church history

Early African Christianity: Ethopia

Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part III

By: Dr. Vince Bantu

One of the primary reasons that the majority of African-Americans and other African-descended people in the diaspora have rejected the Christian faith is not, as one might expect, theological contentions regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ. New religious movements emerging from the African-American community during the past half-century address the majority of their anti-Christian invective not against Jesus but the implication of the Christian faith in state-wide expressions of white supremacy at the expense of black bodies. The missiological telos of the Kingdom of God being fully reflected among every people group implores us to celebrate the full story of the universal Church, especially as it developed in Mother Africa. Ethiopia has stood as a symbol of African pride—as the oldest independent African nation—and of African Christianity as the bearer of an ancient Christian tradition that is inextricable from Ethiopian identity itself. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawähïdo Church maintains the tradition that the Queen of Sheba mentioned in 1 Kings 10, after her visit with King Solomon, had a son name Menelik who became the first monotheistic king of Ethiopia. Church tradition also holds that the eunuch of Candace mentioned in Acts 8 was Axumite and was the first to preach the Gospel in Ethiopia. While it is likely that Christianity first came into Ethiopia as early as the first century, the fourth century is the terminus ante quem for the introduction of the Gospel in Ethiopia as several notable historians and Church fathers attest to the presence of an established church hierarchy in Ethiopia during this time. The Egyptian Pope Athanasius as well as the fourth-century Roman historian Rufinus mention a Syrian slave named Frumentius who was raised in the imperial court of Ethiopia who evangelized the royal family. After being ordained the first official bishop of Ethiopia by Athanaius, Frumentius discipled the Ethiopian king Ezana who was the first king of Axum to introduce Christianity as the state religion of Ethiopia. Shortly after this time, Ethiopia received a group of missionaries called the Nine Saints who have been thought to have come from Syria and who further advanced the growth of Christianity especially in the northern rural provinces. The Nine Saints introduced monastic practices, opened monasteries that still survive today, and taught the Miaphysite doctrine of Christ existing in one person and one united nature—which was the reigning view in Egypt and Syria. The Ethiopian Church’s name Täwahïdo means “being made one” or “unified” and is based on this fundamental doctrine. One of the Nine Saints—Abba Garima—is thought to have been the translator of the Garima Gospels—translations of the Gospel accounts in the ancient Ethiopian language which is still used in liturgy called Ge’ez. Originally thought to have been translated in the twelfth century, recent radiocarbon analysis has firmly placed these manuscripts in the fifth century during the time of the Nine Saints. This makes the Garima Gospels not only the oldest surviving Ge’ez manuscripts, but the earliest biblical manuscripts from any country accompanied with decorated paintings. While the Byzantine Roman Empire frequently persecuted Miaphysite (“one-nature”) Christians in Syria, Egypt and Nubia, an alliance was formed with Ethiopia to rescue persecuted Christians in the Arabian Peninsula. A Yemeni Jewish leader of the Himyarite Kingdom of Southwestern Arabia named Yusuf ibn Sharhabeel began forcing conversions upon Christians on pain of death. This caused the Byzantine Roman emperor Justin to seek the help of Ethiopian king Kaleb to rescue the Arabian Christians. Despite the fact that both the Ethiopian and Arabian Christians maintained a Miaphysite confession—and that Roman emperor Justin severely persecuted Miaphysite Christians in Egypt and Syria—the Romans nonetheless aided Ethiopia. Kaleb’s victory over Yusuf consolidated Ethiopian control over southern Arabia, liberated the Christians from persecution and ended the Himyarite Empire which was founded in the second century BCE. During the reign of Kaleb’s son Gabra Masqal, tradition holds that the unique Ethiopian liturgical style was developed by Saint Yared. The unique system of liturgy emerging in Ethiopia is called Degwa and consists of three characteristic styles of chant: Ge’ez (unadorned and simple), ‘ezl (deep and solemn) and araray (lighter, more decorative). This uniquely African Christian style of worship has been a central feature of Ethiopian Christianity for centuries and is connected to the sixth-century figure Yared. Yared is said to have been transported to Paradise where he received a vision of three celestial birds which represented the Trinity and transmitted this musical gift for the Ethiopian Church. When the imperial capital moved from Axum to Lalibela at the ascension of the Zagwe Dynasty in the twelfth century, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela commissioned the construction of nearly a dozen magnificent rock-hewn churches named after various sites in Jerusalem. The Ethiopian kingdom centered in Lalibela continued under the Solomonic Dynasty which witnessed the composition of the Kebra Negast (“Glory of the Kings”); a comprehensive history of Ethiopia connecting the imperial lineage to King Solomon. Ethiopian Christian literature flowered during this time with examples such as the Kebra Negast, Fetha Negast (“Law of the Kings”) and the writings of George of Gasetcha. George is one of the earliest writers in Ge’ez for which an identity can be firmly established. George was a prolific theologian, poet and homiletician and some of his central texts include the Book of the Mystery of Heaven and Earth and the Book of Hours. The writings of George of Gasetcha represent the inherently poetic nature of Ethiopian literature, theology and liturgy. Ethiopian Christianity experienced renewal when king Fasilides re-centered the imperial capital again to Gondar in the seventeenth century. After the failure of Fasilides’ father Suseynos’ attempt to form an alliance with Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and spread Catholicism in Ethiopia, Fasilides expelled the Portuguese from Ethiopia, established Gondar as the capital of Ethiopia and paved the way for a renewal of Ethiopian culture. One important example of this was the development of a uniquely Ethiopian system of philosophy by seventeenth-century scholars such as Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat. Yacob’s seminal work Hatata explains his construction of morality, reason and harmony and is a landmark in African philosophy. While these few examples provide us with a mere window into the rich history of the Ethiopian nation and the unique Christian tradition that has developed there for nearly two millennia, this short survey will hopefully equip the Body of Christ with a beginning knowledge of the Ethiopian Church—a church that has been the foundation of and the central influence in the oldest independent nation on the continent of Africa. 


Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part I - Early African Christianity: Eygpt

Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part II - Early African Christianity: Nubia

Also, check out our interview with Dr. Vince Bantu below:

Dr. Vince L. Bantu joined Covenant Theological Seminary in 2016 as Visiting Professor of Missiology. He holds a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages from the Catholic University of America and serves as co-chair of the Theology Committee of the Christian Community Development Association. Dr. Bantu is an MDiv graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, and served the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a church-planting apprentice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. He also served as a program coordinator for the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

Dr. Bantu also holds a ThM in church history from Princeton Seminary and a BA in theology from Wheaton College. His primary interests include racial reconciliation, non-Western Christianity, and theological education in under-resourced communities. He has served as an adjunct faculty member for several institutions, including Nyack College, New York Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Center for Early African Christianity, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Bantu is happy to be back in his native St Louis, where he is a teaching pastor at Jubilee Community Church. Dr. Bantu, his wife, Diana, and their two daughters enjoy traveling, parks, games, and are huge movie fans.


By: Ernest Grant (Article Orginally Posted at

When the Academy of Motion Picture and Science announced early this year that only white actors and actresses were among those selected to be chosen for an academy award for the second year in a row, it ignited a firestorm.

It resulted in the resurgence of the social mediahashtag #OscarsSoWhite and raised a bevy of concerns about the lack of diversity in motion pictures.[1]

“Whitewashing” is the purposeful exclusion of ethnic minorities in mainstream leading roles, leaving them only to play supporting or villainous ones. It goes back as far as Elizabeth Taylor playing the role of Cleopatra in the 1960s, and sadly, over a half-century later, whites are still cast into minority roles.

It’s a shameful depiction and representation of people of color that exposes the underlying racial prejudice of Hollywood, and in the words of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, it feeds into the perception that “black people just don’t quite measure up.”

It’s Crept into the Church as Well

Sadly, however, the practice of whitewashing has subtly crept into Christianity. Whitewashing Christianity occurs institutionally and structurally when the contributions of the African Diaspora to theology, ethics, and culture are largely ignored, and the influence of people groups of European descent are accentuated.

It demonstrates the implicit cultural and historical bias within conservative Evangelical communities and bolsters the notion that people of color will remain unequal to our white counterparts, regardless of our credentialing or accomplishment[2]

Maybe you are curious about the whitewashing of evangelicalism or are suspicious about its existence. If so, here are three areas where we see such whitewashing in the evangelical community.

