Church, John Edward (1899-1989)

Prominent leader of the East African Revival

John Edward Church (widely known as Joe Church) was a medical missionary to Rwanda from the late 1920s through the 1960s, and one of the most prominent leaders in the East African Revival that originated at Gahini Hospital of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Rwanda in 1933. Widely called the Balokole (“saved ones”) Revival in East Africa, this evangelical revival was arguably the most famous and influential African spiritual renewal movement of the twentieth century.(1) It began within the Anglican Church of Uganda through a remarkable partnership between Joe Church and several Ugandan evangelists, and quickly spread to the Presbyterian and Methodist churches of Kenya and the Mennonite and Lutheran churches of Tanzania in the 1940s and 1950s. Joe Church played an indispensable role in guiding the East African Revival through its years of expansion and consolidation not only in Africa, but also in Europe, North America, India, and Brazil.

Early Life and Background
Joe Church was born the son of an English country clergyman, Edward Joseph Church, in England in 1899. He studied at St. Lawrence’s School, Ramsgate, before entering Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a medical student in 1919. While a student at Cambridge, he had a conversion experience on the evening of August 29, 1920.(2) He became actively involved in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). This group was considerably influential among Christian students interested in foreign missions, an interest that had become a hallmark of Cambridge as a result of Dwight L. Moody’s famous revival meeting there and the missionary commitment of “the Cambridge Seven” in the mid-1880s. Indeed, from the late 1880s on, Cambridge was a significant hotbed for a number of young promising foreign missionaries.

Church’s years at the CICCU were crucial to his spiritual and theological formation. A book popular in the CICCU at that time, How to Live the Victorious Life, had a profound influence on his religious conviction.(3) The book represented the Keswick theology flourishing in the CICCU that emphasized the post-conversion experience of a second blessing, or “Spirit-filling,” and a strong desire for the higher Christian life. Another well-known missionary to Uganda who witnessed an earlier revival among Baganda in the late 1890s, George Pilkington, had also been strongly influenced by the Keswick movement while at Cambridge.(4) In light of this, it is no wonder that Church believed that Africans, like Europeans, could experience a second blessing; he wrote during his early years in Rwanda: “There is no doubt that an African can have a ‘second blessing,’ if you like to call it so.”(5) In addition, the influence of the Keswick movement on his missionary work can be seen through the Keswick Convention of 1938, which was held in Kenya especially for Africans, and became an integral part of the East African Revival thereafter.(6) He cherished his friendships and partnership with those in the CICCU, remaining in communication and contact with them throughout his missionary career in Rwanda.(7)

Church studied medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, and qualified as a doctor in 1926. At a missionary breakfast he met Algernon Stanley Smith, one of the co-founders of the Ruanda Mission of the CMS.(8) Stanley Smith spoke of a remarkable opening in Rwanda for Christian medical work, and Church offered himself for service with that mission. He sailed for Africa in October 1927. He remained unordained throughout his life.

Partnership with African Leaders
After two years of intense work at the CMS’s Gahini Hospital in Rwanda, Joe Church found himself in a state of acute spiritual dryness. In September 1929, he decided to take some time off in Kampala, Uganda, and there he met Simeon Nsibambi, a promising young Christian leader from Buganda. Church and Nsibambi shared a common dissatisfaction with the low spiritual state of the Anglican Church of Uganda. Together, they began to seek “the filling of the Spirit and the Victorious Life,” and after two days of prayer and Bible study, both of them experienced a sense of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.(9) Church recalled later this unforgettable moment, which is now widely considered to mark the beginning of the revival in East Africa:

I have often referred to this time in my preaching in later years as the time that God in his sovereign grace met with me and brought me to the end of myself and thought fit to give me a share of the power of Pentecost. There was nothing very spectacular, nothing ecstatic… The only special gift is the experience of the transforming vision, of the risen Jesus himself.(10)

