Samuel Ronald Mung’ong’o was the first the African Presiding bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya. He was elected in 1967 as the Methodist Church translated from Methodist Missionary Society (UMS) to the current Methodist Church in Kenya (MCK). Previously, only the Europeans (missionaries) were given leadership positions in the Church in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The political independence went hand in hand with ‘Africanisation’ of the church, whereby as African politicians took over the leadership of African nations from the colonial government, the African church leaders took over the leadership of the church from the missionary church. Therefore, every effort was made to have a self-governing, self-propagating and self-supporting church in Kenya and the rest of Africa. Notable leadership transitions included: the election of Wellington Mulwa in 1971 to take over the leadership of the African Inland Church (AIC) from Africa Inland Mission (AIM); Festo Olang’ in 1970, as the new Archbishop of the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) (Now Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) to take over from the Church Missionary Society (CMS); Maurice Otunga as the Catholic Archbishop of Nairobi to take over from John J. McCarthy in 1971, Charles Muhoro to take the leadership of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) from Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) in 1961 and Ronald Mng’ong’o to take over the Methodist leadership from MMS. These transtions, among others, were remarkable steps towards a self-governing church in Kenya.
Early Life, Education, Family
Ronald Samuel Mng’ongo was born at Mazeras Mission, under the United Methodist Free Churches (UMFC) in Digo District, Coast Province (now Kwale County) in the year 1916. He was the third born child of Samuel Mng’ong’o and Jane Nzingo. Ronald was one of eleven siblings. He was born in a Christian family and was baptized as an infant. His parents and grandparents were converted into Christianity around 1865. The Methodist missionaries under the United Methodist Free Church had arrived on the Kenyan Coast in 1862, led by Rev. Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf, who had returned to introduce Thomas Wakefield to East Africa. When they arrived, they settled at Ribe and by 1863, they had mission stations at Ribe, Ganjoni (Mazeras), Chonyi and Jomvu.
Ronald’s parents accepted the gospel being propagated by the missionaries around 1865, only two years after their arrival. Ronald’s father, Mng’ong’o was among the twenty-one converts baptized at Ribe in 1870 by the Methodist missionaries, namely Thomas Wakefield and Charles New. Ronald’s father, Samuel Mng’ong’o Kinangu worked for the missionaries.
Ronald went to Mazeras Primary School and further to Mazeras Intermediate School. He then joined Alliance High School, in Kikuyu. Ronald’s father having worked with the Methodist Missionary Society received a scholarship from the missionaries, which enabled him to join Alliance High School. He enrolled as student no. 233 in 1932. In 1933, he completed his two-year course and thereafter enrolled at Jean School in Kabete, where he trained as a primary school teacher. That time the highest level of secondary education one could attain in Kenya was Form Two. Upon completion one would attend Makerere University, in Uganda, for a diploma. Those who did qualify to attend Makerere University were trained as teachers. This is how Ronald ended up being trained as a primary school teacher.
On March 8, 1939, Ronald married Mary Mupa, who was daughter to George Kiti and Annie Mwaka.The marriage was solemnized by Rev. V. W. Sleath at Mazeras Mission Station. Ronald and his wife Mary Mupa got married the same day as Wilmot Tumbo, his elder brother. Ronald and Mary were blessed with eight children—four girls and four boys.
Work and Church Ministry
Ronald started his working life as a teacher in 1936. He was first posted to Pangani Primary School in Kambe Sub-Location. In 1941, he was posted to Ribe Intermediate School in Kilifi. Ronald worked as a teacher for about ten years. In 1946, the Methodist Missionary Society requested that the students who had been sponsored by the society to study at Alliance High School, namely—Ronald Samuel Mng’ong’o, James Ndoro, and Charles Herbert Tsuma—consider offering themselves to serve the church as full time ministers. Ronald Samuel Mng’ong’o took up the challenge and decided to devote himself to the service of the church. In 1947, the Methodist Missionary Society sent him for ministerial training at Waddilove in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1948, upon his return, he was ordained as a church minister at Mazeras Methodist Mission. He was then posted at Mazeras Mission Station the same year.
While at Mazeras, Mng’ong’o together with the local leadership and community of Mazeras expanded the base for education from Mazeras Primary school and added Mazeras Village Polytechnic (now Mazeras Vocational Training Centre), Mazeras High School and later Mazeras Memorial Girls High School. The church, in her concern for the health her people, set up Mazeras Health Centre which later became Mazeras Methodist Hospital. Between 1948 and 1958, Mng’ong’o was instrumental in opening up childrens homes in Chigato, Pemba, Mangenzeni, Bofu,Makumini, and Maphiriphirini.
In 1958, Mng’ong’o was posted as a minister to Ribe Mission Station. After a short stint at Ribe, he was sent by the church for further training in England for two years. While there his last born son, Fredrick, was born and he was named Nottingham after the city where he was born. There is no record of the exact academic award Mng’ong’o received while training in the United Kindgom. It is therefore not easy to ascertain what happened. In 1960, he returned to Kenya and was posted to Changamwe in Mombasa to open a Methodist Church there. In 1962, he was posted to Galole (now Hola) in Tana River. In 1965, he was sent back to Ribe Station.
