Early Christianity in North Africa Part 1
Historical Background, Factors Which Influenced the Spread Of Christianity, and Christianity Reaches North Africa
Early Christianity in North Africa Part 2
Alexandria as an Early Center of Christianity, Early Martyrs, Latin as the Language of Western Christianity, Church Fathers
Attempting to escape persecution around 270 CE, several Christians escaped beyond the Nile Valley of Egypt to the desert in the west. Most notable amongst them was Anthony of Egypt (ca. 251–356), aka Anthony the Great or Anthony of the Desert. Here they lived a hermetic existence dedicated to worship rather than secular issues. And where they meditated on spiritual matters. They are, accordingly, attributed with the invention of monasticism (itself, however, an extension of an older Egyptian heritage of asceticism). Under Christianity's typical miscasting, these religiously devoted ascetics are known as the 'Desert Fathers', despite the fact that there were several women amongst them.
North Africa and Christian Heresies -- Donatists and Monophysites
North Africa was entangled in the numerous heretical and schismatic controversies that troubled the early church.
In Africa as a whole the greatest defiance of Roman authority came through the Donatists in 312 CE. The main controversy arose from the election of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia), who was the personal choice of Miltiades, the Bishop of Rome (ie the Pope), and who was originally from Africa Proconsularis. The Donatists, named for their leader Donatus Magnus (--c.355) were opposed to 'state' interference in church affairs, and they were prepared to use force to get their way -- even though having a militant wing -- the Circumcellions -- formed from Berber fighters. (Donatism appealed greatly to the Berber people, and they were allowed a certain latitude towards more traditional beliefs which were blended in to create new ceremonies and doctrines.) They followed a life of penance, and hoped for martyrdom. They had arisen out of a response to the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian -- some Christians in North Africa had handed over their copies of the scriptures to the Roman authorities in return for their freedom (the Proconsul in Africa being unusually lenient), but not the Donatists. When the Diocletian inspired persecutions came to an end, the Donatists claimed that those who had acceded to the Roman demands (they called them traditores) could no longer administer the sacraments, such as baptism. Caecilian had, it was claimed by the Donatists, been consecrated by a traditor and was therefore not worthy of the post of bishop.
A synod held in the Lateran in 313 led by Miltiades, and involving 18 bishops form Italy and Gaul decided for Caecilian. The Donatists were pronounced schismatic, and in 317 CE Constantine issued an edict threatening the death penalty to anyone who dustubed the peace of the Roman Empire. Donatist property was confiscated, and when in Carthage Donatus Magnus refused to give up church buildings the Roman governor called in the troops. The 400 Donatist clergy from Carthage and other cities in Africa Proconsularis were sent into exile. Outside of the main cities, however, the Donatists, strong with support from Berber Christians, were left untouched. Constantine I granted a 'Toleration' to the Donatists in 321.
The Donatists were still a significant force in the Christian church of north Africa during the time of Augustine of Hippo, and only seemed to have disappeared at the time of the Arab conquest.
In Egypt the Monophysities argued that Christ had a single nature, which was divine, and that his physical existence was purely a manifestation. -- This was contrary to the Chalcedonian (and Catholic) view of a duality of nature between divine and human. In 451 CE, at the Council of Chalcedon (near Constantinople), Egyptian monophysitism was declared heretical. When the Patriarch of Alexandria was lynched in 457 CE for supporting the Chalcedonian doctrine of the papacy, the Egyptian church was dramatically split from Rome. Monophysitism, through the Coptic church, continued as the primary religion of the people in Egypt until the arrival of Islam. Missionaries were sent south to Aksum in Ethiopia and to Nubia. It is notable that whilst Christianity was overtaken by Islam through north Africa, the Christian Ethiopian church remains strong to date.
Pope Gelasius I, an African pope, fought against the Acacian Schism (a position he inherited from his predecessor Felix III). The Acacian Schism was down to Rome's refusal to accept the Henotikon as supported by Acacius (the Partiarch of Constantinople), which tried to reconcile the preaching of the Monophysites to the dualist doctrine accepted in Rome. The schism was finally settled in 519 CE with the excommunication of Acacius being recognized by the Byzantine Emperor, Justin I.
Cyprian (c.200--258 CE) was a bishop of Carthage who provided leadership in North Africa for Christians during the era of persecution by Rome. Cyprian had been born to wealthy Roman colonist parents and converted to Christianity around 246. Only two years later he was elected bishop of Carthage. He was forced, briefly into exile by the Decian persecution -- which required that citizens of the Roman Empire make sacrifices (Sacrificati) to pagen Gods, and receive a certificate (libellatici) to prove they had done so. When Cyprian returned to Carthage and wrested back his control of the church, hedecreed that those who made sacrifices could only regain the church on their deathbed, whereas those who had lied to obtain libellatici could be re-admitted after significant penance. This was significant, because it lay the basis for the Catholic church claiming that only it had the power to remit deadly sin, that disciplinary matters should be handled by bishops (usually in council) since they were the worldly representatives of the Holy Spirit, and that the unworthy could gain acceptance within the church though penance.
Cyprian wrote a treatise De unitate ecclesiae ('On the Unity of the Church') in 251 which stressed the primacy of the Roman bishopric as the center of the episcopacy. But he was in disagreement over who should be the next Pope, supporting Cornelius against the more popular Novatian (Novatian believed that those who had abandoned Christianity, apostasy, under the Decian persecution could not regain the church). Novatian declared himself Anti-pope (the second to do so in the history of the Christian church), creating a schism in the church and his supporters even traveled to North Africa where they campaigned against Cyprian, even baptizing new followers. Novatian and his followers were excommunicated at a synod in 251.
Pope Stephen I (254--257 CE) declared that all baptisms held in the name of the Trinity were valid, but African Christians were unsure. Cyprian held three councils between 255 and 256 CE where it was decided that a minister must possess the Holy Spirit to give the sacrament. Those baptized by the excommunicated Novatianists were encouraged to be baptized once more, by an appropriate minister.
Cyprian died a martyrs death in 258CE, condemned by the African Proconsul Aspasius Paternus, under the direction of The Roman Emperor Valerian.
Augustine of Hippo (354--430 CE) was Bishop of Hippo Regius from 396 to his death in 430 CE. Possibly the most significant Christian thinker, Augustine was born in North Africa, Tagaste in Numidia (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) possibly of Berber decent. He studied Greek philosophy of Plato and others, but is known for writing in Latin. Augustine, above all others is considered the father of the theological and doctrinal nature of the Roman Catholic church. Augustine was a prolific author (over five million words in surviving documents), particularly known for the City of God and Confessions, and his writing influenced the interpretation of bible texts and the development of Christian thinking throughout the mediaeval era.
• 'The Christian period in Mediterranean Africa' by WHC Frend, in Cambridge History of Africa, Ed. JD Fage, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
• Chapter 1: 'Geographical and Historical Background' & Chapter 5: 'Cyprian, the "Pope" of Carthage', in Early Christianity in North Africa by François Decret, trans. by Edward Smither, James Clarke and Co., 2011.
• General History of Africa Volume 2: Ancient Civilizations of Africa (Unesco General History of Africa) ed. G. Mokhtar, James Currey, 1990.