During the 1970s, vast numbers of Christians were among those who perished violently in Uganda, the “Pearl of Africa.” But they weren’t the first. The decade of the 1870s, a full century before Idi Amin, also extracted the church’s blood.

Henry Stanley, Livingstone’s convert and biographer, was the first to reach Uganda. When he showed his Bible to King Mutesa, the chieftain told him the Muslims had also brought a book, the Koran. “How do we know which is better?” he asked. “I am like a man in darkness. All I ask is that I be taught how to see.”

Stanley published Mutesa’s words in London’s Daily Telegraph, adding, “Oh, that some pious, practical missionary would come. What a harvest ripe for the sickle.” His plea aroused such passion that the Church Missionary Society soon appointed a 27-year-old Scottish bachelor, Alexander Mackay, to lead a party of eight to Uganda. Mackay did not go blindly. “Is it likely that eight Englishmen should start for Central Africa and all be alive six months after?” he asked. “One of us at least will surely fall. When the news comes, do not be cast down, but send someone else immediately to take the vacant place.”

Mackay himself was injured in a wagon accident in Zanzibar. Two others defected. Another was murdered. Another contracted fever. The remaining three set out from Zanzibar to Uganda.

On January 30, 1877, they reached Mutesa’s court, but two of the three were soon killed, leaving C. T. Wilson to begin Sunday services alone. Mackay soon joined him, and the two labored for years before baptizing their first convert.

Just as their work was accelerating, Mutesa was succeeded by his son, a cruel teenager who promptly tortured a group of Mackay’s younger converts for refusing his demands. Mackay survived the tyrant’s threats only to die of malaria while translating the Gospel of John. He was 40.

But his efforts were not wasted. The church grew faster than it perished and became one of Africa’s strongest.

If you belonged to the world, its people would love you. But you don’t belong to the world. I have chosen you to leave the world behind, and that is why its people hate you. Remember how I told you that servants are not greater than their master. So if people mistreat me, they will mistreat you. If they do what I say, they will do what you say. (John 15:19,20)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 30.

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