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Africa: God's Choice for the Preservation of Truth

By Benjamin Baker


Incarnation

When Christ was a helpless infant, an angel of the Lord appeared to His father Joseph with instructions for escaping the murderous designs of Herod, that mad monarch. While a whole generation of Bethlehemite boys were being massacred, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were hidden in a safe place ordained by the Heavenly Father for His Son: Egypt.[1] This safe place in North Africa for the Gospel Incarnate was a divine indicator of the essential role Africa would occupy in hosting the gospel for two thousand years while the dragon tried to eradicate it.

As a child Jesus encountered an African woman when reading Nevi?im and Ketuvim, today’s I Kings and II Chronicles, in the scrolls. Sheba, the queen of an empire encompassing parts of today’s East-Central Africa, travelled more than one-thousand miles to learn from Solomon of the wisdom that we now read in Proverbs. Jesus stored Sheba’s epic quest in His mind to use later in His ministry to show how people should relate to Him, God’s only begotten Son. He would proclaim, “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”[2] This African woman was the ultimate seeker of truth, and she will not only be among the redeemed, but will have a prominent role in the last judgment, her faith a standard by which God uses to evaluate humanity. This is perhaps the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a mortal.

Simon, a man hailing from Cyrene (today’s eastern Libya), was by Jesus’ side during His hardest hour, as He was in the very act of saving doomed humanity.[3] Of Simon and his sons Alexander and Rufus, Ellen White writes: “Simon had heard of Jesus. His sons were believers in the Saviour, but he himself was not a disciple. The bearing of the cross to Calvary was a blessing to Simon, and he was ever after grateful for this providence. It led him to take upon himself the cross of Christ from choice, and ever cheerfully stand beneath its burden.”[4]

An African participated in real time in the saving of humanity, and his sons, believers already, saw the realization of their faith from just yards away.[5]

Acts

Africa prominently features in Acts, Luke’s account of the rise and expansion of the early church. After Christ had risen and ascended, on that first Pentecost—one of the most important days in Christian history—among those present at the outpouring of the Holy Ghost were visitors from Egypt and Libya.[6]

Later an angel directs Philip to a sacred rendezvous with a treasurer to Candace, queen of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian not only has a scroll of Isaiah, but is reading aloud a prophecy of the Messiah. The Ethiopian man had visited the temple in Jerusalem to discover the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy, but was confused and unconvinced by the erroneous interpretations of the priests and scribes. It didn’t take much of Philip explaining for the Ethiopian to recognize the truth and exclaim, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He was baptized, Philip disappeared, and the Ethiopian treasurer went back to his country and shared the good news from his influential platform.[7] “Through his conversion the gospel was carried to Ethiopia, and many there accepted Christ, and came out from the darkness of heathenism into the clear light of Christianity.”[8]

Apollos was a Jewish man from Alexandria, Egypt, “eloquent” and “mighty in the scriptures,” who was led to a fuller understanding of the crucified and risen Jesus by Aquila and Priscilla. A quick learner with an earnest heart, no sooner had Apollos accepted the gospel then “he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ.”[9] Apollos was vital to the spread of the gospel to “every creature under heaven” in the first century, so much so that some believers apparently considered him on par with Paul and Peter.[10]

Early Church

In the post-Acts age, Africa assumed an outsized role in the Christian church for numerous centuries. Many of the giants of early Christianity, the “Church Fathers,” hailed from North Africa, which was a center for theology, philosophy, education and culture. Several prominent historians have dubbed North Africa “the Bible belt of early Christianity.”  

Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril were all natives of Alexandria, Egypt. Cyprian and Tertullian were from Carthage, today’s Tunisia. Augustine (354-430 AD), arguably the greatest figure in Christian history and widely held to be the among the most influential minds in the development of western philosophy, was born in Numidia (modern day Algeria) and lived there most of his life. His prodigious writings, particularly Confessions and City of God, have shaped Christianity for more than a millennium and a half.[11] Just as notable, Martin Luther, the inaugurator of the Protestant Reformation, cited Augustine as a primary inspiration behind the motto sola scriptura, which emphasizes the centrality of the Bible.

In its first 500 years, many of Christianity’s influential movements sprung from African soil, including Egyptian Gnosticism, the catechetical school of Alexandria, monasticism, and Donatism. There were three popes from the Roman African Province, Victor (189-199), Militiades (311-314) and Gelasius I (492-496). Africa also produced numerous heroic figures that were martyred for their faith during this period, notably the Madaura and Scilli people, and Perpetua and Felicitas. In the modern age Africa has primarily been considered a destination of missionaries; but during this period Africa was a leader in training and sending out missionaries.[12]

Middle Ages

Ethiopia in 331 made the Orthodox (Christian) Church its national religion.[13] During that same period Christianity became the ascendant religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine’s reign and in Rome reverence of the seventh-day Sabbath was phased out in place of Sunday. Yet the Christian church in Ethiopia continued to observe Saturday in line with the Scriptures. The subsequent epochs that saw the founding, rise, and spread of Islam, and the descent of Europe into the Dark Ages, effectively isolated Ethiopia from European Christianity. The Great Controversy speaks at length on the faithfulness of these Ethiopian Christians:

