shrine, with three stones at the center, to ask God to remove the evil god, Wele Kubi, from the way. Or in the absence of a shrine one would stand in front of the door of his or her hut, face the rising sun and spit three times towards the direction of the rising sun.

This is deep theology the early missionaries failed to comprehend or misinterpreted. To them this was a mythology associated with fetish or ancestral worship.

Of course, one could argue that several factors stood against the missionaries’ advancement into an understanding of various as-pects of the African spiritual life that would include a demythologi-zation of the African concepts. To me, that is simply a lame excuse. The Bukusu concepts can be easily demythologized as follows.

In the first place, the shrine was simply a dedicated place of worship, equivalent to the present day Church, Temple, or Mosque with symbolic facilities in the altar. The standing position facing the rising sun simply represented total adoration and thanks giving to the Creator for daybreak. This act was exemplified in the spitting of saliva three times, each time offered as an honor to one of the three persons of the Trinity for their corporate benevolence to humanity. Of course this was, and still is, the practice of consecration with holy water, found especially within the contemporary Catholic and higher Anglican faiths. Wele Kubi was a malevolent god who was usually associated with all sorts of calamities in a society. It was an evil god always in combat with the powers of the Triune God.

Witnessing this overwhelming and incomprehensible African theology, Willis Hotchkiss concluded that “no doubt the African has a knowledge of God, a supreme being, but that being is remote, unconcerned about mundane affairs” (Hotchkiss,144). Hotchkiss therefore advised his fellow missionaries to make the African worship of the “unknown God” as the starting point from which the African would be pointed to the Lamb of God. Hotchkiss still misses the point here.

In reality, one would say that the missionaries who went to East Africa to plant the seed found already prepared fertile soil for the superlative spiritual message. The African was already educated in the supernatural concepts. Unlike the average congregation in the Western world, the African congregation had already been thoroughly “sold” on the proposition of the concept of miracles.

The African God and the God of the Early Missionaries

May I now invite the reader to do a bit of theological reflection here to discuss the question of the African God and the God of the early missionaries? What I have offered above is only a tip of the iceberg. African theology is a comprehensive one. If by the time of the missionary enterprise in the East African region, the African had already been immersed in the knowledge of God, the Supreme Being, then how remote was the African God? Was this God remote by nature or was God made remote at the introduction of the missionary God in the concepts of Western theology? The missionary God was and is remote in many aspects, such as in language and style of worship. The use of inclusive language in personal pronouns attributed to God is a creation and the problem of Western theology. Most African languages have no personal pronouns equivalent to those in the English language.

When the missionary God was introduced as the only God to be worshiped through Jesus Christ, the entire African way of life changed. The Africans were made to discard their African names for Western names. The African worshiper was made to move from his sanctuary, the African shrine, to a church decorated in Western styles. He was taught to face the altar instead of the rising sun while praying. And the concept of the use of spiritual water displaced his use of saliva in moments of consecration.

In the Post Missionary Era

In the post missionary era, God has become remote and very much limited to the confines of Western theology. God is to be preached, addressed, and worshiped in the manner in which God was introduced. The various activities of Christian missionary societies had a profound impact on African societies. In the first place, the standard of living of the converts changed forever. The African people began wearing European style clothes. They gained access to modern medicine and their research in the advancement of African traditional medicine was discouraged. They lived in houses built in modern European style. Practice of monogamous marriages took hold and the institutions of polygamous marriages were destroyed. In short, the African converts were made to feel contemptuous of their own traditional institutions that for many centuries had held communities together (Boahen,16).

Western missionaries failed to identify themselves with ethnic ambitions and idiosyncracies. They still do to this day. The continuing American presence in the running of projects in East Africa prevents full development of the African Christians. Their presence destroys the superior physical qualities of African Christianity. Independence, courage, bravery and daring self-reliance, and readiness to face difficulties are obviously discouraged. The continuing American presence only increases the attitude of dependency. Most aid that goes to Africa is accompanied with a notion that Africans are primitive and static in development.

Many missionaries went to Africa with a notion that Africa could only be civilized by introducing Christianity, formal education, capitalism, industrialization, and the American Protestant work ethic. Adu Boahen sees colonial conquest as just another way of accomplishing this mission. He argues that the missionaries collaborated with colonists to produce the African in their European image. Colonial rulers as well as missionaries condemned everything African (Boahen, 36). African names, music, dance, art, marriage, systems of inheritance – all were excluded from school and college curricular and Church programs.

The kind of Christianity that was introduced by the missionaries in the East African region can be likened to ice cream in a cone cup. We licked the ice cream and ate the cup too.

Works Cited

Boahen, Adu A. African Perspectives on Colonialism. Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1997.

Chilson, Edna. Ambassador of the King. Wichita : E. H. Chilson, 1943.

American Friends Board of Foreign Missions. Foreign Mission Work of American Friends: A Brief History of Their Work from Beginning to the Year Nineteen Hundred and Twelve; Each Sketch Prepared by the Board in Control. Richmond, IN.: American Friends Board of Foreign Missions, 1912.

Hotchkiss, Willis R. Then and Now in Kenya Colony: Forty Years in East Africa. London & Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Co.,1937.

Related Resources:

American Friends Board of Missions, Twenty-five Years in East Africa: A Description of the Field and Work of Friends Africa Mission. Richmond, IN: American Friends Board of Missions, 1928?.

Painter, Levinus King, in collaboration with Archie Bond, Fred Reeve, and others. Foreword by Thomas Lung’aho. The Hill of Vision; The Story of the Quaker Movement in East Africa, 1902-1965. [n.p.]: East Africa Yearly Meeting of Friends, [1966].

Smuck, Harold. Friends in East Africa. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press,1987.

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