Oriental Orthodox Churches around the world
A GLANCE INTO THE HISTORY
OF THE ETHIOPIAN OFTHODOX CHURCH
Ethiopia is one
of the oldest nations of the world. This is clearly illustrated
by the psalmist who says: “ Let Ethiopian hasten to stretch
out her hands to God” (Psalm 08:31) indicating that as far
back as about the 19th century B.C. Ethiopia had been known in the
was introduced into this country every early. During the Apostolic
age for instance, a eunuch of queen Candace who had gone on a pilgrimage
to Jerusalem was met by Philip on his way back and was baptized
(Acts 8:26-40). But the Church was formally organized and the Sacraments
administered only from the time of kings Abreha and Atsbaha. They
were brothers who ruled the country from about the year 290 A.D.
It was Frumentius who undertook this great work during their reign.
The royal brothers supported the work. So churches were built, clergy
were ordained in large numbers and facilities for the regular administration
divine sacraments were offered. In this way from about the year
332 A.D. Christianity became the official religion of Ethiopia.
work of the Church was further strengthened by the coming of the
Nine Saints from the Roman Empire (479 A.D.). These men made a memorable
contruibution to the Ethiopian Church. They translated many books
from Greek into Geez, preached the Gospel, and established monastic
about the middle of the sixth century the Church of Ethiopia entered
a new era. Yared rose at that time and composed a great variety
of Church music. No one has so far surpassed him, and his work is
still being used in Church services.
history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not however one of unchecked
progress.. In the tenth century of the Christian era it was faced
with persecution under queen Judith who embraced the Jewish faith.
Son after she gained power in 980, she invaded the Axumite Kingdom
and put down the ruling dynasty. Her power proved dangerous to the
Ethiopian Church. She destroyed churches everywhere, burned holy
scriptures and other books and massacred the clergy without mercy.
The reign of Judith ushered Ethiopia into the dark ages. Which continued
till the rise of the Zagwe Kingdom in the twelfth century.
the twelfth century, during the reign of King Harbe, the Church
of Ethiopia appealed to the Church of Egypt to recognize its national
autonomy and let it appoint Bishops from its own membership. But
owing the several reasons the request was not granted.
about the year 1180 to 1220 A.D. Lalibela was the king of Ethiopia.
During his illustrious reign the Church gained in strength and vitality.
It was at that time that the ten rock-hewn church buildings were
constructed marking the glory of the period.
Zague dynasty came then to be replaced by the Solomonian line as
a result of the memorable work of Abune Tekle Haimanot. He gained
for the Church a third of the state income from about 1262. Although
this arrangement did not continue unceasingly every since, the contributions
of Tekle Haimanot are worthy of note. He propagated the Christian
faith in Ethiopia, particularly in the Galls Province, carried on
a remarkable extent of social services and dedicated himself to
find a solution to the many crying problems of the day. His services
for the Church were such that he deserves eminently to be considered
one of the great saints of the Church.
age was followed by a period of persecution led by Muslim invaders.
Headed by the Turks who occupied Yemen in 1538. The Islamic invasion
took place during the reign of Lebne Dengel (1508-1540) and of his
son Gelawdos (Claudius) (1540-1559). Lebene Dengel has secured the
promise of the Portuguese and the Kings of France and Spain for
an allied Crusade against the Muslim neighbors of Ethiopia. But
the Muslim attack came sooner than expected. And it was led by the
remarkable General Mohammed Iban Ibrahim EJ Ghazi, known as Gragne
(meaning left-handed). The victorious Muslims pillaged Churches
and destroyed by burning holy books in 1539. However, in 1543 Mohamed
Gragne was defeated and killed in battle. Soon after this success
Gelawidos rebuilt churches and procured copies of the books which
the Muslims had burnt.
incidents, however, weakened the Church very much. Now the Roman
Catholic Church, taking advantage of this situation, began to send
Jesuit missionaries to Ethiopia. It was in 1557 that they came.
