Bishop of the Africa Inland Church
Wellington Mulwa was elected president of the Africa Inland Church (AIC) in 1970, and became the first bishop of the AIC when he assumed the title in 1973. During the 1970s, Mulwa was the leader of the largest Protestant denomination in Kenya. He came into power after a prolonged power struggle with the African Inland Mission (AIM) following Kenyan independence in 1963. In 1970, the mission agreed to hand over most of its properties and powers to the church. Mission officials handed the legal documents over to Wellington Mulwa in the presence of the vice president of Kenya before an outdoor assembly attended by more than a thousand people on October 16, 1971. The bishop was a personal friend of President Daniel arap Moi (1924 - ) who was educated by AIM missionaries, and has remained a lifelong member of the AIC. Under Mulwa’s leadership between 1970 and 1979, the AIC in Kenya grew from 300,000 members to an estimated 1.5 million followers, with 3,000 churches and 1,400 pastors.
The work and ministry of the influential bishop has been expunged from the official histories of the mission due, in part, to his contentious relationship with influential members of the AIM community. The two standard histories of the AIM, both written by former missionaries, mention his name only in passing and provide scant information about his life or ministry. One of the most influential members of the mission community who served in Kenya during Mulwa’s rise to power, referred to the death of the bishop as an answer to prayer, likening it to the story of “Ananias and Saphira where God stepped in” and removed the leader of the church from power. Another mission official who attended the bishop’s funeral wrote that AIM missionaries saw in Bishop Mulwa’s death God’s “sovereign hand” stating that he and others were “tremendously relieved.” After his death in November 1979, leaders of the mission community seemed content to bury his legacy.
Early Life and Ministry
Wellington Mulwa was born in 1918 in Mukaa, Kenya, located about fifty kilometers south of Machakos, a principal town in Kenya that served as the British administrative center before the completion of the Uganda Railway. The region around Machakos known as Ukambani (“Land of the Kamba”) became one of the strongholds of the AIM and the AIC in Kenya. In 1929, while attending the AIM mission school at Mukaa, Mulwa experienced an evangelical conversion when he “recited the words of the gospel concerning Jesus on the cross” and “confessed that he was a sinner who needed to be saved.” Educated at mission schools, he received his post-secondary education at Alliance High School, an institution founded in 1926 by an alliance of Protestant missions working in Kenya. Alliance High School was an important academic institution, gaining a reputation for providing exceptional education for Africa’s emerging elites, including figures like the famed writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938- ) and the first Kenyan to be elected to parliament, Eliud Mathu (1910-1994).
After completing his studies at Alliance in 1940, Mulwa served for one year as a teacher in his hometown of Mukaa, before taking up positions in the Kenyan government. In 1946, the AIC church leaders of Mukaa invited Mulwa to return as a teacher. However, after the invitation was revoked by the AIM “missionary in charge,” he accepted another government post in the Department of Education. In 1956, Mulwa accepted another position with AIM, to become the deputy principal of the Kangundos Teachers’ College. In 1960, Mulwa was awarded a scholarship to study at All Nations Bible College in London. He returned two years later to be ordained as a pastor in the AIC. Mulwa was following in the footsteps of other Africans like Jomo Kenyatta (1897-1978) who won the admiration and respect of his compatriots by acquiring education and spending time abroad.
During the 1960s, Mulwa excelled as a pastor and church leader in the AIC heartland of Ukambani, and was soon elevated to serve as the chairman of the Machakos Regional Church Council of the AIC. Missionaries described him as a strong leader, a capable administrator, an effective fundraiser and a captivating speaker who knew how to make people laugh. AIM missionary Dorothy Hildebrandt, who served as the bishop’s personal assistant in the early 1970s remembers him as “a strong natural leader” who wanted “to move the church ahead.” AIM missionary Jonathan Hildebrandt (husband to Dorothy) worked closely with Mulwa in the 1960s and 1970s, and recalled that he was “able to push up giving in the whole region.” Another AIM missionary said of Mulwa that he “could get up and talk and preach. And he was a preacher. And he could have his audience in stitches, with telling stories about Africa and the difference between the whites and the blacks.” Mulwa was also an outspoken critic of the mission’s reluctance during the 1960s to Africanize the mission after independence in Kenya.
