Early African Church
The name Early African Church is given to the Christian communities inhabiting the region known politically as Roman Africa, and comprised geographically within the following limits, namely: the Mediterranean littoral between Cyrenaica on the east and the river Ampsaga (now the Rummel) on the west; that part of it that faces the Atlantic Ocean being called Mauretania. The evangelization of Africa followed much the same lines as those traced by Roman civilization.
History up to the Arab Conquest
The delimitation of the ecclesiastical boundaries of the African Church is a matter of great difficulty. Again and again the Roman political authority rearranged the provincial divisions, and on various occasions the ecclesiastical authorities conformed the limits of their respective jurisdictions to those of the civil power. These limits, however, were not only liable to successive rectification, but in some cases they were not even clearly marked. Parts of Mauretania always remained independent; the mountainous region to the west of the Aures Mountains (Middle Atlas), and the plateau above the Tell never became Roman. The high lands of the Sahara and all the country west of the Atlas range were inhabited by the nomad tribes of the Gaetuli, and there are neither churches nor definite ecclesiastical organizations to be found there. Christianity filtered in, so to speak, little by little.
Bishoprics were founded among the converts, as the need for them arose; were moved, possibly, from place to place, and disappeared, without leaving a trace of their existence. The historical period of the African Church begins in 180 with groups of martyrs. At a somewhat later date the writings of Tertullian tell us how rapidly African Christianity had grown. It had passed the Roman military lines, and spread among the peoples to the south and southeast of the Aure. About the year 200 there was a violent persecution at Carthage and in the provinces held by the Romans. We gain information as to its various phases from the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and the treatises of Tertullian. Christianity, however, did not even then cease to make distant conquests; Christian epitaphs are to be found at Sour el Ghozlane, dated 227, and at Tipasa, dated 238. These dates are assured. If we rely on texts less definite we may admit that the evangelization of Northern Africa began very early.
By the opening of the 3rd century there was a large Christian population in the towns and even in the country districts, which included not only the poor, but also persons of the highest rank. A council held at Carthage about the year 220 was attended by eighteen bishops from the province of Numidia. Another council, held in the time of Cyprian, about the middle of the 3rd century, was attended by eighty-seven bishops. At this period the African Church went through a very grave crisis.
The Emperor Decius published an edict that made many martyrs and confessors, and not a few apostates. A certain bishop, followed by his whole community, was to be seen sacrificing to the gods. The apostates (see Lapsi) and the timid who had bought a certificate of apostasy for money (see Libellatici) became so numerous as to believe they could lay down the law to the Church, and demand their restoration to ecclesiastical communion, a state of affairs that gave rise to controversies and deplorable troubles.
Yet the Church of Africa had martyrs, even at such a time. The persecutions at the end of the third, and at the beginning of the fourth, century did not only make martyrs; they also gave rise to a minority that claimed that Christians could deliver the sacred books and the archives of the Church to the officers of the State, without lapsing from the faith. (See Traditors.)
The accession of Constantine found the African Church torn apart by controversies and heresies; Catholics and Donatists contended not only in polemics, but also in a violent and bloody way. A law of Constantine (318) deprived the Donatists of their churches, most of which they had taken from the Catholics. They had, however, grown so powerful that even such a measure failed to crush them. They were so numerous that a Donatist Council, held at Carthage, in 327, was attended by 270 bishops.
