The Role of Pentecostalism and Persecution in Early Ecumenical Movements of Ethiopian Protestant Christianity

Historical Overview

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

18 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Christianity in Ethiopia and the introduction of foreign mission

3. Introduction of Pentecostalism

4. The role of the New movements in the Ecumenical movement in Ethiopia

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“The term 'ecumenical' is not what the Lord prayed for in the Gospel of John, chapter 17. The prayer of our Lord was and still is for the oneness of His church.”[1]

I took this quotation from one of the prominent Christian leader, the late Rev. Gudina Tumsa who was later martyred by the Socialist regime. As he quoted rightly, the church was never meant to be divided as it is now and the followers of Christ's ultimate aim should not be aiming on a lesser goal than unity. But accepting the reality where the church finds herself currently, ecumenical movement is a progressive sign as it might be a stepping stone towards the unity of the church of Christ which Christians should work for.

Pentecostals are known for their noisy worship and prayer meetings and the image most people have for them is the countless denominations that came out after Pentecostalism broke out in the early 20th century. The presence of Pentecostalism is a challenge and is also an opportunity for the church globally. And in this paper I would like to argue that with all the limitations and challenge it poses to ecumenical dialogue globally, Pentecostalism has historically played a binding role in the protestant church of Ethiopia providing a national color of spirituality for the protestant population.

Ecumenical movement might be a recent phenomenon as an organized movement of the church but not the aims and goals in the movement since it stands for the very first things the ancient church lived for. Striving for a better relationship within the visible church will some how affect the image of the invisible church which ontologically takes its root back to the historical church Christ had built on the foundation of the apostles. Ecumenical movement was not an issue in that time because the church was unified (at least the church in the book of Acts). Christians might have lived in different places and worshiped in their own ways like the ones in Jerusalem and Antioch did but they were able to confess one Christ and they did not believe that they are separated from one another with a denominational territory as we know it today. It is note worthy that the segregation started with the recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire. Christians started to accuse one another and some fled to the desert for a better solitude places condemning others in the church. Weighting others in one's understanding is the core problem of the church through centuries. It is really very challenging to deal with this topic without unveiling the historical dust it has accumulated through centuries. Neither do I attempt to do so but I believe that I should acknowledge the problem and the immensity of the subject as it is a short paper for such a subject.

The purpose of this paper is not to discuss how and in what ways the contemporary ecumenical movement could revitalize the values and missions of the early church though this is not an alien subject at all. This paper attempts to pinpoint the role of Pentecostalism in the Ethiopian protestant Christianity ecumenical movement that results eliminating the borders of denominationalism.[2]

2. Christianity in Ethiopia and the introduction of foreign mission

It is really difficult to squeeze the history of Christianity in Ethiopia. And discussing Pentecostalism or Evangelicals alone would be erroneous because they did not happen in an empty vacuum. I would like to say few introductory remarks on how Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia here. Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. Traditional Ethiopian Orthodox church resources claim that Christianity was introduced in the first century as told in the book of Acts Chapter 8.[3] The church also believes that she is Apostolic church as the church was founded by the preaching and blood of St. Matthew who is said to have come from Jerusalem and preached the gospel in the first century.[4] There is no evidence whatsoever that Christianity existed before the fourth century. The strong link between Ethiopia and Israel that goes to the period of the Israelites' wisest king Solomon serves here as a background for an existing trade and religious connections between the two countries.[5] However, these claims are not without controversy as there is no real archaeological or extra-legendary evidences that attest the Queen of Sheba's existence in Ethiopia. It is also arguable that 'Ethiopia' of the book of Acts is the modern day Ethiopia. The Greek word 'Ethiopia' refers to ' sun burnt face' which might refer to black colored people.[6] But Ethiopian Orthodox Church sources would argue that the name Ethiopia might have been derived from a king's name 'Ethiopis' who ruled Ethiopia at an early age[7] Besides this 'sun burnt face' may also refer to a skin color that darkens due to the sun not necessarily a naturally dark black skin which refers to most of the Ethiopians skin color today.[8] The identity of Ethiopia in the Old Testament is also a debatable issue whether it refers to the current geographical country or Africa or another nation down south of Egypt. However, an Axumit king was converted in 330 A.D. By a certain Syrian Christian who accidentally arrived in the palace.[9] Still it is possible to keep in mind that Christianity might have existed in the land before the official acceptance of it by the kingdom as the state has a strong trade links to the middle eastern countries.[10] The Syrian Christian, Frumentius later declared as Abba Salama Kassate Berhan became the first bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which is confirmed by a letter from Emperor Constantine dated 356 A.D. After the baptism of the king Ezana and his brother Saezana, the people received Christianity without resistance.[11]

