The History of Christianity in Ethiopiaby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time Essay
Trace the history of Christianity in Ethiopia from the time of Kush. Include incursions of Islam, and political independence from Imperialism.
The history of Christianity in Ethiopia suggests that the idea of monotheism came to Sheba from Judaism during the reign of Solomon.
Christianity in Ethiopia suggests that the idea of monotheism came to Sheba from Judaism during the reign of Solomon. Belief in the God of the Jews drew an Ethiopian to worship in Israel where Philip introduced him to Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Christianity thus entered Ethiopia as the eunuch returned to his position of authority. Ethiopia has since maintained her Christian heritage despite the sword of Islam and the gun of Imperialism from Italy. Ancient stone churches testify to the strength of Christianity in Ethiopia.
Tracing the history of Christianity in Ethiopia suggests that the idea of monotheism came to Sheba from Judaism during the reign of Solomon. Belief in the God of the Jews drew an Ethiopian to worship in Israel where Philip introduced him to Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Christianity thus entered Ethiopia as the eunuch returned to his position of authority. Ethiopia has since maintained her Christian heritage despite the sword of Islam and the gun of Imperialism from Italy. Ancient stone churches testify to the strength of Christianity in Ethiopia. Even genetic testing has revealed the influences that Judaism has had on Ethiopia as Israel has helped dark skinned Jews return to their homeland.
Ethiopia is a nation surrounded by many secular nations. Their search to find Christ, their steadfastness in keeping Christianity as the official religion, their struggle to survive while being persecuted by every surrounding nation, and their fight to overcome Imperialism, are all testaments to their faith in Christ.
During Solomon’s reign (971-931 B.C.) over Israel, many nations became aware of his great wisdom. One such person, we see in 1 Kings 10:1-13, the Queen of Sheba. She “was an Ethiopian sovereign named Makeda (Magda).” The Bible speaks of her visit to Jerusalem, “Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions” ( I Kings 10:1). After hearing the astounding wisdom of Solomon, Queen Magda praised the God of Israel. After six months of staying in Jerusalem, Queen Magda wished to return home and share the wisdom she had attained from Solomon. Yet Solomon wanted Makeda to be the mother of one of his children and though she firmly refused, Solomon eventually had his way through trickery. After this, he did let her return to her country with her promise that if she bore a son, she would send him to Solomon. Solomon also told Makeda of the vision he had had; “When I was sleeping by thy side I had a vision. The sun, which before my eyes was shining upon Israel, moved away. It went and soared above Ethiopia. It remained there. Who knows but that thy country may be blessed because of thee?” This vision prophesied one of Solomon’s sons, Menelik I. When the boy was old enough, Makeda sent him to King Solomon who welcomed his son and helped him complete his studies. Then he sent Menelik I back to Ethiopia bearing a gift from Solomon, the Ten Commandments. When the time came, Menelik I became king of Ethiopia.
This marks the beginning of Judaism and the belief in one God in Ethiopia. In the Book of Acts, mid-first century, there is an Ethiopian trying to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. This man was on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Acts 8:27-31 tells of some of the Ethiopian’s background, his reason for coming to this area, and the dilemma he now faced. “And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning. And sitting in his chariot he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go near and overtake this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.” Considering the fact that this Ethiopian of great authority came to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, Judaism must have been common in Ethiopia. However, Ethiopians had no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Now we realize why this man did not understand the passage he read, Isaiah 53:7-8, referring to Jesus. Thankfully Philip did sit with this man and told him about Jesus Christ as we see in verses 35-37. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Most believe it is through this Ethiopian that Christianity spread throughout Ethiopia. Irenaeus, an Apostolic Father, is attributed to saying, “The eunuch became a missionary to the Ethiopians.”
About three hundred years later, we see the first king to be become a Christian through the witnessing of two Syrian Christians, Frumentius and Aedisius. “Around the year 340, after he had ascended the throne, Ezana was baptized, and Christianity became the official religion. Saint Mary of Zion, believed to be the first Christian church in Ethiopia, was built after Ezana’s conversion.” In sixth century, this Christian empire, also known as the Axumite Kingdom prospered. However, its peaceful days were drawing to an end, as the year 622 brought the beginning of Islam.
At first, relations between the two religions were friendly, but as Islam began to spread throughout the coastal lands of Africa, hostility and violence broke out between the newly converted Muslims and the Christians. This caused the disintegration of the Axumite Kingdom followed by centuries of disorder until in 1137, the Zagwé dynasty, which was not descended from Solomon and Sheba, formed. King Lalibela moved the capital from Axum to Roha where he immediately began to build churches. The dynasty ended in the year 1270 when Tekla Haimanot, an Ethiopian nobleman from the line of Solomon forced the king off the throne. Through this line, we see a ruler who is one of the most distinguished rulers since Ezana, King Zar’a Ya’kob. Ruling from 1434 to 1468 as a devout Christian, “he strengthened the position of the church in Ethiopia, firmly united church and state, controlled the Moslems, and expanded his domain.” However, in the year 1527, the jihad, or holy war of the Muslims, began in Ethiopia and for the next sixteen years, Muslims looted, burned, and destroyed churches with terrible brutality. Finally, with the help of the Portuguese, the leader of this “holy war” on Ethiopia was tracked down and killed, ending the horrible destruction in 1543.
Finally, there is Ethiopia’s conflict with Imperialism. Although most surrounding nations of Ethiopia are either under the control of a European country or have been seriously affected by one, it was not until the nineteenth century that Ethiopia came out of isolation. The history of modern day Ethiopia began to unfold about 1889 when Menelik II took control of the government. Under his reign, Ethiopia became the object of Italian colonialism. It all began with the treaty of Uccialli, where through deception, the Italians convinced Menelik II to sign a treaty he thought said that Italy would help his nation when in need. However, Menelik II later discovered Italy boasted to other European nations that Ethiopia had been made a colony of Italy through this treaty. Protesting immediately, “In 1893, he denounced the treaty and by 1895 Ethiopia and Italy were at war. When the Italians declared war on Ethiopia, Menelik II had already prepared his forces for battle. In March of 1896, the Battle of Aduwa took place and the Italian Army of about 15,000 was defeated. Italy later negotiated a treaty recognizing Ethiopia’s independence.”
Today, about half of Ethiopia’s twenty five million people are Christians with an estimated eighteen thousand churches and two hundred and fifty thousand clergymen. Christian Ethiopians have fought and will continue to fight the good fight for Christ; they have struggled and had victory over Imperialism; and they have kept their faith in Christ even through years of Muslim persecution. This is a great picture of the enduring faith of a Christ centered nation.
Jesus exhorts Christians near the end of the book of Matthew to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Christians are called to spread the Word of God to all four corners of the earth, and to stand firm in Christ through trials and persecutions. The country of Ethiopia has suffered horrendous things as a result of its faith, but has stayed strong in Christ and become a light to the world. Not even a deceitful imperialistic empire could tear this great country from the love of its God.
1: Under whose reign was the treaty with Italy signed?
B. Menelik I
C. Genghis Khan
D. Menelik II
2: Solomon and Queen Magda’s son was named
C. Menelik I
3: Approximately how many Ethiopians are Christians today?
A. 12.5 million
B. 25 million
C. 10 million
D. 200 million
1 Dr. Neil Lettinga. www.bethel.edu/~letnie/AfricanChristianity/EthiopiaMakeda.html
2 Lila Perl. Ethiopia: Land of the Lion, New York City: William Morrow and Company, 1972
3 Alfred Allotey Acquaye. Ethiopia in pictures, New York City: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.1974
4 The Bible, New King James Version
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