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:
- For an examination of the religion among enslaved persons and its changes over time see Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South.
- For a study of the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement see Charles Marsh’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith & Civil Rights.
- Any of the narratives of enslaved persons such as Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrop, and Olaudah Equiano
- Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years does an excellent job of showing the importance of Africans in the life of the early church.