Frumentius and Aedesius and the origins of the church in the Horn of Africa

This is a guest column by The Rt. Rev. Grant LeMarquand who is a retired bishop of the Horn of Africa.

The lives of two brothers, Frumentius and Aedesius, are closely intertwined with the birth of the church in the Horn of Africa, in what was once called the kingdom of Axum and now includes the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia.

The story takes place in the early fourth century. A merchant from Tyre, one Meropius, undertook a trade mission to India. During the journey his ship put into a port on the Red Sea and was attacked (Somali pirates are not a new thing). Meropius and the crew were killed, leaving alive only Meropius’ young nephews, Frumentius and Aedesius, who had left the ship and were under a tree. According to the early church historian Rufinus the two boys were brought to Axum, the capital of the empire in the Horn of Africa, where Aedesius became the cupbearer to the king. Frumentius, apparently because of his superior skill, became tutor to his son Ezana. During their time in Axum, these two young Christians began and nurtured a small Christian community, probably at first among those connected with the court, but certainly including the young Ezana.

Eventually Ezana acceded to the throne and the kingdom of Axum gradually but surely became a Christian nation. There is numismatic evidence for Ezana’s conversion, by the way – after he became king, coins Axumite coins were minted with images of the cross on one side.

Frumentius and Aedesius, of course, were granted their freedom. Aedesius made his way home to Syria where he became a priest. Aedesius told the story of the beginnings of the Ethiopian church to the church historian Rufinus, which is how we know the story.

Frumentius, it seems, wanted to go to Egypt, and specifically to Alexandria. The fledgling church in Axum was a great distance from any other church and Frumentius wanted to make sure that these Axumite Christians would somehow be integrated into the life of the universal church. Frumentius thought that the safest way to ensure this result was to speak to the newly consecrated bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. Frumentius hoped to convince Athanasius to build on the work that he and Aedesius had already begun and to send missionaries to Axum. Of course Athanasius agreed – but he could see no better candidate to be bishop, and so Frumentius was conscripted and consecrated. We can date this event fairly accurately because it must have taken some time between AD 328 (when Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria) and AD 335 (the date of Athanasius’ first exile).

Frumentius returned to Ethiopia and apparently had a long and fruitful ministry. We do not hear much about this period of his life, except that in about AD 356, the Emperor Constantius II of Constantinople wrote to King Ezana and his brother Saizana, apparently wanting Frumentius to be replaced as bishop. Constantius was an Arian and did not approve of any bishop consecrated and appointed by Athanasius (who was now in exile). King Ezana, of course, ignored this letter from Emperor Constantius. Frumentius remained bishop for many years. The good fruit of his ministry is seen in the fact that in Ethiopian tradition he is know known as Abba Salama, Father of Peace. Today, Ethiopia is the home to approximately 50 million Christians, most of them members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The story of these two brothers provides only one example of how displaced people have become missionaries. We can think of the believers in Jerusalem who scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1), or of the Christians in Uganda who escaped the wrath of the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, but brought the message of the gospel with them. Suffering – even the trauma of losing one’s home – can lead to unexpected fruit for the gospel.

This is a lively blog written by the Rev. Trent Pettitt as he chronicles his ministry in the Horn of Africa.