May 2011

Africa's Sabbath Heroes

Perhaps the greatest Christian heroes of the Middle Ages (roughly spanning from the 5th to 15th century) for Seventh-day Adventists are the Waldenses.  Most Adventists first learned about this daring and faithful movement from Ellen G. White’s depiction in her classic The Great Controversy.  In it she dedicates an entire 17 page chapter to these elusive individuals in thrilling writing that is unmatched in intrigue and inspiration.  Here a short summary is provided as a refresher.

During the long period when the Roman Catholic Church held almost absolute power in Europe and imposed on the population doctrines and practices inconsistent with the Bible, there were some who refused to capitulate and held fast to the truth of Scripture.  These faithful outliers suffered every form of suppression and persecution, but remained firm.  Because Rome controlled the records and writing of that day, much of their story is lost to history, but it is recorded in the ledgers of heaven. 

Among those allegiant to God scattered throughout Europe, the most steadfast were the Waldenses.  When the Catholics encroached upon their homeland, making it impossible to practice their religion freely, they took refuge in hidden valleys and remote caverns of Europe’s great mountain chains.  For a thousand years the Waldenses lived and worshipped God according to their conscience, even observing the seventh-day Sabbath.  White’s sweeping prose deserves quoting:

"God had provided for His people a sanctuary of awful grandeur, befitting the mighty truths committed to their trust. To those faithful exiles the mountains were an emblem of the immutable righteousness of Jehovah. They pointed their children to the heights towering above them in unchanging majesty, and spoke to them of Him with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning, whose word is as enduring as the everlasting hills. God had set fast the mountains and girded them with strength; no arm but that of Infinite Power could move them out of their place. In like manner He had established His law, the foundation of His government in heaven and upon earth. The arm of man might reach his fellow men and destroy their lives; but that arm could as readily uproot the mountains from their foundations, and hurl them into the sea, as it could change one precept of the law of Jehovah, or blot out one of His promises to those who do His will. In their fidelity to His law, God's servants should be as firm as the unchanging hills. 

"The mountains that girded their lowly valleys were a constant witness to God's creative power, and a never-failing assurance of His protecting care. Those pilgrims learned to love the silent symbols of Jehovah's presence. They indulged no repining because of the hardships of their lot; they were never lonely amid the mountain solitudes. They thanked God that He had provided for them an asylum from the wrath and cruelty of men. They rejoiced in their freedom to worship before Him. Often when pursued by their enemies, the strength of the hills proved a sure defense. From many a lofty cliff they chanted the praise of God, and the armies of Rome could not silence their songs of thanksgiving" (The Great Controversy, 66).

The Waldenses diligently trained and educated their children, aware of their high calling as preservers of the true faith of God and the great responsibility that entailed.  In what seems nearly impossible in our day of busyness and distraction, the Waldenses memorized entire books of the Bible.  Even more unbelievable, because printing facilities were not available they sometimes transcribed the entire Bible, but more often selected passages with brief commentary.  In narrative rivaling that of a bestselling novel, Sister White tells of the Waldenses children, who, like secret agents went to school with concealed weapons tucked in the folds of their clothing—this time not a gun but the sword of Scripture.  They couldn’t reveal their identity without risking being imprisoned or murdered, so they surreptitiously sought those whom they were led to by the Holy Spirit.  They secreted many converts back to their secluded coves in the wilderness.

Other times brave Waldenses disguised themselves as merchants, and when they sensed interest in spiritual things from a patron they slipped them a portion of the handwritten Scriptures.  Some engaged in risky night evangelism, speaking to audiences off the beaten path where they could not be detected.  Occasionally they were caught and cast in dark and lonely dungeons, isolated from human contact for years, while others were executed, only their bones left as a memorial to their lives.

The Catholic Church was very disturbed by this subversion, for though the Waldenses were few and apparently powerless, their oversized influence was felt.  Souls were saved forever from the long grasp of the Papacy, and this could not go unchecked.  White vividly records:

"Again and again were their fertile lands laid waste, their dwellings and chapels swept away, so that where once were flourishing fields and the homes of an innocent, industrious people, there remained only a desert. As the ravenous beast is rendered more furious by the taste of blood, so the rage of the papists was kindled to greater intensity by the sufferings of their victims. Many of these witnesses for a pure faith were pursued across the mountains and hunted down in the valleys where they were hidden, shut in by mighty forests and pinnacles of rock. 