Moving the Church Ahead
During his tenure as leader of the AIC, Mulwa poured his energy into strengthening and expanding the work of the AIC. Through his bold, assertive leadership, he would more than live up to his given name of “Wellington.” One of his first acts as the newly elected leader was of important symbolic significance for the young African church in Kenya. Before the 1970 agreement between the mission and the church, the AIC was already the largest Protestant denomination in Kenya, but it did not possess a cathedral or a central office. While AIM missionaries worked out of an office complex in the city, senior African church officials worked out of their homes or local churches. In a move that took some missionaries by surprise, Mulwa immediately set up offices in the largest AIC church in Nairobi (Ziwani), then successfully raised funds to construct a permanent headquarters for the denomination, which were dedicated by Vice-President Moi in 1972. When the church outgrew its new space, Mulwa secured funding for the AIC to take over the large office complex formerly occupied by the mission in order to manage all of its departments. In the absence of a cathedral, Mulwa had given the growing African church a visible and permanent seat of power in Nairobi.
Mulwa also worked to assure Western missionaries that they were welcome and needed in Kenya. When he took office in 1970, there were approximately 250 AIM missionaries working in Kenya. Leading up to the historic hand-over, the new AIC leader made every effort to dispel rumors that Africans wanted missionaries to go home. As he put it: “It was never the intention of the church to ‘kill’ or drive out the white brethren as it has been wrongly advocated in many quarters here and in some lands overseas.” In contrast with his counterpart John Gatu (1925-2017), the esteemed general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, Mulwa was not in favor of a moratorium on Western missions. Mulwa even travelled to the United States and Great Britain to recruit more missionaries to serve in fields like education, medicine, and development, and succeeded in increasing the number of AIM missionaries from 250 in 1970 to more than 300 by the time of his death. He believed that since Kenya was “a developing country,” the church needed the support, expertise, and financial assistance of the “older overseas churches” to aid the “fast developing young” African church. Gatu and Mulwa shared the common goal of strengthening the African church, though they called for very different strategies. Gatu wanted a (temporary) moratorium to help the African church become self-sufficient, while Mulwa believed that the continued presence of Western missionaries could strengthen the church in Kenya.
Mulwa used his position as bishop to develop partnerships with global Evangelicals in order to extend the church’s witness in Africa. He travelled broadly to Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines in an effort to build relationships with Evangelical churches and institutions. The “very active bishop,” noted a mission official in 1974, “is making all kinds of links in other parts of the world quite apart from the AIM.” He curried favor with Evangelical schools like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Illinois), Columbia Bible College (South Carolina), and London Bible College so that young graduates of Scott Theological College could study abroad and return to provide capable leadership for the church. He developed a partnership with the Christian Nationals Evangelism Commission (CNEC), later re-named Partners International, to provide financial support for African evangelists to work among unreached people groups in Kenya. He secured significant funding from the German-based organization, Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World), to assist with relief efforts in Kenya. He became a personal friend to the Dutch philanthropist, Anna Marie Rookmaker (1915-2003), the wife of the well-known activist “Hans” Rookmaker (1922-1977), and an outspoken critic of paternalism in the Western mission community. Mrs. Rookmaker had a reputation for circumventing traditional mission agencies to work directly with national leaders. Bishop Mulwa utilized her generous support to fund children’s homes and support church planters in Kenya. The bishop represented the African church at the 1974 Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, affixing his signature to the covenant. He also worked in tandem with Byang Kato (1936-1975) and the Association of Evangelicals in Africa to spread the spirit of Lausanne throughout Africa. During his tenure as bishop, the AIC became the largest and the most influential denomination in the nation.
