The Greek and Eastern Churches/Part 2/Division 5/Chapter 5





(a) Rufinus; Socrates; Sozomen; Theodoret; Nicephorus; Zonaras; Cedrenus; John of Ephesus; Arabian authorities; Alvarez (trans. by Lord Stanley of Alderley); Tellez, Historia de Ethiopia, 1660; Ludolphus, History of Ethiopia, 1684; Geddes, Church History of Ethiopia, 1696; Le Quien, Oriens. Christ. ii., 1741; Bruce, Travels, 1768–73.

(b) Reynolds in Smith's Dict. of Christian Biography, art. "Ethiopian Church"; Wright, Christianity in Arabia, 1855; Hotten, Abyssinia Described, 1868; Portal, My Mission to Abyssinia, 1892; Duchesne, Les Missions Chrétiens au sud de l'empire Romain, 1896; Lauribar, Douze ans en Abysinnie, 1898.


Abyssinian Christianity is a Judaistic, Monophysite form of religion which has been corrupted in the course of ages during its long severance from the influences of the rest of Christendom. It is naturally most nearly associated with the Coptic Church, because it derived its origin from Egypt, agreed with the Copts in following Dioscurus in his opposition to the decrees of Chalcedon, formerly owned allegiance to the patriarch of Alexandria, and for a long while kept in touch with the Christians of Egypt. Between Abyssinia, known as Ethiopia in early times, and Egypt was Nubia, for long an independent Christian nation. When that country was conquered by the Arabs and its Christianity simply wiped out, Abyssinia was cut off from all direct relations with Egypt. There was still the Red Sea route, the route by which the gospel reached Abyssinia in the first instance. But when Egypt was subject to the Mussulman rule the Copts had neither the heart nor the power to use it in order to keep in touch with a remote nation in the south with which they were no longer directly connected.

Like the name "India," the word "Ethiopia" is used in the vaguest way by ancient writers. There can be no doubt that these two names sometimes overlap. The land on both sides of the Red Sea to the south was known as Ethiopia. The Queen of Sheba may have come either from Asia or from Africa. But the Ethiopia of which we know in Christian times was undoubtedly in Africa. The extent of land to which the name is given is never defined, but we may understand it as roughly corresponding to our modern Abyssinia, a country the limits of which are not determined in the present day. Abyssinia is a form of the name given by the Arabs (Habeʿsh, meaning "mixture," "confusion," because of the mixed character of the peoples inhabiting it); but the Abyssinians still call themselves "Ethiopians" (Itiopyavan) and their country "Ethiopia " (Itiopia). The Jewish character of some of the customs of the Abyssinians has given rise to the conjecture that these people were influenced by the Jews before they became Christian; but the fact that some of those customs, such as circumcision, distinctions of clean and unclean food, and the levirate marriage, are much more widespread, being found more or less in Arabia and in other parts of Africa, tends to destroy the grounds of this hypothesis. Dr. Reynolds suggested that the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath in Abyssinia may be traced to Judaic influences in ancient Christianity.[1] Still, the number of coincidences creates a cumulative argument in favour of the spread of early Jewish ideas. There can be no doubt that the diaspora was immensely influential for two or three centuries. Its missionary activity has been unfairly disregarded because thrown into the shade by the greater activity of the Christian evangelism that both absorbed and superseded it. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts points to the early introduction of Christianity into Africa. But the name "Candace" which is there given to the queen is not found in Ethiopia proper. It is known to have been the title of a succession of queens at Meroe on the Upper Nile (half-way between Berber and Kartoum); so that the Ethiopian eunuch would be a Nubian from the Soudan. Christianity could reach Ethiopia more easily from the coast; and that it did so in early times is implied by a remark of Origen: "We are not told that the gospel has been preached among all the Ethiopians."[2]