1) Conservative Evangelicals Tend to be More Informed about European Participation in the History of Christianity than we are of African Involvement.

As one noted scholar stated so eloquently, the prominent distinguishing factor of African-Americans is the history of social, economic and political oppression that they have experienced based upon color discrimination.[3]

Such oppression has lead to systemic and institutional racism, violence, and discrimination, but it’s also contributed to the widespread ignorance of the African-Americas influence in this country.

It can be equally true within evangelical circles because many of my white brothers and sisters are largely ignorant of the Christian communities that thrived in Africa following Christianity’s inceptions.

North Africa

In North Africa, Christianity spread more broadly and more quickly than other parts of the Roman Empire, and as one scholar noted, it was through Africa that Christianity became the religion of the world.[4] It’s credited with nearly half of the most prominent church leaders in the first few centuries, and a fair number of them were fairly dark in complexion. The Gospel found one of its surest homes until it grew weaker because of internal doctrinal schisms and Islamic conquests sweeping the region.


A little further south in Nubia, Christianity continued to grow rapidly in the region and archeologist discovered that his splendor was similar to Rome. The first non-Jewish Christian in the New Testament, The Ethiopian Eunuch, who came to faith in Acts 8, was a high-ranking member of Queen Candace’s court, represented the ancient Nubian civilization.

It continued to flourish into the 300s and 400s and became a predominately Christian nation, when it’s ruler, who practiced human sacrifices at the time, converted to Christianity in the 400s.

Nubians accepted Christianity without the sway of Roman influence and clung to it tenaciously despite organizational weakness and Islamic conquest in most of North Africa. It would eventually succumb, but it was a brilliant Christian civilization that remained largely forgotten until archeologist discovered it’s remarkable accomplishments in the second half of the 21st century.[5]


Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, in East Africa, holds a very significant place in Christian history. Christianity became the religion of Ethiopia around the same time that it became the state religion of Rome. It accepted the same doctrines of North Africa while formally recognizing the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D.), Constantinople (381 A.D.), and Ephesus (431 A.D.). Ethiopia may have been the most open and ready nation in which Christianity has ever taken root. When Islam began to spread, it was Ethiopia that fought for the rights of oppressed Christians in foreign lands and it’s the first Sub-Sahara nation to accept Christianity.[6]

We cannot become a victim of European historiography that exclusively acknowledges its own cultural and historical contributions, then assumes that the resulting ethnocentric position represents the only history worth engaging. Such philosophy only reinforces the false assumption that our history is substandard to other cultures in general, but to the dominant culture in particular.

2) Whitewashing has Crept into the Ivory Towers of Many Conservative Evangelical Seminary

Minority students in conservative evangelical seminaries have unwittingly experienced the effects of this phenomenon, as well. While being educated in some of our schools, minorities will study the Apostolic Fathers, Ante-Nicene Writers, The Medieval Church, Scholasticism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment Church, Modern & Post-Modern Churches, but have little to no working knowledge of African-American history, especially key periods and social movements in African-American Religious History.

They have no working knowledge of the history of Christianity in Africa (i.e. North Africa, Nubia, Abyssinia, etc.), the African-American Church, the Reconstruction period, The Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Black Nationalism, nor have they read any books by contemporary African-American authors. Because of this many graduates and find themselves largely unequipped to minister in minority context because they lack a socio-historical lens to pastor people of color.

What’s even more unnerving is the growing number of African-Americans, especially in Reformed circles, who will not listen to sermons by black pastors unless they’ve received a stamp of approval from an evangelical Christian leader, blogged for TGC, are a part of Acts29 or the Southern Baptist Conference, or have preached in the reformed conference circuit. It’s saddening.

3) Whitewashing Implies that Being a Christian Means Assimilating into the Dominant Culture.

At times, many White Americans assume that “being Christian” means assuming into the values and norms of the majority context, and some of the same members object when ethnic minorities seek to learn more about their heritage and focus much of their effort on the betterment of their own people.

