Obadiah Kariuki was the firstborn son of Ng’ang’a and Wanjiru. He was born around 1902-the exact date of his birth is not known-at Kanjuu, Gikundiko in Kabete near Nairobi. Kariuki grew up observing all the traditional Kikuyu rituals of his tribe that prepared the youth for life in the large society. As a boy, Kariuki learned a lot from his mother, a traditional Gikuyu woman in every respect. Due to the high rate of infant mortality at the time, many of his siblings died in infancy, leaving him the only son of his father.
As a boy, Kariuki was in charge of the calves, goats, and sheep while older boys took care of the cows and larger animals. During this time as a shepherd boy, Kariuki heard about the Church Missionary Society (CMS), from Britain, that was flourishing in his area around 1914. On May 19, 1918, he became attracted to Christianity when his Uncle Thiong’o and Aunt Nyambaara were baptized, taking the names Joseph and Mary. The converts’ new names and attires were so attractive to Kariuki that when Joseph asked if he could take him to a mission school, he and his father both readily accepted.
At this time, his family experienced difficulties when the colonial government displaced them and took their land, reducing them to beggars. But his Uncle Joseph did everything he could so Kariuki could study at the CMS mission school at Kabete. Kariuki wanted to learn to read and write in the strange alphabet. While at school, which was also the mission station and the center for both religious and educational activities, Kariuki worked part-time as a domestic worker at the dining table for Rev. Canon Harry Leakey, head of the station. From the Leakeys, he learned to work hard, to be honest, and to make things with his hands, through his own efforts. Kariuki says that, “it was a combination of these three experiences that enabled me to climb the pilgrim road from being a herd boy to becoming a bishop.”
He was baptized on November 26, 1922, as Obadiah Kariuki wa Yusufu at Christ Church, Kabete, by Rev. Canon Harry Leakey after taking a baptismal preparation class. In 1923 his zeal for education began to bear fruit when Canon Leakey took him to the noted CMS Buxton School, Mombasa, for training both as a teacher and a church catechist. Many converts educated at Buxton had proved to be renowned teachers. Buxton, by then, was the highest learning institution run by the Church Missionary Society. Kariuki enthusiastically welcomed this study opportunity.
After his training at Buxton, he returned to Kabete in 1924 as a qualified teacher and soon thereafter became Leakey’s deputy, in charge of school matters. He served as Leakey’s deputy for one year until he was promoted to deputy headmaster and transferred to another CMS school at Kiambaa. Thanks to his great efforts the school started to perform well. In 1926, his hard work paid off unexpectedly when he was selected to study at the recently opened Alliance High School, Kikuyu. He was twenty-five.
After his two years at Alliance, he resumed teaching at CMS Kiambaa. While still teaching at Kiambaa, he and Lilian Wairimu, daughter of senior chief Koinange were married by Rev. Canon Samuel Nguru on September 3, 1930 at St. John’s Church, Kiambaa. God blessed Kariuki and Lilian with fourteen children. Sadly, they lost lost three of their sons as infants, which left them with only five sons and six daughters. Now their youngest son, Paul Kihara Kariuki, who served for many years as the chancellor for the Anglican Church of Kenya is a renowned lawyer currently serving as high court judge in the Kenyan government (2005).
Kariuki who was interested in providing new leadership for rapidly expanding CMS churches and schools, forwarded his name to the church elders at Kabete who were recruiting young married men for theological training at St. Paul’s Theological College, Limuru. He was accepted and in 1935 he resigned as a teacher. In 1936 he enrolled at St. Paul’s. There Kariuki learned about the power of the Holy Spirit who began to work in his life. He recalls that “it was during this period that I found refuge in prayer after becoming exposed to the remarkable East African Revival Movement which had begun to penetrate Kenya from Rwanda and Uganda” (A Bishop Facing Mt. Kenya, p. 47). He became a strong member of the revival movement despite fierce opposition from both church elders and some clergy. He helped organize the first revival meeting at Kabete in April 1937 and many other subsequent meetings.
In 1940 Kariuki was ordained and posted to Kiambaa pastorate. After serving as chairman of the pastorate from 1944 to 1945, he was transferred to the new St. Paul’s Theological College, Limuru as a tutor. In 1951, he was posted to St. Stephen’s Church in Nairobi, the largest Anglican Church and parish between Cairo and the Cape at that time. In 1955, he was posted to serve as rural dean in Weithaga in Murang’a (then Fort Hall). At this time violent nationalist movements broke out against the colonial government. Political leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta and Chief Koinange were arrested and subjected to brutal handling, beatings, forced labor, torture, and all sorts of physical violence. Kariuki was courageous enough to minister in Murang’a at a time when people (mostly Kikuyu) were killing each other for refusing to take forced Mau Mau oaths. The Mau Mau forced individuals to swear loyalty to them, taking an oath never to inform on another follower or to sell land to or otherwise assist the Europeans. Mau Mau followers swore to drive out all white settlers and to kill them when ordered to. Initiation rituals included sacrificing a sheep, cutting out its heart, and drinking its blood mixed with the blood of the participants. The Mau Mau began to attack other Africans (mostly Christians) who refused to join them even under intimidation, or those whom they suspected of being informers.
In 1955, after praying and seeking advice from many people, Kariuki accepted to serve as assistant bishop to Bishop Leonard Beecher in Central province. On May 15, 1955, Kariuki and Festo Olang’ were consecrated the first African assistant bishops in the Anglican diocese of Mombasa, covering East Africa. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, consecrated them at Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda. Kariuki became assistant bishop of Mombasa in charge of Fort Hall and Olang’ assistant bishop of Mombasa in charge of Maseno.
