Theology in Oral History
By Jason Bruner
The East African Revival got people talking. Converts had to confess their sins in order to receive salvation. They had to reveal what they had kept secret. They had to tell how they moved from spiritual darkness into the light of salvation.
The testimony was the sine qua non of the Christianity of the East African Revival, which emerged in the mid-1930s amidst a network of evangelical Anglican mission stations in Uganda and Rwanda. Revivalists always had to be prepared to give an account for how God had worked through the course of their lives. And they had to be ready to share their testimonies anywhere: on a bus, in a market, or even in the middle of an interrupted sermon. The revival made people “wordy,” as Derek Peterson described. But my experience interviewing revival elders in Uganda left me wondering what a historian might make of these words.
On the face of it, this might be an oral historian’s dream: A whole group of people who feels compelled to make known all details of their lives, including — perhaps, especially — the scandalous ones. Confessions and testimonies in the revival’s early years might feature names of illicit sexual partners or a murder victim; the testimonies these days are rather bland by comparison.
These accounts were rarely written down, but it wasn’t because revivalists couldn’t write. It was because they wouldn’t write.
Revivalists believed that writing calcified the dynamic work of God in their lives. They believed that this divine work was ongoing and that to write it down would euthanize their testimony because the testimony was a living thing, and salvation needed to be lived.
Speaking, not writing, was the theological task of the revival. Talking, therefore, is in revivalists’ DNA. But it is a particular kind of talk.
When revivalists talked about their pasts, it was more often so they could talk about their present because their present had to be contrasted with their past. Their lives before salvation were sharply juxtaposed to their lives living in salvation. The darkness of the past was cast in stark relief to the light of the present and future. There was no continuity between past and present.
For these revivalists, history was not an abstracted realm of inquiry. When they talked about their pasts, their histories were not a mere sequence of events. Instead, they were the dynamic field in which God had worked and continued to work. This was history told to confirm that the speaker and the hearer were either spiritually saved or sinners; hot or cold. There was no lukewarm account, for the history of the revival was the history of salvation itself coming to East Africa. So when revivalists talked about the past, they drew eternal lines in the sand.
The practice of giving testimony demanded that converts scrutinize their pasts. Revivalists’ testimonies are no place to observe the horizon of the past in the soft gloaming. They had to parse light from darkness. They remembered their lives before salvation as a contrast to their lives in salvation. The act of converting itself demanded that revivalists adopt a new disposition towards their pasts.
For these reasons, East African Revivalists are probably the easiest and most difficult people to interview.
I asked one elderly woman a question along the lines of “Could you tell me the place where you were born and describe the home you grew up in?” In response to that single question, when the nonagenarian stopped talking nearly an hour later, she had brought me up to date as to what God had done for her, down to the providential visit of her two guests from America that morning (my wife and I).
It was a fascinating and personal account, yet it was given unquestionably in the genre of testimony. Having converted in the early 1940s, she had probably given the story hundreds, if not thousands, of times through the course of her life. She had been a sinner, she encountered a revivalist and confessed her sins as a young woman, and her life since has been the story of her continuation in the life of salvation. Details that might be of interest to an ethnographer or historian — like did she get a divorce when she converted? — were relevant to her only insofar as they allowed her to speak about God’s expectations for the life of salvation.
I had come to Uganda hoping to find revivalists like her — people who had converted in the early years of the revival: the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. I wanted to know what their lives were like before the revival. I wanted to get a sense for why the revival was compelling to them when they heard its message as young men and women and how living out their faith within the demanding structures of the revival had impacted their lives.
They remembered a lot because the revival is dependent upon the past. Even as converts confessed the sins they had committed in darkness, they continue to remember those sins and the corresponding darkness that obfuscated them. But it was hard to get them to move beyond the genre of testimony when remembering the past.
Their beliefs about who God was and how God worked informed the structure of how they thought about the past. Their testimonies emphasized discontinuity and rupture, topics that aren’t so amenable to historical emphases on continuity, causality, and the inter-relationships among social processes. To use a biblical metaphor, historians of religion have tended to describe conversion and other forms of social change in the terms of putting new wine in old wineskins. But revivalists believed they threw out the wine and the wineskins. And they aren’t generally interested in scholars who try to rummage through and find where they threw it out.
In writing a history of this revival, I had to confront the reality that I had a dramatically different conceptualization of history — and of doing history — than my interlocutors. Even as I was sometimes frustrated with the confines of their testimonial genre, it was their story to remember and tell. And they told it theologically.
This was neither really oral history nor oral tradition.
What I wanted was history. What I got was theology. Perhaps it was providential because the story of the revival may be a story of discontinuity more than anything else.