Attempts at reconciliation, suggested by the Emperor Constantius II, only widened the breach and led to armed repression, an ever-growing disquiet, and an enmity that became increasingly embittered. Yet, in the very midst of these troubles, the Primate of Carthage, Gratus, declared (in the year 349): "God has restored Africa to religious unity." Julian's accession (361) and his permission to all religious exiles to return to their homes added to the troubles of the African Church. A Donatist bishop sat in the seceded see of Carthage, in opposition to the orthodox bishop. One act of violence followed another and begat new conflicts. About this period, Optatus, Bishop of Milevi, began to combat the sect by his writings. A few years later, St. Augustine, converted at Milan, returned to his native land, and entered the lists against every kind of error. Paganism had by that time ceased to be a menace to the Church; in 399 the temples were closed at Carthage. Nevertheless the energy and genius of Augustine were abundantly occupied in training the clergy and instructing the faithful, as well as in theological controversy with the heretics. For forty years, from 390 to 430, the Councils of Carthage (see African Synods), which reunited a great part of the African Episcopate, public discussions with the Donatists, sermons, homilies, scriptural commentaries, followed almost without interval; an unparalleled activity that had commensurate results.
Pelagianism, which had made great strides in Africa, was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 412. Donatism, also, and Semi-Pelagianism were stricken to death at an hour when political events of the utmost gravity changed the history and the destiny of the African Church. Conflict between Carthage and Rome on the regulation of the African Church came to the fore when Apiarius of Sicca appeal his excommunication to Rome and thus challenging the authority of Cathage. Count Boniface had summoned the Vandals to Africa in 426, and by 429 the invasion was completed. The barbarians advanced rapidly and made themselves masters of cities and provinces. In 430 St. Augustine died, during the siege of Hippo; nine years later Geiseric, King of the Vandals, took possession of Carthage. Then began for the African Church an era of persecution of a kind hitherto unknown. The Vandals were Arians. Not only did they wish to establish their own Arianism, but they were bent on the destruction of Catholicism.
Churches the invasion had left standing were either transferred to the Arians or withdrawn from the Catholics and closed to public worship. The intervention of the Emperor Zeno (474-491) and the conclusion of a treaty of peace with Geiseric, were followed by a transient calm. The churches were opened, and the Catholics were allowed to choose a bishop (476), but the death of Geiserich, and the edict of Hunneric, in 484, made matters worse than before. A contemporary writer, Victor of Vita, has told us what we know of this long history of the Vandal persecution. Even in such a condition of peril, the Christians of Africa did not display much courage in the face of oppression.
During the last years of Vandal rule in Africa, St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe, exercised a fortunate influence over the princes of the Vandal dynasty, who were no longer completely barbaric, but whose culture, wholly Roman and Byzantine, equalled that of their native subjects. Yet the Vandal monarchy, which had lasted for nearly a century, seemed less firmly established than at its beginning. Hilderic, who succeeded Thrasamund in 523, was too cultured and too mild a prince to impose his will on others. Gelimer made an attempt to deprive him of power, and, proclaimed King of the Vandals in 531, marched on Carthage and dethroned Hilderich. His cause appeared to be completely successful, and his authority firmly established, when a Byzantine fleet appeared off the coast of Africa. The battle of Ad Decimum (13 September 533) won the initiative for the invading Byzantines. The taking of Carthage, the flight of Gelimer, and the battle of Tricamarum, about the middle of December, completed their destruction and their disappearance.
The victor, Belisarius, had but to show himself in order to reconquer the greater part of the coast, and to place the cities under the authority of the Emperor Justinian. A council held at Carthage in 534 was attended by 220 bishops representing all the churches. It issued a decree forbidding the public exercise of Arian worship. The establishment of Byzantine rule, however, was far from restoring unity to the African Church. The Councils of Carthage brought together the bishops of Proconsular Africa, Byzacena, and Numidia, but those of Tripolitana and Mauretania were absent. Mauretania had, in fact, regained its political autonomy, during the Vandal period. A native dynasty had been set up, and the Byzantine army of occupation never succeeded in conquering a part of the country so far from their base at Carthage.