In a sense, the meeting of Church and Nsibambi was “a merging of two streams”—one from Pilkington’s revival tradition in Uganda in the late-1890s and the other from a number of powerful revivals in Britain, starting with John Wesley and George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, and followed later by the Keswick movement in the nineteenth century.(11) This convergence of European and African spiritual renewal traditions illustrates the most significant legacy Church left —his remarkable partnership in the revival movement with African indigenous leaders such as Nsibambi, Blasio Kigozi, and William Nagenda. The East African Revival would not have been possible without the contribution of these African leaders. It should be noted that Church never claimed to be the leader of the revival, but rather considered himself as one of the co-workers under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.(12) He practiced the team ministry approach, and firmly believed in the radical equality of all—black and white, men and women—as sinners saved by the grace of Christ.

From the very beginning, African leaders’ role in the revival team was crucial. Unlike the European or American Evangelical Revival tradition—which featured famous revival preachers such as Wesley, Whitefield, Charles Finney, and Moody—the East African Revival began primarily as a small group fellowship meeting of the revival team in homes and villages, in which all participants freely shared their testimony of “Spirit-filling” experience and desire for the higher Christian life. Church’s willingness and commitment to work with Africans in love and fellowship was considered a vital part of the movement.(13) Many early CMS missionaries in East Africa noticed and were impressed by Church’s open, genuine friendship and cooperation with Africans. For instance, during the early days of the revival, one missionary noticed “evident love and fellowship with each other, quite regardless of class, station or race,” which provided a deeper and fuller conception of “fellowship”—the very essence of koinonia.(14) The revivalists called one another Ab’oluganda (“Brethren”), which fostered egalitarianism among themselves—equal partnership between Europeans and Africans, between men and women, and between various tribes.(15)

The Revival from the Grassroots Level
The most distinctive feature of the East African Revival is that it sprang from the grassroots level, through small group revival teams without a great revival preacher.(16) In fact, from the early years of his ministry at Gahini, Joe Church had a vision of training and sending a band of indigenous evangelists to spread the Gospel into the regions neighboring Gahini. He wrote about this vision in the quarterly journal of the Ruanda Mission, Ruanda Notes: “I have several times mentioned that I am training a band of Hospital evangelists to go out and work with the teachers.”(17) Moreover, he had a heartfelt concern about his African colleagues at the hospital because many of them were nominal Christians. With continuous prayers and faithful preaching of Christ at Gahini, the revival started without anything spectacular in 1933; Stanley Smith described “quiet and almost imperceptible” meetings of the spiritually revived African staff at the hospital.(18) Church explained how it began to grow as an evangelistic outreach:

It had been a custom at Gahini since about 1933 to send out parties of evangelists into the district, especially on Sunday, and for the week-end to more distant places. Blasio and Yosiya had become the leaders of the keen section, and they had their own special meeting on Saturday afternoon at which those who were to go on these evangelistic efforts were chosen.(19)

Church was also engaged in various evangelistic and medical safaris with young indigenous evangelists on a regular basis—several times a year, for a week or so each trip. Many outreach safaris targeted distant untouched parts of eastern Rwanda. During these safaris, he preached relatively infrequently, and instead gave young indigenous Christians many opportunities to preach and give testimony in public, so that they could be equipped as prospective revival team leaders.(20)

The fellowship meetings (which consistently had an evangelistic purpose) were not only the motivating impetus for the larger revival movement; more importantly, they were “the most precious fruits of the revival and something they should never cease to aim at.”(21) Because the small group revival teams were led mostly by lay people, the movement had a pervasive impact at the grassroots level for several decades.(22) Over against the centralized diocesan structure, particularly in Anglicanism, the revival entailed a remarkable recovery of the indigenous structure of the church as a living Christian community group.(23) In a sense, the revival reaffirmed the spiritual responsibility of the laity in the church. It is also noteworthy that two of the central figures of the revival, Church and Nagenda, were not ordained clergy.

