From 0 to 504 million converts: A brief history of Christianity in Africa

Africa1999Teaching: NORTH & EAST AFRICA RECEIVE THE GOOD NEWS. The gospel likely first arrived in the countries of Africa when Simon returned to Cyrene after carrying Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21), or when Jews from “the districts of Libya around Cyrene” in North Africa returned home after witnessing the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:10). Christianity spread to East Africa when God sent Philip out hitchhiking on the road to Gaza, and an Ethiopian eunuch—“an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians”—picked him up. The Ethiopian got saved and baptized and “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:26-39).

God knew what he was doing. Christianity has endured in Ethiopia almost continually till today. The one break came when Ezana the rival king of Axum invaded it. But in his youth Ezana was taught by a Christian castaway named Frumentius, who had rise like the biblical Joseph to a position of influence in the royal court. Ezana converted to the Christian faith in about A.D. 350—only 38 years after the Roman emperor Constantine did—and his conversion had a similar impact on Ethiopia and nearby countries of Africa.

Ethiopia was allied with Egypt, another early center of Christianity where the church has survived till now. At the time of Christ a million Jews lived in Egypt. There the apostle Mark (according to the historian Eusebius) planted churches in the 1st century, Clement and Origen taught seminary classes in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and the Desert Fathers began the monastic movement in the 4th century. Egypt kept in close contace with other parts of North Africa: Cyrene, home of Simon and some of the first missionaries to Antioch (Acts 11:20-21; 13:1), Carthage (now Tunis), where Perpetua was martyred in the 2nd century and Tertullian fought heresy in the 3rd century; and Hippo (in present-day Algeria), which Augustine made the center of western theology in the 4th and 5th centuries.

In 543 the king of Nubia (now called Sudan), between Egypt and Ethiopia, wrote to the Byzantine emperor Justinian requesting missionaries. Justinian’s wife Theodora beat him to it, sending missionaries with a conflicting theology who competed with the ones Justinian later sent. Despite this rivalry, Nubia experienced what some scholars call the most rapid and far-reaching religious transformation since the dawn of civilization. Royal edifices were quickly converted into churches, and an art that once glorified idols and kings was devoted to Christ. There Christianity flourished for many centuries.

ISLAM IN THE DARK AGES. It is hard to know how far Christianity spread from Nubia and Ethiopia to the central, southern or western countries of Africa, since those vast regions help only oral cultures with few if any written records. But both Nubia and Ethiopia were strong enough to repel Islamic invaders during the early Middle Ages. Egypt did not fare so well. In 639, just seven years after the prophet Muhammad’s death, Muslims conquered Egypt. But Egyptian Christians remained in the majority until the 10th century, when waves of immigration gave Muslims the lion’s share.

The rest of North Africa, weakened at the time by internal divisions and pagan invasions, yielded quickly to Islam in the 8th century and largely adopted the new faith. Merchants carried Islam from North Africa across the desert to the sub-Sahara countries of Africa where they bartered for gold, ivory and slaves. Pressures from Egyptian Muslim invaders finally overcame the Christian kingdom of Nubia in the 13th century. Nubia’s southern neighbor Ethiopia became an island of Christianity when Muslims established slave trading posts all the way down the east coast of Africa. The Muslim slave trade was thriving by the 15th century, when a papal decree allowed Portugal to start its slave trade on the west coast.

FROM SLAVE TRADERS TO SLAVE LIBERATORS. That began the most grievous chapter of Africa’s history—when Europeans and Muslims were exploiting both coasts of Africa for slaves, and making incursions into the interior. Sad to say, some “Christian” missionaries went along with it, raising ineffective objections. But the lonely voices of a few Christian statesmen like William Wilberforce finally won popular support and brought it to an end (though the Muslim trade in slaves continued). In fact after 1815 British naval ships were cruising the African coast to capture—not slaves—but illegal slave ships! By the time Portugal, the last European power to do so, abolished the slave trade in 1837, the damage was done. Only a few small enclaves of Christianity—mostly Catholic—remained in some countries of Africa’s Atlantic coast.

It was then that the great missionary movement of the 19th century hit Africa’s shores. It seems God had prepared the ground, despite failures of earlier missions connected with slave traders. It is true that some tribes put up a resistance, so missionaries found converts among the ostracized: the poor, the persecuted, the disabled, and former slaves. But many African kings began to oppose such ostracism, as well as other traditions such as cannibalism, intoxication and lynching. They saw the power of witches disabled before the preaching of Christ, and many witches become converts. They were attracted to western technological innovations and saw missions as allies in expanding trade throughout the countries of Africa. This led many missionaries to promote commerce as well as Christianity—and often to confuse the two, opening the door to colonialism.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER. In 1885 the same western European nations who had profited from the slave trade met in Berlin to divide up Africa into colonies. The realized that Africa held many valuable raw materials and decided to agree on boundaries for each other’s exploitation. Rather than invent new governments, they relied on Indirect Rule through approved tribal leaders. They subsidized missionary schools so Africans could better learn skills needed to assist in the new infrastructure. Colonists came into conflict with missionaries who criticized forced labor and deplored the Europeanization and urbanization of rural Africa. But in places where Africans saw benefits in new roads, railways, health, education and work opportunities, Christianity gained. From 1900 to 1950 the number of African Christians grew from 4 million to 34 million. So most missionaries learned to accept—and sometimes even to welcome—colonialism as a transition from tribal isolation to global involvement. Local gods lost their relevance in the wider world.

The greatest flaw in colonialism was a deep-seated racism, most evident int the reluctance to train African leaders—even among some missionaries. When colonialism ended in the 50s and 60s, Africans were left with the ideals of democracy and Christian mission, in which they had been given little opportunity to participate. What did Africans do with them?

THIRD-WORLD APOSTLES. Democracy has been tough to practice in nations composed mostly of tribes with artificial colonial borders. Thus the media images of so many countries of Africa as unstable, war-torn, famine-ravaged and impoverished, overlooking some less-publicized successes in nations like Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and more recently South Africa. Christian missions and churches, however, multiplied astronomically after colonialism. From 1950 to 2010 the number of Christians grew from 34 million to 504 million—50% of all Africans. Much of this came from the proliferation of independent and prophetic churches, which followed the examples of African evangelists who gained great followings by perfomring miracles of healing and deliverance (see Christian History issue #79, “African Apostles”). Some churches are prone to syncretism. They need more discipleship, trained leaders and finances. May the next generation make even greater strides toward self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches!

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