The reign of Justinian marks a sad period in the history of the African Church, due to the part taken by the clergy in the matter known as that of the Three Chapters. While one part of the episcopate wasted its time and energies in fruitless theological discussions, others failed of their duty. It was under these circumstances that Pope Gregory the Great sent men to Africa, whose lofty character contributed greatly to increase the prestige of the Roman Church. The notary Hilarus became in some sense a papal legate with authority over the African Bishops. He left them in no doubt as to their duty, instructed or reprimanded them, and summoned councils in the Pope's name. With the help of the metropolitan of Carthage, he succeeded in restoring unity, peace, and ecclesiastical discipline in the African Church, which drew strength from so fortunate a change even so surely as the See of Rome regained in respect and authority.
This renewal of vigour, however, was not of long duration. The Arabs, who had conquered Egypt, made their way into Africa. In 642 they occupied Barca and Cyrenaica; in 643 they conquered part of the Tripolitana. In 647 the Caliph Othman gave orders for a direct attack on Africa, and an army that had gained a victory at Sbeitla withdrew on payment of a large ransom. Some years of respite ensued. The African Church showed its firm attachment to orthodoxy by remaining loyal to Pope Martin I (649-655) in his conflict with the Emperor of Byzantium. The last forty years of the 7th century witnessed the gradual fall of the fragments of Byzantine Africa into the hands of the Arabs. The Berber, or native tribes, which before this had seemed on the way to conversion to the Gospel, passed in a short time, and without resistance, to Islam. Carthage was taken by the Arabs in 695. Two years later it was re-entered by the Patrician John, but only for a brief period; in 698 Hassan once more took possession of the capital of Northern Africa.
Fate of indigenous Christianity in northwest Africa after the Arab conquest
The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between AD 647–709 effectively ended Christianity in Northern Africa for several centuries. A prevailing view is that the Church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies including the so-called Donatist heresy, and this contributed to the earlier obliteration of the Church in the present day Maghreb. Some historians contrast this with the strong monastic tradition in Coptic Egypt, which is credited as a factor that allowed the Coptic Church to remain the majority faith in that country until around after the 14th century.
However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes this. There are reports that the Roman Catholic faith persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700. A Christian community is recorded in 1114 in Qal'a in central Algeria. There is also evidence of religious pilgrimages after 850 to tombs of Catholic saints outside of the city of Carthage, and evidence of religious contacts with Christians of Arab Spain. In addition, calendar reforms adopted in Europe at this time were disseminated amongst the indigenous Christians of Tunis, which would have not been possible had there been an absence of contact with Rome.
Local Catholicism came under pressure when the Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Almohads and Almoravids came into power, and the record shows demands made that the local Christians of Tunis to convert to Islam. We still have reports of Christian inhabitants and a bishop in the city of Kairouan around 1150 AD - a significant report, since this city was founded by Arab Muslims around 680 AD as their administrative center after their conquest. A letter in Catholic Church archives from the 14th century shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa, admittedly a sharp decline from the over four hundred bishoprics in existence at the time of the Arab conquest. Berber Christians continued to live in Tunis and Nefzaoua in the south of Tunisia up until the early 15th century, and the first quarter of the 15th century, we even read that the native Christians of Tunis, though much assimilated, extended their church, perhaps because the last Christians from all over the Maghreb had gathered there.
By 1830, when the French came as colonial conquerors to Algeria and Tunis, local Catholicism had been extinguished. The growth of Catholicism in the region after the French conquest was built on European colonizers and settlers (mostly in Algeria), and these immigrants and their descendants for the most part left when the countries of the region became independent.
