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Christianity: Out of Africa


Thanks to a largely white, Western take on history, many Catholics tend to think that Christianity arrived on the African continent as the result of European-based missionary efforts that began in the 15th century. But a closer look at church history reveals a much different picture.

The first mention of Africa and the Good News of Jesus occurs in the first pages of the Acts of the Apostles -- before the conversion of Saul. In the eighth chapter of Acts, the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian, the chief treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia. Joining the early African chief financial officer in his chariot, Philip gives him a crash course in scripture that explains Jesus in the teaching of the prophets. When they reach a body of water, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, who “goes on his way rejoicing.”

Apparently the Ethiopian’s newfound faith put down strong roots on the African continent. By the second century, beginning in North Africa, a vibrant Christianity was in evidence and lasted well into the seventh century. In 206 A.D., the Carthage-born noblewoman Perpetua and her slave, Felicity, were among thousands of Christians who gave their lives as martyrs during fierce Roman persecutions. As the next wave of persecution, under the Roman emperor Diocletian, roared across North Africa, church historian Eusebius relates in 303 that he personally witnessed hundreds of Christians being martyred around Alexandria. The exploits of these African witnesses spawned a whole new literary genre, “acts of the martyrs.” The vivid and inspiring (and frequently gory) tales became so popular that, just a century later, St. Augustine had to restrain Christians in his diocese from reading the stories in church as they did the scripture.

St. Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, North Africa -- modern-day Algeria. His mother, St. Monica, was a member of a family that had been Christian for several generations. With the possible exception of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine has been described as “the greatest single intellect the Catholic church has ever produced” (source: A Concise History of the Catholic church by Thomas Bokenkotter). His theology had a powerful influence on doctrine and church practice over the next two millennia.

While Augustine is known for his theology, he is less known but no less influential for challenging Rome to adopt a more inclusive view of leadership. The churches in the provincial capitals of the empire developed structures that allowed for graduated levels of autonomy. The African churches stressed the collegiality of bishops and the importance of frequently meeting in council to address pastoral needs. When the church of Rome began to imitate the imperialistic top-down style of the empire, Augustine and his fellow African bishops resisted Rome’s efforts to encroach on their independence.

Historical records witness to the strength and vitality of the African churches. By the early part of the fifth century, Christian monasticism was flourishing in Africa, from Augustine’s Tagaste down through Ethiopia, which saw large-scale conversions in the fourth century. When Humeric, the Vandal ruler in Africa, summoned the Catholic bishops of Africa to announce that he was curtailing their freedom and confiscating their property, he addressed 466 of them -- a witness to the growth of Catholic Christianity across the continent in just 400 years since it left the upper room in Jerusalem.

It was not until the rise of Islam in the seventh century that Catholic Christianity disappeared progressively across the continent, with the exception of [Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan]. It took another millennium before Christian missionaries reintroduced the faith to other African nations. But after Jerusalem, Africa was the earliest center of Christianity. Today, the African churches are thriving again. Like the Ethiopian of Acts, African priests and religious are traveling to the churches of Europe and the Americas, filling in gaps from the clergy shortage and bringing new energy and vitality wherever they go.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is pmorrison@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002 [corrected 09/27/2002]