Skip to content

Whose Church? Ethnicity, Identity, and the Politics of Belonging in the Adventist Church in Kenya — Part 6


Editor’s Note: In this six-part series for Spectrum, journalist Godfrey Sang explores the current tensions in the Adventist church in Kenya through the lenses of ethnicity, identity, and politics.

Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.

The social context of Adventism in Colonial Kenya

Historians place the problem of ethnicity in colonial rule, which emphasized the separation of Kenyans along racial and ethnic lines. The creation of administrative districts along tribal lines and the creation of areas exclusively for European settlement or habitation created a sense of “otherness” in people outside these spheres.

Historian Walter O. Oyugi argues that colonial rule created a common center from which all the existing ethnic groups in given colonial states were required to relate to.[1] He argues that the emerging relations soon became relations of competition over resources associated with modern life. “Ethnic consciousness was further accentuated as the tempo of modernization accompanied by urbanization which gave rise to free movement and settlement of peoples in areas other than their own. The notion of a ‘people’s own area’ which resulted from the formal politico-administrative regimentation of the colonized people into ethnic administrative enclaves, was later to lead to the heightening of ethnic self-identity or sense of belonging. It also in the process, created a sense of exclusiveness which sooner or later manifested itself in the rejection of ‘outsiders.’”[2]

The Adventist church, sadly, played along. In creating a predominantly European church, the forerunner of Nairobi Central, it had created fertile ground to allow for racial elitism which would be replaced by ethnic and social elitism come Independence. The church at Karura was open to the Africans, while Shauri Moyo catered to the urban Adventist Africans who were almost certainly of a lower socio-economic cadre. The third European church at Kitale, established in 1958, suffered from low European numbers (the Africans were not welcome).

The low European numbers coupled with anxieties over impending Independence delayed construction. And when it came that Europeans had to leave, the half-finished structure by the same architect who drew Nairobi Central had to be abandoned and was in fact sold to another denomination altogether. In February 1963, M.E. Lind, the President of the East African Union, opened discussions with Mr. D. Saunders of the Baptist Mission of East Africa who had approached them with view of taking over the unfinished church building and plot in Kitale.[3] By this time there were already some African Adventists in Kitale and one wonders why the prime five-acre plot was not given to them or at least kept in trust until they could have it.

The thinking that informs Kenya’s highly fractious elections, pitting one ethnic formation against another, has evidently seeped into Christian churches and this is true across most denominations including the Adventist church. Nearly all the major denominations are grappling with the problem of ethnicity with different levels of success. Ethnically defined disputes in Christian churches in Kenya are not new[4] and the NCC-CKC spat is not new nor is it any different. Most of the denominations in Kenya will have a dominant ethnic group in it thanks to colonial-era policies that created denominational spheres of influence among the tribes.

Zoning Kenya by denomination

The early Protestant denominations which operated in British East Africa zoned the nation and designated different areas to each other with the understanding that they were not to interfere with another’s territory. This pact was made by what became known as the Alliance of Protestant Missions (APM) and they were comprised of the Presbyterians, the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Quakers (Friend’s Africa Mission) and the Africa Inland Mission. The Africa Inland Mission was allocated the Kamba country, the Maasai country, and the Kalenjin country, among them the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Keiyo, and Marakwet areas. They now considered this territory as belonging to them and jealously guarded it against the foray of other Protestants including the Adventists who had refused to be a part of the original Alliance.

From June 7–11, 1909, Arthur Carscallen, the first Adventist missionary in Kenya, attended the United Missionary Conference that brought together members of various missionary denominations to discuss aspects of unity.[5] Due to the traditional Adventist avoidance of Ecumenism, Carscallen pulled out of subsequent meetings and Adventists were not part of the zoning arrangements. It turned out to be a wise move. Other than the Catholics, the Adventists were able to establish in most districts of Kenya without much resistance. Beside the initial work among the Luo in 1906 and the Kisii in 1912, they moved to Kalenjin country in 1931, Luhya country in 1933, Central Kenya and Eastern Kenya in 1933, Kenya Coast in 1934, and there is evidence that as early as 1909 the Adventists were already congregating in Nairobi’s African district. This spread invited people from nearly all tribes in Kenya into the Adventist faith.