Christian Literature of Africa
The ecclesiastical literature of Christian Africa is the most important of Latin Christian literatures. The first name that presents itself is Tertullian, an admirable writer, much of whose work we still possess, notwithstanding the lacunae due to lost writings. Such works as the "Passio S. Perpetuae" have been attributed to him, but the great apologist stands so complete that he has no need to borrow from others. Not that Tertullian is always remarkable for style, ideas, and theology, but he has furnished matter for very suggestive studies. His style, indeed, is often exaggerated, but his faults are those of a period not far removed from the great age of Latin literature. Nor are all his ideas alike novel and original, so that what seems actually to be his own gains in importance on that very account. In contradistinction to the apologists of, and before, his time, Tertullian refused to make Christian apologetics merely defensive; he appealed to the law of the Empire, claimed the right to social existence, and took the offensive. His theology is sometimes daring, and even inaccurate; his morality inadmissible through very excess. Some of the treatises that come down to us were written after he separated from the Catholic Church. Yet, whatever verdict may be passed on him, his works remain among the most valuable of Christian antiquity. The lawyer, Minucius Felix, has shown so much literary skill in his short treatises of a few pages that he has deservedly attained to fame. The correspondence, treatises, and sermons of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, belong approximately to the middle of the 3rd century, the correspondence forming one of the most valuable sources for the history of Christianity in Africa and the West during his time. His relations with the Church of Rome, the councils of Carthage, his endless disputes with the African bishops, take the place, to some extent, of the lost documents of the period. St. Cyprian, indeed, although an orator before he became a bishop, is not Tertullian's equal in the matter of style. His treatises are well composed, and written with art; they do not, however, contain that inexhaustible abundance of views and perspectives that are the sole privilege of certain very lofty minds. Arnobius, the author of an apology for Christianity, is of a secondary interest; Lactantius, more cultured and more literary, only belongs to Africa by reason of the richness of his genius. The peculiar bent of his talent is purely Ciceronian, nor was he trained in the schools of his native land. Among these, each of whom has his name and place, there moved others, almost unknown, or hidden under an impenetrable anonymousness. Writings collected among the Spuria of Latin literature have been sometimes attributed to Tertullian, sometimes to St. Cyprian, or even to Pope Victor, the contemporary of the Emperor Commodus. Other authors, again, such as Maximius of Madaura and Victorinus, stand, with Optatus of Milevi, in the front rank of African literature in the 4th century, before the appearance of St. Augustine.
The literary labours of St. Augustine are so closely connected with his work as a bishop, that it is difficult, at the present time, to separate one from the other. He wrote not for the sake of writing, but for the sake of doing. From the year 386 onward, his treatises appeared every year. Such profuseness is often detrimental to their literary worth; but what is more injurious, however, was his own carelessness concerning beauty of form, of which he hardly ever seems to think in his solicitude about other things. His aim above all else was to ensure conviction. The result is that we have the few beautiful passages that fell from his pen. It is to the loftiness of his thought, rather than to the culture of his mind, that we owe certain pages which are admirable, but not perfect. The language of Augustine was Latin indeed, but a Latin that had already entered on its decline. His desire was to be understood, not to be admired, which explains the shortcomings of his work in respect of style. But when from his style we pass to his thoughts, we may admire almost unreservedly. Even here we find occasional traces of bad taste, but it is the taste of his period: florid, fond of glitter, puns, refinements-in a word, of the weaknesses of contemporary Latin. Of all St. Augustine's vast labours, the most important, as they are among the first Christian writings, are: The "Confessions," the "City of God," and the "Commentary on the Gospel of St. John." As regards theology, his works gave Christianity an impulse that was felt for centuries. The doctrine of the Trinity supplied him with matter for the most finished exposition to be found among the works of the Doctors of the Church. Other writers, theologians, poets, or historians, are to be met with after St. Augustine's time, but their names, honourable as they are, cannot compare in fame with the great ones we record as belonging to the 3rd and 4th centuries. The endeavour of St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe, is to think and write as a faithful disciple of St. Augustine. Dracontius, a meritorious poet, lacks elevation. Only an occasional line deserves a place among the poetry that does not die. Victor of Vita, an impetuous historian, makes us sometimes wish, in presence of his too literary descriptions, for the monotonous simplicity of the chronicles, with their rigorous exactness. In the theological or historical writings of Facundus of Hermiane, Verecundus, and Victor of Tunnunum, may be found bursts of passion of literary merit, but often of doubtful historical accuracy.
