Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
GREAT CONVERSION STORIES
In the ancient world, “Ethiopia” was a term broadly applied to the African region south and east of Egypt. Beyond the confines of the Roman Empire, its peoples had distinctive African cultures and political entities that had commercial ties with Rome. It is not surprising that, as Christianity began to spread through the Roman world in late antiquity, it also began to appear in Ethiopia. Indeed, this land was known as a safe haven for Christians fleeing Roman persecutions.
By the 4th century, the Kingdom of Axum came to identify itself with all of Ethiopia. This wealthy empire, ruled by a benevolent monarch named Ella Amida, engaged in frequent trade and occasional minor conflicts with the Eastern Roman Empire. According to Ethiopian tradition and early Christian historians, the man who would eventually become the “Apostle to Ethiopia”—Saint Frumentius—first came to the royal city of Axum as a prisoner. Frumentius was a native of the Roman province of Tyre (in the Levant, near Palestine). As a young, educated Christian scholar, he embarked on a maritime journey on the Red Sea, where his ship was mistakenly seized in the middle of a dispute between Greek and Ethiopian traders that had turned violent. Frumentius and his friend Edesius were captured and, because of their youth, sent to the court of Ella Amida as slaves.
The emperor, however, quickly realized the value of the young men, and offered them high positions on his staff. Ella Amida and his government often used Greek for diplomatic purposes and were glad to welcome literate, native Greek-speakers to assist them as scribes. Furthermore, Frumentius soon won the personal trust of the emperor and the royal family, and became tutor to his son and heir, Abreha (who later took the name Ezana).
Frumentius was impressed by the overall benevolence and tolerance of the pagan monarch and his people. He was also amazed to find Christians living their Faith as best they could without churches and with what was at best a rudimentary and disorganized pastoral care from refugee clergy. Frumentius journeyed north seeking assistance, and eventually came to Alexandria in Egypt, where he reported the circumstances and the great potential for evangelization in Ethiopia. The young Saint Athanasius agreed, and moreover wanted Frumentius himself (who was a layman at the time) to be the bishop.
After being ordained a priest and bishop, Frumentius returned (around the year 330) to a great welcome from the Etheopian people and his former pupil, now Emperor Ezana. It is clear from inscriptions and coins dated before 330 that Ezana was still a pagan, invoking indigenous deities. Inscriptions after the year 341, however, invoke only the “Lord of Heaven” and coins bear the design of the cross. By mid-century, Ezena had declared Ethiopia a “Christian nation” and began building the Church of Saint Mary of Axum in the royal city, where it stood for over a thousand years. The conversion of the emperor and the great majority of his people during this period was remarkable: by all accounts it was wholehearted, sincere, and free of any coercive measures. Thus, long ago in Africa, the seed of the Gospel fell on good soil.