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Christianity is one of the two most widely practised religions in the world and by extension, Africa with a large number of faithfuls in sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity in Africa began in the middle of the 1st century in Egypt. Egypt is identified in the Bible as the place of refuge that the Holy Family sought in its flight from Judea. In Metthew Chapter 2 from verses 12 to 23, the scripture recorded that Joseph arose and took his young Child and wife by night to Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son”. The Egyptian Church, which is now more than 1,900 years old, regards itself as the subject of many prophecies in the Bible. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border.” The first Christians in Egypt were common people who spoke Egyptian language (Coptic). There were also the Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke addressed in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Saint Mark during the reign of Emperor Nero of the Romans, a great multitude of native Egyptians embraced the Christian faith. The History of Christianity in Africa therfore could be said to have began in the 1st century about the year 43. At first the church in Alexandria was mainly Greek-speaking, but by the end of the 2nd century the scriptures and Liturgy had been translated into three local languages. The church began to expand rapidly, and five new bishoprics were established. These were suffragans of Alexandria, and at this time the Bishop of Alexandria began to be called Pope, as the senior bishop in Egypt. In the middle of the 3rd century the church in Egypt suffered severely in the persecution under the Emperor Decius. Many Christians fled from the towns into the desert. When the persecution died down, however, some remained in the desert as hermits to pray. This was the beginning of Christian monasticism, which over the following years spread from Africa to other parts of the Gohar world. In the early 4th century, King Ezana declared Christianity the official religion of Ethiopian after having been converted into the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
1.1 HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIANITY
Christianity is a religion that believes there is only one God. It is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Christianity has evolved over the centuries. Like any religion, disciples from one generation to another and from place to place as missionary including Africa conveyed the message and teachings. Christianity in Africa is not devoid of the culture of the people. This integration easily promoted the mass exodus of missionaries into Africa and West Africa in particular. It must be noted that the coming of missionaries to Africa saw a different orientation of the culture of the West African people that was said to seen as negative arising from some customs such as the killing of twins, burial of the living alive with a dead king including corporal punishment to offenders for conduct of certain level of criminal activities. African culture and or customs is not a monolith and while the foundations remain fundamentally unaltered, the interpretation and expression of continues to be a forever-blossoming flower.
Christianity has been plagued with the history of European conquest and today it is yet to escape that legacy and become an agent of true liberation. With the exception of Ethiopia, the intention of Christianity in Africa was never to create development, in any capacity, in the African mind. Jesus was a Jew. He observed the Jewish faith and was well acquainted with the Jewish Law. In His early thirties, Jesus traveled from village to village, teaching in the synagogues and healing those who were suffering. Thus being the very first missionary of the Faith. Jesus’ teaching was revolutionary. He challenged the established religious authorities to repent from their self-righteousness and hypocrisy and realize that the Kingdom of God is rooted in service and love. Jesus’ teachings stirred the hearts of people and created instability, something the Jewish religious authorities feared. Soon, a faithful group of men began to follow Jesus and call him teacher. These men became His disciples. Jesus taught His disciples about the will of God and about the “new covenant” God will bring to humanity through Him. Jesus helped them to see that mankind is bound to the pain and futility of life as a result of sin. Due to sin, mankind lost its relationship with God.
The purpose of this “new covenant” is to restore those who accept it into a renewed fellowship of forgiveness and love with God. What is this new covenant? Jesus himself would pay for the sins of all humanity by being crucified unjustly on a Roman cross. Three days later, He would rise to life, having conquered death, to give hope to a hopeless world. Well, it happened just as Jesus taught, and His disciples were witnesses to an amazing miracle. Their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, died and three days later rose again to become their Messiah. Compelled by a great commission to share the love that the God of this universe had imparted upon them, the disciples began to proclaim this gospel of hope throughout the territory as the earliest missionaries. Thus, from a small group of ordinary men that lived in a small province in Judea about 2000 years ago, and the Christian Faith has since spread to the rest of the world including West Africa. Their gospel message was and still remains simple: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).
