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Abyssinian Church

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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Abyssinia is an extensive district of Eastern Africa, between lat. 70o 30' and 15o 40' N., long. 35o and 42o E., with a population of perhaps four millions. Carl Ritter, of Berlin, has shown that the high country of Habesh consists of three terraces or distinct table-lands, rising one above another, and of which the several grades of ascent offer themselves in succession to the traveler as he advances from the shores of the Red Sea (Erdkunde, th. 1, s. 168). The first of these levels is the plain of Baharnegash; the second level is the plain and kingdom of Tigre, which formerly contained the kingdom of Axum; the third level is High Abyssinia, or the kingdom of Amhara. This name of Amhara is now given to the whole kingdom, of which Gondar is the capital, and where the Amharic language is spoken, eastward of the Takazze. Amhara Proper is, however, a mountainous province to the south-east, in the center of which was Tegulat, the ancient capital of the empire, and at one period the center of the civilization of Abyssinia. This province is now in the possession of the Gallas, a barbarous people who have overcome all the southern parts of Habesh. The present kingdom of Amhara is the heart of Abyssinia, and the abode of the emperor, or Negush. It contains the upper course of the Nile, the valley of Dembea, and the lake Tzana, near which is the royal city of Gondar, and likewise the high region of Gojam, which Bruce states to be at least two miles above the level of the sea. (See ETHIOPIA).

I. History. Christianity is believed to have been introduced, about A.D. 330, by Frumentius, who was ordained bishop of Auxuma (now Axum, or Tigre) by Athanasius. (See FRUMENTIUS). As the Alexandrian Church held the Monophysite doctrine, the Abyssinian converts were instructed in this faith, which has maintained itself ever since. From the fifth to the fifteenth century little was known in Western Europe about Abyssinia or its Church. The Portuguese sent out by John II having opened a passage into Abyssinia in the fifteenth century, an emissary (Bermudes) was sent to extend the influence and authority of the Roman pontiff, clothed with the title of patriarch of Ethiopia. The Jesuits sent out thirteen of their number in 1555, but the Abyssinians stood so firm to the faith of their ancestors that the Jesuits were recalled by a bull from St. Peter's. Another Jesuit mission was sent out in 1603, and led to twenty years of intrigue, civil war, and slaughter. In December, 1624, the Abyssinian Church formally submitted to the see of Rome; but the people rebelled, and, after several years of struggle and bloodshed, the emperor abandoned the cause of Rome, and the Roman patriarch abandoned Abyssinia in 1633. After this, little or nothing was heard from Abyssinia till 1763, when Bruce visited the, country, and brought back with him a copy of the Ethiopic Scriptures. In 1809 Mr. Salt explored Abyssinia by order of the British government, and described the nation and its religion as in a ruinous condition. Mr. Salt urged the British Protestants to send missionaries to Abyssinia. Portions of the Bible were translated and published in the Amharic and Tigre languages under the auspices of the British and Foreign Bible Society (Jowett, Christ. Researches, vol. 1); and in 1826 two missionaries (from the Basle Missionary Seminary); viz., Dr. Gobat, now bishop of Jerusalem, and Christian Kugler, were sent out by the Church Missionary Society. Kugler dying, was replaced by Mr. Isenberg. He was followed by the Reverend Charles Henry Blumhardt in the beginning of 1837, and by the Reverend John Ludwig Krapf at the close of that year. The Romish Church renewed its missions in 1828, and, by stirring up intrigues, compelled the withdrawal of the Protestant missionaries in 1842. Their labors had already laid the foundation of a reform in the Abyssinian Church. Much had been done also in the way of translations into the Amharic language. Mr. Isenberg carried through the press, after his return to England in 1840, an Amharic spelling- book, 8vo; grammar, royal 8vo; dictionary, 4to; catechism, 8vo; Church history, 8vo; Amharic general history, 8vo. Mr. Isenberg had prepared a vocabulary of the Dankali language, which was likewise printed. The mission aimed not only at the Christian population of Shoa, but the Galla tribes extensively spread over the southeastern parts of Africa. To the Galla language, therefore, hitherto unwritten, Mr. Krapf's attention was much given. During Mr. Isenberg's stay in London, the following Galla works, prepared by Mr. Krapf, were printed: Vocabulary, 12mo; Elements of the Galla Language, 12mo; Matthew's Gospel, 12mo; John's Gospel, 12mo.