Opposition by Missionaries
Influential members of the mission community were fiercely critical of the bishop. Mulwa was the first leader of the AIC to serve after the mission handed over its authority and property to the church, and he expected mission leaders to work under his leadership. While he welcomed Western missionaries, he was not afraid to send them home if they were unable to come under the authority of the African church. In 1970 Mulwa ousted the veteran missionary Erik Barnett from his position as leader of the Kenya Field Council, and less than two years later he sacked an influential AIM missionary who served as a lecturer at Scott Theological College. He was also bothered by what he considered to be the outmoded “mission station mentality,” and urged missionaries to spread throughout the country and work side-by-side with African church leaders to build up the church. The stalwart bishop was not afraid to speak his mind, and sometimes expressed his views with unrefined bluntness. At one of the annual AIM gatherings held in Kijabe, infamous for being the largest mission station in Africa, he once quipped: “We want you as missionaries to be out and be one with the people. Missionaries are like manure, they do nothing but stink [when they are gathered in one place], but if you spread them out you have great growth and wonderful crops.” Some missionaries, understandably, did not find this humorous.
AIM workers of the more conservative stripe were displeased with Mulwa’s association with the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) because of its relationship with the World Council of Churches. Mulwa served as the chairperson of the NCCK for a brief period (1972-1973) and, like many of his African colleagues, was less concerned about ecclesiastical separation. In 1975, when the WCC was held in Nairobi, he affirmed his Evangelical convictions to churches and supporters, but his alliance with the NCCK made him suspect among the more conservative ranks of the mission community.
He drew the ire of a contingent of Baptist members of the mission when he was granted the title of bishop in 1973 and was asked not to refer to himself as such when travelling to North America. The AIC countered the criticism by saying that the title “bishop” was more biblical than “president”!  He was also criticized for requiring AIC pastors to wear clerical vestments. His stated motive for doing so was that he wanted pastors to be visibly recognized in the community, like their counterparts in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. Influential members of the AIM community also launched a whisper campaign against the bishop, accusing him of mismanaging funds because he was diverting some of the money he raised to fund AIC administrative costs. His AIM supporters countered that he was only doing what he had learned from the Western mission community who also took a percentage of donations to the mission to offset expenses. Most members of the AIM community worked well under the bishop’s direction, though a vocal and influential minority remained highly critical.
Death and Legacy
Toward the end of Mulwa’s tenure, he grew increasingly frustrated with the AIM leadership and his relationship with the mission slowly deteriorated. After the 1971 hand-over of the mission to the church, AIM continued to hold land and properties in Kenya, and Mulwa maintained that these should be handed over to the church. Some missionaries accused the bishop of sinister motives, of “maneuvering all the time to get everything the mission had in the name of the AIC.” AIM finally agreed to a more complete hand-over of its properties to the church in 1979, with some exceptions (like the prestigious Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe), though Mulwa died only a few weeks before the agreement was signed.
His funeral was attended by several thousand worshippers with President Moi offering a eulogy and calling the bishop “a dedicated church worker who had tirelessly travelled all over the world to spread the Word of God.” Mwangi Mathai, a former Member of Parliament and the husband of renowned activist and Nobel laureate, Wangari Mathai (1940-2011), called the bishop “a man of integrity and compassion as well as a true man of God.” The Honorable Mr. Justice Mulli, a senior judge of the federal court of Kenya, also spoke at the funeral and gave a “20-25 minute tirade against” the mission in which he outlined “Mulwa’s 30-year war with the Africa Inland Mission,” although church leaders afterwards apologized to the mission for his outburst.
John Gatu will be fondly remembered for his call to strengthen the church in East Africa by calling for a moratorium on Western missions and urging the church become self-sufficient, using the Swahili word Jitigemea (self-sufficiency). Mulwa will be remembered as someone who courageously “moved the church forward” by working in partnership with the Western missionaries, in spite of his many critics. The bishop succeeded in giving the AIC a permanent seat of power in the nation’s capital and in raising the profile of the church as one of the most powerful denominations in Kenya during a period of significant numerical growth. He helped the AIC retain its conservative Evangelical convictions (contrary to the concern of some missionaries) while rejecting extreme views on ecclesiastical separation. He effectively developed a global network for the church that extended beyond the AIM community for the purpose of evangelism and social work in Kenya. He welcomed AIM missionaries in order to strengthen the church, though he held them accountable to work under the authority of African leadership. Mulwa used Kenya’s national motto, Harambee (pull together), believing that the church in Kenya could accomplish more in partnership with the Western church. In 1979, the British edition of Inland Africa called Mulwa a leader who “stressed the need for continued missionary activity” though he was “strong against any kind of expatriate control in church affairs.” While some members of the AIM community rejoiced over Mulwa’s death in 1979 seeing in it the sovereign hand of God, other missionaries, along with civic and church leaders in Kenya, eulogized him as a tireless worker who died fighting for an African-led, Evangelical church in Kenya.
