Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda: Book Review

Bruner, Jason. 2017. Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Reviewed by: Emma Wild-Wood (University of Edinburgh)

Since its beginnings in the 1930s the East African Revival has had a lasting influence on the religious culture of the region. It began in Uganda and Rwanda as a lively, internal critique to the orderly and hierarchical Anglican Church of Uganda and spread into Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and Burundi. Revivalists sought to transform all aspects of society in conformity with their strict code of conduct and their expansive vision of Christianity. With this volume Jason Bruner makes a significant contribution to the study of the Revival. He takes the movement beyond the parameters of mission history, and beyond an interest in its leadership figures. He shows that the distinct spiritual culture of revivalists was a response to the late colonial social context.

Studies of the Revival have been revitalised by Derek Peterson’s Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c.1935-1972 (2012) an excellent examination of revivalism as a cosmopolitan political criticism of the values of ethnic patriots. Bruner accepts much of Peterson’s analysis but he critiques Peterson’s location of the revivalists in ‘a history of dissent’ (16). Radical, popularist dissent has been considered evidence of Africans thinking for themselves, rather than being led by missionaries or colonialists. Christian agency in Africa has often been associated with independence and political protest at the colonial status quo. Bruner prefers the comprehension of agency found in Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005). Mahmood showed that women who adopt a reformist form of Islam with an intense religiosity and a zealous pursuit of purity find rich resources for making agency, power and selfhood in all aspects of life. Bruner takes a cultural history approach, examining the Revival as a movement of ordinary people and identifying their agency in their revivalist practice. He explores revivalists’ motivations for joining the movement, the re-ordering of their lives through the application of its tenets and practices, and their networking and mobility through becoming ‘saved ones’ (balokole). Through a careful use of archives and interviews with elderly balokole Bruner presents the Revival as a creative religious movement which impacted society through shifting religious ideas, practices and mentalities (17).

This slim volume explores its subject thematically. The first two chapters examine familiar themes for the revival. The commitment of revivalists to the Church of Uganda and their constant critique of it has been examined by others. Revivalists argued that unity was more effective for evangelism than schism. Bruner adds that revivalists’ criticism of authority structures explains their attitude towards the Church of Uganda. Intent on remaking society, the revivalists were obliged to alter this central institution. Another book, out this year, also sheds light on this relationship, by showing how integral matters of authority have been in Ugandan Christianity more broadly. The Ugandan Church and the Political Centre: Cooperation, Co-option and Confrontation (Musana, Crichton, Howell, eds. 2017) demonstrates the various ways in which Christians in Uganda have engaged publically with governance and leadership. Revivalists were flagrant and public confessors of sins. They gave often lurid accounts of misdeeds, they called others to account for wrong doing and they performed conversion as an abrupt discontinuity of the old life. In doing so, Bruner says, they upheld their vision of inclusive Christianity. It cut across ethnic and educational difference. It formed kinships across the world, if – and only if – one confessed one’s sins and ‘walked in the light’ with other balokole.

Bruner’s distinctive contribution is apparent from chapter three onwards. The Revival has been regarded as an aesthetic, other worldly movement, uninterested in material effects. Bruner examines the discourses around bodies, clothing, money and life-style which perpetuated revival. He notes that bodies were the locus of conversion. In shaking, weeping and dancing converts confronted good and evil. Balokole broke food taboos, refused to drink and smoke, and criticised sexual practices. They ordered and disciplined their daily and weekly lives through prayer, fellowship meetings, improved sanitation and changed cattle-herding practices. In doing so, says Bruner, they refused to reify practices of ethnic particularity and they offered a cosmopolitan unity across ethnic divides. However, the revivalist vision of a single human community based on a shared morality competed with other forms of cosmopolitanism. The Revival was a criticism of colonial cosmopolitanism whose influences were regarded as morally degrading. In the examination of migration and work in chapter four, Bruner explains the ‘sins of cosmopolitanism’. Unlike ethnic patriots balokole travelled, crossed borders, and settled in growing towns. They utilized urban cosmopolitanism to spread their gospel message but they also protected themselves against the casual liaisons and entertainment culture that urban settlements encouraged. They did so through fellowship groups which become vehicles for communal resource distribution, collective decision-making and a new relationality that operated on a regional scale with common standards of behaviour. In chapter five, Bruner convincingly shows how the balokole determinedly established ways of living that removed ethnic particularity from the home, developed ‘portable values and lifestyles, and established daily routines to convey ‘the superiority of the saved lifestyle’ (108). Bruner does not always demonstrate how this changed scale of belonging is necessarily cosmopolitan, rather than pan-African, although I agree with his assessment that they are. We do not learn how Revival values and practices connect the balokole beyond East Africa. Nor do we learn the response of ordinary members to the commitment of the leadership to make robust cross-cultural friendships with missionaries, and to preach in Europe, South Africa and India (e.g., Ward and Wild-Wood, eds. 2012; Reed 2007).

In his final chapter, Bruner shows how revivalists attempted to reorient schools to values of salvation. European missionaries were particularly worried by revivalist activities in the schools they ran. However, revivalists were following missionary models in using formal education as a means of societal transformation. Bruner presents a summary of changes in education to prepare his analysis (117-8). The way he does so provides an example of a criticism of his work. In his summary he maintains good use of pertinent archive material but he is less clear on the wider historical processes, because he does not refer to relevant secondary sources. The explanation of educational change would have benefited from sketching the impact of the Phelps-Stokes commission, widely known and debated within African history.  For this reason, it is sometimes difficult to anchor the cultural change he mentions in other historical events and processes.

In his conclusion Bruner helpfully addresses the difficulties of respecting the views of one’s subjects, and thus seeing the topic only through their lenses. He points out that the Revival was not as bounded as balokole would like to believe (134).  It is more varied and fluid than other internal accounts have made it. In focusing upon Central and Western Uganda, however, Bruner restricts his opportunities to engage with the more varied and radical forms of revival found in Northern Uganda and Congo. In taking seriously the balokole’s belief in necessary rupture and change for their life of salvation, he does not attempt to introduce the antecedents to the revival which blur its historical boundaries.

Bruner’s volume is a significant contribution to the history of the East African Revival and offers a valuable approach for the examination of revivalist movements in modern history and their cultural impact in particular sociopolitical contexts. It shows how widespread movements, previously over-looked in scholarship because they appeared orthodox, mission-initiated, culturally foreign and politically acquiescent were having a profound effect on those who subscribed to them. The Revivalists’ insistence that they would not leave the mission churches meant that they succeeded in changing the wider organisations of which they remained apart and in influencing society more broadly.


Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Musana, Paddy, Angus Chrichton, and Caroline Howell, eds. 2017. The Ugandan Church and the Political Centre: Cooperation, Co-option and Confrontation. Cambridge: Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.

Peterson, Derek R. 2014. Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c.1935-1972. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reed, Colin. 2007. Walking in the Light: The East African Revival and its connection with Australia. Acorn Press.

Ward, Kevin and Emma Wild-Wood, eds. 2012. The East African Revival, History and Legacies. London and New York: Routledge.

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