Deng Atong was from the Mundari tribe. The Mundaris occupy the northern part of central Equatoria Province in South Sudan. The Mundari country borders Bor district in Upper Nile Province to the north, Yirol (Jieng-Aliab) district in Lakes Province to the northwest, Juba district to the south, Rokon district in Eastern Equatoria Province to the southwest, and Mundri district in Western Equatoria to the west, and Torit district to the east. The Mundari tribe is one of the seven Bari-speaking tribes of central Equatoria. The people are cattle owners and cultivators at the same time. They depend on livestock and the cultivation of consumer and cash crops for their living.
Deng Atong was born in the year 1912. We know his father’s name was Atong but, unfortunately, available records do not tell us his mother’s name. The story of Deng’s birth was a tragic one as he was born with a natural defect in his genital organs: he had one testicle. To the Mundaris, a male child born with this particular defect is evil, and must be given away to the evil spirits of the forest, or be thrown away to be devoured by the wild beasts so he is not seen again in the physical world.
Deng Atong was rejected not only by his parents but by the whole community and thrown into the forest. Luckily for this unfortunate child, a poor woman discovered the child, picked him up and took him home with her. Interestingly, the woman who took care of Atong for six years was a Mundari woman. According to Mundari custom, no Mundari person should take such an evil child, unless he or she is of the evil spirit world. Despite this, she bravely took the poor child home with her. But she also knew that she could not keep him for long, if she was to avoid the danger that would befall her and her whole family, as a result of having an evil child at home. For this reason, she decided to give the boy to the strangers–the missionaries–of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission station in Southern Bor district, at Malek.
In 1918, when this “evil” child was brought to the mission station, he was received by Archdeacon Archibald Shaw, and became widely known as the son of the missionary. The local people called him “Deng Machuor,”–machuor is the color of a bull ox, a confusion of tan, gray, white and black colors. This was the name given to the English missionary, Archdeacon Shaw, probably because Shaw’s skin color could not be defined by Jieng (Dinka) standards. Deng later took his biological father’s name and became known as Deng Atong before his baptism.
He proved to be a very intelligent child from an early age. He was able to relate to “three different cultures, speaking fluent Mundari, Jieng and English” (But God Is Not Defeated, p. 178). Being brought up by missionaries and living in a mission station, he was exposed to Christian teaching and therefore became a Christian at a very early age. Archdeacon Archibald Shaw baptized him in 1921. At his baptism, he chose the name “Daniel” probably because he saw himself as the Daniel of the Old Testament, who was saved by God after being thrown into the lions’ den (Daniel 6: 10 - 25). Likewise he was protected by God after being thrown into the forest to be devoured by the wild beasts of Mundariland. These memories were to have an effect on Daniel’s later life. For many, the story of Daniel’s survival was a miracle because God had saved this boy, discarded by his family and tribe to fulfill His own purposes. Daniel’s successful evangelization of the Dinka Bor area, when the missionaries had actually failed, illustrated this point.
Daniel started his school life at the Malek mission station where he grew up. From there he went to Juba and after completing his studies at Juba Training Center (JTC),–now Juba Commercial Secondary School,–he taught at Malek and in 1938 became the headmaster of Nugent School, Loka. At Loka Daniel Deng Atong experienced spiritual renewal and became an active evangelist. At this time, the Revival movement was beginning to spill over from East Africa into South Sudan. Daniel was among the first to welcome and support the movement. Daniel Deng pioneered a very successful evangelization campaign in the Bor area as mentioned earlier. This success was largely attributed to the fact that he was familiar with both the language and culture of the people, so that his “message was received by the rural people to a degree hardly known to the Europeans” (But God Is Not Defeated, pp.178 - 179).
Seeing his good work, the missionaries started to encourage Daniel to seek ordination. He and Andrea Apaya were the first two Sudanese to be ordained as deacons in 1941, and Daniel was priested in 1943. He served as the priest-in-charge at Panekar and he opened up and planted a church in Kongor, northern Bor. He was sent to England to study at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in 1947 where he completed his studies successfully. In 1953 he was made honorary canon of All Saints Cathedral, Khartoum, and in 1954, he was appointed canon missioner in the Diocese of the Sudan.
The period from 1947 to 1955 was a time of political instability, as the Sudanese were struggling for independence from the Anglo-Egyptian–the so-called “Condominium”–rule. Missionary societies were also targets of the national movement for independence. At this time, a movement to “Sudanize” all leadership and other key positions in the public sector was afoot. This also affected the church in one way or another. Consequently, as the expulsion of the missionaries seemed likely in the heat of the political pressure for independence, it was necessary to find a Sudanese bishop to take care of the Diocese of the Sudan. In this regard, “It was clear that Daniel’s background gave him unique qualifications in terms of academic training, pastoral and leadership skills, linguistic ability, and ease in relating across cultures” (See But God Is Not Defeated, p. 179).
