John William Arthur was a Church of Scotland missionary in Kenya. Arthur was born in Glasgow and studied medicine at the University of Glasgow (M.D., 1906) with a view to missionary service. He was appointed to a mission in Kenya that the Church of Scotland had taken over in 1901 from a group of Glasgow businessmen. The mission, centered in Kikuyu country, combined evangelistic, educational, medical and commercial activities. Arthur arrived in 1907 to open the first hospital but entered with equal vigor into the evangelistic and educational fields. In 1912, at not much over 30, he replaced a senior missionary as head of the mission and led it through a period of notable growth that began with a movement of younger men toward church and school during World War I. Arthur was ordained in 1916 and moved his focus from medical to ministerial practice. He remained mission leader until 1937, when he retired from Kenya.
As leader, Arthur encouraged the development of local structures of church government. Often the dominant presence among the Western missionaries in Kenya, and with unimpeachable evangelistic credentials, he also worked enthusiastically for inter-mission cooperation. The inter-mission Kikuyu Conference of 1913 seemed to promise something more, a union of the churches that were arising from the Protestant missions. But any such development was hindered by the furor caused when news was published of the interdenominational Communion service held at the conference. Cooperation in institutions was easier to achieve; Alliance High School, formed by an “alliance” of missions to be a beacon of light in the educational system, is an example.
Arthur worked happily with the colonial government, discreetly applying pressure from the inside for reform or redress of abuses. His characteristic response to a clumsy and heavy-handed government attempt to draft carriers for war service was to raise a volunteer force himself, with better conditions and higher efficiency. The government responded in 1922 by appointing him as an adviser to the governor, and he attended the conference in London that declared the paramouncy of African interests for Kenya’s colonial policy. In 1924 he joined the colony’s Legislative Council as a representative of African interests.
Arthur’s most traumatic experience came over a crisis concerning the practice of cliteridectomy for female initiation. Traditionally, the mission had used a variety of strategies to discourage, mitigate, or circumvent the practice. By 1929, however, a ferment was brewing. Arthur sought to stiffen the church’s resistance to cliteridectomy and called for church sanctions against any Christian involved in the practice. This caused a Kikuyu reaction against the church; membership was halved and took a decade to recover. No longer recognized as voicing African interests, Arthur resigned from the Legislative Council. On his eventual return to Scotland, Arthur served as minister of Dunbog, Fife, from 1938 to 1948. He received his D.D. from St. Andrew’s University in 1944.
Andrew F. Walls
R. Macpherson, The Presbyterian Church in Kenya (1970); Jocelyn Murray, “The Kikuyu Female Circumcision Controversy” Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Los Angeles, 1974).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.