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For nearly twenty years now I have had the privilege of teaching at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. This year the school of theology is celebrating 120 years of training those called to ministry.
My context and my Kenyan colleagues here have made me more aware of the somewhat hidden story of Africa in the Bible and in the history of Christianity from the very first century up to the 21st century. Black History Month seems like an appropriate time to share some of this with you.
We all know the history of the Jews in Egypt and that Joseph and Mary fled there to avoid the wrath of Herod. Most of us also know about the “Ethiopian Eunuch” in Acts 8:27 who was “a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,” and baptized by Philip on his way back to Africa.
But there are so many other references to Africa in the Bible. In fact, Africa is mentioned over 1,000 times in the Old Testament. 740 references are to Egypt. There are also many references to Cush. and while there is some debate over exactly where it was, it generally refers to the areas South of Egypt, up the Nile into modern day Sudan.
Abraham and Sarah’s slave Hagar came from Cush, but not all Cushites were slaves. At one time Cush ruled over Egypt. When Moses took a Cushite wife, it made his sister Miriam jealous, possibly because he was marrying “up.” Remember the beloved in the Song of Songs is described as “black and beautiful” (1:5). The famous wise Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10) was also from Africa (probably Ethiopia).
Several people in the New Testament were also born in Africa. Under “things they didn’t teach me in seminary,” I recently learned in the African Study Bible that John Mark, author of Mark, was born in Cyrene, in present day Libya. As was Simon who carried Jesus’ cross, and Lucius mentioned in Acts 13:1 with Simeon, whose surname was black.
Much of early church history and many of our first great Christian theologians were born in and worked in Africa. Cyprian and Tertullian both came from Carthage (in modern day Tunisia); Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril were all from Alexandria, Egypt.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, was born in what is now part of Algeria. And in “more church history I didn’t know,” three of the early popes were from Africa: Victor I; Melchaides or Meltiades; and Gelasius I.
And while much of early Christianity died out in North Africa, there is a long history of Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Sudan, and of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia. These churches all flourished and grew long before any Western missionaries came to Africa. Then came the astonishing spread of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa from the modern missionary era. But much of the work was carried out by local evangelists, helpers and translators. These first converts living out their faith is what attracted many others.
Today the majority of Africans living south of the Sahara are Christians. It is projected Africa will have 760 million Christians by 2025. There are hundreds of African-instituted churches as well as those originally started by missionaries. There are a great many vibrant African churches with passionate followers. Africa is the new center of Christianity.
Some Reformed Journal readers may be surprised to learn that there are many millions of Reformed Christians in Africa. Just the Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian (CCAP) has over a million members. The Reformed Church in Zambia is also very large. A good place to start learning is the website of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
My school, St. Paul’s, is not the oldest seminary in Africa. The Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa started in 1859. Of course, now there are many more seminaries and networks of theological schools and societies such as NetACT (Network of African Congregational Theology), ASET (African Society of Evangelical Theology), the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, and other groups. They are engaging the faith in new ways, creating new answers to new questions from new contexts.
Finally, please do not let all this history and new information remain just in your head. Try to find ways to reach out and make contact with your African siblings in the faith. Call your denominational mission agency or write to a missionary you know who works and lives in Africa to help you begin the journey of discovering new friends. Or better yet, reach out and partner with an African-American church near you!
Nkosi sikelel iAfrika.
Rowland, I am discovering what you write about. I am going to Ethiopia in a few weeks with my son Michael who has established two schools and is helping out the homeless with food and shelter. This ministry is called Adams Thermal Foundations and is doing wonderful work in Ethiopia. I now have three Ethiopian grandchildren and one Ugandan granddaughter. My heart fills with seeing homeless children being housed and baptized and learning the Bible. There have been over 70 children who have graduated high school and are going on to higher education. Praise God for the open hearts to Christianity. This should tell us a big story of the gospel and its attractiveness to the poor and hungry people of the world and is often rejected by the comfortable and wealthy.
Nice that you can visit your son’s work in Ethiopia. It sounds interesting. The RCA is working with Mekane Yesus Seminary and also supports the work of SIL doing Bible translation in Ethiopia. There is a lot going on!
I was waiting to depart from the Grand Rapids airport in August 2005, on the way to direct the Calvin Semester in Ghana program (second of my four terms there). A friendly man ahead of me in line overheard my conversation with my wife and learned of my affiliation with a Christian college. “How wonderful that you are able to carry the Gospel to Africa!” he exclaimed. Not exactly, I replied: in a few weeks I will attend a service to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a thriving Presbyterian church in Accra. (I was younger and more snarky then.)
Thanks for this. In his recent January Series speech at Calvin, Esau McCaulley made similar points. How tragic and evil, then, that from a place so vital to the birth and spread of Christianity people kidnapped black Africans, brought them to America, and sold them as slaves. Worse, they also tried to sell them a version of the Gospel designed to keep them enslaved, as though this were the clear will of God for the African race. That perversion of the Gospel is sickening for dozens of obvious reasons but the more so when one considers what you point out here about Christianity and the legacy of Africa.
The men that led the Stono Rebellion (1736, S Carolina) were literate, Congolese Catholics.
Thanks, Prof. Van Es, for this article, which compresses a story of great scope and power and richness. I have not lived anywhere in Africa , but have visited many times, and have worked with African Christian scholars over the past 30 years on various projects. Africa is indeed the world’s new Christian heartland. The latest chapter of this story includes the migration of Africans in recent decades to the global North, and their planting African varieties of Christianity there, at a time when the faith’s hold on people of Euro descent is waning. Here in Chicago’s North Side, I see an Eritrean Orthodox Church, an Egyptian Coptic one, an African congregation sharing a church with an American Methodist one, and Africans joining American congregations all over. The Nigerian based Redeemed Christian Church of God now has 800 congregations in the USA. Not long ago they held their annual conference/revival meetings at the nearby Rosemont Horizon, a major sports venue, and packed the place out. African Christianity is here to stay, and who knows what the Spirit has in store for the rest of us here because of it? It is certainly changing Calvin University, where the new president was born and reared in Nigeria, the head of the new school of health is Nigerian, and the new director of the Nagel Institute is coming from Kenya.
I believe several of my colleagues here are working with the Nagel Institute on a research project. There are a lot of Kenyans working in the USA and the UK. Kenya’s top foreign exchange earnings is from such remittances. But you’re right they are also injecting new vitality into churches in the North/West as well.
Fascinating, how the globe turns. I find myself wondering how Africa is positioned these days in World History courses taught in Christian High Schools – as young ones are schooled. Each generation takes its turn. As learning goes on.
Thank you for this extensive history. It is sometimes hard to keep in mind how much Africa has influenced our fore-bearers in faith. This writing has a lot to say to those who believe in white supremacy.
This is just a brief survey. I just found out the the publishers of the Africa Study Bible, Oasis, also have a book called Africa and Africans in the Bible by Tim Welch who worked with SIM in Cote d’Ivoire which has details. But yes, there is no basis for white supremacy. People are humans and flawed, but not because of their race.