African Christianity Thrived, Long Before White Men Arrived

Over 685 million people in Africa are associated with Christianity in some way. But amongst this broad acceptance, there’s a murmuring that this ‘religion of the Colonists’ shouldn’t have a place on the continent anymore; that Christianity isn’t African.

Pastoring a church in Johannesburg, South Africa, I hear this complaint periodically. Crudely put, Christianity is the white man’s religion and has no place amongst true Africans. In an era where forming an African identity aside from Colonialism is high on people’s agenda, it’s a compelling argument to some.

Christianity was present in Africa 1000 years before the first European Colonialists arrived.

Except that it’s not true. For Christianity was present in Africa 1000 years before the first European Colonialists arrived on African shores. Were you aware of that? A whole millennia before any European nation docked their ships, Christianity had been flourishing in Africa—the gospel was already spreading in Africa, by African heralds!

Early African Christianity, Apart from Rome

I am not just talking about the Northern African countries that were part of the Roman Empire and so were Christianised in the first few centuries of Christianity’s spread. No, Christianity initially travelled in three directions from Jerusalem: west into Europe, east into Asia, and south into Africa.

You may be familiar with the strong base for Christianity established in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1st century. Eusebius even wrote that the Gospel writer, Mark, came to Alexandria as early as 43 AD. But are you aware that in 330 AD, King Ezana of Ethiopia declared Christianity its national religion?

Christianity has been established in Ethiopia for at least 1600 years

To become the nation’s official religion, it’s likely that Christianity was already established in the country a long time before. For comparison, it took two and a half centuries for Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. We have some clues to how Ethiopia was reached. Eusebius and Origen, both based in Northern Africa, wrote of Christian preaching occurring in Ethiopia in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

Going further back, we have Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in 180 AD. He wrote that a ‘Simon Backos’ preached ‘the coming in the flesh of God’ in his homeland of Ethiopia (Adversus Haereses, 3.12.8). And going back further still, Luke writes of the 1st century conversion of an Ethiopian high official (Acts 8:26-40). Could this official have started the first church in Ethiopia? We will probably never know this side of eternity. But, from all this, we can say that Christianity has been established in Ethiopia for at least 1600 years—possibly even 2000.

Africa’s Remarkably Early Theological Influence

Many of the Colonists were not aware of this heritage. While some Ethiopian monks did make it to the Council of Florence in the 15th century, when the Portuguese landed in Ethiopia in 1493, they found—to their shock—that it was already full of churches! It should have been unsurprising because Africans had been shaping Christianity since the earliest times.

Sadly missing from many people’s understanding of Christianity is that a significant number of the Church Fathers were African. Tertullian and Cyprian wrote from Carthage (modern-day Tunisia); Origen from Alexandria, Egypt; and Augustine from Hippo Regis (now Annaba, Algeria).

I used to assume that these Church Fathers were Roman or Greek Christians living in Africa as part of the Roman Empire. Only they weren’t. Origen was Coptic. Augustine and Cyprian were Berbers. Both Coptics and Berbers are indigenous people groups native to Northern Africa. Tertullian was slightly different. He was Punic. Punics were a Semitic people who had come from Canaan and settled in Northern Africa in the Early Iron Age. But what is clear is that these four Church Fathers weren’t stereotypical ‘white men’—they were Africans, with North African skin tones.

It was African theologians who significantly shaped the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

Along with other theologians who lived in Africa—such as Athanasius, Clement, Ambrose, Pachomius, Cyprian, etc.these giants of Church history fought off heresies such as Gnosticism, Arianism, Montanism, Marcionism, Pelagianism, and Manichaeism. They also helped elucidate our view of the Trinity and taught us how to exegete correctly. It was African theologians who significantly shaped the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

Amongst these mighty men, Augustine stands head and shoulders above the rest. He was a prolific writer, leaving behind 113 books, 218 letters, and over 500 sermons. Two of his books, Confessions and City of God are considered classics and shaped theological thinking for many centuries to come. A true indigenous North African is one of the greatest theologians Christendom has ever had—isn’t that something for Africans to be proud of?

Colonial, Western Art is Misleading

Christianity has been active in Africa since the 1st century. Therefore, it’s inaccurate to call it a white man’s religion. Christianity is a religion that started in the Near East and travelled to both Africa and Europe at the same time. I am not denying that Colonialism spread Christianity in Africa. It often brought with it the baggage of European culture, giving the impression that Christianity is European. However, while we know this impression is inaccurate, the African church is still processing it today.

Christianity started in the Near East and travelled to both Africa and Europe at the same time.

Take Western European art as an example. Jesus is often painted as a blue-eyed, pale-skinned, European. In contrast, Jesus and his original disciples were 1st century, Levantine Jews, most likely brown-eyed, black-haired, and olive-skinned. They weren’t Western Europeans; or white.

Christianity is African

Christianity is not a white man’s religion.

Christianity was not a religion brought by the white man to Africa. It’s not even a white man’s religion. Christianity is a religion of the world. And Africans were some of its earliest worshippers and theologians. We need to celebrate this history and help people understand that the gospel is for everyone—whatever their culture or background, and, given this history, especially if that culture or background is African.

Long may the name of Jesus be lifted high in Africa.