We come to the fourth century for the effective introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia. Seeing that Rufinus, who is our earliest authority, tells us that he obtained his information direct from one of the two young men whose story he gives, we may consider that we have here come upon an unusually good historical source.[3] The story is repeated with some variations by the Greek historians.[4] It is as follows: Meropius, a philosopher from Tyre, took two young relations—perhaps sons—named Frumentius and Ædesius on a voyage of exploration in the direction of "India." On the way they put into a port by the African side of the Red Sea for water. The people of these parts had recently revolted from Rome, and they murdered Meropius and the whole of the ship's crew, but spared the two young men, touched with pity for them when they discovered them apart from their companions quietly seated reading under a tree. They sent them to their king, who made Ædesius his cupbearer and Frumentius the keeper of his rolls. On the death of the king the young men were set at liberty; but at the request of the queen, who was now regent, they consented to remain and help in the administration of the government during the minority of her son. Frumentius, who was the abler and more energetic of the two, now sought out the Christians among the Roman merchants in the country, and gave them authority and advice for building churches. As yet this was only a movement among the foreign residents. But here was the seed of the great missionary work that was destined to make the name of Frumentius famous in Christian history. In spite of the queen's entreaties, the two brothers left the country when the young prince was old enough to undertake the responsibilities of government. They must both have been of an earnest religious character, for Ædesius became a presbyter at Tyre, where Rufinus received the story from his own lips, while Frumentius went to Alexandria in order to urge its bishop, who was no other than the great Athanasius, to appoint a bishop for undertaking missionary work in Ethiopia. Athanasius brought the matter before a synod, and there addressing Frumentius, said, "What other man shall we find such as thou art, in whom is the spirit of God, as He is in thee, who will be able to discharge these duties?" Accordingly Frumentius was ordained bishop of Auxume in Ethiopia. He was called Abba Salama ("Father of Peace"), a title borne by his successors down to the present day. This story is confirmed and added to by the literature of the Ethiopian Church—its annals, liturgy, and poetry.

Subsequently Constantius wrote to the King of Ethiopia urging him to replace Frumentius by Theophilus, an Arian, who was under George, the Arian bishop imposed on the Church of Alexandria; but his letter does not appear to have had any effect, and Arianism did not penetrate into the Ethiopian Church. After this we know little of the history of that Church for a long time. But a number of saints are celebrated in Ethiopian poetry, among whom is Aragawi, who is confused with the archangel Michael, the patron of the Church and the kingdom, to whom the twelfth day in every month is consecrated.

There is another story of the conversion of Ethiopia, told by Nicephorus, corresponding to which is the account in John of Ephesus. According to this story, the Emperor of Ethiopia vowed that if he conquered the Homerites of the Red Sea coast he would embrace Christianity, and that having obtained the victory he appealed to Justinian for help in carrying out his vow, when the Roman emperor responded by sending him bishops. The Monophysite character of Ethiopian Christianity is enough to contradict this story, and there are other improbabilities connected with it. We must always associate Abyssinian Christianity with the Coptic, not with the Byzantine type. About this time there was a persecution of Christians in South Arabia under Dunaan, a Jewish usurper, and among the martyrs was Aretas, who had come from Auzume as governor of the province. He and his wife and a number of other Christians were cruelly martyred in a pit of fire.

Monasticism was introduced into Ethiopia in the fifth century, and it has remained as one of the institutions of Abyssinian Christianity down to the present day. There is a large number of monks and nuns in the country, as well as married priests after the manner of the Oriental Churches generally. The Ethiopic canon of Scriptures is of curious interest. It contains several books not included in the canons of the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches. The Old Testament has all the Septuagint books except Maccabees, together with the Books of Enoch, Jubilees, iv. Ezra, and other apocryphal writings, and the New Testament books are reckoned at thirty-five—eight books of the Canon Law (called Sinodos) being added to the usual twenty-seven.

After the sixth century Abyssinia was almost entirely lost to view for nearly a thousand years—a section of Christendom cut off from the main body of the Church by the intruding Mohammedan power. For a long time, however, it contrived to get its metropolitan from Egypt, and so acknowledged its ecclesiastical relationship to the Coptic patriarchate of Alexandria. The canon required twelve bishops for the consecration of a metropolitan; but there were only seven in Abyssinia. In the twelfth century the king requested that more might be appointed, and the Mohammedan government approved of the request; but the patriarch Gabriel refused it—an impolitic action which resulted in Abyssinia taking things into its own hands and electing its own metropolitan. After that, although the patriarchate of Alexandria might be nominally allowed to extend to Abyssinia, the Abyssinians really had an independent Church.

In the meantime we witness the sad spectacle of the utter vanishing of Christianity from Nubia, where once it had been strong and flourishing. For many years this region of the Soudan had existed as a Christian kingdom, which refused to admit the Arab suzerainty. Ahmed, the son of Solaim, who went to Nubia as an ambassador from the Moslem ruler, tells how he "passed through nearly thirty towns with fine houses, monasteries, numberless palm groves, vineyards, gardens and wide-spreading fields, besides herds of camels of great beauty and breeding."[5] Kartoum was then adorned with magnificent buildings and great houses. Its churches were enriched with gold, and the whole city was beautified with gardens.[6] The King of Nubia used to invite the bishops to join his wise men in discussing with him the affairs of the kingdom; in fact, he had a sort of House of Lords, consisting of peers temporal and spiritual. Ahmed himself was courteously received by King George, who, he says, took the Moslems with him in a procession on a festival day. But in course of time this happy relationship, which could only exist so long as the Egyptian government was not strong enough to break it up, came to an end. The King of Nubia had always declined to admit the suzerainty of the sultan. He persistently refused the tribute of slaves which the Mohammedan power demanded from him. When that power was sufficiently established, it punished the independence of Nubia by completely overrunning and conquering the country and effectually stamping out Christianity. The result is seen to-day in the barbarous Mohammedanism of the tribes of the Soudan, whose ancestors had constituted a highly civilised Christian kingdom.