After his consecration, Kariuki moved his headquarters from Weithaga to Murang’a town. His jurisdiction as bishop of Fort Hall, as it was then called, covered Central province which included Kiambu, Murang’a (Fort Hall), Nyeri, Embu, and Meru. At first, he administered the diocese from an empty room (without furniture). He acquired an old typewriter but at the beginning the carbon paper to go with it was too expensive. Initially, he was his own typist, filing clerk, and office messenger. Four months after his consecration, Kariuki and his wife went to England to spend three months at St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, where he participated in theological discussions and seminars. Then he stayed for seven extra months in England, preaching everywhere he went and visiting various bishops in order to gain practical experience in running a diocese.
As assistant bishop and later as bishop, Kariuki opposed taking oaths. He exhorted Christians not to take oaths to join the Mau-Mau movement against the colonial political powers, arguing that such an act called for a spiritual commitment that Christians could only give to Jesus Christ. After visiting Jomo Kenyatta in detention at Maralal in 1958, Kariuki and many others appealed to the colonial governor of Kenya, Sir Patrick Renison, for his release which was granted in 1961.
Kariuki encouraged ecumenism between churches in the country. He organized interdenominational meetings to pray for peace and unity in the country during the struggle for uhuru (independence) and afterwards.
In January 1961, four years after his consecration as assistant bishop, Kariuki was enthroned as diocesan bishop of the newly autonomous diocese of Fort Hall in the church of the province of East Africa. Right away, he launched a program to train people from his diocese for church service in order to fill both existing posts left vacant by departing expatriates and new posts created specifically as part of the church’s involvement in the reconstruction efforts after the Mau-Mau war. He sent students to St. Paul’s Theological College, Limuru and Weithaga Bible School for pastoral training. To supplement formal training, he assigned the responsibility for selecting lay readers to his archdeacons. The lay readers did excellent work in promoting the gospel. With support from churches and Christian organizations in the U.K., India, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S.A., Kariuki also sent his clergy overseas for training. He wanted clergy in the diocese to be able to relate the Bible and Christ’s teachings to modern needs and tensions. He emphasized that training should only be a preparation for service.
In 1963, after Kenya became an independent nation, the name of the diocese was changed from Fort Hall (Murang’a) to Mount Kenya, in remembrance of Kisoi Munyao, a Kenyan mountaineer who hoisted the Kenyan flag on Mt. Kenya on Independence Day in 1963. Kariuki maintained that this was also to remind Christians that they were to hoist the flag of Christ in all communities of the Mt. Kenya region.
Under Bishop Kariuki’s leadership, pastoral work in the diocese burgeoned as he worked to establish more archdeaconries, rural deaneries, parishes, and churches. He was very democratic in his leadership and listened even to his subordinates. He discouraged gossip of any kind among his clergy and among Christians. In his administration, he always worked through the established hierarchy of the church. He helped create the Diocesan Mission Association (DMA) in his diocese and recruited many members who felt challenged to spread the gospel beyond their boundaries. With the rapid growth of the DMA the diocese also expanded significantly. Kariuki also encouraged Christians to be self-reliant by working hard to sustain the church instead of depending on foreign donations. He discouraged overseas funding for church constructions and encouraged stewardship teaching, something that enabled the diocese to stand on its own feet, making it the strongest and wealthiest in Kenya today.
On June 16, 1970, Kariuki was one of the candidates in the election for archbishop along with his colleague and friend, Festo Olang’. Although Kariuki lost to Olang’, he saw it as God’s will and faithfully supported Olang’ until his retirement.
During his time as bishop of Mt. Kenya diocese, growth in church membership was enormous. Whereas in 1960 there were 70,000 Christians in the diocese, by 1975 they numbered over 200,000. As a result of mission outreaches, the diocese expanded its territory far beyond its original boundaries. Due to this remarkable growth, Kariuki divided the diocese into the diocese of Mt. Kenya East of which David Gitari became bishop and the diocese of Mt. Kenya South under Kariuki’s oversight. As a leader, Kariuki believed that a “bishop is the shepherd of his flock” and not a boss.
In 1976, due to medical reasons, Kariuki retired from church administration. The diocese organized a thanksgiving service and farewell in honor of his good work. It was held on May 15, 1976 at St. James and All Martyrs Cathedral and was attended by thousands of Christians from all walks of life including clergy, government officials, and business people.
On May 6, 1978, almost exactly two years after his retirement, Kariuki died in hospital, leaving behind his wife Lillian, five sons, and six daughters. By then, all his children were married and had jobs.
Alfred Sheunda Keyas
Kariuki, Obadiah.* A Bishop facing Mount Kenya: An Autobiography, 1902-1978*, translated from the Kikuyu by George Mathu. Nairobi, Kenya: Uzima Press, 1985.
“History of the Anglican Church of Kenya” at www.ackenya.org/history.htm (accessed March 6, 2005).
Veronica Bellers, “A Speck in the Ocean of Time” (British Empire: Article) http://www.britishempire.co.uk/article/sanders /sanderschapter24.htm (accessed March 12, 2005).
This story, submitted in 2005, was researched and written by Rev. Alfred Sheunda Keyas, a priest in the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), diocese of Mumias, serving as a missionary in Mwingi, Eastern Kenya Province, and DACB Project Luke fellow (2004-2005).