A Brief History Ethiopian Christianity


The name where the Septuagent translators rendered the Herbrew in Ps. 72:9 and 74:14. Cush is one of four sons born to Ham. He had at least six sons of his own, most of whom were listed as progenitors of different tribes (Est. 1:1). The word occurs in the ancient Greek literature, as the name of race to be found in the extreme East and in the extreme West. The descendants of Cush settled in Ethiopia and they got their names from Cush. Axum was named after him. Axum is the birth place of Ethiopian civilization.

It is generally agreed that after Herodotus and throughout the New Testament era Ethiopia was referred to the territory south of Egypt and bordering the west Bank of the Red Sea. Historians in Greco- Roman world believed that Ethiopians were the first humans on earth. (Diodorus 3.2) In its early days, Ethiopia also embraced regions to the east of Red Sea, and included some of the territory represented today by Saudi Arabia and Yemen. (Homer 1.22-23; Herodotus- hist 7:70)

The etymological root of Greek Aithiopia 'burnt face", describes the pigmentation of the people who were called Ethiopians. Consequently, not only does Ethiopia refer to a geographical territory, but it also indicates ethnicity. (Jer

Much of the history of Ethiopia is similar to that of Egypt. Historians suggested that Ethiopia is older than pharaonic Egypt. In Axum itself, the fallen obelisk is 37.5 meters high. It is taller than the greatest Egyptian obelisk. The Sabeans in Yemen and Arabia were the extensions of the Sabeans in Ethiopia. South of Arabia was part of the kingdom of Axum. Ancient Ethiopia was wider as to incorporate many different people than under the Sabean hegemony.

The Ethiopians embraced Judaism.(Ps. 87:4) Beyond the rivers of Ethiopia one may refer to Ethiopia, where Jewish community had apparently settled along with Semites from Southern Arabia. (2 Ch. 21:16; Isa. 18:1; Zp. 3:10).

The Sabean migrants who crossed the Red Sea in the first millennium B.C and settled in Ethiopia brought with them Judaism and practiced it. The visit of Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem is recounted there. On her return, according to tradition, she bore him a son, whom she named Menilek. When Menilek grew up he visited his father in Jerusalem, and returned home accompanied by Azerias, the son of Zadok the High priest and many other Israelites. They carried with them the Ark of the Covenant, and kept it in special place in Axum. Judaism was introduced to Ethiopia and practiced throughout the country. Therefore the country became the first nation to worship in one God in the continent of Africa. We have strong evidence also that before Queen Sheba visited Solomon; she used to worship in one God. This is why she mentioned the named of God when she addressed to Solomon saying; "… blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, set you on the throne of Israel". (1 Kin. 10:9).

Christianity in Ethiopia

In the Acts of the Apostles Ethiopia is referred to the Nilotic Kingdom of Candace, who ruled at MeroN, where the capital had been moved during the Persian period. (Ac.8:26-39) Ethiopia embraced Christianity and has maintained its doctrine from the era of the apostles to the present day. This chapter recounts the story of the Ethiopia eunuch who was baptized by St. Philip in 34 A.D.



The Ethiopian Enunch reading the Book of the
Prophet Isaiah (Isa. 53:4-9)

The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch was the fulfillment of the prophecy of David which says; "Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God" (Act. 8:36; Ps. 68:31). This eunuch was a minister of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. Later tradition identified the eunuch as the first Gentile convert, and the founder of the Ethiopian Church (Eusebius, hist. Eccl. 2.1.13).


The Ethiopian Enunch being baptized by Saint Philip
(Ps.68:31; Act. 8:36)

Irenaeus also writes that he preached the Gospel to the Ethiopians. Tradition further records that the apostle Matthew preached the Gospel to Ethiopians. The two church historians, Socrats and Rufinus support this tradition.

The Orthodox Church

The story of the conversion of the Axumites has come down to us in the work of the contemporary church historian, Rufinus (d. 410 A.D) Meropius, a pilgrim from Tyre, came to Ethiopia accompanied by the two young men, Frumentius and Aedesius, both Christians. Apparently they followed the usual itinerary of the time along the African coast of the Red Sea. In the course of their journey they ran short of provisions and put in at a port on the Red Sea. The local inhabitants, however, were hostile to outsiders, and they massacred Meropius and all aboard the ship, sparing only the two boys. The two boys were taken to the king. Soon they gained his interest and won his confidence. The young Aedesius, he made his cup- bearer while the elder Frumentius, who showed signs of wisdom and maturity, became his treasurer and secretary. The king died early, leaving his wife with an infant son as heir to the throne. Now the dying king had given Frumentius and Aedesius leave to return to their own country if they so wished, but the Queen Mother who was left as a regent, begged them to remain to help her administer the kingdom until her son grew up. The young men agreed and stayed to carry out the task faithfully.

