What does history say about the first Christians of Africa?


The New Testament gives us one example: the Ethiopian eunuch evangelized and baptized by Philip in Acts 8:26-39. Ethiopia (the upper Nile region) saw vibrant church growth in the early centuries after Christ, and legend links this growth to Philip's convert.

Egypt claims even earlier Christian visitors: Jesus and his parents, who fled to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod (Matthew 2:13-18). Though no churches or converts were linked to this episode, it is remembered in the Coptic liturgy, which states, "Be glad and rejoice, O Egypt, and her sons and all her borders, for there hath come to Thee the Lord of Man." A 1958 quote from the Children of the Sacred Heart in Northern Rhodesia puts it this way: "When Jesus was persecuted by the European Herod, God sent him into Africa; by this we know that Africans have naturally a true spirit of Christianity."

According to an ancient tradition, Mark was the first missionary to Africa. Early Christian writers Clement and Eusebius both report that Mark preached in Alexandria, Egypt; Eusebius notes that he was martyred there. The tradition is difficult to corroborate further. However Christianity came to Alexandria, it quickly grew strong. Alexandria was one of the three most important "sees," or church centers, in the ancient world, along with Rome and Antioch.

Ancient African Christianity was basically confined to Northern Africa—Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia. Churches in these areas maintained close ties to eastern Christendom and made many important contributions. The tradition produced such spiritual giants as Origen, Antony, and Augustine. It also produced some variations deemed heretical by early councils, including Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and Donatism. (Whether all of these schools of thought were really heretical is still debated.)

Unfortunately, with the exception of the minority Coptic church in Egypt and a small Christian kingdom in part of what is now Ethiopia, African Christianity largely disappeared as Islam spread. Serious Christian missionary efforts did not begin again until the sixteenth century.

For more on this subject, see CH issue 51: Heresy in the Early Church, issue 64: Antony and the Desert Fathers, issue 67: Augustine, issue 79: The African Apostles, and A History of Christianity in Africa by Elizabeth Isichei (SPCK/Eerdmans, 1995).

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