It is the 13th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 2014.
Today we travel to Ethiopia to look at the plight of the church in the 20th century.
Ethiopia is one of the most significant kingdoms in the history of the world. Yeah, no hyperbole here. It is the only country in Africa to push back both Muslim invaders in the Middle Ages and colonial invaders in the 19th century. Ethiopia has an ancient connection to the Jewish faith. You may have heard of "Beta Israel" or the "Black Jews of Ethiopia" (formerly called Falasha). This group ties its Jewish roots to Menelik I, the legendary Emperor who is said to have been the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon's son. In the 4th century, the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum converted to Christianity.
And if you have listened to this show recently, you might remember a group we refer to as the "Oriental Orthodox." Not "Greek" or "Eastern" but rather an offshoot from the old Alexandrian school of Christianity. Those discussions surrounding the council of Chalcedon in 451 led to the splintering of the "Miaphysites."
One thing to remember is that Ethiopian Christianity has been tied to the Ethiopian Tehawedo Orthodox Church and especially that of the culture of the Amhara people. In fact, for many, to be Amhara meant to be Christian. And to be Amhara and Christian was to be Ethiopian Orthodox.
So, perhaps you have heard of Haile Selassie? Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974? Oh man… so much here. First, his name was Tafari. As Prince, he was then "Ras" Tafari (yup, that all starts here). He married into that family with the Solomon connections and was seen as the protector of Christianity against Islam. It's a long, weird story. But for our purposes, what was important was his promoting non-Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia. The theological distinctions are important, but Selassie's chief reason was to break the hold that the elite Amhara had on the country and the church.
One of the effects of this was to allow the Sudan Interior Mission into Ethiopia. This missionary society brought tracts as well as the Gospel of John translated into the Wolaitta language.
In the 1920s, the SIM and others started what was known as the "New Churches Movement." It had its roots in the evangelists let into Ethiopia by Selassie and was bankrolled by foreign churches with ties to American Fundamentalism. However, this is not the story of a foreign external body imposing its faith, but instead of a man who used the missionary infrastructure of the SIM but developed a particularly Ethiopian expression of the evangelical Christian faith. His name was Mahay Choramo, and he was born in southern Ethiopia in 1920. Upon hearing from the SIM missionaries, he decided to read as much of the Bible as he could. He learned Amhara, read the Scriptures, and became convinced that the Christian faith is as simple as teaching the love of God, the sinfulness of humanity, forgiveness in Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit for the ongoing Christian life.
Mahay Choramo was often imprisoned, despite freedom of religion being Ethiopian freedom. Mahay believed himself to be a missionary evangelist and planted churches amongst Ethiopian regions resistant to Christianity. During the revolutionary years of 1974-1991, he was harassed by the local ruling party but was nevertheless able to travel discreetly and hold clandestine church services. Stories abound about Mahay risking his life to take the Gospel to remote tribes. My favorite story involves miscommunication with a group for whom their "hello" sounded a lot like what Mahay's people heard in their language as "I'm going to eat you."
Mahay's ministry spanned over 60 years. Upon hearing of his friend's death on this day, the 13th of April in 2014- Dick McLellan wrote, "More than 59 years ago I first met Mahae at Bulki. Battered, bruised, and bleeding from a severe beating, he sat in chains, imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. That time was one of at least thirty-five times Mahae was arrested and suffered for Christ".
Today, we remember Mahay Choramo, the Ethiopian missionary, on the anniversary of his death seven years ago in 2014.
Mahay Choramo, like many church planters, took encouragement from the book of Acts. In honor of Mahay, let's give the last word for today to the book of Acts- chapter 8 and one of the more profound encounters in that book.
And [Philip] rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can′dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship…. So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
[The Eunuch reads from Isaiah and then responds]
And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?" And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose gillespie.coffee is currently out of his Ethiopian single-origin but has a delightful Kenya Peaberry. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who stopped writing to go over to gillespie.coffee to buy some of that delicious single-origin Kenyan. You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.