No charge could be brought against the moral character of this proscribed class. Even their enemies declared them to be a peaceable, quiet, pious people. Their grand offense was that they would not worship God according to the will of the pope. For this crime every humiliation, insult, and torture that men or devils could invent was heaped upon them" (The Great Controversy, 76).

In a barbaric Papal order, it was decreed that whoever apprehended or killed the hated Waldenses would be relieved of debt, allowed to lawfully retain stolen property, and ensured forgiveness of sins.  Countless Waldenses were hunted vigilante style and massacred.  The blood of these faithful souls, however, is credited with making the ground fertile for the great Protestant Reformation that was to be ushered in just years later by Martin Luther and others.

The Waldenses are undoubtedly deserving of an important place in Christian history, and more specifically, remnant history.  Sister White even cites their history as a fulfillment of Revelation 12:6: "And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days."

The problem with most recitations of the Waldenses history by Seventh-day Adventists, however, is the omission of a provocative paragraph couched near the beginning of the chapter:

"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" (The Great Controversy, 63).

Like the Waldenses after going into hiding, the Central African churches and the Asian Armenians were outside of Rome’s reach.  Sister White’s assertion that these faithful ethnic Christians were completely uncorrupted by Catholicism is awe-inspiring.  The fact that they upheld the law of God and kept the seventh-day Sabbath holy qualifies them as true Adventist heroes, right alongside the Waldenses.  The larger placement of this chapter in leading up to the last remnant defying Catholicism—which again rises to power but this time over the entire world—undeniably places these African and Asian believers as sterling examples. These successfully did what Great Controversy readers aspired to do in the near future.  Sister White included the Africans and Asians to assure us that if they resisted Rome, so could we.  They are as truly apart of the unbroken line of the remnant as the Waldenses.

In another passage even closer to the chilling final sections on the time of trouble and mark of the beast, Sister White features another commendation of resistance in the face of Roman oppression, this time spending more space on Africans and less on the Waldenses:

"A striking illustration of Rome's policy toward those who disagree with her was given in the long and bloody persecution of the Waldenses, some of whom were observers of the Sabbath. Others suffered in a similar manner for their fidelity to the fourth commandment. 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" (The Great Controversy, 577-578).

This passage is crucial for several reasons.  First, White’s statement that “the history of the churches of Ethiopia and Abyssinia is especially significant” is a clarion call for her Seventh-day Adventist readers to study the history of these Africans for its benefits to their faith.  African history, believed to be lost or even nonexistent for centuries in Western circles (“lost sight of and forgotten by the world”), was not only known by White, but “especially significant” to her, worthy of sharing and commending in what is arguably her most important volume.  Quoting the historian Michael Geddes’ Church History of Ethiopia shows that she deemed it good time spent to study African Christian history, of which she gleaned essential lessons and examples for the remnant.

Also of interest is White’s reversal of another notion held so long in Western circles: that Africa was the “Dark Continent” while Europe was enlightened.  Yet here she states that Europe was in the “gloom of the Dark Ages” and under the thrall of Catholicism, while Christians in Ethiopia were worshipping God according to the Bible, specifically keeping the seventh-day holy.  In parallel language with her statements on the Waldenses, Sister White writes that these Christians were “hidden for nearly a thousand years, [and] did not share in this apostasy.”  When discovered, for a brief period they came under the dominion of Rome, but then in a terrific show of power they overthrew Rome and reverted back to the true worship of God.

Ellen White drew extensively on J.N. Andrews’ History of the Sabbath and the First Day of the Week for her chapters on the preservation of the seventh-day Sabbath.  In this hefty volume in the chapter “Traces of the Sabbath during the Dark Ages” he tells of his Ethiopian predecessors of his faith.  There is additional proof that other early Adventist pioneers knew of African Sabbath-keepers.

The second and third generations of Seventh-day Adventists were also cognizant of this great period of African history.  In the 1930s during the Second Italian-Abyssinian War (a conflict that some historians claim precipitated World War II), writers for Message magazine recognized in Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia a redux of the Middle Ages.  Although Mussolini restricted the religious liberty of the annexed Africans, Message writers used their knowledge of Abyssinia’s ancient triumph as an assurance that modern Ethiopia would prevail.  Legendary black Adventists such as Dr. Owen A. Troy also drew parallels between black Seventh-day Sabbath keepers persecuted by Rome upon the Mark of the Beast and the events transpiring in Ethiopia.  When Haile Selassie was reinstated to his throne in 1941 black Seventh-day Adventists rejoiced in what they saw as an immediate and future victory.