Based on his conviction that the revival should spread through a team of revivalists, in 1937 Church set up a plan for training a team of young indigenous evangelists “for the building up of a true holiness movement in Uganda based exclusively on the Bible.”(24) He called the team “the Uganda Seven,” clearly an allusion to “the Cambridge Seven” in England. Instead of modeling the team on European and American large-scale renewal movements engineered by famous preachers, he hoped the East African Revival would develop as “an essentially lay community of prayer and fellowship” for evangelism.(25)

The Christocentric Revival
The distinctive theology and practice of the East African Revival was its emphasis on the real experience of the saving power of Christ and daily submission to him rather than an emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and supernatural healing. The overriding theme of the various revival meetings and Keswick conventions was the message of sin, repentance, and forgiveness by the blood of Christ. Joe Church and his fellow evangelists were said to preach only Christ and Him crucified. Even in the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit, they firmly believed that “the Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus and points us to the Blood of Jesus for cleansing when we may have grieved Him on the way.”(26) Unlike the Keswick movement in Britain, which stressed a second blessing experience beyond initial conversion, the East African Revival focused more on the initial conversion as “an overwhelming experience of brokenness at the cross.”(27) Therefore, in many respects, the revival was a purely Christocentric movement that stressed the salvific power and grace of Jesus Christ (John 3:16, Eph. 2:6-10).

This can also be seen in the terms that the revivalists typically used: “born again,” “cleansed in the blood of Jesus,” and “walking in the light together.”(28) The most famous, triumphant revival hymn—Tukutendereza Yesu (“We Praise You Jesus”)—captures the essence of the movement, that is, salvation through being washed in the blood of Jesus.(29) This Luganda hymn illustrates the widespread unifying influence of the revival for those who shared a common spiritual experience all over East Africa—Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania.

The first manifestation of a large-scale revival occurred at Gahini in December, 1933, through the public confession of hidden sins among the hospital staff.(30) As the revival took hold, public confession of hidden sins continued to mark the first stirrings of the revival.(31) This promoted a higher standard of holiness of living among followers of the revival, and the changed lives that resulted from the fellowship of the revival became the most obvious appeal to other men and women in the villages. Once having repented and confessed their sins, people were instructed to live a completely new life to please Christ. For instance, it was commonly taught that those who repented should compensate for what they had previously cheated others out of, or stolen.(32) John Taylor offered a useful insight on the Evangelical characteristics of the revival theology in Uganda: “Anglican Evangelical Theology—the sinful condition of man, the Atonement and the Saviorhood of Christ, the conversion of the individual and the offer of sanctification through the Holy Spirit conditioned by the surrender of the believer’s will.”(33)

Unity for Mission
It should be noted that Joe Church was a loyal Anglican and had a strong loyalty to the “Native Anglican Church,” that is, the Church of Uganda. Like other prominent African leaders of the revival who insisted that the revival should aim for renewal of the existing church, he had no interest in establishing a separate new church.(34) He believed a revival which caused divisions among Christians could not be a true revival from God.(35) Therefore, whenever controversial issues of doctrine or practice arose in the movement, Church wisely dealt with them in a sensitive way. For example, he played a significant part in mediating a serious conflict between the college warden and the Balokole students at the Bishop Tucker Memorial College in Mukono, Uganda in 1941. Although he was aware that the case was unwisely handled, he called the revivalists to rethink and pray over certain aspects of the problems in the revival in its relationship with other church officials.(36)

Church emphasized unity, reconciliation, and cooperation not only between revivalists and anti-revivalists, but also between Europeans and Africans, between men and women, and between various ethnic groups. Especially in colonial Kenya, where distrust and hatred between blacks and whites was a serious issue, Church courageously said: “We insisted on African and European leaders sitting with us and joining in the planning. I wrote in Ruanda Notes: ‘I stress this because I believe here lies the secret of blessing and revival in Kenya: mistrust between European and African must be broken…’.”(37)

