Cultures & Traditions

Christianity in Africa

Christianity has an extensive history in Africa. It was first introduced in the 4th century to the ancient and prosperous Axumite kingdom in present-day Ethiopia. The Axumites traded far and wide, exporting incense, ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoiseshell, apes, and slaves through the port of Adulis on the Red Sea and importing goods and ideas from Syria, Egypt, and other lands. Frumentius, a Syrian and member of the Axumite court, is usually credited with introducing Coptic Christianity to the Axumite king Ezana, who established the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. During the period between the late 12th and early 13th centuries, King Lalibela desired to build a new Jerusalem. The churches in the capital of Lalibela were cut out of rock and are the largest monumental structures in Africa.

Portuguese navigators in the late 15th century took Roman Catholic priests on their exploratory voyages to coastal West, Central, and East Africa. Initial efforts to convert the king (oba) of the Benin kingdom failed but mutually beneficial commercial trade—the trafficking of European luxury goods, firearms, and brass in exchange for salt, pepper, and slaves—was established. During the early 16th century the reigning Edo king also refused to be baptized, but he allowed his son to do so and to learn Portuguese, thereby enhancing diplomatic relations. Missionary efforts had ceased by 1540, probably as a result of unprofitable commercial transactions, and were not attempted again until the 17th century.

The first Christian state in sub-Saharan Africa was the Kongo kingdom in present-day northern Angola. João I and his nobles were baptized in 1491, and hundreds of Kongo subjects and Portuguese carpenters built a Catholic Church. By the time João died in 1509, he had lost interest in Christianity. His son and successor Afonso I Mvemba Nzinga (reigned 1506-1543) was a devout Christian, however, and re-founded the Kongo kingdom with Christianity as its state religion. Although Alfonso thought the Portuguese partners were not adhering to Kongo laws governing the slave trade, he sent his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba to Portugal to be educated. Henrique eventually became a bishop.

The Dutch seized Portuguese trading establishments in the early 17th century and supplanted the Portuguese in the Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch were followed by the Danes, and they by the British. Each reintroduced European Christianity to Africa as part of their commercial and colonial agendas. During the 18th and 19th centuries, repatriated Christian slaves helped spread the religion. When European powers divided sub-Saharan Africa among themselves and created colonies in the late 19th century, conversion to the Christian religion availed one of Western education and with access to the requisite skills for survival in a changed world.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 264.

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