In 1849 the Roman Catholic missionaries were expelled, and the prince of Shoa requested the return of Dr. Krapf to the East-African Mission. In 1885 Theodore became king of Abyssinia, and was at first favorable to missions, who had meanwhile recommenced their operations, especially the Society of Basle. In 1858 this last had six laborers in the country. In 1859 the king of Tigre and Samen sent an embassy of submission to the pope, and 50,000 natives are reported to have entered into the papal communion. In 1864 king Theodore imprisoned British residents, and in 1868 an expedition under Lord Napier was sent against him, which reduced him to terms of submission. In 1872 Prince Kassai of Tigre was crowned emperor; but in 1879 king Theodore overthrew the prince of Shoa. In 1885 the Italians occupied Massowah, and relations towards Europeans have since continued unfriendly. The recent disturbances in Egypt have contributed to the decline of missions and all evangelical work along the Upper Nile, and the operations on the Congo have not yet materially aided it. The latest statistics give the Roman Catholic Church but 10,000 adherents in Abyssinia. (See AFRICA).

II. Doctrines and Usages. 1. The Abyssinian creed is, as has been said, Monophysite, or Eutychian; maintaining one nature only in the person of Christ, namely, the divine, in which they considered all the properties of the humanity to be absorbed, in opposition to the Nestorians. In both faith and worship they resemble the Romish Church in many respects; but they do not admit transubstantiation.

2. They practice the invocation of saints, prayer for the dead, and the veneration of relics; and while they reject the use of images, they admit a profusion of pictures, and venerate them. They practice circumcision, but apparently not as a religious rite. They keep both the Jewish and the Christian sabbath, and also a great number of holidays. Their clergy and churches are very numerous, the latter richly ornamented; and the number of monastic institutions among them is said to be great. The monks call themselves followers of St. Anthony, but follow various rules.

3. The supreme government lies with the patriarch, called Abuna (q.v.), who resides in Gondar. The Abuna receives his investiture from the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria., who is the nominal head of the Ethiopian Church.

4. They practice an annual ablution, which they term baptism, and which they consider necessary to wash away the defilement of sin. The priests receive the Lord's Supper every day, and always fasting; besides priests and monks, scarcely any but aged persons and children attend the communion. They call the consecration of the element Mellawat. At Gondar Bishop Gobat found no person that believed in transubstantiation. In Tigre there are some who believe in it. The wine is mixed with water. They consider fasting essential to religion; consequently their fasts occupy the greater part of the year, about nine months; but these are seldom all observed except by a few monks. The priests may be married men, but they may not marry after they have received orders. The priesthood is very illiterate, and there is no preaching at all. The Abyssinians prostrate themselves to the saints, and especially to the Virgin; and, like the Copts of Egypt, practice circumcision. When questioned on the subject, they answer that they consider circumcision merely as a custom, and that they abstain from the animals forbidden in the Mosaic law, but only because they have a disgust to them; but Dr. Gobat observed that, when they spoke upon these subjects without noticing the presence of a stranger, they attached a religious importance to circumcision, and that a priest would not fail to impose a fast or penance on a man who had eaten of a wild boar or a hare without the pretext of illness. In short, their religion consists chiefly in ceremonial observances. Their moral condition is very low; facilities of divorce are great, and chastity is a rare virtue; the same man frequently marries several women in succession, and the neglected wives attach themselves to other men. Yet their religion, corrupt as it is, has raised the Abyssinian character to a height far beyond that of any African race. Much authentic information as to this interesting Church and people in modern times is to be found in Gobat, Three Years' Residence in Abyssinia; Isenberg and Krapf, Missionary Journals in Abyssinia (Lond. 1843, 8vo); Marsden, Churches and Sects, vol. 1; Newcomb, Cyclopoedia of Missions; Rippell, Reisen in Abyssinien, Frankf. 1840; Veitch, W. D. Notes from a Journal of E. M. Flad, one of Bishop Gobat's missionaries in Abyssinia, with a sketch of the Abyssinian Church (London, 1869); Schem, Eccles. year-book for 1859; American Theol. Review, 1860 and later.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Abyssinian Church'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​a/abyssinian-church.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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