Furthermore, Church actively promoted unity and collaboration among Christians for mission. He endeavored with Stanley Smith to establish the Alliance of Protestant Mission in Rwanda and Burundi in 1934, in a quest for true oneness in mission.(38) The Alliance of Protestant Mission included missionaries from various national and denominational backgrounds such as Danish Baptists, American Nazarenes, and Canadian Free Methodists. This fostered a deeper, stronger spirit of unity, and in 1942 the Protestant Alliance Convention was held in Rwanda, a notable fruit of Church’s indefatigable efforts for the unity of the church and the mission for the sake of their witness to Christ.(39) Many leaders of the revival movement routinely worked together as a team, and their unity despite different cultures, races, and languages became the heritage of the movement most precious to the following generation.(40)

Church’s plea for genuine partnership and unity for the sake of revival can also be found in his speech at the pastors’ conference in Cape Town, South Africa in 1944, during apartheid. He stated, “We said plainly revival could not come if they had no (apparent) intention of getting down the colour-bar.”(41) In addition, at a missionary conference in Jerusalem in 1953, he again emphasized that, “We felt we must stress the need for deeper oneness between mission and mission, between the missionaries and Jews, as we know in East Africa, in the home between husband and wife.”(42)

Widening Scope of the Revival
Joe Church also played a crucial role in presenting to many other parts of the world the East African Revival as an authentic renewal movement of the Holy Spirit. He recalled later in life that as early as 1936 God had first given him and other leaders a vision for worldwide evangelistic teams.(43) Bishop Cyril Stuart and Archdeacon Pitt Pitts of Uganda confirmed this vision. Accordingly, in 1946 when the revival reached its peak, Church arranged for William Nagenda and Yosiya Kinuka to visit England with him to tell about what God had been doing in the East African Revival. Later, Church and other African leaders, such as William Nagenda, Yosiya Kinuka, and Festo Kivengere, testified about the Holy Spirit’s work and spread the renewal movement to Switzerland, France, and Germany in 1949; Malawi in 1951; Angola, and India in 1952; the United States and Israel in 1953; and Brazil in 1959. From its low-key beginnings in Rwanda and Uganda in the mid-1930s, the revival became an international movement whose impact was carried beyond Africa as far as Europe, North America, and South Asia. Kivengere became the best known African evangelist of that time and joined the Billy Graham evangelistic team for several campaigns.(44)

Most visits by Church and his team to other countries involved conferences on missions. They not only gave personal testimonies and detailed accounts of the East African Revival, but also stressed emphatically the absolute necessity of being “born again” by the transformative saving power of Christ Jesus. Church later recalled, “We were told that people were wanting to hear news of the Revival in East Africa, but we have to tell them, as we often do, there is such a danger of people trying to copy it, instead of going back to Jesus.”(45) Over and over again, they emphasized the simplicity of the walk with Jesus, and the “oneness” there is in Him. Neville Langford-Smith, Bishop of Nakuru, Kenya, rightly noted, “Revival as it has come to East Africa is really a return to the simplicity of apostolic faith in a time of apostasy….There is nothing new in the doctrine of revival.”(46)

Later Years
In the midst of the internal political conflict between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda in the early 1960s, Joe Church—who used to provide medical care to the Rwandan royal family—was advised to leave the country with his family.(47) He reluctantly moved to Uganda in 1961. There he helped his son Robin Church, who became a medical missionary, reconstruct and develop the hospital at Kabarole, Toro. In 1964, Joe Church officially retired at the age of 65, but he remained on the shores of Lake Victoria with the intention of building a center there for those concerned with the revival. When Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972, Church and his family left for England due to security concerns. He settled in Little Shelford, near Cambridge. He died in September 1989, at the age of 90.

Church was a man who always wanted to keep Christ at the center of his life and ministry, who always wanted to have genuine fellowship in oneness with other co-workers in mission, who always wanted to live his life for God’s “Highest.” In a speech he delivered to the Keswick Convention in England in 1947, he outlined five stages in the walk along the highway of holiness, and in doing so he essentially described his own lifelong goals for his personal life and missionary work: “Prayerfulness, Brokenness, Fullness, Openness (in the light), and Oneness (fellowship).”(48)


(1) Many historians agree that the East African Revival had the farthest-reaching and longest-lasting impact of all the renewal movements in Africa. Adrian Hastings, The Church in Africa: 1450-1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 596-98; Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995), 241-42; James E. Orr, Evangelical Awakening in Africa (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 165; Kevin Ward, “Africa,” in A World History of Christianity, edited by Adrian Hastings (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 224.