Today, the arrangement of the APM has seen to it that many Protestant denominations seem to have members of only one ethnic group. The Methodist church in Kenya, for instance, is nearly all drawn from the Meru people, while the Presbyterian Church is nearly all drawn from the Kikuyu people. These are all a reflection of the early ecumenical zoning of Kenya. And it is safe to say that if Carscallen had signed up to the ecumenical arrangements, the Adventist church in Kenya today would be predominantly Luo.

Adventism among the Kisii

When the first Adventist missionary, Ira A. Evanson from the United States, opened up Kisii country in 1912, he was assisted by Luo evangelist Yakobo Olwa from Karachuonyo.[6] Both of them set camp at Nyanchwa which is the traditional birthplace of Adventism among the Kisii. It was not long afterwards that the First World War started and the European missionaries had to be interned at Friends Mission in Kaimosi 100 km northwards leaving Olwa to labor among the Kisii on his own. He barely understood the language, often speaking incoherent Ekegusii and working only with portions of Scripture in his native tongue, but his mission was clear in his mind. He was openly ostracized for coming from an uncircumcising community making his work rather difficult. Despite the odds, Olwa managed to win some people and established the Adventist faith with little help from the European missionaries.

Adventism began to spread among the Kisii so that by 1922, some 10 pioneer Kisii, the first fruits of Olwa’s work, were baptized by Pr. W.T. Bartlett. Bartlett had taken over from Carscallen.[7] From these beginnings, there was a symbiotic relationship between the Kisii and the Luo with evangelists from both sides helping spread the Gospel message on the other’s turf.

By 1927 there were 104 Kisii church members at Nyanchwa Mission while the Gendia Mission had 352 members and the Kamagambo Mission had 367 members.[8] By 1928 the members at Nyanchwa numbered 297, a near three-fold increase, while those at Gendia were 643 and Kamagambo 445.[9] There were far more Luo in the church at this time than Kisii but evidently,  by this time, Adventism was growing faster among the Kisii than among the Luo. It was only a matter of time before they would overtake the Luo.

In 1935, the first Adventist pastor, Paul Mboya (a Luo), resigned from the ministry and joined Government service. Resigning as an Adventist pastor left questions in the minds of many. However, he probably did more for the Adventist church as a Government official than he would ever have done as a pastor. He was appointed by the Governor of Kenya as the Secretary of the South Nyanza African District Council based in Kisii town. All the applications for churches began at Mboya’s desk and he never hesitated to recommend them for approval at the Local Native Council where he also sat. Applications for schools also first reached his desk. The applications were almost certain to be approved as he also sat on the District Education Board (DEB) in his capacity as the Secretary of the Council. He used his influence to fast-track the development of Adventism among the Kisii and Luo.

The faith made fast strides. Mboya even co-opted fellow Adventist Senior Chief Musa Nyandusi[10] into the DEB and was also a member of the Local Native Council. Musa Nyandusi was one of the pioneer Kisii Adventists baptized in 1922 by Bartlett. The third Adventist on the Board was Ms. Vera Lauderdale, the director at Kamagambo Adventist School. Their influence is yet to be fully appreciated by the Adventist church but suffice it to say that by 1955, the Adventist church had the highest number of schools in the South Nyanza region, more than five times the number of Government-sponsored schools and miles ahead of its traditional rival, the Catholic church.[11]

Ethnicity and the church in transition

Unlike other missionary outfits, the transition from the European-led Seventh-day Adventist Church to that led by Africans, was fairly smooth. By 1930 there were already more African Adventist missionaries than Europeans.[12] By 1931 the first African pastor, Paul Mboya, was ordained and by 1948, Paul Nyamweya became the first African to run a mission station joining the ranks of the European missionaries. He was the pioneer director of the Lumbwa Mission among the Kipsigis.