In lands beyond the jurisdiction of Rome, there existed for many centuries bodies of Christians who remained almost wholly free from papal corruption. They were surrounded by heathenism, and in the lapse of ages were affected by its errors; but they continued to regard the Bible as the only rule of faith, and adhered to many of its truths. These Christians believed in the perpetuity of the law of God, and observed the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. Churches that held to this faith and practice, existed in Central Africa and among the Armenians of Asia.[14]

The history of the churches of Ethiopia and Abyssinia is especially significant. Amid the gloom of the Dark Ages, the Christians of Central Africa were lost sight of and forgotten by the world, and for many centuries they enjoyed freedom in the exercise of their faith. But at last Rome learned of their existence, and the emperor of Abyssinia was soon beguiled into an acknowledgment of the pope as the vicar of Christ. Other concessions followed. An edict was issued forbidding the observance of the Sabbath under the severest penalties. But papal tyranny soon became a yoke so galling that the Abyssinians determined to break it from their necks. After a terrible struggle, the Romanists were banished from their dominions, and the ancient faith was restored. The churches rejoiced in their freedom, and they never forgot the lesson they had learned concerning the deception, the fanaticism, and the despotic power of Rome. Within their solitary realm they were content to remain, unknown to the rest of Christendom.

The churches of Africa held the Sabbath as it was held by the papal church before her complete apostasy. While they kept the seventh day in obedience to the commandment of God, they abstained from labor on the Sunday in conformity to the custom of the church. Upon obtaining supreme power, Rome had trampled upon the Sabbath of God to exalt her own; but the churches of Africa, hidden for nearly a thousand years, did not share in this apostasy. When brought under the sway of Rome, they were forced to set aside the true and exalt the false Sabbath; but no sooner had they regained their independence than they returned to obedience to the fourth commandment.[15]

Yes, while Europe as a whole was in darkness, an entire African empire was steadfast to God’s holy day. Contact with Rome did not lead to the Ethiopians receiving Christianity or greater light, but to a corruption of their Christian purity. Once the Roman influence was overthrown, they reverted to keeping the fourth commandment. This certainly turns on its head the notion of Africa as a “Dark Continent.”[16]

On the westside of sub-Saharan Africa another empire safeguarded and perpetuated the knowledge and observance of the fourth commandment which the world had largely forgotten and forsaken. The Akan of Ghana, prior to European contact, held to a Supreme Creator God (Onyamee or Onyankopon) who was, and still is, referred to as Onyamee Kwaame, “God of Saturday” or “Saturday God.” Remarkably, without the guidance of the Bible, the Akan passed down origin myths that closely align with the Genesis account of creation and the fall. The Akan have for many hundreds of years acknowledged Onyamee Kwaame, and worshiped on and reverenced His seventh-day Saturday, which is said to belong to Him. Due to the spread of the Akan in the vital southern region of Ghana, the Saturday God is a widespread fixture in the national culture.[17]

Francis I.U. Dolphijn, the first Ghanaian (an Akan) to embrace the Seventh-day Adventist faith, stated the following in a letter published in the Adventist Review of March 1, 1890:

I am in faithful hopes that the work of S.D. Adventists will make rapid advancement on the Gold Coast [Ghana], especially to those under the thickness of heathenism, as the Bible (Saturday) Sabbath is readily understood throughout the Fantis, and the whole Gold Coast. Even the heathen take or assume the question upon themselves thus: “How was it that God is worshiped on Sunday and not on Saturday? for God is not called by Sunday (male) name, but that of Saturday, and it is very inconsistent or absurd to call a man by a different name when sitting or walking along, and he will not answer you while knowing that he is not called by that name.” And this is generally known, that no West African illiterate person or idolater can in any place or at any time, offer a libation on any respect with an attribute without mention of Saturday, the last day of the week, so prominently blessed by God, the Creator of all things in existence.[18]

Additional evidence attests that reverence for the seventh-day Sabbath was a spiritual link between the Akans and Seventh-day Adventists and was a factor in the success of Adventism in southern Ghana.[19]

Half a continent away are still more evidences of the preservation of God’s truth in Africa. The Lemba, a Bantu ethnic group native to Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique), hold that they are descendants of the biblical Jews, and practice various ancient Hebrew rites, most notably priestly functions, circumcision, clean/unclean food distinctions, and the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. Recent DNA testing has borne out that the Lemba are indeed descendants of the priestly caste of Aaron, elder brother of Moses. Many of the Lemba practice Christianity along with Judaism.[20]

A great deal more could be said of the profound impact of the African diaspora—the tens of millions sons and daughters of Africa who left the continent voluntarily or involuntarily for every corner of the globe from the 1500s to the present—on the spread of the gospel and blessings to humanity. This has been the subject of countless volumes.

Seventh-day Adventist Movement

The explosive and overwhelming rise of Christianity in Africa in the last fifty years is well-known. As in the first centuries of Christianity’s existence, Africa is again becoming a center of the gospel. The spread of the everlasting gospel, the growth of the remnant church of Bible prophecy on the continent, is especially impressive.