(2) Church recalled that it was during the Christian outreach program of Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) that he had a conversion experience. He wrote that he had prayed the prayer of one of the songs the children sang: “Cleanse me from my sin Lord; Put thy power within, Lord; Take me as I am Lord; And make me all thine own.” H. H. Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival (Winchester, UK: Apologia Publications, 2000), 55.

(3) Church commented on the book: “It proclaims the glorious fact that victory may and ought to mark the daily life and witness of God’s children—not in a dim and distant future but here and now.” Katharine Makower, The Coming of the Rain: The Life of Dr. Joe Church; A Personal Account of Revival in Rwanda (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1999), 27.

(4) Pilkington was not only influenced by the Keswick movement while a student at Cambridge during 1885-87; he also gave testimony at the Keswick Convention of 1896 to the influence of the work of the Holy Spirit in Uganda. Charles F. Harford Battersby, Pilkington of Uganda (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1899), 23-34, 261.

(5) John E. Church, “Needs Spiritual and Temporal at Gahini,” Ruanda Notes 37 (July 1931): 18.

(6) John E. Church, Quest for the Highest: An Autobiographical Account of the East African Revival (Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1981), 157-58.

(7) Church wrote that he had many opportunities to meet with the CICCU at Cambridge whenever he was back in England on furlough. John E. Church, “From Dr. J. E. Church,” Ruanda Notes 41 (July 1932): 30; Church, Quest for the Highest, 147.

(8) H. H. Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 57.

(9) Church gave a detailed account of how he and Nsibambi met and together received the transforming vision of Christ in their prayer meeting. Church, Quest for the Highest, 66-70.

(10) Ibid., 68.

(11) Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 11-12.

(12) Kevin Ward and Emma Wild-Wood (eds.), The East African Revival: History and Legacies (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2010), 13-15.

(13) Gordon Hewitt, The Problems of Success: A History of the Church Missionary Society 1910-1942, vol. 1 (London: SCM Press, 1971), 272.

(14) Max A. Warren, Revival: An Enquiry (London: SCM Press, 1954), 51.

(15) Kevin Ward, “Tukutendereza Yesu: The Balokole Revival in Uganda,” in From Mission to Church: A Handbook of Christianity in East Africa, edited by Zablon Nthamburi (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1991), 113.

(16) While there were some eloquent preachers such as Blasio Kigozi and William Nagenda, they never had the celebrated stature of such individuals as George Whitefield or Charles Finney. They worked as members of a team, with no one considered a foremost leader above the rest.

(17) John E. Church, “Needs Spiritual and Temporal at Gahini,” Ruanda Notes 37 (July 1931): 18.

(18) A. C. Stanley Smith, Road to Revival: The Story of the Ruanda Mission (London: CMS, 1946), 54.

(19) John E. Church, Awake! An African Calling: The Story of Blasio Kigozi (London: CMS, 1937), 24.

(20) Church wrote in detail about several of these evangelistic and medical safaris in the quarterly journal of the Ruanda Mission. John E. Church, “Dr. J. E. Church Tells of Medical Journeys,” Ruanda Notes 50 (October 1934): 24-28.

(21) Stanley mith, Road to Revival, 110.

(22) Warren, Revival: An Enquiry, 58-59.

(23) John V. Taylor, The Growth of the Church in Buganda: An Attempt at Understanding (London: SCM Press, 1958), 102.

(24) Hewitt, The Problems of Success, 239-40.

(25) Adrian Hastings, A History of African Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 52-53.

(26) Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 87.

(27) Ward and Wild-Wood (eds.), The East African Revival, 14.

(28) Warren, Revival: An Enquiry, 40.

