Celebrating Africa’s influence on Christianity

February 27, 2019

It is impossible to separate the story of Christianity from the history of Africa. The early theologians of the church were from Africa, and some of the oldest communities of Christianity began in Africa. In honor of African-American history month, I am highlighting some individuals that you may not know who have been influential in the story of Christianity. These include men, women, theologians, monks, preachers, poets, and political activists.

The work that African-Americans have done to shape Christianity and remind their white counterparts of the truths of Christianity are powerful reminders that this is not a white religion, but rather a religion of a Middle Eastern man crucified as a criminal. And it spread throughout Africa, the far east, and Europe. Multiethnic from the beginning, it is indebted to the lives listed below.

The early church and Africa

Tertullian: Tertullian was born in Carthage in northern Africa during the second century and became one of the most influential of the early church leaders. He is noted for his immense writing on theology and his apologetic works against the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Also, he is the first to use the term “New Testament.” Perhaps most important were his early attempts to defend the doctrine of the Trinity (a term which he was the first to use in writing) by arguing that God exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae).

Origen of Alexandria: Living at roughly the same time as Tertullian, Origen was an early Church Father whose writings would set the parameters of much of later theological works. His work On the First Principles was an early systematic approach to Christian theology. Like Tertullian, he is noted for his writings against ancient heresies. He also produced the Hexapla, which placed the Hebrew text of the Bible next to five different Greek translations for comparison. He was persecuted under the emperor Decian and died several years later from the effects of the torture.

Athanasius of Alexandria: As the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius served as a leader in the Christian church during some of its most contentious times. He contended against the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was a created being, rather than the eternal son of God. In his most famous work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius argued that if Jesus was not fully the son of God, then he could not redeem humanity. Athanasius would hold to this position no matter the cost. He was exiled a number of times and endured persecution under different Roman emperors who favored the teaching of Arius. However, Athanasius’ teaching would eventually be stated as Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Augustine of Hippo: Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most important theologian in the history of Christianity. Augustine, like Tertullian, was a native Berber of Carthage in northern Africa. His defense of Christianity after the fall of Rome in The City of God has shaped Christian theology throughout history. His autobiography, The Confessions, give us a glimpse of his conversion and his teachings on the life of the Christian and ordering of the soul toward its ultimate goal, God. His influence is not limited to the early church, though; it was an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who was a key influence in the start of the Protestant Reformation.

African-Americans and Christianity

Phyllis Wheatley: Phyllis Wheatley was the first African-American female poet to be published. Born in West Africa and sold as a slave at a young age, she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston. They taught her to read and write. Her poetry is filled with Christian themes, and her most famous poem was her elegy of George Whitefield, the great evangelist, in 1770. Her writings reflect one who understood the truths of the gospel and looked forward to the day when she and all other Africans would be freed: “Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you; Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due; If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road, You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.”

George Liele: George Liele was the first African-American to be ordained as a Baptist minister in America. He was also the first missionary to come from America, leaving for Jamaica in 1782 (several decades before Adoniram Judson). Recognized as a gifted preacher and also a founder of several all-black churches, his master freed him. Liele chose to go to Jamaica rather than remain in America after the Revolutionary War because he feared being enslaved again. There, he continued the work of planting churches among enslaved persons and preaching the gospel.

Richard Allen: Born into slavery, Richard Allen would go on to found the first independent black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). As a result of his success in founding the Bethel AME church and its impressive growth, he was ordained as the first African-American Methodist minister by Francis Asbury in 1799. He would later unite with other all-black congregations to form the AME denomination in 1816. He also served as the denomination’s first bishop.

Jarena Lee: Jarena Lee was the first woman recognized by Richard Allen formally as an evangelist. Though she was initially rebuffed because she was a woman, she refused and evangelized outside the formal church often speaking in town squares or open fields. Eventually, Allen would grant her the ability to speak inside the structure of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). She is an example of the ways that the Second Great Awakening had changed the nature of America Christianity. As a woman and African-American, she was doubly stigmatized. Her autobiography of her faith was the first to be published by an African-American woman in the United States.

Martin Luther King Jr.: No list of influential African-American preachers would be complete without Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., King would go on to be the most visible face of the Civil Rights Movement. He and other pastors would found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which worked through nonviolent protest to end racial segregation. At a time when much of (white) American Christianity saw no problem between their faith and the horrors of Jim Crow, King confronted them with the teachings of justice and equality from the Scriptures.

For further reading

These men and women are only a few of the figures from Africa or of African descent who have shaped the story of Christianity. There is not space to write here of others such as the kingdom of Aksum (the first Christian nation), Moses the Black (an early ascetic leader), Clement of Alexandria, the Coptic church, the National Baptist Convention, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, or gospel singer Aretha Franklin. These men, women, and organizations are evidence of the diversity and importance of Africa on the story of Christianity. Here are some works that you may find informative:

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24