As lovers of Jesus who are unified by his atoning work, we cannot define unity in terms that suppress rather than welcomes brothers and sisters discovering our cultural heritage.  As Christians, when we recognize the credence of other ethnicities and the value of their distinctive customs, lifestyles, dress, food preference, and particularly their economic and political beliefs it causes us to appreciate God using them as agents of gospel witnesses in their communities.

At times when minorities assimilate into the dominant culture and dismiss their cultural heritage, it leaves them unable to culturally connect and find solidarity with marginalized communities.


There’s much that we can talk about regarding this subject. Instead of whitewashing, let’s give credence to the contributions of minority cultures to Christianity and western civilization as a whole, and reverse the effects of whitewashing by affirming Paul’s great call for racial, social, gender, and cultural equality (Gal. 3:28) in Christ Jesus.

Talk to you soon.

Grace and peace.



[3] IBN, 24


[5] Davidson, Basil. Africa in History: Themes and Outlines. New York: Collier, 1991. 102

[6] Hansberry, W. L., & Harris, J. E. (1974). Pillars in Ethiopian history. Washington: Howard University Press.


 Ernest Grant, II is an inner city missionary with a heart for the urban context. He’s served as the Connections Pastor at Epiphany Fellowship of Camden for the past 5 years, and his role focuses on community outreach, civic engagement, the assimilation of new converts & disenfranchised Christians into the life and mission of the church, and discovering new & innovative ways to reach people in his city for Jesus. He graduated with a degree in Earth Science from Kean University and worked at a large Environmental Investigation/Remediation firm before completing his Master’s at Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C). He’s currently pursuing his Doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership at Richard Stockton University and is  privileged to be married to the love of his life, Sarah. The two have a beautiful baby girl named Amaela Folasade.

Black Church Figures You Should Know - Nat Turner

Why the series?

Historical Theology and Church History in the African American context is rarely celebrated. That is a very sad occasion. There is much we can learn from the rich tradition of the African American church. When we do, it affirms the great doctrine that all men are created in the Image of God and it kills the great sin of intellectual racism.

What about the series?

A few things must be noted about our list. First and foremost, please be aware that appearances on the list do not automatically confirm theological content and biblical orthodoxy. Please consider each figure in light on proper biblical interpretation and refer to our statement of beliefs when in doubt. Secondly, this list is nowhere near being exhaustive in scope or content. We are barely scratching the surface and this is merely the tip of the iceberg. We considered appearances on the list by surveying several avid supporters for their considerations based upon the figures of significant impact, rich content, and historical significance.

Nathaniel “Nat” Turner

Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born on October 2, 1800 as a slave in Southampton County, Virginia.  His mother was named Nancy, was a native African.  His owner, Benjamin Turner, allowed Nat to be instructed in reading, writing, and religion.  Early on, he devoted much of his time reading the Bible, praying, and fasting.  It is said that Nat had the ability to describe things that happened before his birth.  Some ventured to say that he “surely would become a prophet” based on his ability to see signs.

By the early 1820s, Nat had worked on a number of plantations.  In 1821, he ran from his current owner Samuel Turner’s (brother of Benjamin Turner) plantation.  It was while in hiding that Nat believed he received a sign from God telling him that he was to lead his people from bondage.  So he returned to the plantation and began to preach to the slaves who began calling him “the Prophet”.

In February of 1831, Nat Turner received another sign, in the form of a solar eclipse, to signify to him that the time for revolt was imminent.  He spent months developing his plan and gathering recruits.  On August 21, 1831, Turner and seven other slaves began the only effective, sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history.  The Nat Turner revolt resulted in a gathering of nearly 40-50 slaves securing arms and horses to murder about 55 white men and the spread of terror across the South.  Although the revolt caused stricter legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of slaves up until the Civil war in 1861, it also eradicated the myth that slaves were either content being slaves or were too submissive to mount an armed revolt. 

Nat turner was eventually found and hanged in Jerusalem (now Courtland), VA on November 11, 1831.  It is believed that for many years subsequent to Turner’s death, Black churches throughout the country referred to the name Jerusalem not only from the bible but also covertly to the place of Nat Turner’s execution.  

For more information, visit:

A Rebellion to Remember: The Legacy of Nat Turner – Nat Turner