The Rev. Philip O’Flaherty performed the first Protestant baptisms in Uganda in 1882 after successfully leading Uganda’s first envoys to England back to the country the previous year.
“Bwana Firipo,” as he came to be called in Buganda, arrived under unusual circumstances. In May 1879, Rev. C. T. Wilson, one of Uganda’s first Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries, returned home and was quickly followed by Rev. G. Litchfield, the other ordained missionary making O’Flaherty’s arrival the more important. Wilson and Dr. Robert Felkin had left for England with three Baganda envoys, Namukade, Kataruba, and Sabadu, delegated by Muteesa I, the 30th Kabaka of Buganda, to deliver a letter to Queen Victoria. Once their assignment was done, they were placed in O’Flaherty’s care for the journey back home, arriving in Uganda in March 1881.
Not only was O’Flaherty joining Mackay, who was alone in Uganda by this time, but he also brought a wealth of experience that was instantly useful to the CMS mission in Uganda. Unlike most of his colleagues, he was Irish, born about 1835. After completing primary school in Ireland, O’Flaherty moved to England, enrolling at St. Aiden’s in Birkenhead and becoming a co-editor of the college magazine in due course. Upon graduation, he got a job as a teacher in England, where his family soon joined him.
Unable to adequately provide for them, he enlisted in the British army and was deployed in Crimea for a time before returning to England. A Presbyterian in his youth, he converted to the Church of England and, in 1868, became a deacon. The following year, he was ordained a priest by the bishop of Chester. He was on staff with CMS from 1865 to 1880, working at one time as a missionary salesman in Ottoman Istanbul for six years. His time in Turkey turned out worthwhile as he arrived in Uganda with knowledge of the Koran and Islam that his colleagues did not have.
With only Mackay left, the CMS had not progressed much in Uganda. Muteesa, now worn out and nearing his death, had not found Christianity convincing as he regularly witnessed the Protestant Mackay and the Catholic Simeon Lourdel disagree on what they believed. Litchfield, ordained for the specific purpose of the Uganda mission only monthly after arriving. Wilson had no plans of returning, and he never did. The arrival of O’Flaherty, supplemented by the energy and dynamism of the young Mackay, kickstarted the Protestant church in Uganda.
With sufficient knowledge of the Koran to challenge Muslims, he made a quick impression on Muteesa, who was still processing the reality that two Christian groups were following a single person. Even Mackay admitted that O’Flaherty brought qualities he did not have to the mission field. But at forty-four, he came to Uganda a more mature person than Mackay. In due course, he became a close personal friend of Kabaka Muteesa and even consulted him while he was doing his research on Luganda grammar, such as this instance when he asked him about the roots of the words Ka-tikiro (Prime Minister) and Ka-baka (King).
On March 18, 1882, in the first-ever baptisms in Uganda, O’Flaherty baptized Mukasa Edward, Mukasa Firipo, Buzabaliwo Henry Wright, Takirambudde Yakobo, and Sembera Kamumbe Mackay. He was assisted by Mackay, whose first pupil Sembera adopted his name on baptism. One of the two Mukasas baptized on the same day took up O’Flaherty’s Christian name. By the end of 1883, when more missionaries were sent to Uganda, he had already baptized Ugandans who played leading roles in the spread and growth of Uganda’s church and society, including Zakaria Kizito, Nikodemo Sebwato, Samwili Mukasa, and Mika Sematimba.
On October 28, 1883, with twenty-one Christians, O’Flaherty led the first-ever communion in Uganda. Robert Ashe, one of the missionaries who arrived in 1883, the number of baptized Ugandans had increased to 88 by the end of 1884 and 108 by May 1885.
Meanwhile, with the help of his students and conversations with Baganda leaders, including Muteesa, O’Flaherty learned Luganda producing a Luganda vocabulary and grammar book which was published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1890 as Collections for a Lexicon in Luganda and English (and vice versa). Though it took a while to be published, it was only the second book on Luganda writing after Wilson’s Luganda Grammar and Vocabulary, published in 1880. Ashe, probably the foremost authority on this period, had favorably spoken about the manuscript.
The political environment drastically changed when Muteesa died on October 10, 1884, and was succeeded by his son, Mwanga II, who had been a pupil of Mackay though not baptized by this point. His reign soon became synonymous with persecution. In July 1885, three Christians, Seruwanga, Kakumba, and Lugulama, were burnt to death on Mwanga’s orders. On October 29, 1885, Bishop James Hannington could not reach Buganda as he was killed by a Musoga chief Luba allegedly on the orders of Mwanga. But the killing of the head of Mwanga’s pages, Joseph Balikudembe Mukasa, on November 15, 1885, sent shockwaves throughout the kingdom.
Like other missionaries in Uganda, the constant persecution took a toll on O’Flaherty, who soon requested to return home. But that January, along with the other CMS missionaries, he had participated in perhaps the most significant contributions to the church he helped plant by supervising the formation of the first-ever church council. This council aimed to ensure the church’s work continued if Mwanga had decided to expel Christians.
In late December 1885, as was customary for missionaries in Uganda, he got permission from Mwanga to leave and set off with a final destination of Edinburgh. Unfortunately, O’Flaherty died of a fever on board a ship and was buried in the Red Sea on 21 July 1886. That same year, more than forty-five Christians were brutally killed on the same day in the same spot, but they are celebrated for their remarkable show of faith annually on June 3 as martyrs.
He was survived by his wife, who died on 12 February 1901.
Ashe, R. P. Chronicles of Uganda. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1894.
Church Missionary Society Periodicals. Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Adam Matthew Digital.
Mackay, A. M. A.M. Mackay: Pioneer Missionary of the Church Missionary Society in Uganda. Author’s ed. New York: A.C. Armstrong, 1890.
Mullins, J. D. The Wonderful Story of Uganda. London: Church Missionary Society, 1904.
Rowe, John A. “The Western Impact and the African Reaction: Buganda 1880-1900.” The Journal of Developing Areas 1(1) (Oct 01, 1966): 55.
Stock, Eugene. The History of the Church Missionary Society, Its Environment, Its Men, and Its Work. Vols. 1-3. London: Church Missionary Society, 1899.
This article, submitted in March 2023, was researched and written by Kimeze Teketwe, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA, where he graduated from the International Educational Development (IED), M.S.Ed. program in December 2022. He holds another graduate degree in missiology (MAGL) from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. He was born and grew up in Uganda, East Africa.