Triptych of the Virgin and Child, Ethiopia, 17th century, Tempera on gesso-covered wooden boards. This item will be on display at the Museum of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible

Martin Luther’s ‘dream’ church? It wasn’t in Europe

(RNS) — This year marks the 500th anniversary of the launching of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Commemorations will be held from Memphis to Mombasa to Mumbai to Munich.

Yet, most events and books on the Reformation explore it without any reference to African Christians.

This silence is profound, and I would like to break it by offering possible Ethiopian connections to Martin Luther and the Protestant movement.

Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517, but he had begun that year fascinated with Ethiopian Christianity.

That will come as a surprise to many of today’s Christians, even scholars, who are accustomed to discussing Luther and the Protestant Reformation as solely European subjects.

But Luther esteemed the Church of Ethiopia because he thought Ethiopia was the first nation in history to convert to Christianity.

Located far beyond the orbit of the Roman Catholic Church, this first Christian kingdom, according to Luther, served as an older, wiser, black sibling to the white Christian kingdoms of Europe.

In a sense, the Church of Ethiopia was the "dream" for Luther, a true forerunner of Protestantism.

As an ancient church with direct ties to the Apostles, the Ethiopian Church conferred legitimacy on Luther’s emerging Protestant vision of a church outside the authority of the Roman Catholic papacy.

As a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of Ethiopia embodied the gospel message more robustly and faithfully.

Ethiopian Christians practiced elements of the faith absent in Roman Catholicism, elements Protestants would later adopt: both bread and wine at Communion, vernacular Scriptures and married clergy.

Absent from Ethiopian Christianity were practices Protestants would dismiss: the primacy of the Roman pope, indulgences, purgatory, and marriage as a sacrament.

Luther's theological fascination with the Ethiopian Church was illuminated in 1534 in his face-to-face dialogue with an Ethiopian cleric, Michael the Deacon, in which Luther tested out his theological portrait of the Ethiopian Church.

Recalling the dialogue with Michael the Deacon, Luther later stated: “We have also learned from him, that the rite which we observe in the use of administration of the Lord’s Supper and the Mass, agrees with the Eastern Church. ... For this reason we ask that good people would demonstrate Christian love also to this (Ethiopian) visitor."

For his part, after having Luther's Articles of the Christian Faith interpreted to him, Deacon Michael proclaimed: "This is a good creed, that is, faith."

Luther extended full fellowship to Deacon Michael and the Ethiopian Church, an invitation Luther withheld from the Bohemian Brethren (the Hussites) and Reformed Churches connected to Ulrich Zwingli.

From his dialogue with Michael the Deacon, Luther must have been thrilled to learn that what he had rediscovered in his reading of the Scriptures was already present in the Ethiopian Church.

His reforms were based on more than the early church of his imagination. For Luther, the Church of Ethiopia was the historical proof that his reform of the church in Europe had a clear historical and biblical basis.

The revelation that Ethiopian Christianity possibly had links to Protestant Reformation is a game-changer for what is generally thought to be an exclusively European phenomenon.

The admission that this cross-cultural global exchange between Africa and Europe shaped early Protestantism disrupts the narrative that the Reformation was solely the product of Western civilization.

By recognizing the contribution of Ethiopian Christianity to the Protestant Reformation, we can join Luther in acknowledging Ethiopian Christianity as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

(David D. Daniels is Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and a bishop in the Church of God in Christ. This article first appeared in The Commercial Appeal of Memphis. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Equally as interesting is the extensive dialog between Lutheran theologians in Wittenburg and the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople. This had promising directions but petered out due to the difficulties of post to Ottoman Constantinople and the conflicting pressures demanding the attention of the Ecumenical Patriarch at a time of increasing persecution. It remains as one of history’s leading `what if’s` had it come to fruition.

  2. The Ethiopian church also kept God’s true Sabbath, a doctrine that has almost been forgotten by the church today. Observing the mark of authority of the Catholic church, Sunday sacredness, is the prime reason why so many can join hands with her to celebrate the resounding success of her counter-Reformation, believing with all their hearts that the Protest is over. But, it is not…not by a long shot.