Within the first decade of Kenya’s independence, nearly all the European missionaries in church administration had left and there were no Europeans in charge of mission stations. In 1973 the East Africa Union came under Pr. Dennis K. Bazarra, a Ugandan who replaced Pr. C.D. Henri. To forestall the impact of ethnicity in the appointment to Field or Conference offices, members of the dominant ethnic group were not encouraged to hold office in their own conferences. In 1964, Pr. C. Odero, a Luo, became the president of the South Kenya Field (predominated by the Kisii). He was in office until 1969.

In 1981, Pr. Aggrey Kutondo, a Luhya, became the Executive Director of Western Kenya Field which was predominated by the Nandi, Kipsigis, Keiyo, and Sabaot, all of whom are part of the Kalenjin community. In 1982, Pr. Jackson Maiyo, a Nandi, became the Executive Director of the Ranen Field which territorially covers areas predominated by the Luo. In 1986, Pr. R. K. Kamundi, a Meru, became the Executive Director of the Kenya Coast Field. Just like Pr. Paul Nyamweya, a Kisii, was appointed head of the Kipsigis Mission in 1948, he was replaced by American Robert J. Wieland in 1953. In 1955, Wieland was replaced by Tanzanian Pr. Paul Kilonzo who was in turn replaced by Pr. Zephaniah Oyier, a Luo. The locals received these “visitors,” not considering their ethnicity or race but their calling.


The formation of the Nairobi Central Conference is a search for belonging, but by first trying to un-belong. None of them want to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church and consider themselves in good and regular standing, even though their actions in discrediting the Adventist church suggest that they have driven themselves away. This convoluted arrangement has caused lots of anxiety among Adventists across the globe. To many, the NCC is the product of covert activism against the CKC, much of which is steeped in disinformation, mischaracterization of the issues, and whipping up of ethnic passions.

Upholding ethnicity as the unassailable and immutable marker of identity, and therefore the basis of claiming inclusion in the church, negates the principles of the Great Commission of Christ which invites everyone to the Kingdom of God regardless of any distinguishable human identifier. The church of God, which the Adventist church is part of, is open to all. Appealing to the ethnic passions and loyalties, and also insisting on numerical superiority as the basis of leadership, smacks of ethnic chauvinism and resource nationalism, all of which are the appropriate ingredients for conflict.

The unilateral creation of the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference demonstrates that ethnicity continues to be a major factor influencing the actions and decisions of certain individuals overriding all spiritual considerations. None of their concerns, it seems, are doctrinal or spiritual in nature, only temporal, and they have demonstrated this by investing their energies to deconstruct the Central Kenya Conference by seeking existing churches to convert to its affiliation. In so doing, they made it obvious that the CKC elections of 2015 involved the choice of power holders who would determine access to church patronage and commercial contracts in their favor. The NCC fully understands that nothing heightens emotions more than when people imagine that their financial contributions to the church are being misappropriated. Pushing that narrative seems only designed to bring the CKC down, and in any case, some of the members of the NCC were integral players in the CKC and cannot therefore criticize it objectively. Perhaps it would be a good thing for the CKC or EAUS/EKUC to debunk the allegations once and for all.

Now, if there is any credible evidence of corruption within the church ranks, those who truly love the church of God will find a way to correct an errant brother or sister or institution rather than expose all Adventists to ridicule in the social, local, and international media while at the same time insisting that they belong. The church has been called to reach the world with the message of Hope for this end-time and this powerplay is deceptive and contradictory. Besides, the church has never forced anyone to make a material or other contribution to it; giving is only an opportunity to exercise one’s faith in, and love for, God. It is an act of worship, an act of love. All the tithes and offerings are given willingly, and while that does not preclude misappropriation, we should not fight over temporal resources while still on this side of heaven.

In the words of Robert J. Priest and Alvaro L. Nieves, “On this side of heaven, we live in social arenas that call us not to accommodate and conform, but to critique and resist evil (in self and others), to confront powers, and to seek reconciliation. We are called to suffering, to conflict, and to struggle. And yet such suffering and struggle is informed by the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, and in the future He ensures.”[13] The critique of the church is the democratic right of anyone, but that criticism must be objective and constructive. Throughout the entire Bible, there has always been a dissenting voice — the church in the wilderness led by Moses suffered numerous incidences of dissent and so did the Apostolic church and right through the history of the Adventist church incidences of dissent and separation are aplenty. This will not be the first and doubtless, will not be the last.

