|« Abuna||Abyssinia and the Abyssinian Church||Acacius of Berœa »|
Abyssinia and the Abyssinian Church
ABYSSINIA AND THE ABYSSINIAN CHURCH.
Worthlessness of Traditional History (§ 1).
Introduction of Christianity (§ 2).
Close Connection with Egypt in Doctrine (§ 3).
The Canon and Creed (§ 4).
Organization of the Church (§ 5).
Beliefs and Practises (§ 6).
The Falashas (§ 7).
Christian Missions (§ 8).
The modern Abyssinia is a country of East Africa, between the Red Sea and the Blue Nile, to the southeast of Nubia. Its boundaries are not definite, and its area is variously given from 150,000 to 240,000 square miles. Estimates of the population vary from 3,500,000 to 8,500,000. In antiquity the term “Ethiopia” was used rather vaguely to signify Abyssinia (with somewhat wider extent than at present), Nubia, and Sennar. These were the lands of the Ethiopian Church, of which the Abyssinian Church is the modem representative. Christianity is now confined to the plateau and mountain regions of Abyssinia.
1. Worthlessness of Traditional History.
Native tradition ascribes the name of the country and the foundation of the state to Ethiops, the son of Cush, the son of Ham. The queen of Sheba who visited Solomon is identified with an Abyssinian queen, Makeda; and her visit is said to have led to the conversion of the people to Judaism. The tradition continues that she bore to Solomon a son, Menelik, who was educated in Jerusalem by his father. He then returned to the old capital, Axum, and brought with him both Jewish priests and the ark, which was carried away from the Temple in Jerusalem and deposited in the Ethiopian capital; and from that time to the present Abyssinia is said to have been ruled by a Solomonic dynasty, the succession having been broken only now and then by usurpers and conquerors. Of course, all this has no historic value. That Judaism preceded Christianity in the land is not proved by the observance of certain Jewish customs (such as circumcision, the Mosaic laws about foods, the Sabbath, etc.); these may have been introduced from ancient Egypt or the Coptic Church. A Jewish immigration, however, must have taken place, as it is proved by the presence in the land of numerous Jews, the so-called Falashas (see below, § 7); but the time, manner, and magnitude of this immigration can not be ascertained.
2. Introduction of Christianity.
There is no independent native tradition of the conversion of the Abyssinians to Christianity According to the Greek and Roman Church historians (Rufinus, i. 9; Theodoret, i. 22; Socrates, i. 19; Sozomen, ii. 24), in the time of Constantine the Great (about 330), Frumentius and Edesius accompanied the uncle of the former from Tyre on a voyage in the Red Sea. They were shipwrecked on the Ethiopian coast and carried by the natives to the court at Axum. There they won confidence and honor, and were allowed to preach Christianity. Edesius afterward returned to Tyre; but Frumentius continued the work, went to Alexandria, where Athanasius occupied the patriarchal see, obtained missionary coworkers from him, and was himself consecrated bishop and head of the Ethiopian Church, with the title Abba Salama, “Father of Peace,” which is still in use along with the later Abuna, “Our Father.” It is not improbable that Christianity was known to the Abyssinians before the time of Frumentius (whose date has been fixed by Dillmann at 341); but he is properly regarded as the founder of the Ethiopian Church. In the fifth and sixth centuries the mission received a new impulse by the immigration of a number of monks (Monophysites) from upper Egypt.
3. Close Connection with Egypt in Doctrine.
The close connection between the Abyssinian Church and Egypt is very apparent in the sphere of doctrine. Like the Coptic Church, the Abyssinian holds a monophysitic view of the person of Christ. This question has long been settled; but it is still debated whether Christ had a double or threefold birth. The Abuna and the majority of the priests hold to the twofold view, which is the more purely monophysitic. The threefold view was introduced by a monk about 100 years ago, and is prevalent in Shoa (the southern and southeastern district). Also the questions of the person and dignity of Mary, whether she really bore God, or was only the mother of Jesus; whether she is entitled to the same worship as Christ, etc.,—are eagerly debated though it seems to be the general view that an almost divine worship is due to the Virgin, and that she and the saints are indispensable mediators between Christ and man. Some even assert that the saints, who died not for their own sins, died like Christ for the sins of others.