F. Lionel Young III
- The source material is largely drawn from the Africa Inland Mission International Archives (AIM) in Nottingham, Great Britain, the Billy Graham Center (BGC) in Wheaton, Illinois, (largely dispersed in the private papers of Peter Stam and Sidney Langford, Collection 81, boxes 70-87), and interviews conducted by the author. Some of the material for this article has been extracted from F. Lionel Young III, “The Transition from the Africa Inland Mission to the Africa Inland Church in Kenya, 1939-1975” (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Stirling, 2017).
- Andrew Morton, Moi: The Making of An African Statesman (London: Michael O’Mara Books, 1988), 10, 33-37.
- Gideon Mulaki, “The Late Bishop Wellington Mulwa,” The East African Standard, November 26, 1979.
- Kenneth Richardson, Garden of Miracles: The Story of the Africa Inland Mission (London: Africa Inland Mission, 1976), 257. Dick Anderson, We Felt Like Grasshoppers: The Story of Africa Inland Mission (Nottingham: Crossway Books, 1994), 40.
- Erik S. Barnett, interview by Paul Erickson, tape recording, January 23-24, 1995, BGC Archives (Wheaton), Collection 510, T-3. The expressions of joy over the death of Mulwa by some members of the mission community are also recounted in Jones Maweu Kaleli, “Theoretical Foundations of African and Western Worldviews and Their Relationship to Christian Theologizing: An Akamba Case Study” (Ph.D. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1985), 367-69.
- “Confidential Report to Council on February 14, 1980 by Peter Same of Recent Africa Trip,” AIM Archives, BGC Center (Wheaton), Collection 81.
- Ed Arensen, “Rev. Wellington Mulwa,” 1st Anniversary of the Africa Inland Church, 15 October 1972 (Kijabe, Kenya: Africa Inland Church, 1972), 49.
- Hornsby, Kenya: A History Since Independence, 34; David B. Barrett, et al., Kenya Churches Handbook: The Development of Kenyan Christianity, 1498-1973 (Kisumu, Kenya: Evangel House Publishing, 1973), 24; J. Stephen Smith, A History of the Alliance High School (Nairobi: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).
- Richard Gehman, “The Spreading Vineyard: The Growth of the A.I.C. Kenya” (unpublished manuscript), Richard Gehman Papers (Florida), 572.
- Arensen, “Rev. Wellington Mulwa,” 49.
- “Life History of the Late Bishop W. E. Mulwa,” prepared for his funeral, n.d., 1979, BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81.
- Dorothy Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014 (Florida).
- Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014, (Florida).
- William Barnett, Papers of William John Barnett, BGC Archives (Wheaton), Collection 248, T9.
- “New Organization of the Africa Inland Church in Relation to the Africa Inland Mission-Kenya, Prepared by the AIC Sub-committee for Presentation to the Joint AIM/AIC Sub-committee, 28 January 1970,” BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81. Mulwa’s critical comments are recorded at length, though he is referred to as Kitui. The minutes list his name as W. M. Kitui.
- J. Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014, (Florida).
- Wellington Mulwa, “80th Anniversary: African Inland Church, Address by Wellington Mulwa,” BGC Archives (Wheaton), Collection 81, 12-13.
- Mulwa, “80th Anniversary,” 12-13; Africa Inland Mission – Kenya Field Council, 24-25 March, 1975, AIM International Archives (Nottingham).
- Wellington Mulwa, “Statement of the President of the Africa Inland Church,” November 1970, Nairobi, Kenya, BGC Archives (Wheaton), Collection 81.