The destruction of the Christian kingdom of Nubia was the chief cause of the isolation of Abyssinia for many centuries. That country only comes to light again in the sixteenth century, owing to the enterprising spirit of the Portuguese. It would have been infinitely better for the unhappy land if it had been left to its isolation and obscurity. The Portuguese brought in their train bigoted emissaries of the Church of Rome, who, in accordance with the custom of the times, resorted to violence and cruelty in attempting to force a nation that they regarded as heretical into the papal mould. But the first interchange of communications was civil and friendly. Prince Henry of Portugal, having heard semi-fabulous tales of Prester John in a mysterious "India," sent two ambassadors, Pedro de Corvilhãa and Alphonso de Payva, to the Christian sovereign of Abyssinia. Alphonso died; but Pedro was adopted by the Abyssinian nation, highly honoured by the king, and married into a high Abyssinian family. Still he kept up communications with Portugal. Early in the sixteenth century the Queen Helena, who was then regent for her son, a child of eleven years, sent Matthew, an Armenian merchant of ability and trustworthiness, on an embassy to the King of Portugal, asking him to enter into an alliance with her in order to resist the Turks, and proposing an intermarriage between the two royal families. Matthew went first to Goa in India and thence round by the Cape to Portugal, encountering many difficulties and discouragements on his journey. There he gained his end so far as to secure a Portuguese embassy to return with him to Abyssinia, The chaplain of this embassy was Alvarez, who has left us a graphic account of his own experiences and observations concerning the country and people to which he was sent. His narrative is held by some critics not to be entirely reliable; but, after making allowance for inaccuracies, we still have here a mass of information about Abyssinia, including what is especially valuable for our present purposes, light on the practices of the Church. Thus at length the curtain is raised, and again after centuries of obscurity we are able to contemplate Abyssinian Christianity.[7]

Alvarez bears witness to the lingering of Jewish customs among the Abyssinians. Thus he says that the monks rest for eight days after Easter—a custom which we may regard as parallel to the passover holiday; they partially observe the Saturday Sabbath, and they continued to practise circumcision; but the latter custom, we have seen, was too widespread to be attributed to the influence of Judaism. The travellers saw a great number of monasteries and churches. Like the temple of Osiris at Abu-Simbel, some of the churches are entirely hewn out of the rock. One of these is as large as a cathedral, with well-wrought nave and aisles, vaulted-shaped roof, and square columns—all cut out of the solid rock. The monastery of Bisa has six other monasteries, each with a David at its head under the presiding Abba, and is very rich. It is said to number 3,000 monks, but Alvarez only saw 300. The monasteries are generally set on rocks and hilltops surrounded by woods. The churches all appear to be vaulted; but they have straw roofs. There is only one altar in each church, in the chancel. Bells, or rather long, thin stone clappers, are in use. The services are conducted with chanting to no particular tune. There are prayers and psalms and one lesson, all shouted rather than intoned or merely read. The mass begins with a shout of Hallelujah, and concludes with a procession of four or five crosses, to an accompaniment of drums, cymbals, and incense, carried round the church quite thirty times. While the mass is proceeding, lighted candles are held up by those round the officiating priest. The shouting and singing are taken up by the people outside the church as well as by the congregation within. The communion is received by the laity as well as by the clergy in both kinds, the communicants after receiving the cup washing out their mouths with holy water and drinking it. Bread is blessed and distributed at all the monasteries and churches on the Saturday Sabbaths, on Sundays, and on feast days. The monks carry crosses before them when they walk abroad, and laymen have crosses on their backs. Alvarez says of the monks, "being thin and dry like wood, they appear to be men of a holy life. … The clothes which they wear are old yellow cotton stuffs, and they go barefooted."[8] The practice of polygamy, though not frequent, and though condemned by the Church to the extent of exclusion from the communion, was not otherwise prohibited. At one place, Barua, Alvarez found men with two and even with three wives. Here were two churches, that of St. Michael for men, and that of St. Peter and St. Paul for women. The same priests ministered to both churches. As in the East generally, the priests were not celibate, but if a priest lost his wife he might not marry a second time. The priesthood was maiuly recruited from the families of the priests, who thus became virtually a caste. There were no schools or masters to prepare the candidates for orders, and the clergy taught the little that they knew themselves to their sons.[9]