In 1991 longtime Adventist administrator and minister Dr. Charles E. Bradford was led to research the history of the seventh-day Sabbath in Africa upon rereading Ellen White’s Great Controversy quotes on Ethiopia.  From this inquiry arose the Sabbath in Africa Study Group, a consortium of Adventist historians and intellectuals dedicated to enriching the public’s knowledge of Africa’s Christian past.  In 1999 Bradford published the groundbreaking Sabbath Roots: The African Connection, and several other volumes appeared on the subject, including the late Bekele Heye’s The Sabbath in Ethiopia, the only book of its kind.

Heye’s work, outlining the history that Ellen White says is “especially significant,” deserves to be briefly highlighted.  Bekele Heye was an Ethiopian Seventh-day Adventist minister with the distinction of being the first African elected president of the Eastern African Division-a position that makes its holder a Vice President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists-and serving there for twelve years.  Heye died in 1998.  The Sabbath in Ethiopia is the fruits of Heye’s 1968 M.A. of Divinity thesis at Andrews University. 

The Sabbath in Ethiopia covers a period of 145 years (1500-1645 AD) which Heye believes to be critical in the Ethiopian seventh-day Sabbath preservation saga.  Chapter One provides background on the Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic) Church, the defender of the true Sabbath.  Christianity was officially adopted in the Axumite Empire in 331 by Emporer Ezanal, although Heye would later claim Christianity was first introduced there by the Ethiopian eunuch of the Acts fame.  Ethiopian Orthodoxy was decidedly not European Christianity; the Coptic Church was distinct and different.  Heye overviews the differences between the two in church laws.

With a basic foundation of Ethiopian Christianity laid out in the first chapter, Heye launches into Axum history in earnest.  Europe, Portugal in particular, contacted Ethiopia in the 15th century for trade interests.  When the Portuguese discovered Ethiopia was Christian, they immediately began an aggressive evangelical campaign with the aim of Catholicizing the country.  Missionary minded emissary caravans were sent to the Ethiopian emperor, Lebna Dengel, called Prester John by Europeans, in 1520.  Among this envoy was Father Francisco Alvarez, who would later unfold the splendors of Ethiopia to Europe.

Alvarez, brilliant and tactful, subtly sought to win Dengel over to his faith.  Heye claims he expressly attacked the Coptic’s strict Sabbath observance.  The plot begins to thicken.  Muslim invaders threatened the great African kingdom, so in order to secure Portuguese aid, Dengal declared submission to the Roman Catholic Church.

Chapter Three continues the interesting narrative.  The Islamic hordes descended upon Ethiopia in 1527 as Dengel had expected, equipped with new effective military technology.  Islam gained controlled of the whole of Ethiopia temporarily.  Dengel, in a dilemma, appointed Portugal’s Catholic emissary, Father Bermudez, bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in order to obtain military aid.  In doing this, Dengel gave full spiritual power to the papacy.  Portugal, however, did not send aid, and the beleaguered Axumite king died on the run.

Dengel’s son, Galawdewos steps onto the scene in Chapter Four.  He rallied Ethiopia to battle against the occupying Muslims.  It was at this time in 1542 that Portugal sent troops to Ethiopia.  The two armies combined and expelled the Muslims.  After the victory Father Bermudez tried to assume the bishoprick again, dealing rather forcefully with Galawdewos.  The emperor, an ardent Coptic adherent and trained theologian, would have none of it, and exiled Bermudez and scattered Portuguese settlers in Ethiopia by giving them remote real estate.  Bermudez soon expired.  Heye writes that this period “was a total failure for the Catholic Church.”

Chapter Five is concerned with Jesuit diplomacy.  So important was Ethiopia to the Jesuits that one source even states that Ignatius Loyola volunteered to go to Abyssinia to convert the country to Catholicism.  The Pope forbade Loyola to go; the Jesuit founder eventually recommended Oviedo for the mission, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1558.  Galawdewos purportedly shamed the Jesuit entourage in a series of theological debates and drew up “Confession of Faith,” a document which defends Sabbath observance as scriptural.  Heye quotes the appropriate sections.  Concomitantly, Heye claims that Galawdewos attempted to introduce Sunday observance to gain the aid of the Portuguese if another Muslim attack realized.  The Coptic clergy refused the false Sabbath however, and Oviedo placed a spiritual ban on Abyssinia in 1559. Galawdewos died in battle the same year with the Coptic faith still in power.