In May 1955 Daniel Deng Atong, was consecrated assistant bishop of the Diocese of Sudan, by the Most Rev. Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Namirembe (Kampala), in Uganda along with three other African assistant bishops. To many Sudanese, the consecration of Daniel Deng Atong was the beginning of a new era with authority shifting from the missionaries to the indigenous people and culminating in the independence of the church in Sudan.
After his consecration, Daniel returned to Sudan and immediately went on a tour of the Diocese of the Sudan, carrying out confirmation services wherever he went. This tour culminated in the creation of the Northern Archdeaconry. Daniel also accompanied the diocesan bishop of Sudan, the Rt. Rev. Oliver C. Alison, on international journeys. The first was to Jerusalem, where they attended the first meeting of the Episcopal Synod of the Middle East. The second was to England where both bishops attended the 1958 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican bishops. Daniel had established his home at Bishop Gwynne College, in Mundri, and had initially settled there.
Daniel’s work as a bishop was carried out in an atmosphere of high and contradictory expectations. As the first Sudanese bishop, his missionary parents saw Daniel’s role in the church as primarily pastoral. He was to carry out confirmations and assist or support the diocesan bishop and nothing else. The South Sudanese politicians, ordinary rural people, and Christians expected Daniel to take a leading role in policy-making, political leadership and decision-making inside the church and beyond. Daniel also found himself surrounded by divergent groups,–Britons and Sudanese, conflicting tribal groups, Christians, traditionalists, and Arabs,–all vying for his attention. Daniel became bishop at a time marked with political upheavals and unrest. The mutiny by the Equatoria Corps in Torit, which sparked the longest civil war ever fought in history, erupted in August 1955, three months after Daniel’s consecration. As an indigenous bishop, Daniel struggled to nurture the life of the church amidst mounting political unrest and armed conflict. In such a complex community and situation, it was only proper for the bishop to play the role of peace-maker and mediator between the different groups.
Bishop Daniel Deng Atong also had personal conflicts which weighed on him. His adoptive father died a few months after the consecration so Daniel missed the support that his father could have offered. Another personal problem was that he had been rejected as an evil child, discarded by his biological parents and his own people, and thrown into the wilderness as a carcass fit for the wild beasts. Throughout his life, the bishop suffered tremendously from the psychological effects of this early treatment and from the negative physical consequences of his birth defect. Whereas Daniel was widely respected, especially among South Sudanese, both Christians and non-Christians alike, as the “father” of the Sudanese Church, he could not have his own genetic children due to his defect. According to Mundari custom, since he did not die in the forest but survived, he was to make sacrifices to the evil spirits that possessed him right from his mother’s womb, so that he could have children. But now that he was a Christian, these rituals could not be performed on him. The church leaders and people close to Bishop Daniel believed very strongly that his inability to have children had a tremendous effect upon the bishop.
With all these problems weighing on him, within only three years of his consecration, Bishop Daniel Deng Atong began showing signs of psychological breakdown and instability. He took to heavy alcoholic drinking, which made it very difficult for him to carry out his duties. This state of affairs continued to worsen until, toward the end of 1958, the church authorities were left with no choice except to suspend him from his functions. Thus ended Daniel’s Episcopal ministry.
Rev. Marc Nikkel summarized Daniel’s life thus:
From his birth Daniel’s life was special, uniquely marked by the redemption and call of Christ. He was a person of superlative gifts, whose every stage of life, from childhood and baptism, through his work as a teacher, evangelist, pastor and bishop, seemed to coincide with the emergence and development of the Church in Sudan. Some have dismissed Daniel’s brief Episcopacy as a failure, a tragic lost opportunity. Rather Daniel should be seen as one of the Church’s most brilliant indigenous pioneers, who, much like a figure of Christ, ultimately bore the brokenness and fragmentation of the nation within his own remarkable life (See But God Is Not Defeated, p.180).
After his suspension in 1958, he went to live a very quiet life in retirement in Bor, where he died in 1976.
James Lomole Simeon
Samuel E. Kayanga, and Andrew Wheeler (eds.), But God Is Not Defeated, Celebrating the Centenary of The Episcopal Church of The Sudan, 1899 - 1999 (Nairobi, Kenya: Pauline Publications Africa, 1999).
Information, collected from interviews, and during conversations, with the Most Rev. Benjamin W. Yugusuk, then Archbishop of the Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, and some of the bishops, when the author was Chancellor of the Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and Chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Khartoum, Sudan.
This article, received in 2003, was researched and written by Mr. James Lomole Simeon, Esq., Chancellor of the Diocese of Khartoum, Sudan, 2002-03 Project Luke Fellow.