Christianity: Out of Africa

Article excerpt

Thanks to a largely white, Western take on history, many Catholics tend to think that Christianity arrived on the African continent as the result of European-based missionary efforts that began in the 15th century. But a closer look at church history reveals a much different picture.

The first mention of Africa and the Good News of Jesus occurs in the first pages of the Acts of the Apostles--before the conversion of Saul. In the eighth chapter of Acts, the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian, the chief treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia. Joining the early African chief financial officer in his chariot, Philip gives him a crash course in scripture that explains Jesus in the teaching of the prophets. When they reach a body of water, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, who "goes on his way rejoicing.

"Apparently the Ethiopian's newfound faith put down strong roots on the African Continent. By the second century, beginning in North Africa, a vibrant Christianity was in evidence and lasted well into the seventh century. In 206 A.D., the Carthage-born noblewoman Perpetua and her slave, Felicity, were among thousands of Christians who gave their lives as martyrs during fierce Roman persecutions. As the next wave of persecution, under the Roman emperor Diocletian, roared across North Africa, church historian Eusebius relates in 303 that he personally witnessed hundreds of Christians being martyred around Alexandria. The exploits of these African witnesses spawned a whole new literary genre, "acts of the martyrs." The vivid and inspiring (and frequently gory) tales became so popular that, just a century later, St. Augustine had to restrain Christians in his diocese from reading the stories in church as they did the scripture.

St. Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, North Africa--modern-day Algeria. His mother, St. Monica, was a member of a family that had been Christian for several generations. With the possible exception of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine has been described as "the greatest single intellect the Catholic church has ever produced" (source: A Concise History of the Catholic church by Thomas Bokenkotter). …