Kibira, Josiah Mutabuzi Isaya (B)

Lutheran , Balokole Movement


Josiah Kibira was a bishop in the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. He also served as president of the Lutheran World Federation (1977-1984). In his ministry and leadership, he put forward a view of the Church as both global and local; he brought together the center and the periphery.

From a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria to the presidency of the Lutheran World Federation, Josiah Kibira knit the concerns of both the local and the global church together into a single garment. He came in contact with numerous strands of the Christian tradition, which drove him to profound theological reflection on the nature and meaning of Christianity for Africa, as well as the significance of Africa for Christianity. Kibira was able to see the potential within different streams of theology, but he also saw the dangers. No one thinker had “the whole truth,” but rather he sought to give all voices a place at the table.

Early Life

In late August of 1925, in Bukoba, Tanzania, Esteria Kibira gave birth to a son. She lived with her husband, Isaya Kibira, and a co-wife; they were members of the Haya ethnic group. Only days after his birth, the child became desperately ill, and it was not clear whether he would live. When the child pulled through the sickness, Isaya named him Josiah Mutabuzi. Josiah is a biblical name meaning “the Lord heals,” and in the Haya language, Mutabuzi means “he is a savior.” Isaya died while Josiah was still young, and he remembered being raised by his devout mother. As he said, “[my mother] tried to teach us how we should follow the Lord and that we had to go to church. She also taught us to pray and sing. I especially learned from her how to pray in faith and very simply.” [1]

Josiah’s father played a pivotal role in bringing Christianity to Bukoba. According to the historian Bengdt Sundkler, the kings of the Bukoba region were not particularly keen on having Christian missionaries in the area. They were the guardians of the traditional moral order and feared that white foreigners would undermine them. King Mukotani said, “If the whites are allowed to teach everywhere, what will not this new religion do? Will not then even our rivers and forests ‘believe?’ Will our sacred trees escape and not be cut down like ordinary trees?” [2] It was only after the German colonial government put pressure on these leaders that the White Fathers built catholic mission stations in the area. Yet it was not at these stations that Isaya came in contact with Christianity. He was a fisherman and trader who traversed the banks of Lake Victoria in his canoe. Crossing into Uganda, Isaya and his fellow traders came in contact with the Anglican Church Mission Society. Over the course of five trips and several years, missionaries and Buganda converts introduced Isaya to a whole new world of roads, bridges, education, and modern medicine. It was also here that he learned about Christianity. Back in Bukoba, Isaya taught people what he had learned and gathered a community of believers around him. As Christianity was not popular in the region, they met secretly in a cave by the banks of the Lake. When Pastor Ernst Johanssen from the German Bethel Society came to Bukoba in 1907, he did not need to plant a church—rather he built on the foundations already laid by Isaya. [3] As Isaya died, he said “My sons still carry on what I wanted to do and could not achieve.” [4]

The Bethel missionary at Bukoba baptized the young Josiah, and as he came of age, he received an early education at Kashenye Village School and religious instruction from the missionaries. At fifteen, he was confirmed. [5] The German missionaries were particularly sensitive to African culture. Bruno Gutmann, Traugott Bachmann, and Ernst Johanssen believed that God was present within and (imperfectly) revealed through African religion, social order, and customs. Because of this, it was not the objective of German missionaries to completely overturn African culture; on the contrary, they wanted to preserve and Christianize it. The objective of the missionary was only to introduce a people (Volk) to the gospel. In the same way that missionaries believed that Africans knew about God before their arrival, they also believed that Africans already had a God-given sense of ethics. According to this view, Christianity and African religions shared an ethical basis. To be sure, the German missionaries were not completely tolerant; they argued that some aspects of traditional culture were contrary to the gospel. Nevertheless, even those elements of traditional culture, social order, and religious rites that contradicted the gospel could be Christianized and used in the service of a people’s unique Church (Volkskirche). Finally, German missionaries believed that the greatest danger for Africans came from European “civilization.” Espousing a romantic view, they believed that modernity, with its accompanying migratory labor, free market economies, and a sense of individualism, destroyed the stable social fabric of African village and church life. [6] While these exact points may not have been made within a catechism class, Kibira was a product of a missionary education that attempted to reconcile the gospel with African culture. As Kibira matured as a theologian, he too would tackle the question of what it meant to be both African and Christian.