Though Gelawidios refused to welcome them, his brother gave them
permission to preach. Entering Ethiopia one after another, the Jesuits
began to gain ground in the country and during the reign of Susenyos’
(1632-1665) they caused great bloodshed and colossal loss of Ethiopian
humanity. Seeing this the king issued a proclamation supporting
the ancient faith of the Ethiopian people.
successor, Fasilledes, had no sympathy for the Roman Catholic faith
and he closed the door to Jesuit missionary work. Thus ended the
lamentable chapter in the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
during which the Jesuit mission had endeavored to convert it en
bloc to the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical obedience.
concluding this brief survey of the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox
Church, a word may be said about the gaining of its autonomy. This
question which had a long history became acute in the present century,
and His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I played a noble role in
solving it. In consequence of continued negotiations, the authorities
of the Church of Egypt agreed to recognize the autonomous and autocephalous
status of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in 1928 (1921 E.C.) five
Bishops chosen from among the members of the Ethiopian Orthodox
Church were consecrated as a first step in this movement. Then in
1959 His Holiness Abuna Baselios, an Ethiopian Patriarch was installed.
In this way the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has come to be recognized
as an autocephalous Church among the Orthodox Churches of the East.
All world history proves that the holy church of God is the founder
of education. The internationally known great and famous scholars
were the fruits of the universities founded by the church. That
the church was the teacher and the beginner of all things is made
obvious through history. It is well known that the Ethiopian Orthodox
Tewahedo Church has a history that spans over two thousand years
since the introduction of Christianity. The church is the oldest
teaching institution of both religious and secular education such
as biblical exegesis commentary, Patristic literature, church songs,
literature and art, mathematics, astronomy and medicine etc. The
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church still teaches in the monasteries
and in the great Cathedrals and has the freedom of preaching everywhere
throughout the country.
the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is an ancient church, she
has followers numbered by millions, and so has great responsibility.
Even though the church has many hundreds of thousands of priests
who have been trained in the traditional schools, she still needs
by the thousands modern trained priests who may be able to communicate
the church’s message to the modern generation. The Ethiopian
Orthodox Tewahedo Church has already established in North and South
America, the Caribbean, the Sudan, Djibouti, South Africa, England,
Germany and in many parts of Europe. In order to expand its mission
to other parts of the world, it obviously needs a number of very
well educated priests who will take on this great responsibility
and carry on the missionary work.
What the church needs in the future
need of our church is much greater than what has been already said
above, for she really needs thousands of educated clergymen to propagate
the Gospel to the areas where Christianity has not been preached
yet, within and outside the country, to all our brothers. Needless
to say that is a proper and a holy duty for this ancient churches
of ours, to spread the Gospel of Christ in Africa and anywhere else.
Many requests have reached our church from African countries as
well as from many others to send them missionaries.
order to carry out her spiritual work efficiently the Ethiopian
Orthodox Tewahedo Church very much requires a modern structured
administrative set up and guidance. The father and leaders of the
church need also the help of many theologically educated church
men again to carry on the efficiently their administrative and apostolic
work in the dioceses as a whole and in the districts and sub-districts
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has reopened the Theological
seminary. Graduates from this seminary take other subjects on top
of the theological courses including Ethiopian languages, literature,
history, philosophy, administration, church music, church history
and many various other similar subjects. This will enable them to
make great contribution to the development of the church as well
as of the country. At present, it is important to have theologically
educated people for the church.
than this the church needs to have scholars in doctrine, tradition
literate, experts in journalism, who can prepare different religious
articles, periodicals etc. Especially now when education is widely
spread, such preparation is highly needed.