4. The Canon and Creed.
The church books are all in the Ethiopic language, which is a dead tongue, studied only by the priests, and not understood by them. For the Ethionic Bible translation see Bible Versions, A, VIII. The Abyssinian canon, called Semanya Ahadu, “Eighty-one,” because it consists of eighty-one sacred books, comprises, besides the sixty-five books of the usual canon, the Apocrypha, the 20 Epistles of Clement, and the Synodus (that is, the decrees of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem; cf. W. Fell, Canones apostolorum Æthiopice, Leipsic, 1871). Only a very slight difference, however, is made between this canon and some other works of ecclesiastical literature,—the Didascalia or Apostolic Constitutions (text and transl. by T. P. Platt, published by the Oriental Translation Fund, London, 1834); the Haimanot-Abo, giving quotations from the councils and the Fathers; the writings of the Eastern Fathers, Athanasius, Cyril, and Chrysostom; and the Fetha-Nagast, the royal law-book. On the whole, the tradition of the Church has the same authority as the Scriptures. Of the councils, only those before the Council of Chalcedon (451) are recognized, because at Chalcedon the monophysite heresy was condemned. The Apostles’ Creed is unknown; the Nicene is used.
5. Organization of the Church.
At the head of the Church stands the Abuna, who resides in Gondar. He is appointed by the Coptic patriarch of Cairo; and, according to a law, dating from the thirteenth century, no Abyssinian, but only a Copt, can be Abuna. He alone has the right to anoint the king and to ordain priests and deacons. Both in secular and in ecclesiastical affairs he has great power. The duties of the priests are to conduct divine service three or four times daily and for three or four hours on Sunday, to attend to the church business, and to purify houses and utensils. Priests, monks, and scholars celebrate the Holy Communion every morning. The deacons bake the bread for the Lord’s Supper and perform menial duties. Any one who can read may be ordained deacon, and a priest is merely required to recite the Nicene Creed. To learn the long liturgies, however, is often a matter of years. It is usual to marry before ordination, as marriage is not allowed afterward. Besides priests and deacons each church has its alaka, who looks after church property and attends to secular business. The debturas sing at divine service; and the larger churches have a komofat who settles disputes among the clergy. Beside the secular clergy stand the monastic under the head of the Etsh’ege, who ranks next to the Abuna and decides many ecclesiastical and theological questions in common with him. The number of monks and nuns (living after the rule of Pachomius) is very great. At Debra Damo, one of the chief monasteries, about 300 monks live together in small huts. A part of their duties is the education of the young. The church buildings are exceedingly numerous, generally small, low, circular structures, with a conical roof of thatch and four doors, one toward each of the cardinal points. Surrounding the building is a court, occupied during service by the laymen, and often serving at night as a place of refuge to travelers. The interior, dirty and neglected, is divided into two apartments,—the holy for the priests and deacons, and the holy of holies, where stands the ark. This ark is the principal object in the whole church. Neither the deacons, laymen, nor non-Christians dare touch it; if they do, the church and the adjacent cemetery become unclean, and must be purified. Indifferent pictures of the numerous saints, the Virgin, the angels, and the devil adorn the interior; but statues are forbidden. Crosses are found, but no crucifixes.
6. Beliefs and Practises.
Service consists of singing of psalms, recitals of parts of the Bible and liturgy, and prayers, especially to the Virgin and the wonder-working saints; it is undignified and unedifying. They believe that every one has a guardian spirit and therefore venerate the angels. The archangel Michael is considered especially holy. They divide the good angels into nine classes, of which there were originally ten, but one fell away under Satanael. Relics are preserved and venerated as by the Roman Catholic Church. Of sacraments, the Church numbers two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both adults and children are baptized, the former by immersion, the latter by sprinkling. For boys the rite is performed forty days after birth; for girls, eighty days. The purpose of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper is preceded by a severe fast; and offerings of incense, oil, bread, and wine are usually brought. The Jewish Sabbath is kept as well as the Christian Sunday; and altogether there are one hundred and eighty holidays in the year. Fasting, observed with great strictness, plays a prominent part in the discipline, and about half the days of the year are nominally fast-days.
7. The Falashas.
Not all the inhabitants of Abyssinia are Christians; and not all Christians belong to the State Church. The Zalanes, a nomadic tribe, consider themselves to be Jews, and keep aloof from the Christians, though they are described as being really Christians. The Chamantes are baptized, and have Christian priests; but in reality they are nearly pagans, and celebrate many thoroughly pagan rites. The real Jews, the Falashas, live along the northern shore of Lake Tsana, in the neighborhood of Gondar and Shelga, where they pursue agriculture and trade. They are more industrious than the Christians, but also more ignorant and spiritually more forlorn. Mohammedanism is steadily progressing. In order to distinguish themselves from all non-Christians, the Christians receive at baptism a cord of blue silk or cotton, called mateb, which they always wear around the neck.
