In this lecture from the Mobile Ed course History and Theology of the African American Church, Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. discusses Africans mentioned in Scripture and the development and early history of Christianity in Africa.
Note: Because this is one lecture in a series, Dr. Ellis at times refers to previous or forthcoming lectures.
I want to start off by talking about the role of Christianity in Africa. Africa was no stranger to the gospel in the early days of Church history. And not only that but throughout Scripture, Africans played very important parts, here and there.
Africans in Scripture
For example, in Jeremiah 38:4–13, you have an incident where King Zedekiah—just before the fall of Jerusalem—got discouraged with Jeremiah’s prophecies. He accused Jeremiah of discouraging people from fighting against the Babylonians. He was just about accusing Jeremiah of treason, as it were. So, he told some of his henchmen, his posse—whatever you want to call them—“Do something about this man, just get him off the scene, just shut him up.” So, what they did: They got together, ganged up on Jeremiah, seized him, and threw him in an empty cistern. It didn’t have water in it, but it had mud in it. And it was so far deep that Jeremiah had no chance of climbing out.
Well, that’s when you begin to have a young man—a remarkable young man—named Ebed-melech. He was a Cushite; he was an African. He heard about what had happened to Jeremiah and was incensed. So, he came to the king and told the king what they had done to Jeremiah; and the king, of course, pretended that he was outraged. Ebed-melech led about 30 men to get Jeremiah out of the cistern. He rescued the prophet. He pulled him up by ropes and whatnot.
Simon of Cyrene
There are other people who played significant roles in Scripture, but there are instances where Africans did play important parts. Another example of the coming of the gospel to Africa: Africa proved to be fertile ground when the gospel first came. It’s interesting that—a lot of people don’t realize this, but the last man in Luke 23:26, Jesus is carrying the cross and a man from Cyrene, which is in Africa, was seized to carry Jesus Christ’s cross for him, and he was from Africa. It’s interesting that . . . Sometimes I’ve heard it said that maybe this might have been a statement, kind of an obscured statement, that people of African descent might be key in carrying the cross to world evangelism in the last days. Who knows? But he was an African from Cyrene.
Believers from Libya and Cyrene
In Acts 2:5–12, you have the situation where—this is, of course, the day of Pentecost, and all of these nations were gathered in Jerusalem, and among those nations were people from Libya and Cyrene, and they all heard the gospel, and they all began to understand the gospel in their own languages. Again, Africans were not strangers to the times of the early Church. Of course, you know the rest of the story. They ask, “What does this mean?” and of course, Peter gets up and boldly proclaims the gospel, and three thousand came to Christ that day.
African missionaries to Antioch
In Acts 11—now, this is after the time of persecution that has broken out—Stephen was a very outstanding deacon, and one of the things that was happening in those days is that the Jewish culture, the Hebrew culture was the dominant culture, and the Greek culture was the subdominant culture in the land of Israel. What happened was that some of these people who could become Christians were of Greek background and some were of Jewish background. You know the story: that the Greek widows are being left out in the daily distribution of food. So, they appointed seven deacons—seven Greek deacons, by the way—and one of them was Stephen. And Stephen was—he went against the grain, he was kind of out of the box. In those days, everybody thought that you had to become Hebrew in culture in order to be a Christian, and Stephen was showing that he was Christian in all of his Greek-ness, because he believed in Jesus Christ and faith in Jesus Christ did not require a particular cultural orientation. So, Stephen then, of course, was stoned to death, because his fellow Greeks did not like what he was doing, because they wanted to maintain the status quo.
After that, a great persecution broke out, and people scattered from Jerusalem all over. And among them—in Acts 11:19–21—among those who scattered, [some] went to the island of Cyprus. The early ones who went to Cyprus were of Hebrew background, and the Bible says, “They began to spread the word of God to Jews only.” Then the Scripture says, in verse 20, that “men from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also”—again, Africans playing a significant role in the early missions of the Church. We think of sending missionaries to Africa, but actually, here’s Africa—one of the first places where missionaries came from.
And, as you know, the rest of the story: the church in Antioch grew and finally the Jews and the Greeks kind of came together, and it was there that they called Christians for the first time. Of course, it was from that church that Paul and Barnabas—and later, Paul and Silas—reached much of the known world.
Early Church history
Rise of the Church in northern Africa
Well, among the places where the gospel grew was in the land of Africa. The Church grew by leaps and bounds in Africa. As a matter of fact, at one time in northern Africa, the Church had over five hundred bishops. Another great thing that we know is that some of the great Church Fathers, the great minds of the early Church were Africans; Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine were all Africans. If it wasn’t for Augustine, we would not have had great theologians like Calvin, because Calvin got a lot of his ideas from Augustine. Athanasius was another one—from Alexandria.
Rise of Islam in northern Africa
And eventually, the Church, as it grew in Africa—of course, what happens oftentimes: the Church becomes intoxicated by its own success. And eventually the Church in Africa became preoccupied with trivia: How many angels could sit on the head of a pin?—and those kinds of things—and the Church weakened a great deal. By the seventh century, you begin to see the overrunning of northern Africa by the Muslim invaders, the Muslim conquest. Of course, the Muslims didn’t quite conquer northern Africa in an instant, but the way they worked—they thought very strategically, and they infiltrated the infrastructure, and they eventually became the dominant force, even though they were a minority there. And eventually, the Church began to be choked out, and of course, we know what happened in North Africa.
So, there we go; we have the significant role played by Africans in the Scripture and in the early Church. And we have the early Church Fathers, who were themselves Africans, playing a significant role in the Church universal.
To learn more about theological development among African-Americans, explore Mobile Ed: CS251 History and Theology of the African American Church (7 hour course).