Finally, we have in our country a treasure of educational heritage,
derived only from our national saints and scholars. These national
educational treasures are put together in the form of compositions
of music, in different philosophical and exegetical works.
is quite obvious that our fathers who are called scholars, when
they invented and prepared and offered to their successors the above
noted educational treasures they made a great effort so that their
church may not be less than the other Christian churches. We Ethiopians
of the present generation should consider ourselves fortunate enough
that our church has been able to maintain these educational treasures
for centuries through great sacrifices and struggles and so handed
them to us.
now these national educational treasures, which have been developed
from century to century, will be restructured making it possible
to continue in a better way for higher studies.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is an ancient church. The
unswerving history of the church is manifested in the strong faith
and fame of her people and these are filed in the biographical history
books of saints and martyrs.
the history of the Ethiopian people is closely woven that of the
history of the church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has rendered
a great contribution maintaining national unity and also giving
moral and spiritual strength to the people. The history of our church
indicates that the forefathers of our church, ever since the time
of the Apostles and those who followed in their footsteps, were
dedicated to give Apostolic guidance and a spiritual education.
history of the church also testifies that they were always doing
all these together through the Holy Synod.
though, the New Testament only gives very brief but fundamental
guidelines and not a detailed order as to how the church should
be administered, it is written that our Lord Jesus Christ before
His Ascension gave full responsibilities to the Apostles.
it is explained in the Gospel of St. Mark 10:42-45 by our Lord Jesus
Christ, the bishops or leaders of the church, following the example
of Christ are to rule not by force and compulsion, but by agreement;
not by pride but by politeness; not as dictators, but as servants;
not for money but for the love of Christ.
highest authority of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the
Holy Synod, under the chairmanship of His Holiness the Patriarch.
But the administration is run by the archbishops, bishops and the
clergy. What is clearly stated in the history of the church is that
there was not uniformity in the administration of the church after
the Apostolic era.
of this, the method of administrating the sacraments and by whom
these sacraments should be administered; as to how the leaders (bishops)
of the church should be elected; how to be consecrated; and as to
by whose authority people be excommunicated if necessary; the church
had set up her own administrative law and order.
fundamental administrative guideline, of the Ethiopian Orthodox
Tewahedo Church therefore, as follows:
1. That all authority (of the church) drives from Christ.
2. That Christ’s humility is the true example for all who
serve the church (Priesthood).
3. That the administrative authority of the Church does not lie
upon one person, but collectively upon all who are consecrated as
bishops (the Holy Synod).
4. That administration and teaching go together.
5. That the teaching of the church is strictly confined within the
framework of the teaching of the apostles.
6. That assistants are required for both on those who officiate
at the prayers.
7. Since it is commanded that worthy and capable men should be elected
to administer the church, the administration of the church is based
upon the above mentioned points.
the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is guided by the Holy Synod.
This Holy Synod, guided itself under the chairmanship of His Holiness
Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church,
guides the faithful both inside and outside the country. In order
to maintain the life of the church and to satisfy the wish of the
faithful, the Holy Synod:
1. continually permits and encourages many churches to be built,
2. gives guidance and help to have many educational books printed
and distributes them making sure that they reach the hands of the
3. maintains the ancient culture and tradition of the church.
4. is also making an attempt to make internationally known the position
that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church holds and its work,
so that as a member of the Christian churches she may be able to
expand her spiritual obligation and get closer to the other member
The need for developing youth movements for the young, Sunday schools
for children and organizations for women was not felt by the Ethiopian
Orthodox Church in the past. But things have changed. As a result
of this, Sunday schools are organized everywhere and some student
movements have been started.
first Youth Association were established in 1957 and they were “Haimanote
Abew of Ethiopian Student Associations” and Temero Mastemar
Association. This associations were well organized. They have many
members, both from students and from young non-students. It corresponds
abroad with some student movements like the “World Christian
Student Federation” from which the association gets both material
and spiritual aid. Its weekly religious gathering, which includes
preaching and Bible studies, is highly important to its members.
They acquaint them with the Church’s tradition and faith.
Since then many Sunday schools have been established in almost every
church in the country and have been actively working in the spreading
of the faith from young age to adulthood.
with slight modification from “The Oriental Orthodox Churches
Addis Ababa Conference, January 1965”
short History, faith and order of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo
Church, Published by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Holy
Synod, Printed by Tinsae Ze Gubae Printing Press, 1983.