Though most of the historical record for the start of the Christian faith is recorded in the New Testament accounts, the history of Christianity actually began with prophecy in the Old Testament. There are over 300 prophecies (predictions) that span over a period of 1000 years that are recorded in the Old Testament concerning the coming of a Jewish Messiah. A study of Jesus’ life, death and background will show that He was undoubtedly the fulfillment of these Messianic prophecies. Thus, even long before Jesus came in the world, His mission was made known to mankind through the Word of God. At first glance, the history Christianity’s origin may seem like nothing more than a fairy tale. Many feel that it’s just too implausible, and even intellectually dishonest, for people living in the 21st century to believe that these events actually took place. However, the Christian faith, unlike any other religion, hinges on historical events, including one of pivotal importance. If Jesus Christ died and never rose to life, then Christianity is a myth or a fraud. In 1 Corinthians 15:14, Paul exhorts his readers to grab hold of this central truth, that “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” The evidence for the resurrection is the key to establishing that Jesus is indeed who He claims to be. It is the historical validity of this central fact that gives Christians genuine and eternal hope amidst a hurting world.
1.2 SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY IN WEST AFRICA
A strange historical significance seems to surround the Middle East. It has served as the birth place for many cultures and religions. Its Fertile Crescent contained one of the earliest culture hearths where civilization developed. In this area great kingdoms of the ancient world, such as Babylon and Persia, arose to shape history. Judaism had its roots in the Middle East, and Israel-the country of God’s chosen people-was formed here. Later one of the largest and most historically important religions on earth-Christianity emerged alongside other religions and spread from the Middle East. Its expansion from this region had substantial impact on the course of history and also made considerable progress during the first 200 years of the spread.
Christianity existed several centuries prior to the birth of Islam, and by the time Islam was founded in the Middle East, Christianity had moved its center to Europe, where it had firmly established itself as the official religion. But Christianity originally sprouted in the Middle East after Christ’s resurrection in A.D. 30. The church began in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and it initially preached the Gospel only to the Jews. It grew quite rapidly for a time. During this early period, however, Christianity did not expand far beyond Jerusalem and its vicinity. That changed after the first few years of relative peace for the church, a terrible persecution broke out following the stoning of Stephen. Jewish leaders hunted down the followers of Jesus and threw them into prison. At this time many in the church scattered to the surrounding countryside of Judea and Samaria. Christianity’s worldwide expansion then vigorously and circumstantially begun.
The histories of Christian expansion diverged from initial dispersions caused by persecution. Although Christians continued to be persecuted until the “Edict of Toleration” of 311 AD, they were able to hide in house churches within the cities, intending that the gospel would diffuse into the countryside from there. But this made the spread of Christianity during the first two centuries an essentially urban phenomenon, and it became an urban religion. That the Christian church continued to grow in the face of persecution throughout its first two centuries, served as a testimony to the power and truth of the Gospel of Christ for Christians. This distinction made the spread of Christianity and the spread of Islam extremely different.
Christians were taught to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies”. The Apostle Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While Christians taught that God loves all people and wants them to have a personal relationship with Him. Christians did not force their religion on others but relied on missionaries, preaching, and leading godly lives as ambassadors of God. Muslims, on the other hand, did not rely solely on preaching to spread their faith-they turned also to the sword to conquer vast areas of land in the Middle East and Northern Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries. When they attacked or occupied new territory, they gave its inhabitants three options: convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or die. Under these circumstances many chose to pay the tax, and many others chose to convert to Islam. Clearly, the Islamic method of expansion did not match the loving approach of Christianity. However, as Christianity fell under the control of Roman Catholicism, instances of conversion by the sword were used. Emperors from Constantine to Charlemagne had forced baptism into Christianity by conquered peoples. The Spanish Inquisition also used violence to enhance the position of the Church. The differing methods of expansion actually helped determine the area each religion would cover as it spread. Christians during the first two centuries traveled from city to city in the Roman Empire, taking advantage of the excellent Roman roads. As a result, the first two centuries saw the Gospel spread primarily in Roman territory although it was also carried to some other areas, including Ethiopia and perhaps even India. By the year 200 A.D., Christian communities existed throughout the Middle East and Turkey, and there were several in Greece and Italy as well. Islam, however, spread from Saudi Arabia and conquered most of the Middle East and North Africa. Christianity was hesitantly welcomed where people had been living under suppressive rule. As a result of its method of expansion, Christian missionaries easily spread to eventually becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and it profoundly influenced the development of Europe and, consequently, of the Americas and eventual Africa and by extension West Africa.
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