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!