Pilkington of Uganda
While studying Bible translation and mission in Kenya, I came across some stories of one young linguist missionary to Uganda called Pilkington. There’s a great out-of-print book called ‘Pilkington of Uganda’ which is well worth a read and it seems the Internet Archive have made it available.
He was a remarkable young man much loved by the Baganda among whom he worked to share the gospel of Jesus and translate the Bible into Luganda. He died 125 years ago yesterday caught up in war. The book ends with a touching ‘last word’ headed by this letter from his Ugandan colleague Rev Henry Wright Duta to the Rev. E Millar of the Church Missionary Society:
December 14th, 1897.
My Dear Millar, —
How are you, my friend ? I tell you about the sorrow which has just come to us about our brother, Mr. Pilkington, whom we love very much. He was killed in the Sudanese war in Usoga on December 11th.
When he saw that the Baganda and the Government were going to war with the Sudanese because they had mutinied — you know what his love for us is — he went to the war with Dr. Cook, Lloyd, and Fletcher; and of the Baganda many — 110 — were killed, but of all the English not one was killed. Pilkington was very sorry, and said, ‘I want very much to die. I should have liked to have died in place of those Baganda.’ Well, when they fought for the fourth time they killed him and Lieutenant Macdonald, but we were all very much distressed at the death of Pilkington. We all shed tears; we cried our eyes out. Of Pilkington we have only now the footprints; but it is difficult to follow in the footsteps when the leader is not there. Pilkington has died, but his work has not died; it is still with us. He preached to all men the Gospel — Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Mohammedans, all lamented him when he died, because he was beloved by all. He always welcomed both the wise and the foolish. All black people were his friends.
We sorrow very much, beyond our strength; we do not see among the missionaries whom we have anyone who can fill his place and take on his work. I worked very hard at teaching him Luganda; he learnt it very well, and was able to speak Luganda like a native, and could translate any book into Luganda without my help, and I was not afraid of him making any mistakes.
You see this is what makes all of us Baganda so sad. Where is another Englishman to give himself as he did to this work of translating our books?
Therefore, I want you, if you are still in England, and have not yet left, to go to the Committee of the Church Missionary Society and tell them how our brother Pilkington has been killed; tell them the Baganda sorrow very much for Pilkington — that if we could write their language (English) we would have written to them in tears, and our tears would have fallen upon the letter as we begged them to seek for a man of Pilkington’s ability, and to beg him to come here and take on Pilkington’s work.
His body will be disinterred from Usoga, and buried here in Uganda, near our church, that we may always remember him. If we had known how to carve his likeness on stone we would have done it; but the sight of his tomb will suffice us.
My friend Millar, I entreat you, do not fail to send my message to the leaders of the C.M.S., that they may send us someone to succeed Pilkington; and you yourself, do you beseech with tears those Christians, who have hearts filled with the love of Jesus Christ, to come and pity us and help us.
It would be an excellent thing to circulate this letter among all the English. I know their love for us. They will hear us. I trust so.
H. W. D. KILAKULE.”
“Someone to succeed Pilkington,” that is the plea of the Church in Uganda, and shall they plead in vain ? To our readers we leave the answer to this question.
By his colleagues his loss is very keenly felt, as the following extracts from letters by Archdeacon Walker and the Rev. G. K, Baskerville, clearly show.
Archdeacon Walker, in a private letter from Uganda, dated December 21st, 1897, writes as follows: —
“By telegram you will have heard of the sad loss this Mission has sustained in the death of Mr. Pilkington. We have lost not only a friend, but one who was completely devoted to the work here. Pilkington was always ready to give advice, and to hear patiently any matter that concerned the good of these people. He was a man of very great intellectual ability, and had gained a very complete knowledge of the native language. We had hoped that he would have prepared many useful books for these people. A commentary, and histories, as well as a grammar and dictionary, were all in contemplation, and partly begun. We always looked to Pilkington for advice in any forward movement. He was so fair in all his judgments, and so much respected and beloved by all the people, that his influence was very largely felt. We always felt that Pilkington was so much in sympathy with the natives that he could do almost anything he liked with them. But now he has been taken from us, and we are deprived of all the help and comfort his presence gave us. I trust the native Christians, and especially the ordained men, will exert themselves, and so supply in some measure what we have lost.”
Mr. Baskerville, who was Pilkington’s companion on so many occasions, and especially in his journeys to and from Africa, writes: —
“My heart bleeds about dear Pilkington. I cannot see how the gap will be filled in the work. Clear head, sound judgment, grasp of native language, customs, &c.; universally respected by all creeds, a born leader. I feel as if I ought to write an ‘In Memoriam,’ but what can I say?”
What lessons then for us?
He certainly left a legacy, and it’s uncertain how replaceable he was. Pilkington didn’t pass on great stores of earthly riches, secure high-flying jobs for people he knew, and he died seemingly pointlessly in war. But it’s abundantly clear that he won the love and admiration of the people he ministered in and pointed people to an enduring gospel. That is a great legacy indeed and one that only God can sustain. He began good work establishing what the Baganda church needed for it to grow. He seemed to love the Baganda as Baganda without trying to make them British. I would love to know who and how his work was concluded, but God was in charge, and cared about its completion.
In comparison I feel woefully inadequate as linguist and as missionary. Having been given much more I doubtless have done much less, but it is at least comforting to note that there were precious few who matched Pilkington’s language ability at the time. Perhaps more importantly I should ask do I love the people I’m serving as much as he did? How do I show it? What relational, gospel legacy will I leave? How should we use the limited resources and abilities apportioned to us in God’s service?
And was the church in England able to meet the request made by Rev Kilakule?