It is the firm belief of The K.I.N.G. Movement that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all mankind, that God loves people of all races, nationalities and religious persuasions equally and that He wants to give them joy, peace, freedom and eternal life through faith in His Son as Lord and Savior.
Yet in sharing this truth with men of African descent, one often runs up against the argument that “Christianity is the White Man’s Religion.” While that notion is easily dispelled by the words of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20), the teachings of New Testament Christianity, and a knowledge of global church history, this misconception has nonetheless become a major stumbling block for many Black men.
The purpose of this series is to remove this stumbling block so men of African descent can have a clear view of the gospel, one that is free from negative racial baggage and one that understands Christianity is for them rather than against them. It is also important that faith in Christ not be viewed as the sole proprietorship of any one race since such falsehoods can lead to idolatry or dangerous notions of racial superiority.
In Part I, we revealed Biblical evidence that Africans played a significant role in the development of Christianity from the very beginnings of the faith some 2000 years ago. In Part II, we will touch upon the history of Christianity in Africa hundreds of years before the Atlantic Slave Trade brought Africans to America, where they were exposed to a perverse and racist distortion of the Christian faith.
The last teaching Jesus gave the apostles was to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Naturally, the apostles took this seriously and set out to do just that. Church tradition tells us that Matthew, author of one of the gospels, went to Ethiopia as an evangelist, building a tremendous church in the country and living there for 33 years before dying in Africa. Bartholomew also ministered in Ethiopia, and Philip, who had witnessed to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, evangelized in the north African city of Carthage. Mark, who recorded the earliest of the four gospels, also preached in Africa, taking Christianity to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Before eventually dying there, Mark established a Christian school that later produced some of the greatest theologians of the early church.
Early Christianity was extremely widespread and ethnically diverse. In addition to being established in Africa and Europe, it also reached as far as India, where the apostle Thomas took the gospel. According to church tradition, Thomas reached India in 52 A.D. and founded seven churches. Scholars in India teach that Thomas later preached the gospel in China before returning to India, where he was martyred. In many of these lands, Christianity has survived for 2000 years in the forms of the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Indian Orthodox Church.
Early Christianity flourished in Africa and by the end of the second century the northern part of the continent was thoroughly Christianized (“Defending Black Faith,” p. 14). This later changed when the Arab Muslims invaded the region five centuries later but before that, northern Africa was a bastion of Christianity and a hub of the faith. The earliest ecumenical councils took place in Carthage, including three that occurred more than 70 years before the famed Council of Nicaea. Approximately half of the most prominent theologians of the first few centuries after Christ hailed from this area. Africans such as Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius and arguably the most celebrated Christian thinker of all time, Augustine, hammered out much of the theology that undergirds Western Christianity today. Indeed, Augustine is viewed by many as “the father of orthodox theology.” (“Beyond Roots II,” p. 134). Liber Pontificalis, one of the oldest and most detailed records of the early church, lists three popes – St. Victor (186-198), St. Miltiades (311-314) and St. Gelasius (492-496) – as Africans.
Africans played such a significant role in early Christianity that the renowned scholar Thomas C. Oden, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale, writes, “Decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood first in Africa before they were recognized in Europe and a millennium before they found their way to North America” (“How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Christianity,” p. 1). Oden adds:
African scholar John S. Mbiti says, “Christianity in Africa is so old that it can rightly be described as an indigenous, traditional and African religion. Long before the start of Islam in the seventh century, Christianity was well established all over North Africa, Egypt, parts of the Sudan and Ethiopia.” (“African Religions and Philosophy,” p. 300)
While Christianity had been present in Ethiopia since the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts Chapter 8, it became the country’s national religion around the same time Rome adopted Christianity as its official religion, making Ethiopia one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. In roughly 333 A.D., King Ezana of Abyssinia converted to the faith and led his nation’s transition. Ezana’s empire stretched across much of central Africa and into Arabia. He had so much zeal for Christianity that he made coins with crosses on them to spread the religion throughout the kingdom. Some scholars say these were the first coins in the world to have the Christian symbol on them.
Centuries later, Ethiopia has become known worldwide for its incredible rock-hewn churches in the mountain town of Lalibela. When Muslim conquests in the 12th century made pilgrimages to Jerusalem impossible for Ethiopians, King Lalibela claimed God gave him a vision to build a “New Jerusalem” in the African nation. For the next 23 years, his subjects carved 11 churches downward into solid red volcanic rock. The walls of the churches feature paintings of Biblical characters and events, and the churches themselves are connected by underground tunnels and catacombs. They are still in use today and are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ethiopia and Nubia were two of the few countries in the ancient world that converted to Christianity without being subject to Roman rule (“A History of Christianity in Africa,” p. 31.) Africa’s Nubian kingdom, which included what is now known as Sudan, officially became a Christian nation in approximately 540 A.D. While the Arab invasions of Egypt had great success, the Muslims were unable to overtake the Nubian Christians for a 1,000-year period. In fact, during its reign as a Christian nation, Nubia often protected the remaining Christians in Egypt from the Muslims. Nubians made pilgrimages to the Holy Land and translated atleast parts of the Biblical scriptures into Nubian as fragments of the Gospel of John, 1 Corinthians and Revelation have been found in the language; that’s not to mention fragments of Isaiah and Jeremiah in Coptic and the Gospel of Mark in Greek. (“Nubian Christianity: The Neglected Heritage,” p. 4).
In 1961, Polish archeologists discovered in the sands near the Nile the Faras Cathedral, a spectacular Nubian church that featured 169 paintings of dark-skinned Nubian kings, queens and bishops as well as Biblical characters and events, plus 400 wall inscriptions in Greek, Coptic and Old Nubian. (“A History of Christianity in Africa,” p. 31) However, after a robust reign that lasted nearly a millennium, Nubian Christianity eventually succumbed to Islamic invaders late in the 15th century.
Finally, Africa is also the birthplace of monasticism. Late in the third century, individual Christians in and around Egypt began seeking solitude in secluded desert areas. Many were looking for time alone with God while others were fleeing persecution from a Roman government that at the time was hostile toward Christianity. The African St. Anthony the Great, who lived to be 105 years old, is considered the “Father of Monasticism.”
Obviously, this brief introduction to historical African Christianity is far from exhaustive. For those who would like to explore this topic in greater detail, I recommend visiting Oden’s website: earlyafricanchristianity.com.
Chris Broussard is the Founder and President of The K.I.N.G. Movement. Chris is an NBA analyst for the ABC and ESPN television networks as well as an award-winning journalist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Broussard now lives with his wife of more than 20 years and their twin daughters in New Jersey. Follow Chris on Twitter or visit www.chrisbroussardspeaks.com for bookings