8. Christian Missions.
The first missionary work which the Western Church undertook in Abyssinia was the Jesuit mission of 1555, which labored there for nearly a century; but the missionary activity of the Jesuits was deeply mixed with the politics of the country; and their main purpose seems to have been to establish there the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. At last they reached the goal. After a frightful massacre of the opposite party, King Sasneos declared the Roman Catholic Church the Church of the State. In 1640, however, the Jesuits, with their Roman archbishop, were compelled to leave the country, and the old religion with its old Church was reestablished. With the 21 new Abuna who followed after this Roman Catholic interregnum, Peter Heyling, from Lübeck, a Protestant missionary, came into the country, but his great zeal led only to small results. The Church Missionary Society had more success in the first half of the nineteenth century. The circumstance that a pious Abyssinian monk, Abi-Ruch or Abreka, who had been guide to the traveler Bruce, translated the whole Bible into the Amharic language (1808-18), gave the first occasion to this attempt. The British and Foreign Bible Society bought and printed the translation, and in 1830 the missionaries Gobat and Kugler were sent to Abyssinia. The latter was succeeded by Isenberg, and Gobat by Blumhardt in 1837. Later came Krapf. The work was partly spoiled by the opposition of the native priests and the intrigues of newly arrived Roman Catholics, and the missionaries were expelled in 1838. Krapf then spent three years in Shoa, but was driven thence in 1842. The Roman Catholics were expelled in 1854. In 1858 a Coptic priest who had frequented the school of a Protestant missionary in Alexandria, and favored the Protestant mission, became Abuna, and the St. Chrischona Society of Basel now sent a number of Protestant missionaries into the country. They labored with considerable success; but the disturbances of the reign of King Theodore overtook them, and almost destroyed their work. They were thrown into prison and were only released after the victory of the British.
Since that time, few missionary attempts have been made in Abyssinia. The Swedes have one or two stations in the country; and during the past ten years there has been some effort to resume work on the part of the Roman Catholics (mainly French). There is a vicar apostolic for Abyssinia with residence in Alitiena, Tigre; and a Uniat “Geez Church” is said to number 10,000 members. See Africa, II., Abyssinia.
Bibliography: Makrisi (d. 1441), Historia Coptorum Christianorum, ed. T. Wüstenfeld, Göttingen, 1845; H. Ludolf, Historia æthiopica and Commentarius, Frankfort, 1681, 1693; J. Lobo, Voyage d’Abyssinie (Eng. transl., with continuation of the history of Abyssinia . . . by M. L. Grand, . . . London, 1735; J. Stæcklein, Allerhand so Lehr- als Geist-reiches Brief, schriften und Reis-Beschreibungen . . . von denen Missionariis der Gesellschaft Jesu, I. viii., Augsburg, 1728; V. de la Croze, Histoire du Christianisme d’Ethiope, . . . The Hague 1739; J. Bruce, Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile, 1768-1773, Edinburgh, 1790 (often reprinted); G. A. Hoskins, Travels in Ethiopia, London, 1835; C. W. Isenberg and J. L. Krapf, Journals detailing their Proceedings in the Kingdom of Shoa, London, 1843; C. W. Isenberg, Abessinien und die evangelische Mission, Bonn, 1844; J. L. Krapf, Travels in East Africa, London, 1860; idem, Travels and Missionary Labours in Africa and Abyssinia, ib. 1867; Lady Mary E. Herbert, Abyssinia and its Apostle, ib. 1868; J. M. Flad, The Falashas of Abyssinia, ib. 1869; idem, Zwölf Jahre in Abessinien, 2 vols., Basel, 1869-87; A. Dillmann, Die Anfänge des axumitischen Reiches, Berlin, 1879; A. Raffray, Les Églises monolithes de la ville de Lalibéla, Paris, 1882; T. Waldmeier, Autobiography, London, 1890; J. T. Bent, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, ib. 1893; A. B. Wylde, Modern Abyssinia, ib. 1901; H. Vivian, Abyssinia, ib. 1901; M. Fowler, Christian Egypt, ch. vii., ib. 1901. For the liturgy, etc.: J A Giles, Codex apocryphus Novi Testamenti, ib. 1852; E. Trumpp, Das Taufbuch der æthiopischen Kirche, Munich, 1878; C. A. Swainson, Greek Liturgies, Cambridge 1884; C. von Arnhard, Liturgie zum Tauf-Fest der æthiopischen Kirche, Munich, 1888.
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