The growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the East-Central Africa Division illustrates the power of the gospel as expressed in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed
Like a Mustard Seed
Adventism in the East-Central Africa Division
By Geoffrey Mbwana
The growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the East-Central Africa Division (ECD), which includes 11 countries of the Eastern and Central regions of Africa, illustrates the power of the gospel as expressed in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: “When it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade” (Mark 4:32).
By the end of 2013, the church in ECD had grown to celebrate a baptized membership of more than 2.5 million, worshipping in more than 12,000 organized churches, led by more than 2,000 ordained and licensed ministers. The ratio of one pastor serving an average of 1,260 baptized members has encouraged church leaders to mobilize, train, and equip lay members for enthusiastic involvement in the mission of Jesus Christ.
More than 500,000 students access Adventist education through its more than 2,000 schools, church-accredited and government-chartered universities. The public has received, with great appreciation, health and medical services offered by the church in its six hospitals and 130 rural clinics. An army of literature evangelists, more than 6,000 strong, distributes large volumes of health and religious literature in the region every year.
Beginning the Work
In the rich African soil of traditional religion, with its emphasis on ancestral worship, spirits, and superstition, the seed of the gospel as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church was sown in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Early Adventists entered the continent from its four corners: north, west, south, and east. The eastern gate into this massive yet little known continent was through Tanganyika (today known as Tanzania).
The Adventist Church in Germany was the strongest of European Adventism in the nineteenth century. L. R. Conradi, its dynamic leader, initiated and sustained a strong “foreign” mission work in different parts of the world. Since the German Empire had acquired a colony in East Africa, German Adventists sent missionaries to what was known as German East Africa, which included the current countries of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.
Conradi raised US$5,000 to send the first missionaries to East Africa. Individual members in Europe and the United States, as well as some church institutions, contributed to the fund. On October 22, 1902, Conradi lodged a request to the German government for permission to send missionaries to Tanganyika.
Abraham C. Enns, a gardener with ministerial preparation, and Johannes Ehlers, a printer working for the Adventist Church in Germany, were appointed as the first missionaries. On October 22, 1903, the two boarded a steamboat bound for East Africa, leaving behind Ehlers’ wife, Rosa, and Enns’ fiancée.
To save money, Enns and Ehlers traveled third class. The original intention was to reach and start mission work around Lake Victoria in north Tanganyika, hoping that lake travel would provide easy access to mission stations. But upon their arrival in Dar es Salaam on November 9, 1903, they were invited for dinner with the governor, who instructed them to go to northeastern Tanzania. On November 25 they sent a telegram to the church in Germany informing them that the first mission center was established on the southern part of the Pare Mountain ranges among the Wapare people. They settled in a beautiful valley they named Friedenstal (“valley of peace”).
The new missionaries did much more than preach; they started schools and clinics. The Adventist educational philosophy, emphasizing the importance of manual labor and industry for the education of the whole person, received lots of commendation from the government.
In one of the schools, Kihurio, students cultivated and harvested 10,500 pounds of cotton and earned US$600 the following year. The governor visited the school and offered a gift of books worth US$150, stating in his letter: “I have noticed the efficiency and the progress of the mission school at Kihurio with satisfaction.”
Not until April 4, 1908, were the first six male converts among the Wapare baptized. Ministerial workers and teachers were trained from among the new converts. As the work grew, foreign missionaries, accompanied by the Wapare people, went to regions around Lake Victoria, specifically in the Mwanza and Mara regions, and opened other mission centers, schools, and clinics.
At the onset of the First and Second World Wars, the work of the church was seriously disrupted. Several German missionaries and converts were killed; others were drafted into the army. At the end of World War I, most of the German missionaries were imprisoned or forced to leave the country because the British had taken over the African colonies.
The transition from German to British rule left the young institutions without foreign missionaries. However, African converts took it upon themselves to continue the work started by the outgoing missionaries. Of the 26 schools that were started by Germans in the Pare region, 15 schools continued to operate throughout the war. Campuses and buildings were maintained using individuals who had their training in those same schools.
In the Lake region, most of the campuses were destroyed during the war. Wapare converts who accompanied the foreign missionaries maintained the work by teaching and preaching without salaries, even though far from home. Local people appreciated them and their services. “The Wapare teachers who were left behind by the Germans during the war did a better and more thorough work than the German themselves. They loved and shared their clothes with us,” said one prominent government leader in Tanzania who received their services. Although the war ended in 1918, it was impossible to send missionaries back to Tanganyika for a long time.
By 1922, the church in Tanganyika had 266 baptized members, 16 mission stations, six churches, and 43 schools enrolling 2,370 students. Although the church continued to face huge challenges during and after World War II, the work did not stop. By 1960, the church had started 176 schools in the northern parts of the country. As of December 2013 Tanzania enjoyed a baptized membership of more than 475,000, with schools, a university, 45 clinics, a hospital, and a larger, newer hospital under construction. Because of its rapid growth, the work in Tanzania has been organized into two administrative units: the Northern Tanzania Union Conference and the Southern Tanzania Union Mission.
Truly the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. So let’s sow the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Geoffrey Mbwana is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a former president of the East-Central Africa Division.