Higher Education

Kibira proved to be an apt student, and continued his education at the Kigarama Secondary School. He wrote hymns, participated in the choir, and took an interest in theater. It was also at Kigarama that Kibira began his lifelong ministry. According to Angolowisye Malambugi, at Kigarama, Kibira baptized a sick elderly woman who miraculously recovered. After passing his examination, Kibira went on to the Nyakato Government Secondary School in 1942. He was a fastidious Christian in those days, and his friends remembered him as both earnest and hard working. He excelled in academics, led prayer services, and conducted Bible studies. The church leadership even made Kibira an elder. [7]

But his Christian religion gained another dimension at this time. Kibira came in contact with a movement that made him reconsider his previous life. [8] Beginning in the 1930s, the fires of the Balokole revival swept through the East African Protestant mission churches. Balokole, meaning “the saved ones,” criticized the lax attitude of “lukewarm Christians,” and called people to a sincere faith and high standards of morality. The Balokole formed their own kind of clan, separating themselves from their nominal Christian neighbors, attempting to live an exemplary life that refused to compromise with the “world.” Even so, for the most part, the Balokole remained within the Protestant Churches. [9]

Two Anglican preachers of the Balokole tradition arrived at Nyakato in March 1947 and preached for three days on the necessity of sincere conversion and an uncompromising position toward the world. These words resonated with Kibira, and forced him to re-narrate his own life. He decided that he had been a hypocrite up to that point—his outward actions may have appeared holy, but he had not really committed himself fully to Christ. At midnight on March 21, 1947, Kibira said the following prayer, “Lord Jesus, come into my heart.” He confessed his sins to his roommate and declared himself reborn the next morning. [10]

The Balokole movement provided Kibira with new possibilities. Through the movement, he met Martha Yeremiah. The two were no doubt drawn together by shared experience and piety, and they married. Traditionally, however, the marriage would not have happened. As Kibira recalled, “According to Customary Law I had no right to marry this woman as she was of a royal family and I came from a quite simple fisherman’s family. I had myself obtained the consent of my wife. She had got permission from her father to marry a young man whom she would choose.” [11] They were both members of the Balokole movement, and they chose each other. This marked a new pattern of social arrangements in East Africa.

Both the German missionaries and the members of the Balokole movement were committed to local communities. Nevertheless, both German Lutheran missionaries and the Balokole had ties with various world-wide movements. By the middle of the 20th century, local Protestant bodies throughout the work were linked into global networks that came in contact at ecumenical conferences and in universities. In 1957, after spending some time as a teacher in Tanzania, Josiah went to the Bethel Mission’s Kirchliche Hochschule in Beilefeld, West Germany. There he studied to be a minister. [12] He brought revivalist methods to Germany, and in doing so upset the standard European/missionary hierarchy. The paternalistic assumption of missions was that converts learned at the feet of white missionaries. Yet Kibira claimed that missionaries needed to be humbled before Christ in the same way that Africans did. This also meant that white missionaries did not have unique access to Christ and the Christian tradition, and therefore did not deserve unique leadership within the Churches. [13]

