Christianity in Ancient Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Christianity has been practiced in Africa longer than almost anywhere else, but what this religion has meant in Africa has changed over time. In this lesson, we'll look at the history of Christianity in ancient Africa and see how it spread.

Christianity and Africa

Africa is one of the largest and most populous continents in the world, as well as the birthplace of humanity. Christianity is the world's largest religion, practiced by roughly 2.2 billion people worldwide. So, how does the world's largest religion look in this major continent? To understand what Christianity means in Africa today, we need to look at the spread of this religion in Africa across history.

Christianity has a long history in Africa
Christianity in Africa

The Introduction of Christianity

Christianity, as a religion, originated in the early 1st century CE following the teachings of Hebrew leader Jesus Christ of Nazarene and his disciples. It started around the eastern Mediterranean region, ranging from roughly Greece through the Levant, and spread from there. So, Christianity first entered Africa along the Mediterranean and Red Seas, moving into Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula by the late first or early second centuries CE. According to tradition, the disciple Mark the Evangelist was the one to first start preaching Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt, meaning that Northern Africa may have practiced Christianity even earlier than most of Europe.

Saint Mark was said to bring Christianity to Africa
St Mark

The Coptic, or Egyptian, branch of Christianity took root and began to spread across Northern Africa. The religion was popular largely amongst the lower classes, although it also seems to have been favored by many scholars in Alexandria. In particular, it became seen as a form of resistance against the pagan Roman Empire that was securing more and more of a hold over Northern Africa.

The Spread of Christianity

Christianity spread as a popular religion across Northern Africa, reaching into what is now Ethiopia and other regions along the Red Sea. For a long time it was practiced by the people, but still persecuted widely by various kingdoms and states, including those areas controlled by the Romans. So, it was largely practiced in secret. This began to change in the 4th century. In what is now Ethiopia was an extremely powerful kingdom called Axum, which drew its wealth and power from international trade routes along the Red Sea. Axum was ruled by a man named King Ezana, who around 327 CE became one of the first rulers in the world to make Christianity the official religion of his kingdom. Axum was the first African kingdom to fully embrace Christianity, and it became a major center for the religion, as well as home to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As a wealthy, powerful, and internationally-respected state, in many ways it was seen as the first real Christian success story and ideal model for other kingdoms. In fact, the city of was so important to early Christians that it has been proposed as a potential resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant in an Ethiopian church painting
Ark of the Covenant

Christianity and Islam

Christianity became the de facto religion of Northern Africa, at least until the 7th century when a new religion called Islam swept across the region. Early Islam was followed by some extremely militaristic states that marched across Northern Africa, resulting in a wave of conversion.

The rapid rise of Islam in Northern Africa alarmed the Christian kingdoms of Europe. By the medieval era, Europeans had not established contact with sub-Saharan Africa, as they could not manage to cross the desert. However, the rise of Islam helped spurn a desire to spread Christianity further south. This was supported with folktales that emerged about lost, ancient Christian kingdoms in the heart of Africa. The most famous was that supposedly ruled by Christian king named Prester John, who was said to control vast wealth but was cut off from the rest of the Christian world by Islamic states on all sides.

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