Emperor Za Dengel and Pedro Paez meet in Chapter Six.  Paez, equipped with skill and tact reminiscent of Alvarez, quietly set about his Jesuit agenda.  He gained renown in Ethiopia as an educator, and was soon called to meet with Dengel.  During this meeting Paez explicitly attacked the Coptic’s seventh day reverence, claiming it was Jewish, not Christian.  Dengel conceded; the Coptic clergy and Axum public did not, however.  Dengel petitioned Portugal for troops to enforce his day of worship decision.  The Ethiopian Church clergy acted with dispatch, rallying the masses to overthrow Dengel.  He was subsequently murdered.  Civil war between the Ethiopians and Portuguese factions in Ethiopia ensued.  Axum was again victorious.

Emporer Susenyos enters the drama in the seventh chapter.  Desiring security from a coup, Susenyos allied himself completely with the Jesuits from Portugal.  The Abyssinian emperor employed the Portuguese in the rebuilding of the nation after the skirmishes.  Resultantly, their reputation improved.  Surreptitiously, Susenyos and Paez tried to gain power for the Catholics.  In 1622 Susenyos declared himself Roman Catholic and decreed it Ethiopia’s official religion.  He also issued a decree switching the holy day from Saturday to Sunday.  Ethiopia was plunged into war, on one side the Coptic Church and its faithful, on the other Susenyos, the apostates and the Portuguese Jesuits.  Paez died during the war.

Susenyos, prompted by the dual motive of protection of his throne and military aid from Portugal against all enemies, sought complete union with the Catholic Church.  In Chapter Eight Heye tells of him petitioning the Pope for a Roman Catholic Patriarch, which the Pope hesitantly complied with in the person of Alphonzo Mendez.  Mendez, stringent and domineering, set about to reform Ethiopia and its church to Roman Catholicism.  Heye states that “like his predecessors, his main attack was against seventh-day Sabbath observance.” He postulates that the one issue of Ethiopian seventh-day Sabbath observance for sixteen centuries was a singular challenge to Rome’s authority and a testament that Rome was wrong about the day of worship.

Mendez’s reforms were so highhanded that the Axum people revolted, resulting in an eight year civil war.  Susenyos became ill during this time (an illness the royal family believed came over him because of his decree against the true Sabbath) and his son Faselidas petitioned the people to pray for him, saying that if he was made well, the Coptic faith would be reinstalled.  Susenyos revived, and subsequently revived Coptic supremacy.  He abdicated emperorship to Faselidas in 1632.

Chapter Nine shows a reversal of the Ethiopian trend of Catholization with the reign of Faselidas.  Attributing all of Abyssinia’s ills to the Jesuits, he cruelly and completely expelled the Jesuits, some by death and others abandonment, among them the dictator Mendez who was sold as a slave.  Rome tried to infiltrate Axum stealthily, sending French Capuchins to the country, but they were stoned.  Faselidas was so intent to keep Rome out, that he leagued with a Muslim pasha to guard their mutual borders against Catholic envoys.  Heye concludes the 145 year period marking the complete extermination of Roman Catholicism in Ethiopia and writing an ode to ancient Axum that ends with a famous Pauline quotation.  

The seventh-day Sabbath is still being honored today in Ethiopia (and the once Ethiopian Eritrea) wherever the Coptic faith is strong, begins Chapter Ten.  Heye shares Ethiopian etymology that favors the true Sabbath.  The late Adventist minister ends the section conclusively: “There is no record of any time in the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that this church has officially given up [seventh-day] Sabbath observance.”

The Conclusion is a single page summary of two thousand years of Ethiopian Christianity.  From the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts to the grandest point of Ethiopian resistance with Faselidas to today, Ethiopia’s story is one of faithfulness.  Heye concludes that this history “is compelling evidence for those who are committed to keeping holy the same on which Jesus worshipped and rested.”

Since the publication of The Great Controversy, Seventh-day Adventism has totally transformed.  Well over a third of the church’s membership now resides in Africa, and if this trend continues—which it shows no signs of letting up—half of the Seventh-day Adventist membership will be African.  Did Ellen White anticipate this when she featured the “especially significant” history of the Ethiopian Christians along with the Waldenses?  Is it time to give Africans equal space in remnant history?

The answer to these questions is a resounding Yes!  The lie by omission that Africans and people of color do not have a significant role in the Christian past needs to be set straight.  There are now resources enough to incorporate these eclipsed histories into talks and textbooks, blurbs and blogs, songs and sites.  The special significance is for people of “every nation, kindred, tongue and people,” imparting courage and hope for the ramped-up reenactment of the past soon to light upon us.

-Benjamin J. Baker