Bishop at Boston University

Kibira was an outspoken advocate of an independent Lutheran Church. He was an exacting Christian with a radical bent. The combination could prove to be upsetting and perhaps a little frustrating or even terrifying to missionaries who supported the status quo. Yet one white missionary found in Kibira a worthy leader. Bengt Sundkler, who will long be remembered as a skilled linguist, ethnographer, historian, and missionary, was appointed Bishop of Bukoba in 1960. Kibira had both too grand a vision and too little patience to make a good village pastor—he did not fit comfortably into one parish. Yet rather than focusing on this as a problem, Sundkler saw the potential for leadership. At the 1961 meeting of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, Sundkler nominated Josiah Kibira to be a member of the faith and order commission. [14] Likewise, working in conjunction with the Lutheran World Federation, he found scholarship money to send Kibira to Boston University, where the latter studied from 1962 to 1964. Sundkler remembered visiting Kibira at Boston, saying that his protégé had adopted local American customs. When Sundkler arrived, Kibira took him around to various students at the school, introducing them to “my Bishop from Bukoba.” According to Sundkler, this was “a thing that only Americans could do.” [15] At Boston University, Kibira studied with Sundkler’s old acquaintance from Sweden, Nils Ehrenström. Ehrenström, who was a veteran of the Life and Work movement, taught as professor of Ecumenism at Boston University from 1955 until 1969. [16] By 1964, Kibira earned his masters at the School of Theology, and had an offer to begin work on a doctoral dissertation. Sundkler, however, had other plans for him. [17]

Kibira returned to an independent Lutheran Church in Tanzania—formed in 1963. Across Africa, “the winds of change” were blowing, and increasingly more Africans demanded their independence from Europeans in all areas of life. [18] This was a call that many missionaries heeded. Sundkler knew that the time for an African bishop had come. In conjunction with the pastors and the diocese, it was decided that Sundkler would carry on acting as Bishop with an African assistant. In 1964, the synod elected Kibira. He was consecrated in September of the same year, 100 years after the first African Anglican bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther. The consecration was very much an ecumenical event; Moravians, Anglicans, and Lutherans all participated. Kibira would not be Sundkler’s assistant for long. Only three months later, Sundkler returned to Sweden, leaving the diocese in the hands of his former assistant. Kibira worked as Bishop of the Northwestern Diocese of the Lutheran Church in Tanzania for the next two decades. [19]

Global Leader

Sundkler stepped aside so that Kibira could come into the limelight. As Bishop, Kibira was able to develop his ecclesiological vision for Africa on the ecumenical stage. In October of 1965, Kibira gave the keynote speech at the All Africa Conference of Churches in Addis Ababa. In his speech, entitled “A Changing Church in a Living Society,” Kibira utilized and synthesized the various streams of thought that he had been learning and developing over the course of his life. He identified a number of tensions facing the Churches in Africa. Reflecting some of the older German theologies, Kibira called on the church in Africa to be authentically African. The Churches in Africa, he argued, needed not only political but also spiritual freedom to fully come into themselves. He wrote:

Both ecclesiological and theological freedom are lacking in African churches. There is need for change of the church’s ecclesiological foreign image and [to] make it more indigenous. This change must affect church buildings, liturgy, forms of worship, and symbolism…We depend mostly on advisors from Europe and America. Our Theological Boards are very inadequate as long as they reflect American, Swedish, or German Lutheran theologies rather than African theologies…Research into African religious beliefs has revealed that nearly all Africans believed in God. Some tribes possessed an elaborate religious system including superstition, magic and ancestral worship, taboos, and reverence of the sacred and the aged. If this is true, then theologians are needed today to find out what all these African beliefs have in common…[and] these data must be evaluated in light of the Christian message. [20]

Yet after affirming this, Kibira went on to note how spiritual freedom posed a serious challenge to unity. Differences in thought, practice, and opinion could easily cause friction, and Kibira did not want to superficially do away with difference to find the lowest common denominator of agreement. To do so, after all, would only limit freedom of thought. His solution to this problem was one of unity amid diversity. “We are Lutherans,” he wrote, “we know ‘in whom’ and ‘what’ we believe. We have particular emphasis in our doctrine; especially in this precious one—‘Justification by faith alone’—and in many others. But this, our very heritage, is our challenge.” [21] Kibira argued that Lutherans needed to make their position clear within ecumenical discourse, seeking to share the insights of their own particular body with the rest of the Church. Even if the unique insights of each denomination conflicted, all needed to participate in the dialogue from their own unique position. There was also much to be gained from such open conversation. Kibira wrote, “We [Lutherans] rejoice because we have a relatively clear understanding of our confession…Yet, at the same time, we would be wrong if we would bluntly say: ‘We have the whole truth.’ Such a generalization would be ‘killing faith.’” [22] In this way, diversity could be maintained while unity and fuller depth of knowledge was established through conversation.

