Monday, September 21, 2009

The Presence of Africans in Christian History

In my ministry with African American college students over the years a question that has often come up is whether Christianity is just a religion for the white man and offers nothing for people of color. Remarkably, few people know about the presence of black people in the Bible and the rich history that those of African descent have played in the history of the Christian church.

St. Augustine, one of the most influential early Christian figures, was himself an African who had this to say:
"I repeat, if she who asks is the Church, which no one disputes, and they hear something about Africa; then she who asks is out of Africa; and because it is the Church, the Church is out of Africa"
Although that might seem like a fairly provocative statement, it really isn't when you begin to examine the presence of Africans and those that would be considered black by today's standards throughout church history. For example, Matthew and John Mark, authors of two of the gospel accounts of Jesus, journeyed to Africa and the gospel message spread rapidly through north Africa, primarily in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. In fact, some of the first foreign missionaries after the apostles were Africans. The gospel took root on the continent of Africa in such a way that in the early part of the first millennium, most important questions of doctrine were settled under the leadership of African scholars.

Going back earlier, to the beginning of time, we know that the first people resided in Africa. In Before the Mayflower, historian Lerone Bennett states the following:
"Civilization started in the great river valleys of Africa and Asia, in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East and along the narrow ribbon of the Nile in Africa. Blacks, or people who would be considered black today, were among the first people to use tools, paint pictures, plant seeds, and worship gods."
Jumping forward to Noah and the Ark where Christians believe that God sent a great flood to the earth that destroyed all of humanity, save for Noah and his family. The earth was re-populated through Noah’s three sons and their wives:
  1. Ham (dark or black) – Africans, Asians, and Indians
  2. Shem (dusky or olive-colored) – Middle Eastern (Arabic) and Jews
  3. Japheth (bright or fair) – Europeans
From Noah's son Ham came his sons: Cush (Ethiopians), Mizraim (Egyptians), Put (Libyans), and Canaan (Canaanites). Of these grandchildren of Noah came the darker skinned peoples of the earth and from these descendants of Noah eventually came the following selected influential figures in biblical history:
  • Jethro – the Priest of Midian who became the father-in-law to Moses when his daughter, Zipporah (a Cushite), married him.
  • Nimrod – was the ruler of the land of Shinar, the father of Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, and was the first great leader of a world civilization.
  • Joshua – Joseph’s grandson came from the tribe of Ephraim and was a great leader of Israel.
  • King David – one of the most well-known figures of the Old Testament whose great-grandmother was Rahab (a Canaanite), and mother was Ruth (a Moabite).
  • King Solomon – was recognized as the wisest man ever. His father was David and mother was Bathsheba (daughter of Sheba).
  • The Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8. The early disciple Philip encountered him, a man of great importance and influence. According to church history, this Ethiopian helped spread the gospel in Africa after becoming a Christian.
  • Simon of Cyrene – was a man who helped Jesus carry his crossbar on the way to Golgotha. It's interesting to note that when Jesus needed help at his most vulnerable hour, an African man helped him.
  • Jesus Christ. Although we can't be certain of the color of Jesus's skin, there were several women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba) that were of Hamitic descent.
Looking at early church history, we find a number of key African figures such as:
  • Tertullian – a major contributor to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
  • St. Augustine – who wrote the seminal works "Confessions" & "City of God." He was regarded as the one of the first highly regarded theologians, was of African descent and was educated at an African university.
  • Athanasius – attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325, in which Christian orthodoxy was defended against a heretic by the name of Arian. Athanasius wrote a letter in AD 367 which is the first evidence of all 27 books of the New Testament being included as the Scripture canon.
  • Cyprian – was the Bishop of Carthage and became a martyr when he was beheaded in AD 258 for his faith. He is one of the most influential writers of the early Latin Church.
Some say Christianity is a slave religion and the Bible is a white man’s book. Leaders from the Nation of Islam assert that Islam is the true religion for black people. But look at the following facts on whether Christianity or Islam might be considered the "natural" religion for those of African descent:
  1. Jesus was born in the 1st century whereas Muhammad was born in the 5th century.
  2. Blacks in Africa had built churches on African soil before Muhammad was even born.
  3. Arabic Muslims were the first to target Blacks exclusively for slavery and Europeans adopted this from them. This does does not excuse any white participants in the slave trade but it needs to be stated that it wasn't solely whites who took part.
  4. Lamin Sanneh, a well-respected Ivy League professor, claims that Christianity reached West Africa prior to Africans being brought to the U.S. as slaves.
Lastly, when we think of the pivotal time in church history shortly after Christ's crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, Africans played a pivotal role. They were present at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell and they participated in sending Paul and Barnabas off on their missionary journeys. Africans were not only present, but were leaders in the Church from the earliest beginnings. So if you're of African descent and anyone ever challenges you on why you're a Christian, you might want to share a little history with them.

**Thank you to Pastor Dwight McKissic for his book, Beyond Roots, and to Pastor Bill Mitchell for his class, Out of Africa, that helped to shape the content of this post.**

1 comment:

Adventures with God said...

Wow..Scott this was excellent. I will save and savor this. Appreciate you posting.