In 1966, Mng’ong’o returned to England in preparation for his leadership of the autonomous Methodist Church in Kenya. He took over from Rev. Elliot Kendall as the Chairman of Kenya District of the British Methodist Conference. In that trip, he travelled with his wife Mary, leaving her in England (UK) to undertake studies in housekeeping and cookery. She was the hostess at the presiding bishop’s residence at the YWCA London, where she obtained a diploma in Home Craft.
The Methodist Church ceased to be the Methodist Missionary Society in 1955. It then became the Methodist Church in Kenya (MCK), even though it continued to be an overseas district of the British Conference. The Church became autonomous when the Deed of Foundation was signed in January of 1967 at City Hall, thereby inaugurating the new conference. With the new Conference, Ronald Samuel Mng’ong’o was appointed the first Presiding Bishop in 1967 and Rev. Lawi Imathiu, became the Secretary of the Conference. Mng’ong’o served the MCK in that capacity for three years, between 1967 and 1970. During these years he visited Tana River, Malindi, Kilifi, Kwale, Mombasa, Kaaga, Maua, and Nairobi circuits.
In 1968, Mng’ong’o was instrumental in the opening and building of Charles New Methodist Church in Jericho, Nairobi. For the three years that he was the Presiding Bishop, Mng’ong’o initiated several projects in the Church including the start of the Methodist Guest House in Nairobi, the opening of Gitanga Road Properties in Nairobi, the acquisition of Lengo House in Nairobi, the Manses at Bompas Road (now Lenana Road), Ngong Road, Spring Valley all in Nairobi and large swathes of land in Ribe, Mazeras, Jomvu, Magwanda, and Kongowea in the larger Coast region. He also built the Wesley Church Complex, Changamwe in Mombasa.
As the founding Presiding Bishop of MCK, he was very keen on the maintenance of various church properties inherited from the British Conference for the beneficial interest of the newly autonomous Methodist Church. During his tenure, MCK membership grew steadily in only three years. When he took over the leadership of MCK in 1967, it had 15,377 members. By the time he retired in 1970, the MCK membership was 17, 878, an addition of 2,501 members translating to a growth rate of 5.4 percent per annum.
As an ecumenist, Mng’ong’o believed that Mainline churches should evangelize together since their goal was the same. He was against the missionaries’ approach to evangelization whereby they were openly fighting each other and peddling unnecessary divisions, instead of working together for the benefit of Kenyans. He thus urged Protestant Churches, namely the Anglican Church (then Church of the Province of Kenya), the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), and the Methodist Church in Kenya (MCK) to consider merging to form a united Church. He supported the ecumenical initiative of ACK, PCEA and MCK to continue running Lavington United Church in Nairobi, as well as the ELCK and MCK joint office and residence at St. Andrew’s, Nairobi. As the MCK Presiding Bishop, he also continued to support the work of the National Council of the Churches of Kenya (NCCK), the organization which he served as its chairman between 1970 and 1971, when he left the position of the Presiding Bishop and established the Bishop Pwani Synod in the Coastal region.
Mng’ongo’s term as the first Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya came to an end in 1970 when he stepped down at the age of 54 years. Upon his retirement, he was posted as the bishop of Pwani Synod, and he was based at Wesley Church, Tononoka in Mombasa.
In 1974, Ronald Samuel Mng’ong’o retired from active church ministry at the age of 58 years, and went to live at his home in Mazeras. However, he continued preaching whenever he was called to. Mng’ong’o lived a simple, but spiritual life. He never accumulated worldly wealth and always advised his children to live the same way. To recognize his legacy, Mazeras Church Community decided to name the sanctuary at Mazeras in his honor and memory.
Mng’ong’o passed away on September 19, 1994 at the age of 78. He had a peaceful death, that evening of September 19, 1994, when the Lord called him to rest while on his bed after he had watched the 9 PM evening television news. Prior to his death, he had not complained of any serious illness and thus his sudden death was a shock to many. He was laid to rest in Mazeras Methodist Church compound.
Dickson Nkonge Kagema
Gikabu Alexander (Bishop of Nyambene Synod), interviewed on September 20.
Goba Samuel (2023). Interviewed on 6th November 2023 at Kilifi.
Nthamburi, Z (1986). A History of the Methodist Church in Kenya. Nairobi: Uzima.
——– (1991). From Mission to Church. A Handbook of Christianity in East Africa. Nairobi: Uzima.
This article, received in 2024, was written by Prof. Dickson Nkonge Kagema, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Theology at Chuka University, where he is also the Coordinator of Chuka University Embu Campus. (From Prof. Kagema: “I thank my PhD students, Elizabeth Kathure and Moses Mwithalii who assisted in gathering the information that was used in the compilation of this article”.)