The freedom to be African also gave rise to another tension. At Addis Ababa, Kibira talked about two kinds of “tradition.” He said there are traditions—with a small “t”—that represent the unique characteristics and textures of African cultures and societies, and there is Tradition—with a large “T”—that include the Gospels, the Epistles, and Church history. Thus, there was a kind of tension between the local dimension of a specific Church and the universal dimension of the whole Christian church. Here, he addressed the question of indigenization, writing,

There are many good traditions in the African culture which have made an impact on groups of people. These traditions convey unique values. We must be careful before we abandon them as Christianity is introduced. If they are indigenous, then we need to give them Christian meaning and root the Gospel into the African soil. At this point it has to be mentioned that the real “indigenizer” is the African himself. [23]

Again, Kibira placed himself in the tradition of German missionaries. There was, however, one key difference: the foreign missionary was not to be the one to indigenize the church. On the contrary, it would be the African Christians themselves. African Christians understood both traditions and Tradition; they were the ones who could best understand how to root Christianity in African soil. Much of Kibira’s work focused on understanding how African concepts of kinship could dialogue with Christian ideas of fellowship. He attempted to root Christianity in indigenous African worldviews while at the same time offering a model of fellowship to the wider church.

Tradition, regardless of small or large “T’s,” was a chain that related people to their spiritual and familial ancestors. Kibira recognized still another potential problem. He wrote, “Chains can bind; become rigid and sterile.” Many Protestant Churches became set in their ways, the worship became cold, and the general level of commitment dropped. Kibira argued that the Churches needed revival. [24] Much in the same way that his own faith and commitment to the Church was deepened by his experience with the Balokole movement, Kibira called on the Churches to always rekindle their spiritual energies, and direct them toward the world.

The main emphasis of the revival has always been “JESUS.” The Abalokole maintain that in order to be a Christian, one has to accept Jesus Christ the Son of God as his personal Savior, and that this cannot be achieved unless one repents and puts right the things one had damaged during one’s rebellion and then receives in faith God’s forgiveness. The Christian’s life then becomes a walk in the light and a willingness to repent daily of all sins. From this forgiveness, Christians have a special gift of joy in their lives that cannot be ignored. Out of this spiritual discovery many revival Christians have volunteered to leave their jobs and work for the Church as evangelists and ministers. [25]

Kibira knew that Africa faced major need in the areas of food security, migratory labor, women’s and family problems, healthcare, and education. For Kibira, a highly motivated and spiritually charged Church could use its energies to build diaconal, or service, ministries in all of these areas. He wrote, “The church has the responsibility to preach the Gospel to all. But after that it will find that it cannot escape being busy with people. To uplift them, to change their ethnics for the better and to dress their wounds, to feed the hungry and others.” [26]

Yet for all of the energy that revival gave to the Churches, it posed still yet another a threat. Sometimes revivals led to theological ideas and practices that fell outside of the Christian tradition and divided the body of Christian believers. Therefore, the revival and the established Church had a lot to gain from each other. As Kibira wrote, “The principle task confronting the official Church is the willingness to listen to the revival. It is only in this was that well-trained theologians will be able to offer their constructive criticism of the revival.” [27] Thus, at the Addis Ababa conference, Kibira was able to see the potential and the dangers of various streams of Christian thought in the 20th century. From his position at the confluence of the local and global church, he wanted to put these different strands into engagement with each other. This engagement was not always going to be easy. In fact, it could lead to considerable tension. But the tension itself served a constructive purpose for the whole church. The different strands of Christian thought each had something to offer the whole body, and they each served to check the potential dangers of the other.