2.1. The introduction of foreign mission to Ethiopia

Many foreign missionary agents have attempted to take the gospel to Ethiopia at many times but not all succeed. This is mainly due to the belief they have about the nature of Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The church has maintained its relationship to the Eastern Orthodox for long period till the coming of the Jesuit missionaries for re-evangelizing. As Gustave Aren rightly said, the world never heard of Ethiopian Christianity till some Ethiopian emissary went to the council of Florence with other Orthodox Churches in 1440.[12] After that event, the Portuguese' came not only with a pure missionary purpose but a hope to secure a Christian partner in the spice trade and trade route towards India.[13] Unfortunately for the Jesuits, the existing religious rites of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and its doctrine was not tolerable as they practice circumcision and have the ark which is the influence of the Jews in the country.[14] The aggressive attempt to reorient the Orthodox Church in the Roman Catholic way ended up with the banishment of the Jesuits Missionaries.[15] The Jesuits were somehow successful in persuading royalists in the 16th century Northern Kingdom. Nevertheless, their attempt to proselytize the Orthodox Christians to Catholicism ended in a bloody sectarian war that officially banned out all the Catholics and the Jesuits mission from the kingdom and hardens the Ethiopian kingdom to be resistant towards any kind of foreign mission.[16] The Catholics' effort to re-evangelize the Orthodox could not be tolerated not because the people or the kings were so much aware of the theological differences between Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy rather the rejection of many of the rituals by the Catholic fathers and their attempt to reconsecrate the Orthodox Church.[17] This Western pattern of doing mission will cost many missionaries even in later days as they try to throw out even many valuable cultural elements including contemporary protestant approach towards the Orthodox people.

The banishment of the Jesuits however created an opportunity for another missionary in the 17th century. Emperor Fasil (1632-1667) sent a message demanding a bishop for the church in Ethiopia from Alexandria.[18] But when the Abune (Marqos) came from Alexandria, he was accompanied by a young Lutheran missionary called Peter Heyling who was originally “sent by Duke Ernest of Sax-Gotha in Germany.”[19] Hyling's influence as a missionary might be disputed to what extent his work has influenced Christianity but as Aren argues, “there is a direct line from Peter Heyling to the founder of the Evangelical Church Mekane Eyesus.”[20] We later hear about a successful British Protestant attempt of translating and distributing the the Holy Scripture in Amharic that could be seen as a modern missionary work which later paved the way for protestant mission.[21]


[1] Rev. Gudina Tumsa, Witness and Discipleship: Leadership of the church in multi-ethnic Ethiopia in a time of revolution (Addis Ababa: Central Printing Press, 2003) p13

[2] Many believe that there is no visible boundaries among most of protestant churches in Ethiopia Bekel Woldekidan, “Revival Ethiopia Ena Yemcheresha Mecheresha” Revival Ethiopia and the end of the end (Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa Mulu Wengel Church, 2002) p.107

[3], accessed on 24?02/2013

[4] His Holiness Abune Paulos Patriarch of Ethiopia and Echegue of the see of St.Tekle Haymanot, The Church of Ethiopia past and Present (Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing press, 1997) p7

[5] Elibazeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa (London: SPCK, 1995) p15

[6] Today's Ethiopia is Ethiopia of the Holy Scriptures, History and Antiquity: The decision of the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (Addis Ababa: Birhanna Selam, 1997) P 5

[7] Ibid, P 5

[8] Aba Gorgorios, The History of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (Addis Ababa, 1974) p16

[9] Sergew Habte-Silasie, “The Establishment of the Ethiopian Church” The Church of Ethiopia: a Panorama of History and spiritual life (Addis Ababa: B.S.P.P., 1997)P 3

[10] Ibid, p3

[11] Ibid, p5

[12] Gustav Aren Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia: Origins of the Evangelical church of Mekane Eyesus (Uppsala:Offsetcenter ab, 1978) p33

[13] Ibid, p33

[14] The practice of the ark “tabot” was and still is one of the holy practices of the church which not only trace back to the 10th century that claim the Ark of Israel was brought by Menilik I but also the Jewish diaspora whose existence played an enormous role in shaping the country's religion and society.

[15] Aren, Pioneers, p 34

[16] Aren, Pioneers, pp 22-26

[17] Cohen, Leonardo. The missionary strategies of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (1555-1632). Vol. 70. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009.p.53

[18] Aren, Pioneers, 34

[19] Aren, Pioneers, 34

[20] Aren, Pioneers, p37

[21] Aren, Pioneers, p 40

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The Role of Pentecostalism and Persecution in Early Ecumenical Movements of Ethiopian Protestant Christianity
Historical Overview
University of Göttingen  (Theology)
Intercultural Theology
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
458 KB
The paper was done as part of my M.A. study but it is useful for anyone who wants to have some insights on Ethiopian Pentecostal churches and how that movemnt played a role in uniting protestants in the country.
role, pentecostalism, ecumenical, ethiopian, protestant, christianity, historical, overview
Quote paper
Yoseph Shibeshi (Author), 2013, The Role of Pentecostalism and Persecution in Early Ecumenical Movements of Ethiopian Protestant Christianity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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