A Brief History of the Church in Rwanda

Kevin Ward

Rwanda was one of the last areas of Africa to receive Christian missionaries. Catholic White Fathers established their first mission station in 1900, during the German colonial period. German Lutherans began work in 1908 but were expelled during the first World War, after which Rwanda became a Belgian mandate of the League of Nations. A Belgian Protestant missionary society took over the German mission stations, and new societies entered, in particular the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Anglicans (the “Ruanda Mission”). All these missions looked for converts among the Tutsi ruling class, taking for granted the stereotypes which characterized European thinking about Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity. The Catholics were the chief beneficiaries of official support from Mwami Musinga, the king of Rwanda, and from the Belgian colonial authorities.

All missions were characterized by a growing membership of Hutu peasant farmers, the overwhelming majority of the population, led by a small, predominantly Tutsi, leadership. In the 1930s a Revival which began in Gahini (the first Anglican mission), became one of the most important movements of spiritual renewal throughout East African Protestantism. In the 1950s the Catholic church began actively to support the demands for the end of the unequal relations between Tutsi and Hutu. This contributed significantly to the 1959 revolution, the abolition of the monarchy and of the Tutsi monopoly of power, at the same time as the end of Belgian colonial rule. Anglican revivalists refused to participate in the attacks on the old Tutsi chiefs, and sympathised with a more moderate transfer of power. Many revivalists, both Tutsi and Hutu, were consequently stigmatised as counter-revolutionaries and became refugees. Successive Hutu governments cultivated cordial relations with all the churches, which became identified with the successive ruling regimes of post-independent Rwanda. This alliance tended to blunt the witness of all churches during the genocide of 1994, and render them vulnerable to charges of inciting and participating in the genocide.

In post-genocide Rwanda, the churches remain powerful institutions. They are important for promoting healing and reconciliation among Rwandans, in dealing with the traumas and the guilt of the genocide, and in helping to develop structures for overcoming the burden of ethnic division. The Catholic Church continues to be the church of the majority of Rwandans; the Anglicans have benefitted from the new Anglophone regime, whose leaders were educated in Uganda and were often members of the (Anglican) Church of Uganda. But new pentecostal churches are growing fast, transforming the worship and spirituality of the older churches as well.

This article, received in 2008, was written by Dr. Kevin Ward for the DACB.