In fall 1999, I enrolled in a master’s degree program in African American Studies at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black school in the Atlanta University Center, which includes Morehouse and Spelman colleges.
The first class we took was “AAS 501: Africa and the African Diaspora.” We started by exploring Nile Valley civilizations, and the first stop on our tour was Egypt. Research on the pharaohs, queens and pyramids led to interesting class discussions, and we learned about the Egyptians’ history, culture, business practices and empire building. Then we moved up the Nile River (which flows south to north, from Victoria Falls to the Mediterranean Sea) to the lands of Nubia, Cush, Axum and Ethiopia. We learned about the same topics that we had studied of the Egyptians: the people, their history and culture.
Yet, one paragraph on page 101 of “Introduction to Black Studies, Third Edition” by Maulana Karenga talked about King Ezana of Axum and his conversion to Christianity in the year 325 C.E. Wait! What? Christianity was in Africa before the transatlantic slave trade among Europe, Africa and the Americas began? I also found a brief reference to this in one of my undergraduate textbooks, “From Slavery to Freedom: Sixth Edition” by John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss Jr.
Up to that point, the references I had encountered about Africans and Christianity were limited to Africans in the Bible, and then there was silence until the religion was introduced to slaves in America. Indeed, most of the textbooks in African American studies did not mention this topic at all. But my professors and classmates seemed to know more about this topic than what was in print.
Dr. Josephine Boyd Bradley, professor of African American Studies at Clark Atlanta, went a step further and quoted sources that recognized that Christianity was in West Africa before slavery. This was a very different conversation on Christianity than most people were having at that time. The new thesis was that the “white man” did not bring the religion of Jesus to black people, but black people already had it among the ancestors.
Most of the theology that we as Americans believe in the 21st century comes directly from the North African Christians in Alexandria and Carthage, before and after the reign of Emperor Constantine. This theology includes doctrines of the Trinity, divinity and humanity of Jesus, as well as the establishment of the New Testament canon. Athanasius and Augustine are two of the most important theologians of African ancestry; their works have been interpreted into English and are taught in American theological institutions.
And Methodism’s co-founder, John Wesley, was known to have read the works of North African Christians from this time period.