At this time the Abyssinians were engaged in wars with the Turks, who invaded their country slaughtering many people, and destroying churches and monasteries. Ultimately the Portuguese came to the assistance of their fellow-Christians; but it was long before the Turkish intrusion was effectually repelled. Then troubles broke out between the two Churches that were now represented in the country. King David prevailed on the catholicos of Abyssinia, Abuna Mark, who had become too old and infirm to administer the affairs of the Church, to consecrate a Portuguese, João Bermudez, in his place. In this way the Roman Catholicism, to which the king was favourable, was represented in the head of Abyssinian Christianity. But this did not result in the surrender of the national Church to the papacy. The pope made an attempt to secure that result through the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. But this too failed. In the year 1600, an able Jesuit, Pedro Piaz, came as a Roman missionary to Abyssinia. A few years later the King Socinios embraced the Catholic faith of the Two Natures after a public disputation on the subject in his presence. This was the first step towards submission to Rome. On the other hand, the Abuna Simon published a sentence of excommunication against all who affirmed that there were two natures in our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the old Monophysite quarrel that had slumbered for centuries was rekindled in Abyssinia with regard to the ecclesiastical question of the supremacy of the pope. This led to civil war, in which the Abuna was killed—it is said screaming curses against his sovereign. The king issued a manifesto denouncing both the heretical tenets and the corrupt morals of his national Church. When the news of his submission to Rome reached Lisbon, Alphonso Menez was there consecrated patriarch of Ethiopia. He was welcomed by Socinios in February 1626. The king then issued a proclamation commanding submission to the Roman Catholic faith on pain of death. Churches were reconsecrated, clergy re-ordained, converts re-baptised, and the abolition of circumcision and polygamy commanded. Again there was rebellion, followed by disorder and bloodshed. But when resigning his throne to his son, Socinios issued a proclamation tolerating both the ancient and the new faiths.[10]

The most complete English account of the history of Abyssinia is to be found in Bruce's five fine quarto volumes on his travels in search of the sources of the Nile. From his own observation he is able to give us a detailed description of the country in the eighteenth century. "There is no country in the world," he says, "where there are so many churches as Abyssinia";[11] and he adds that every great man who dies thinks to atone for his misdeeds by building a church. The king builds many. The churches are near running water for the sake of rites of purification, and they are planted round with trees, so that "there is nothing adds so much to the beauty of the country as these churches and the plantations about them."[12] They have thatched roofs, and they are surrounded by colonnades, the pillars consisting of trunks of cedar trees. In form they are round, and in the circular interior is a railed-off square, within which is a "holy of holies," only entered by the priests. The monks, according to Bruce, do not live in convents, but they occupy separate houses grouped round the churches. Bruce gives us little information as to the internal life of the Church in Abyssinia; but he mentions a priest who told him he never believed that the elements in the Eucharist were converted by consecration into the real body and blood of Christ. This priest thought that to be the Roman Catholic faith in contradistinction to the tenets of his own Church.[13] In the Abyssinian Church, pictures, but not statues, are used as in other Eastern Churches. Many saints are venerated, and in some cases worshipped with extravagant adoration.

In more recent years the country has been distracted by tribal wars and the contentions of rival claimants to the supreme power claimed by the Negus Negasti (king of kings), but only exercised by the stronger and more masterful of these suzerain lords. In the year 1829, missionaries went out from the English Church Missionary Society and were well received. Other missionaries followed, but, owing to the opposition of the priests, they were all obliged to leave the country in less than ten years.

Still, the prospect is not unhopeful. English and American missionary and educational work is spreading over Egypt and extending up the Valley of the Nile through Nubia. In course of time this may be expected to penetrate the Soudan till it joins hands with other missionary efforts in the interior of Africa. Then Abyssinia will be in closer touch with the modern movement, which is part of a general endeavour to extend spiritual and intelligent Christianity. If this continues and is enlarged and becomes fruitful, we may yet hope to see the peoples of the ancient seats of Christianity reawakened and perhaps even enjoying some return of the vitality of their famous past.

  1. Smith, Dic. Christ. Biog. vol. ii. p. 234a.
  2. Origen, Comment. on Matt. xxiv. 9.
  3. Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. i. 9.
  4. Socrates, i. 19; Sozomen ii. 24; Theodoret, i. 23.
  5. Quatremere in Butcher, Hist. of Church in Egypt, vol. ii. p. 3.
  6. Ibid. p. 4.
  7. See Narrative of Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia during the Years 1520–1527. by Father Francisco Alvarez (trans. by Lord Stanley of Alderley, Hakluyt Society).
  8. Ibid. p. 16.
  9. Ibid. p. 57.
  10. See Bruce, Travels, vol. ii. pp. 265 ff.
  11. Ibid. vol. iii. p. 313.
  12. Bruce, Travels, vol. iii. p. 314.
  13. Ibid. p. 339.