The writings of African authors, e.g., Tertullian and St. Augustine, are full of quotations drawn from the Sacred Scriptures. These fragmentary texts are among the most ancient witnesses to the Latin Bible, and are of great importance, not only in connection with the formation of the style and vocabulary of the Christian writers of Africa, but also in regard to the establishment of the biblical text. Africa is represented at the present day by a group of texts that preserved a version commonly known as the "African Version" of the New Testament. It may now be taken as certain that there never existed in early Christian Africa an official Latin text known to all the Churches, or used by the faithful to the exclusion of all others. The African bishops willingly allowed corrections to be made in a copy of the Sacred Scriptures, or even a reference, when necessary, to the Greek text. With some exceptions, it was the Septuagint text that prevailed, for the Old Testament, until the 4th century. In the case of the New, the MSS. were of the western type. (See Bible, Canon.) On this basis arose a variety of translations and interpretations. The existence of a number of versions of the Bible in Africa does not imply, however, that no one version was more widely used and generally received than the rest, i.e., the version found nearly complete in the works of St. Cyprian. Yet even this version was not without rivals. Apart from discrepancies in two quotations of the same text in the works of two different authors, and sometimes of the same author, we know that of several books of Scripture there were versions wholly independent of each other. At least three different versions of Daniel were used in Africa during the 3rd century. In the middle of the fourth, the Donatist Tychonius uses and collates two versions of the Apocalypse.
The liturgy of the African Church is known to us from the writings of the Fathers, but there exists no complete work, no liturgical book, belonging to it. The writings of Tertullian, of St. Cyprian, of St. Augustine are full of valuable indications that indicate the liturgy of Africa presented many characteristic points of contact with the liturgy of the Roman Church. The liturgical year comprised the feasts in honour of Our Lord and a great number of feasts of martyrs, which are offset by certain days of penance. Africa, however, does not seem to have conformed rigorously, in this matter, with what was else customary. The station days. The fast of these days was not continued beyond the third hour after noon. Easter in the African Church had the same character as in other Churches; it continued to draw a part of the year into its orbit by fixing the date of Lent and of the Paschal season, while Pentecost and the Ascension likewise gravitated around it. Christmas and the Epiphany were kept clearly apart, and had fixed dates. The cultus of the martyrs is not always to be distinguished from that of the dead, and it is only by degrees that the line was drawn between the martyrs who were to be invoked and the dead who were to be prayed for. The prayer (petition) for a place of refreshment, refrigerium, bears witness to the belief of an interchange of help between the living and the departed. In addition, moreover, to the prayer for the dead, we find in Africa the prayer for certain classes of the living. (See African Liturgy.)
Several languages were used simultaneously by the people of Africa; the northern part seems at first to have been a Latin-speaking country. Indeed, previous to, and during the 1st centuries of, our era we find there a flourishing Latin literature, many schools, and famous rhetoricians. However, Greek was currently spoken at Carthage in the 2nd century; some of Tertullian's treatises were written also in Greek. The steady advance of Roman civilization caused the neglect and abandonment of that tongue. At the beginning of the 3rd century an African, chosen at random, would have expressed himself more easily in Greek than in Latin; two hundred years later, St. Augustine and the poet Dracontius had at best but a slight knowledge of Greek. As to local dialects, we know little. No work of Christian literature written in Punic has come down to us, though there can be no doubt that the clergy and faithful used a language much spoken in Carthage and in the coast towns of the Proconsular Province. The lower and middle classes spoke Punic, and the Circumcellions were to be among the last of its defenders. The Christian writers almost wholly ignore the native Libyan, or Berber, dialect. St. Augustine, indeed, tells us that this writing was only in use among the nomad tribes.
- The Disappearance of Christianity from North Africa in the Wake of the Rise of Islam C. J. Speel, II Church History, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Dec., 1960), pp. 379-397