Speaking to a Kisii elder, an old friend who is also a prolific church planter in the Ongata Rongai area, about his thinking on the NCC saga, he posed a rather interesting question, “If we join the NCC, will more people go to heaven?”

I did not know what to tell him.


Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 5 here.


Notes & References:

[1] Oyugi, Walter O., “Ethnicity in the Electoral Process: the 1992 General Elections in Kenya”, in Journal of Political Science (1997), Vol. 2 No. 1, p. 41-69.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sang and Kili (2017), op cit.

[4] In 1986, the Anglican Church in Kenya faced an inter-ethnic conflict in which the Teso of Western Kenya demanded separation from the predominantly Luhya Diocese of Nambale to create their own Diocese of Katakwa. After a protracted battle that included street protests, sit-ins, and a hunger strike, they eventually had their own diocese in 1991.

[5] Mungeam, G.H., Kenya, Select Historical Documents 1884-1923, East African Publishing House, Nairobi, p. 148

[6] Nyaundi, Nehemiah M. (1997), Seventh-day Adventism in Gusii, Kenya, Africa Herald Publishing House, p. 29

[7] Ibid.

[8] Okeyo, Isaac, (1989), Adventism in Kenya, unpublished manuscript, P. 37

[9] Ibid.

[10] Father of former Cabinet minister Simeon Nyachae. It was Nyachae that Asanyo ousted from the Kanu Kisii branch leadership in 1999.

[11] From the paper: Adventist Education in Africa — Historical development, Perspectives of progress, and possibilities for the future. By G. Sang (2019). Colloquium presentation at AUA in January 2019 (unpublished).

[12] Sang and Kili (2017) op cit.

[13] Priest, Robert J. and Nieves, Alvaro L., This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity and Christian Faith, Oxford University Press, p. 4


Additional References:

Daily Nation, January 9, 1985, Nation Newspapers Ltd., Nairobi.

East African Standard, April 18, 1988, Nairobi.

Mungeam, G.H., Kenya, Select Historical Documents 1884-1923, EAPH, Nairobi.

Nairobi Central Herald, 4th Edition – Oct-Dec., 2016

Nyaundi, Nehemiah M. (1997), Seventh-day Adventism in Gusii, Kenya, Africa Herald Publishing House. 

Okeyo, Isaac, (1989), Adventism in Kenya, unpublished manuscript.

Oyugi, Walter O., Ethnicity in the Electoral Process: the 1992 General Elections in Kenya, in Journal of Political Science (1997), Vol. 2 No. 1.

Priest, Robert J. and Nieves, Alvaro L., This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity and Christian Faith, Oxford University Press.

Sang, Godfrey K, (2019) Adventist Education in Africa – Historical development, Perspectives of progress, and possibilities for the future. (unpublished)

Sang, Godfrey K., Kili, Hosea K., (2017) On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist Church came to Western Kenya, Gapman Publications Ltd., Nairobi.

Sang, Godfrey K, Ngenye, Lois W., Baraton @40: The story of a Great University, Gapman Publications Ltd., Nairobi.

Southern African Division Outlook, Vol. XLVII Number 23, Kenilworth, Cape. 

Standard on Sunday, April 10, 1988, East African Standard Ltd, Nairobi.

The East Africa Standard, April 15, 2019 Standard Newspapers Ltd., Nairobi.

Year Books of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination, The Official Directories 1957, 1990, 2005-2015, Review & Herald Publishing Assoc, Takoma Park, Washington DC.


Godfrey K. Sang is a historical researcher and writer with an interest in Adventist history. He is the co-author of the book On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist church came to Western Kenya. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo Credits: Pop & Zebra on Unsplash / Wikimedia Commons /


We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.