Even before the Seventh-day Adventist Church had officially organized in the spring of 1863, the Adventist message had reached Africa. In 1861 Stephen Haskell met and talked at length with Hannah More, a Christian missionary who had served in Sierra Leone from 1851 to 1857. From the conversation and the literature that Haskell gave her, a seed was planted in More’s mind. When she returned to West Africa—this time Liberia—she would begin practicing the new faith. A letter from Hannah More from Cape Palmas, Liberia, appeared in the Adventist Review stating that she and a colleague were keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. She writes, “Your people may now consider that you have whole hearted Seventh-day Adventists here, waiting with you for that blessed appearing…”[21] In the February 7, 1865 issue, the Review editor noted that More “has been thrown out of her employment as a missionary on account of keeping the Sabbath.”[22] Bill Knott, who did his PhD dissertation on More, claims that More “convert[ed] and plant[ed] Seventh-day Adventist congregations along Africa’s west coast—a decade before John Nevins Andrews and his children sailed for Europe [in 1874].”[23]

The Adventist message appeared among pockets of people in Liberia and Egypt in the decades after More. However, it would take definite root in South Africa in the 1870s and 80s, and from there it would spread northeast. By 1970 there were a total of 437,589 Adventists on the continent, roughly one-fifth of Adventists worldwide. In 1980 the African membership was 829,469, almost a quarter of the global membership. With a growing number of native Africans assuming leadership, by 1990 Africans comprised 31% of the membership, and in 2000 just over 34% of the total membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The 100,000-plus people baptized into Adventism in Rwanda in early 2016 brings Africans full circle as participants in a latter-day Pentecost.[24] The latest official church membership statistics show the current Adventist membership (as of December 31, 2016) of the three African division to be: East-Central Africa: 3,502,462; Southern Africa-Indian Ocean: 3,747,573; West-Central Africa: 725,045. This is a total of just under 8 million Seventh-day Adventists, or 40% of the global membership. With the addition of Adventists originally hailing from Africa, now residing in the United States, Caribbean, South America, Europe, and elsewhere, then the global church membership is certainly more than half African![25]

In surveying the role that Africa has had in gospel history, it never should have been called the “Dark Continent,” but the “Light Continent.” There is no doubt that, as they have in every epoch of Christian history, the people of Africa will play a leading role in the last era of the gospel that will close with the glorious return of Jesus. And, there is no doubt that the Revelator saw innumerable Africans, gathered from near and far, saved at last in heaven and the earth made new:

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.[26]

[1] See Matthew 2:13-21. All texts quoted are from the King James Version.
[2] Matthew 12:42. Also see Luke 11:31.
[3] Mark 15:21.
[4] Desire of Ages, 742.
[5] For an excellent book on Africa in the Bible, see Keith Augustus Burton, The Blessings of Africa (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).
[6] Acts 2:1-12.
[7] Acts 8:26-40.
[8] E.G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3 (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1878), 305.
[9] See Acts 18:24-28.
[10] See I Corinthians 3:3-23.
[11] The following volumes offer some of the best treatments on early Christianity in Africa: Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2008); Thomas C. Oden, Early Libyan Christianity (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2011); Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995).
[12] An excellent web resource on early African Christianity is http://earlyafricanchristianity.com/
[13] Also known as Abyssinia and Aksum/Axum.
[14] E.G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1888), 63.
[15] Ibid, 577.
[16] The late Bekele Heye’s volume, The Sabbath in Ethiopia, in which the saga of Ethiopian faithfulness is chronicled, is now available for free here: http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Books/TSIE2003.pdf
[17] For a full exposition of the Akan’s belief in Onyamee Kwaame, see Kofi Owusu-Mensa, Saturday God and Adventism (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993), 5-54.
[18] Francis Dolphijn quoted in L.C. Chadwick, “West Africa,” Adventist Review, March 1, 1890, 198(6).
[19] For an overview of this see Robert Osei-Bonsu, “Sabbath Observance among the Akans of Ghana and Its Impact on the Growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ghana,” Asia-Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry 7, no. 2 (2013): 3-26.
[20] Nicholas Wade, “DNA acks a Tribe’s Tradition of Early Descent From the Jews,” The New York Times, May 9, 1999 (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/09/us/dna-backs-a-tribe-s-tradition-of-early-descent-from-the-jews.html).
[21] Hannah More, “The Sabbath in Africa,” Adventist Review, March 29, 1864, 142.
[22] “Extracts from Letters,” Adventist Review, February 7, 1865, 87.
[23] See William M. Knott, “Foot Soldier of the Empire: Hannah More and the Politics of Service” (PhD, dissertation, George Washington University, 2006), 224-290.
[24] See Andrew McChesney, “Record 95,890 Baptized as Evangelistic Meetings End in Rwanda,” Adventist Review Online (http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story4044-record-95890-baptized-as-evangelistic-meetings-end-in-rwanda).
[25] Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 2017 Annual Statistical Report (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2017), 4.
[26] Revelation 7:9-10.