My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge -Hosea 4:6.
It cannot be overemphasized that Africa’s novel role in the formation and propagation of the Christian religion has not been properly acknowledged by raconteurs of world history, who have consistently downplayed the continent’s pride of place as one of the earliest frontiers of the faith. Today, there is an established misconception in some quarters that Christianity is a Western imperialistic mechanism meant to enslave the black man. Hence, in everyday conversations, Christianity is referenced as the “Whiteman’s religion”, an “imported/foreign/alien belief system”, or a “western contraption for the brainwashing of Africans”. Sadly, many Africans, including some renowned intellectuals, have been indoctrinated into believing this concocted fallacy.
This piece challenges the popular public notion that Christianity in Africa is a latecomer introduced only with the advent of colonialism. By tracing the origins of the Christian faith in both North and sub-Saharan Africa, it seeks to show that Christianity has been in Africa virtually since its inception and that the continent’s own adherents to this faith played significant roles in its formation and advancement.
The Early Church
Christianity in Africa goes back to the earliest days of the church, when it spread along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlands of north and northeast Africa and their hinterlands. The religion arrived in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century. By the end of the 2nd century it had reached the region around Carthage.
Mark the Evangelist became the first bishop of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria in about the year 43 (Two Thousand years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F.A. Meinardus, p.28). At first the church in Alexandria was mainly Greek-speaking. By the end of the 2nd century the scriptures and liturgy had been translated into three local languages.
In the 4th century, the Aksumite empire in modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia became one of the first regions in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion and the Nubian kingdoms of Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia, which were linked to the Church of Egypt, followed two centuries later. The origin was mostly Coptic Christianity (Jakobielski, S. Christian Nubia at the Height of its Civilization (Chapter 8). UNESCO. University of California Press. San Francisco, 1992).
Important Africans who influenced the early development of Christianity include Tertullian, Perpetua, Felicity, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian, Athanasius and Augustine of Hippo.
Christianity also grew in northwestern Africa (today known as the Maghreb). The churches there were linked to the Church of Rome and provided Pope Gelasius I, Pope Miltiades and Pope Victor I, all of them Christian Berbers like Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica (Samson A Fatokun Christianity in Africa: a historical appraisal. October 2005)
Despite the intrusions of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, the ancient Coptic and Orthodox churches nevertheless remain active in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea till today (Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten By Heinz Halm; Ancient African Christianity: An Introduction to a Unique Context and Tradition By David E. Wilhite).
Coming of the Missionaries
Later, in the 15th century, Christianity was introduced further south by European Christian missions, initially on the heels of Portuguese expansion into the Kingdom of the Kongo and Angola, the slave trade in the ensuing centuries, and the general expansion of European influence and colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries in an explosive combination of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” (Lamin Sanneh (2015-03-24). West African Christianity: The Religious Impact. Orbis Books).
While conversion to Christianity increased with the extension of formal European colonial rule, Western education, and new economic opportunities, Africans interpreted the new faith in the light of their own religious concerns and concepts and made it their own (Wyatt MacGaffey, African Traditional Religion). In the process, Western missionaries were slowly displaced by African evangelists, who helped translate the Bible, interpret it for themselves, and spread the faith far beyond the mission compounds. In the process, African Christians struggled for control of the church and its messages, often emphasizing charismatic prophecy and healing, founding thousands of new churches and popular movements within mission Protestantism and Catholicism, and playing prominent roles in contemporary African society and politics.
Christianity is now one of the two most widely practiced religions in Africa (Verstraelen-Gilhuis, Gerdien (1992). A new look at Christianity in Africa : essays on apartheid, African education, and a new history. F. J. Verstraelen. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press). There has been tremendous growth in the number of Christians in Africa. Only nine million Christians were in Africa in 1900, but by the year 2000, there were an estimated 380 million Christians.
Some experts predict the shift of Christianity’s center from the European industrialized nations to Africa and Asia in modern times. Yale University historian Lamin Sanneh stated that “African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come.” The statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett) illustrate the emerging trend of dramatic Christian growth on the continent and supposes that in 2025 there will be 633 million Christians in Africa.
The emerging datum from the excursion so far is that the arrival of the Christian faith in Africa predated the coming of European Missionaries, which contradicts the fib that Europe introduced the religion to its new colonies. History has accurately proved that prior to the centuries, when general expansion of European influence and colonialism slowly spread across the continent, Africa was already one of the bastions of the religion during its infancy. In fact, centuries old Churches of apostolic mien already existed in several parts of Africa before the coming of European missions.
In a nutshell, the quite commendable works of European Missionaries, who have been wrongly credited with bringing Christianity to Africa, were in reality extensions of the pioneering evangelical works of the Early Apostles of the Church who were commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to spread the gospel to the far-flung corners of the earth (Mark 16:15). So rather than being a new frontier of the religion, as is being erroneously canvassed and promoted in some quarters, the continent was actually one of its earliest takeoff points.
Africans who believe the rank misconception that the continent was introduced to Christianity by the West suffer from gross naivety and ignorance. Lambasting Africans who accept and even help promote this rank lie, Reno Omokri, via a Facebook post, said, “You guys say these ignorant things and think you are clever. Scripture began and ended in Africa. Not one book in Scripture was written by a White man.
“The first nation mentioned in Scripture is in Africa-Genesis 2:13. Christ Himself, spent his childhood in Africa-Matthew 2:13. Moses was born in Africa, and met God in Horeb, which is also in Africa-Exodus 3:2-3. His wife was a Black African-Numbers 12:1. Her Black African father was Moses’s mentor-Exodus 28:24. Ebed-Melek, a spiritual adviser to the kings of Judah, was a Black African-Jeremiah 38:7.
“The first book of the New Testament to be written, is the Gospel according to Mark, which was written by Mark, when he lived in Mizraim (Egypt) and founded the oldest Christ following community outside Judea (Egyptian Coptic). The first non Hebrew to become a follower of Christ was a Black African-Acts 8:26-38. Yet you reject Christ following, because it is a White man’s religion?”
Pontificating further, Omokri stated that, “Even the first Muslims ran to Africa for asylum when they were being persecuted by the Quraysh in Mecca. The Christian king (Negus) of the Aksumite Ethiopian nation gave them Asylum. Islam existed in Africa before Islam got to other parts of Arabia. As a matter of fact, some of the Sayyids (descendants of the prophet) never left Ethiopia and now constitute a tribe there known as Silte”.
What a fitting description of the darkness saturating the minds of Africans about the origins of the Christian religion and their continent’s place in its propagation. Africans must wake up from their self-induced slumber, free themselves from their mental slavery and stop glorifying Europeans for the painstaking works of their illustrious ancestors. Ignorance is a curse, not bliss!
1. Two Thousand years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F.A. Meinardus, p.28
2. Jakobielski, S. Christian Nubia at the Height of its Civilization (Chapter 8). UNESCO. University of California Press. San Francisco, 1992
3- Samson A Fatokun Christianity in Africa: a historical appraisal. October 2005
4. Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten By Heinz Halm; Ancient African Christianity: An Introduction to a Unique Context and Tradition By David E. Wilhite
5. Lamin Sanneh (2015-03-24). West African Christianity: The Religious Impact. Orbis Books
6. Wyatt MacGaffey, African Traditional Religion
7. Verstraelen-Gilhuis, Gerdien (1992). A new look at Christianity in Africa : essays on apartheid, African education, and a new history. F. J. Verstraelen. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press
8. The statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett
9. Omokri. R. Reno’s Nuggets, Facebook