The story of the Uganda Martyrs is well known throughout this
African nation. June 3 is the official commemoration of the Martyrs
and is honored as a national holiday. Though we think of martyrdom
as an ancient stage in Christian history, the Uganda Martyrs gave
their witness to their faith just over a hundred years ago.
The first king of Buganda to deal with Christians was Mutesa I.
He welcomed missionaries to his land. In the early 1880s, Arab
Muslims, French Catholics and English Anglicans came for the first
time to this east African nation. Mutesa seems to have favored the
Christians and many of his people eagerly studied and converted to
the Christian faith. In fact, these first converts were called
abasomi, meaning “readers,” because they read the Scriptures.
The king himself was never baptized because he would have had to
abandon his many wives. But he was not drawn to Islam. He took a
policy that permitted his subjects to choose their own religious
adherence, and he himself died still clinging to his traditional
Mutesa died in 1884. His son, Mwanga II, had been impressed with
the missionaries and even gave them his enthusiastic support. But
soon after he came to the throne, he changed his attitude and became
a persecutor of the Christians. The precise cause of his sudden
change is a matter of debate. But surely one of the most important
factors was the fact that the new Christian converts seemed to give
their entire loyalty and allegiance to Christ as king rather than
their tribal monarch.
Bishop James Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop assigned to
the region, came across Kenya through the country of Busoga, vassals
of the Buganda. He and his companions were discovered and imprisoned
by the Busoga chieftains on the king’s orders. Hannington and six
missionaries were killed on October 29, 1885.
Mwanga then launched a persecution of Christians on a broader
scale. It is not known just how many would give their lives, but
some 45 individuals were known to have been martyred from 1885-1886.
The greatest number of these, 24 in all, were burned to death at
Namugongo on June 3, 1886.
There are two shrines to these Christian martyrs, one with a
Roman Catholic Basilica (dedicated 1975) about a mile and a half
from the other, the Anglican Shrine shown here. This is fitting
because, as it turned out, half of the young men slain were Roman
Catholic and half were Anglican. The Roman martyrs were first
honored in 1920, and were declared saints by Pope Paul VI in 1964 –
the first Africans to be so honored. The Anglican martyrs were
recognized by Archbishop Robert Runcie on his pilgrimage to
Namugongo in 1984. Archbishop George Carey also honored the shrine
with a visit in 1998. Although international recognition of these
witnesses to the Christian faith came relatively late, the Uganda
Martyrs and their example inspired the Christians of this nation
right from the start, and their courage and commitment is credited
with the remarkable growth of the churches in this African nation.
Tertullian had said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of
the Church.” That is certainly true in Uganda.