Saint Frumentius of Axum and Orthodoxy in Africa

Icon - St. FrumentiusThere is sometimes an idea that Christianity is a European and North American religion. At one time these areas considered themselves to be “Christendom”. This now no longer is the case. We know, of course, that there are many Christians in Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, we often think the churches there are primarily the result of European and North American missionary activity over the last few centuries. This is true to some extent, but we should never forget that there are ancient, native Christian churches in these regions which were founded in the early days of Christianity. As a matter of fact, there are churches in Africa and Asia that were Christian long before some European countries.
When we think of Christianity in Africa our mind immediately goes to Alexandria, a city in Egypt. This church was founded by the Apostle and Evangelist Mark about 42 AD. Although this church is located in North Africa, in many respects it was an important part of the Hellenistic Greco-Roman culture. Alexandria had great theologians such as St. Athanasius and St. Cyril, Patriarchs of Alexandria. Both of these bishop-theologians defended the full divinity of Jesus Christ when this doctrine was under attack.
Alexandria also produced some of the founders of monasticism, such as St. Anthony and St. Pachomius. Although there were schisms in the church of Alexandria, later it remained a center of Orthodox learning and piety. Other than the church in Alexandria, we find another African convert in the Book of Acts (Acts 26:40). This man was an official from the court of the Queen of Ethiopia and he was in Jerusalem for the purpose of worship. He was in his chariot reading from the Book of Isaiah (Is 53:7-8).
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. [8] By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
He did not understand what he was reading so an angel told the Apostle Philip, who was standing nearby, to go to him to explain the meaning of the passage. Philip told him that these lines refer to Jesus Christ and began preaching to the Ethiopian. The official disclosed his desire to become a Christian and Philip baptized him on the spot. The Bible does not tell us what happened to the Ethiopian official. But he no doubt would have shared his faith when he returned to Ethiopia.
However, the Apostle to Ethiopia is usually considered St. Frumentius of Axum. As a young boy from Palestine he was captured by pirates in the Red Sea in 316 AD and sold as a slave to the King of Axum in Ethiopia. The king liked the saint and when the king died St. Frumentius was set free and was asked by the king’s widow to remain in Ethiopia and be a tutor to the young prince. As he was tutoring the prince he began preaching Christianity. When the young prince came of age, St. Frumentius was freed from his obligation as tutor. He traveled to Alexandria and asked the Patriarch for clergy to be sent to Ethiopia. The Patriarch thought Frumentius would be the best candidate so he consecrated St. Frumentius as a bishop. St. Frumentius returned to Ethiopia, established his cathedral in Axum, and baptized the king (his former student) and many others. St. Frumentius built churches and preached the Gospel. He died in 383 AD and is known as the apostle to Ethiopia. Today the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has between 40-45 million people, mostly living in Ethiopia. (The singer, Bob Marley, was Ethiopian Orthodox.)
Finally, in other parts of Africa in the early years of the 20th century, some African protestants, unhappy with the racism in their church, got together to found the “African Orthodox Church”. These church leaders found their way to the authentic Orthodox Church and entered the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Alexandria and the church continues to grow today with tens of thousands of members in several African countries.
So as we have seen, we know that Christianity is not a “European” religion and has deep historical roots in Africa, as well as Asia.

Fr. John