- ‘Distribution & Status of All A.I.M. Personnel, 1927-1981’, AIM, International Office, (Bristol). It should be noted that the bishop made public statements that there were about 500 missionaries serving with the AIC. This appears to be either an estimate (based on unofficial reports) or more like a reference to AIM personnel in all fields in East and Central Africa. During the bishop’s tenure, he was also working to create an African-wide AIC denomination. Official reports indicate that there were more than 510 AIM personnel in all fields in 1981.
- Dave Hornberger, “Kenya’s New A.I.C. President,” Inland Africa (North America), Vol. LV, No. 2 [March-April 1971], 7-8.
- Gatu was unfairly maligned by some Evangelicals for his position. For a fairer treatment, See Jesse N. K. Mugambi, “Either Patronage or Partnership in Christian Mission: Moderator John G. Gatu’s Proposal for a Moratorium on Western Missionary Funds and Personnel,” Journal of African Christian Biography, Vol. 2, No. 2 [April 2017], 22-33.
- This difficulty of how to best to strengthen the non-Western church through shared resources remains unresolved. For the best introduction, see Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006).
- Africa Inland Mission – Kenya Field Council, December 2-4, 1974, AIM International Archives (Nottingham).
- “Church Mission Relations with Particular Reference to African Members of the International Council of the A.I.M.,” May 12, 1974, AIM International Archives (Nottingham).
- Mulwa, “80th Anniversary,” 9-12; Richard Gehman, “The Spreading Vineyard,” 578.
- Africa Inland Mission – Kenya Field Council, December 2-4, 1974, AIM International Archives (Nottingham).
- J. Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014 (Florida); Mulwa, “80th Anniversary,” 15.
- Mulwa, “80th Anniversary,” 15; Laurel Gasque, Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H. R. Rookmaker (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 59-90; J. Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014 (Florida).
- Wellington Mulwa to All AIM Home Councils, All AIM Missionaries Kenya and AIC Supporters, November 1974, BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81.
- Wellington Mulwa, “The AIC 80th Anniversary Covenant,” Africa Inland Church, 11 October 1975, BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81; “Report by Byang Kato on the World Council of Churches given at AIM field conference,” December 1975, BGC Archives (Wheaton), Collection 81, T306, Side 1. Kato appeared together with Mulwa at Kijabe for the report.
- Erik Barnett, interviews of Erik Stanley Barnett, Collection 510, BGC Archives (Wheaton), T3; Raymond Wolf to Sidney Langford, July 9, 1972, Machakos, Kenya, 1972 Work Diary of Raymond, author’s possession (Valparaiso, Indiana).
- Africa Inland Mission – Kenya, Field Council, December 2-4, 1974, AIM International Archives (Nottingham).
- Wellington Mulwa, according to J. Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014 (Florida).
- Gehman, “The Spreading Vineyard,” 260.
- For a list of past officials, see National Council of Churches of Kenya, “List of Council Officials,” http://ncck.org/newsite2/index.php/about-ncck/council-officials (accessed January 13, 2017); Mulwa offered a defense of his conservative Evangelical convictions in a lengthy letter: Wellington Mulwa to All AIM Home Councils, All AIM Missionaries Kenya and AIC Supporters, November 1974, BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81.
- Sindey Langford to Wellington Mulwa, November 1, 1974, BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81.
- J. Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014 (Florida).
- For an example of this kind of private correspondence, see Peter Stam to Frank Frew, Confidential, November 16, 1977, BGC Archives (Wheaton), AIM International, Collection 81.
- J. Hildebrandt, interview by author, April 3, 2014 (Florida).
- Confidential Report on February 14, 1980 by Peter Stam’, BGC Archives (Wheaton).
- Gideon Mulaki, “The Late Bishop Wellington Mulwa.” The East African Standard, November 26, 1979.
- Confidential Report on February 14, 1980 by Peter Stam, BGC Archives (Wheaton).
- The contrasting approaches of Gatu and Mulwa deserve continued consideration by mission strategists in the new era of World Christianity (see fn. 23).
- Maurice Wheatley, “Bishop Wellington Mulwa: The Africa Inland Mission mourns its loss,” Inland Africa (British), [February-March 1980], 10-11.
This article, received in 2018, was written by F. Lionel Young III (PhD, University of Stirling), senior pastor of Calvary Church in Valparaiso, Indiana and research associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.