The Dictionary of African Christian Biography and the Story of Ethiopian Christianity

By Sigg, Michele Miller | International Bulletin of Mission Research, October 2015 | Go to article overview

The Dictionary of African Christian Biography and the Story of Ethiopian Christianity


Sigg, Michele Miller, International Bulletin of Mission Research


An arresting scene took place one day in the late 1920s in the Hosanna Shoa area of southern Ethiopia, involving Hakalla Amale, a young woman probably not even twenty years old. "While Hakalla was pregnant with her second son, the persecution increased. The village elders came to her home, forced her outside, and demanded that she deny Christ, threatening to curse her if she refused." (1)

This story of Hakalla Amale from the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB), an online database documenting the history of African Christianity, is the only known historical record of one of the foremothers of the Kale Heywet Church (KHC or Word of Life Evangelical Church). KHC grew out of an indigenous people's movement from seeds sown by Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) missionaries starting in 1928. One of the youngest Christian churches in Ethiopia, KHC is a relative latecomer in the long history of Christianity there. KHC is currently the second largest Christian denomination in Ethiopia after the Orthodox Church (40.1 percent), with believers numbering around 7.6 million or 8.7 percent of the population. (2)

Many stories like that of Hakalla Amale, stories that recount the courage and faithful perseverance of twentieth-century Protestant African evangelists, have been circulating for decades in the oral culture of local believers and missionaries in Ethiopia. They serve an essential function of building up and strengthening the Christian community by providing a source of instruction and comfort in times of adversity. Ten years after Hakalla's ordeal, times of trial began for the few early amanyoch (believers), or yesu mana (followers of Jesus), in Ethiopia. When the Italians invaded the country in 1937, they expelled the missionaries and submitted local evangelical Christians to severe persecution. Under duress, the local leadership of the amanyoch developed contextualized teaching and appropriated the Bible in ways that were relevant to the culture, confronting issues for which the missionaries had been ill-equipped. These issues included the power of evil spirits and supernatural healing through the Holy Spirit. The missionaries returned in 1943 to find that, in their absence, the number of believers had swelled to tens of thousands, in spite of the persecution. (3)

Focus of the DACB

Stories of believers who were steadfast in their faith helped the Ethiopian Christian community to persevere in hope during this difficult period. But as time wore on and these extraordinary Christians died, their memory faded and eventually was in danger of being lost. To lose these stories would be tragic; not only local Christians but also the rest of the global Christian community would be impoverished if this chapter of African history went silent. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography was designed as a means to retrieve such disappearing strands of African Christian history, preserving these accounts by documenting the biographies of "the major creative and innovative local figures most vitally involved"--a history that is "virtually absent from the standard scholarly reference works." (4) Born out of a deep respect for the ancient history of African Christianity, as well as for its astounding contemporary vitality, the goal of the DACB is to serve as a sort of "gallery of saints" that provides the insight and perspective of Africans into their own Christian history. Here the intended meaning of the term "saint" is that used by Paul in his greeting to the Romans: "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints" (Rom. 1:7).

The choice to make the DACB primarily a database of biographies rather than a collection of histories places the emphasis on the importance of remembering the particular African men and women who were the apostles of the Gospel. In the past, traditional historical accounts or missionary reports written by Westerners often failed to include the evangelist or catechist who may have been instrumental in the conversion of an entire village or area, as was Hakalla Amale. …

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