The thoughts of Frumentus now began to turn towards matters of evangelizing. He sought out Christians among merchants settled at Axum, and encouraged them to establish meeting places for prayer. The young king himself became a convert. When he was old enough to rule the country alone, Frumentius and Aedesius asked him for permission to leave Axum. Aedesius returned home to Tyre, but Frumentius went to Alexandria and laid the whole affair before the newly appointed Patriarch, Athanasius, beginning him to appoint a bishop to minister to the needs of the growing Christian community at Axum. The patriarch summoned a Council of Priests to consider the matter. It was agreed that Frumentius himself should be consecrated as the first bishop of Ethiopia. Therefore Frumentius was consecrated on December 18, 330 as the first bishop of the country. He was known there as Abba Selama, Kassate Berhan, "Father of peace and Revealer of light".

The introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia was during the reign of King Ezana (320 - 356), the first African king to become a Christian and make Christianity the official religion of his country. Since then up to the fall of Emperor Haileselassie (1974) for about 1644 years the official religion of Ethiopia was Orthodox religion. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, indigenous of Africa, is one of the oldest churches in the world and a founding member of the World Council of Churches.

Ethiopian Orthodox church is one of the five Eastern Oriental Orthodox Churches. They are: Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian and the Syrian Church of Malabar in India. They are called Eastern Oriental Orthodox Churches; they only recognize three ecumenical synods; namely the Synod of Nicea in 325, the Synod of Constantinople in 381 and the Synod of Ephesus in 431. They reject the Synod of Chalcedon(451).

The Nine Saints, who came to Ethiopia about 478 A.D from different parts of the Eastern Roman Empire, also made a large contribution to the growth of the church by translating the scriptures from Greek and Aramaic to the classical Ethiopian language of Geez.

The Major Turning Points in History

For centuries the Christian Ethiopians fought for maintenance of the Christian faith against internal and external foes. In 968, a Jewish persecution of Christians occurred under
Yodit. There was also constant hostility from the Moslems of
the Red Sea coast. In 1528, Ahmad Gragn attacked the country with the aid of Ottoman Empire. For more than a decade churches and monasteries were sacked and burned, and ancient manuscripts and other works of art were stolen and destroyed. The other problem was the attempt of the Roman Catholic Church from 1520 - 1631 to bring the Ethiopian Christians under the jurisdiction of Rome. In the time of Pope Julius III (1550 - 55), Portuguese Jesuits entered the country. They impressed the court, but alienated the clergy. In 1614 belief in Christ's two natures was imposed on pain of death. It was the Chalcedon formula of 451, which the Ethiopians had rejected. The people revolted, civil war broke out, and thousands were killed. After the death of Susneyos in 1631, his son Fasilades expelled the Jesuits from the country. From the beginning, the Ethiopian church affiliated itself with Alexandrian Church. After the death of Abba Selama, the first bishop of Ethiopia on July 26, 380 A.D., the Egyptian bishops were appointed to head the Ethiopian Church. This continued until early in the twentieth century. However, numerous problems, such as language, and distance from Alexandria made it imperative to have native bishops. After a long period of struggle, finally agreement was reached with the Coptic Patriarchate in 1950. In 1959 the Ethiopian Orthodox Church became autocephaly, while remaining in canonical union with the Coptic Church

The Ethiopians residing in Boston have carried out a very commendable joy by sacrificing their money, knowledge, manpower, and buying a church. They are working hard to preserve their identity, faith and culture. The benefit of acquisition of the Church building is not limited for the spiritual and temporal service of Ethiopian alone. It is also for the permanent use of the generation to come and for the non Ethiopian believers of the faith as well. Debre Selam St. Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a testimony to their forbearance, strength of faith and solidarity.

Boston Debre Selam Saint Michael Ethiopian
Tewahdo Orthodox Church
Mattapan, MA 02214

January, 2003