The year was 1977, the one hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in Uganda, but Archbishop Janani Luwum was not celebrating.
Anglican missionaries Shergold Smith and C.T. Wilson had arrived in what was then called Buganda in 1877, had preached to the king and his court, and had found a mostly receptive audience. One notable exception was the Kabaka (king), Mutesa I. The missionaries were critical of Mutesa because of his many wives. After Mutesa died, his teenaged son Mwanga II took a much more aggressive approach. Mwanga expelled the missionaries and outlawed the Christian faith. In 1886, in an attempt to stamp out Christianity once and for all, Mwanga sentenced 32 Ugandan Christians to be burned to death.
Mwanga discovered what Nero, and so many persecutors through the centuries, had discovered: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," as Tertullian had so famously put it. Many Ugandan citizens were inspired by the martyrs' boldness in the face of death, and the church won many converts in a short time.
The Church of Uganda continued to grow despite hardships and trials. One of the church's greatest trials was during the tenure of Archbishop Janani Luwum in the 1970s.
The brutal and erratic Idi Amin had seized control of the country in 1971, and was bent on keeping control. To that end, he had many of his critics arrested and killed.
In 1974, Archbishop Erica Sabiti retired due to poor health, and Janani Luwum was chosen as his successor. Despite the danger, Luwum quickly established himself as an outspoken critic of Idi Amin.
Luwum knew that the stakes were high, and that he was likely to pay with his life. "I am prepared to die in the army of Jesus. Whie the opportunity is there, I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present government, which is utterly self-seeking."
In January of 1977, an unsuccessful coup attempt left seven Ugandan citizens dead. Amin would react with another round of arrests and executions. On the last Sunday of that month, Bishop Festo Kivengere gave a sermon titled "The Preciousness of Life," in which he said that Idi Amin was abusing the authority God had given him. Amin retaliated with a raid on the home of Janani Luwum the following Saturday morning, looking for weapons.
Luwum wrote a message protesting the arbitrary killings and a series of disappearances, and attempted to deliver it personally to Amin. Amin publicly accused Luwum of treason.
On February 16, Luwum was arrested along with Charles Oboth-Ofumbi and Erinayo Oryema, two of Amin's Cabinet members who were known to be Christians. Amin convened a rally in Uganda's capital Kampala, where he brought forth a string of witnesses who claimed the three men were plotting insurrection. Amin announced that there would be a "proper military trial," and sent the three off in the back of a Land Rover. They were not seen alive again.
According to the official report, Luwum, Oboth-Ofumbi, and Oryema died when they tried to seize control of the vehicle and sent it into the path of another car. The bodies were placed in sealed caskets, returned to their native villages, and buried while Amin's soldiers watched.
In June of that year, Uganda's Christians gathered for the 100th anniversary celebration of the first preaching of the Gospel in their country. Among those in attendance were many lapsed Christians who had returned to the faith, inspired by the courage of the martyrs.