Kibira’s ideas were so well received that he was asked to lead opening worship at the Uppsala Cathedral at the 1968 meeting of the World Council of Churches. His reputation also quickly advanced within Lutheran circles. In 1970, Kibira was elected chairman of the Commission on Church Cooperation for the Lutheran World Federation General Assembly. Perhaps the greatest honor came, however, when Kibira was elected President of the Lutheran World Federation in 1977. He was the first African to hold the position. It was an exciting moment for African Lutherans and a great honor to the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. The President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was so pleased with Kibira that he called a state banquet in the Bishop’s honor. As President of the LWF, Kibira worked tirelessly to keep ecumenism, social justice, and faithful discipleship on the federation’s agenda. He held the post until 1984. [28]

Josiah Kibira died in 1988 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It was a great loss for both the church in Africa and the world. Kibira was born in a small village by the banks of Lake Victoria, and he eventually died there. Yet during his life, he was part of a global movement, and found himself learning from and leading people in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America. His life witnessed to the fundamental nature of the Christianity in the 20th century—it was both local and global. Kibira was no stranger to the tension of multiple localities being brought into one universal body. As the recent debates over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion demonstrate, local practice, interpretations of scripture, and traditions can lead to conflict at the global level. Yet rather than view these tensions as inevitable points of fracture and schism, Kibira’s theology allows for the tensions between local bodies to be constructive at a global level; he showed one could embrace the history and tradition of both church and society, while at the same time exploring new possibilities. Ultimately, Jesus is the focal point of this ecclesiology. The image is almost Eucharistic: the world Church comprises many different people, who often hold radically different views; nevertheless, they all gather at the table around Christ, sharing their experiences, and learning from each other. Looking forward into the 21st century, Kibira’s theology provides an excellent blueprint for a world Church. It is not a church without conflict. It is not a church that ignores various members of the body. It is a radically inclusive space, where all are expected to be true to themselves, and all are asked to be humble and learn from each other.

Stephen J. Lloyd


  1. Angolowisye Isakwisa Malambugi, “Josiah Mutabuzi Isaya Kibira,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography,

  2. King Mukotani quoted in Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge, 2000), 594.

  3. Sundkler and Steed, 595-596.

  4. Isaya Kibira in Malambugi.

  5. Malambugi.

  6. Klaus Fielder, Christianity and African Culture: Conservative German Protestant Missionaries in Tanzania, 1900-1940 (Brill, 1996), 72.

  7. Malambugi.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role (Indiana University Press, 1998), 152-153. Gifford’s description of the Balokole movement is rather limited and somewhat negative.

  10. Malambugi.

  11. Kibira quoted in The East African Revival: History and Legacies, eds. Kevin Ward and Emma Wild-Wood (Routledge, 2016), 122. This volume also provides deeper insight into the East African revivals.

  12. Ibid.

  13. This argument is influenced by Robert J. Houle, “The American Mission Revivals and Modern Zulu Evangelism,” Zulu Identities (University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2009), 231-35. He argues that when young Zulu migrants underwent sanctification by the Holy Spirit at revivals, it gave them enough spiritual capital to challenge the authority of both white missionaries and the elders.

  14. Malambugi.

  15. Marja-Liisa Swantz, Beyond the Forestline: The Life and Letters of Bengt Sundkler (Gracewing Publishing, 2002), 256-57. Nils Ehrenström was handpicked by the famous ecumenist Nathan Söderblom to go to the Geneva Ecumenical Institute.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Malambugi

  18. “The Winds of Change” was the title of a famous speech given by Harold Macmillan on February 4, 1960. “In the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the war, the processes which gave birth to the nation states of Europe have been repeated all over the world…The wind of change is blowing through this continent [Africa], and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” The speech made the agenda of decolonization of Africa clear.

  19. Swantz, 196-97.

  20. Josiah Kibira, Church, Clan, and the World (Lund: Gleerup, 1974), 62-63.

  21. Ibid., 66.

  22. Ibid., 68.

  23. Ibid., 67.

  24. Ibid., 67-68.

  25. Ibid., 99.

  26. Ibid., 90.

  27. Ibid., 100.>

  28. Malambugi.

This article, received in 2016, was written by Stephen J. Lloyd, a doctoral candidate at Boston University and an affiliate of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission under the direction of Dr. Dana Robert. The article originally appeared on the CGCM website A People’s History of the School of Theology ( This article also appeared in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of African Christian Biography. Click here to read the Journal.