(29) “Tukutendereza Yesu” was sung at every revival meeting and became the best known hymn of the Balokole Revival. The lyric is as follows: Tukutendereza Yesu (“We praise you Jesus”), Yesu Omwana gw’endiga (“Jesus Lamb of God”), Omusaigwo gunaziza (“Your blood cleanses me”), Nkwebarza, Omulokozi (“I praise you, Savior”). Church, Quest for the Highest, 271.

(30) Ibid., 98-99.

(31) Some scholars note that the practice of public confession of sins in informal meetings was strongly influenced by Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group movement. Hastings, The Church in Africa, 596; Ward and Wild-Wood (eds.), The East African Revival, 14.

(32) Church gave an account of several senior Christians at Gahini compensating for what they had stolen, after their confession of sins. Church, “News of Gahini Hospital from Dr. J. E. Church,” Ruanda Notes 47 (January 1934): 17.

(33) Taylor, The Growth of the Church in Buganda, 252.

(34) In particular, Simeon Nsibambi, the foremost leader among all Africans, always insisted that the revival should renew the existing church. He rejected calls to form a new independent denomination, even though some established churches were suspicious of the movement. Stanley Smith, Road to Revival, 74.

(35) Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 78.

(36) Church, Quest for the Highest, 186.

(37) Church, Quest for the Highest, 145.

(38) Ibid., 106-7.

(39) Ibid., 191-92.

(40) Zeb Kabaza, the later evangelist of the revival, noted this in regard to what he had observed and learned from the early leaders of the revival. Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 262.

(41) Church, Quest for the Highest, 212.

(42) Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 89.

(43) Church, Quest for the Highest, 134.

(44) Ibid., 247.

(45) Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 89.

(46) Neville Langford-Smith, “Revival in East Africa,” International Review of Missions 43 (1954): 78.

(47) Osborn, Pioneers in the East African Revival, 107.

(48) Church, Quest for the Highest, 227.

by Daewon Moon


The unpublished papers of Joe Church, 1923-1989, are in the archives of the Henry Martyn Centre in Cambridge, UK.


Church, John E. “Needs Spiritual and Temporal at Gahini.” Ruanda Notes 37 (July 1931): 17-19.

_____. “From Dr. J. E. Church.” Ruanda Notes 41 (July 1932): 28-30.

_____. “News of Gahini Hospital from Dr. J .E. Church.” Ruanda Notes 47 (January 1934): 17-19.

_____. “Dr. J. E. Church Tells of Medical Journeys.” Ruanda Notes 50 (October 1934): 24-28.

_____. Awake! An African Calling: The Story of Blasio Kigozi. London: CMS, 1937.

_____. Forgive Them: The Story of an Africa Martyr. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966.

_____. Quest for the Highest: An Autobiographical Account of the East African Revival. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1981.


Makower, Katharine. The Coming of the Rain: The Life of Dr. Joe Church; A Personal Account of Revival in Rwanda. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1999.

Osborn, H. H. Pioneers in the East African Revival. Winchester, UK: Apologia Publications, 2000.

Stanley Smith, A. C. Road to Revival: The Story of the Ruanda Mission. London: CMS, 1946.

St. John, Patricia M. Breath of Life: The Story of the Ruanda Mission. London: Norfolk Press, 1971.

Taylor, John V. The Growth of the Church in Buganda: An Attempt at Understanding. London: SCM Press, 1958.

Ward, Kevin and Emma Wild-Wood (eds.). The East African Revival: History and Legacies. Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2010.

Warren, Max A. Revival: An Enquiry. London: SCM Press, 1954.

John E. Church collection of the Henry Martyn Centre archives, Cambridge University. See the description of its contents. Several photographs of the collection can be viewed at the Martyn Centre website.

Osborn, H. H. “John Edward Church: 1899 to 1989.” In online Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

Ward, Kevin. “Tukutendereza Yesu: The Balokole Revival in Uganda.” In online Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Originally published in From Mission to Church: A Handbook of Christianity in East Africa, edited by Zablon Nthamburi. Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1991.