  3. Such a waste of time, money and effort over a simple, peasant, preacher-man from Nazareth.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers i.e. Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John,
    A bodily resurrection and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar-god myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


  4. You’ve got to be kidding. The reformation was everywhere – China, India, Iraq. Actually, they weren’t reforming the church. They had never left. In India today, the church traces itself back to the Apostle Thomas.

  5. Interesting article, there are several ancient Churches that have never had any significant links to Rome and predate the rise of power of the Roman Pope

  6. I see you here a lot. Why the effort then? And who do you mean to be educating? Do you presume there are no religious people who understand the history of the traditions we claim as our own? Do you think that the whole of Yale Divinity School (for example) is ignorant of the information you possess?

  7. I am sure the Yale Divinity School scholars know about the authentic and non-authentic passages of the NT. The problem is that they keep quiet as their jobs depend on viable Christianity no matter what rigorous historic testing reveals.

    “Mission & History

    Yale Divinity School Mission Statement

    Yale Divinity School has an enduring commitment to foster the knowledge and love of God through scholarly engagement with Christian traditions in a global, multifaith context. Participating in the vibrant life of Yale University, the Divinity School is uniquely positioned to train leaders for church and society given its ecumenical and international character, engagement with music and the arts, and commitment to social justice.”

    To bring yourself up their knowledge base, some perusal recommendations:

    From Professors Crossan and Watts’ book, Who is Jesus.

    “That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

    “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus’ followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

    “While the brute fact that of Jesus’ death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. ”

    “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

    I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those “last week” details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered.”

    See also Professor Crossan’s reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

    Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.

    Part of Crossan’s The Historical Jesus has been published online at

    There is also a search engine for this book on the right hand side of the opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

    See also Wikipedia’s review on the historical Jesus to include the Tacitus’ reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.


    “One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals, exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not blunt) writing style.

    Then there are these scriptural references:

    Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

    Added suggested readings:

    o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.

    2. Early Christian Writings,
    – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–

    30-60 CE Passion Narrative
    40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
    50-60 1 Thessalonians
    50-60 Philippians
    50-60 Galatians
    50-60 1 Corinthians
    50-60 2 Corinthians
    50-60 Romans
    50-60 Philemon
    50-80 Colossians
    50-90 Signs Gospel
    50-95 Book of Hebrews
    50-120 Didache
    50-140 Gospel of Thomas
    50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
    50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
    65-80 Gospel of Mark
    70-100 Epistle of James
    70-120 Egerton Gospel
    70-160 Gospel of Peter
    70-160 Secret Mark
    70-200 Fayyum Fragment
    70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
    73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
    80-100 2 Thessalonians
    80-100 Ephesians
    80-100 Gospel of Matthew
    80-110 1 Peter
    80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
    80-130 Gospel of Luke
    80-130 Acts of the Apostles
    80-140 1 Clement
    80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
    80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
    80-250 Christian Sibyllines
    90-95 Apocalypse of John
    90-120 Gospel of John
    90-120 1 John
    90-120 2 John
    90-120 3 John
    90-120 Epistle of Jude
    93 Flavius Josephus
    100-150 1 Timothy
    100-150 2 Timothy
    100-150 T-itus
    100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
    100-150 Secret Book of James
    100-150 Preaching of Peter
    100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
    100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
    100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
    100-160 2 Peter
     4. Jesus Database, http://www.faithfutures.o-rg/JDB/intro.html –”The JESUS DATABASE is an online a-nnotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament.”
    5. Josephus on Jesus
    6. The Jesus Seminar, http://en.wikipedia.o-rg/wiki/Jesus_Seminar
    7. – books on the health and illness during the time of the NT
    8. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
    9.The Gn-ostic Jesus
    (Part One in a Two-Part Series on A-ncient and Modern G-nosticism)
    by Douglas Gro-othuis: http://www.equip.o-rg/articles/g-nosticism-and-the-g-nostic-jesus/
    10. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission
    Presented on March 18, 1994
    11. The Jesus Database- newer site:
    12. Jesus Database with the example of S-u-pper and Eucharist:
    13. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:
    13. Historical Jesus Studies
    14. The Greek New Testament:
    15. D-iseases in the Bible:

    16. Religion on- Line (6000 a-rt-ic-les on the hi-story of religion, churches, theologies,
    theologians, eth-ics, etc. religion-online.o–rg/
    17. The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT
    18 Writing the New Testament- e-xi-sting copies, o–r–al tradition etc.
    19. JD Crossan’s c-onclusions about the a-uthencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the c-onclusions of other NT e-xege-tes in the last 200 years:
    20. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books by t-itle with the complete translated work in English
    21. Luke and Josephus- was there a c-onnection?
    22. NT and beyond time line:
    23. St. Paul’s Time line with discussion of important events:
    24. See for a list of JD Crossan’s books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be found on-line at Google Books.
    25. Father Edward Schillebeeckx’s words of wisdom as found in his books.
    27. The books of the following : Professors Gerd Ludemann, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Bishop NT Wright.
    28. Father Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY, 1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.
    29. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus

    Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth [Hardcover]
    Bart D. Ehrman (Author)

    Large numbers of atheists, humanists, and conspiracy theorists are raising one of the most pressing questions in the history of religion: “Did Jesus exist at all?” Was he invented out of whole cloth for nefarious purposes by those seeking to control the masses? Or was Jesus such a shadowy figure—far removed from any credible historical evidence—that he bears no meaningful resemblance to the person described in the Bible?
    In Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts these questions, vigorously defends the historicity of Jesus, and provides a compelling portrait of the man from Nazareth. The Jesus you discover here may not be the Jesus you had hoped to meet—but he did exist, whether we like it or not.

    MAY 16, 2008 11:24 AM |

  8. Indeed yes. There is a book out by Keith Sissman called “Traces of the Kingdom” where he traces the church in first-century simplicity in England (where he lived) back to around 1000 BC and all their hiding places. This book in its entirety is on the enternet, complete with pictures of where they met. Rome may have controlled much, but it did not control all. Never did.

  9. I see. Just like those climate scientists — they’re in it for the money.

    I don’t know what you mean to demonstrate here with the cut and paste. But why don’t you check out footnote number 29.

  10. Climate scientists are not quiet about the truth.
    And Luke Timothy Johnson, his job also is dependent on a viable Christianity who skips the reality of rigorous historic testing. And yes I have his book, read it and found him to be just another supporter of the NT myths and embellishments.

  11. As per James Somerville, Philosophy professor emeritus from Xavier University, Cincinnati,

    “The faith of the vast majority of believers (and non-believers) depends upon where they were born and when.”

    It is disturbing that such debates and too often violence and hatred continue unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of it all.

  12. We agree about the climate scientists, but that’s the way the right attempts to discredit them. Accuse them of only caring about maintaining their jobs. You tried the same thing. You could at least accept the sincerity of people you don’t agree with. Unless you have proof otherwise, that’s the decent thing to do.

  13. I am not discrediting anyone. Rigorous historic testing does.

  14. While there surely must have been overt political considerations that prevented closer ties between the Orthodox and the reformers, the Orthodox side also recognized irreconcilable theological perspectives regarding such concepts as free will, justification, sola scriptura, the importance of good works, the efficacy of prayers for the dead, and the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. In certain practices the reformers did adopt positions more closely aligned with Orthodoxy – the rejection of papal supremacy, purgatory, clerical celibacy and communion by bread alone.

    Dialogue with both Lutherans and Anglicans occurred off and on for a century, but the theological divide actually grew during that time rather than abating (Patriarch Cyril Lucaris’ Calvinist predilections notwithstanding). Interesting to note that even the Church of England and the Lutheran Churches couldn’t find enough common ground to establish communion between their respective confessions.

  15. please check the history of Ethiopian reformation movement 50 years before Martin Luthers

  16. Are you sure about that. The present Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrate mass on Sunday if I am not wrong or unless you are talking about another Ethiopia I was born and raised in. Some of the older generation living in the Northern region who are influenced by the Bete-Israel commonly known as Felasha living in the area celebrate mass on Sunday but observe Saturday as Sabbath. Not the doctrinal teaching of the church.

  17. Christianity is not what the historians and theologians determine it to be; but rather a living, saving relationship with Creator God,through His Son and our Savior, JesusChrist. He gave it to us at creation (Genesis 2:1-3) and kept it at redemption (Luke 4:16-18).Fact of the matter is that not until the European influence that Sunday keeping for Christians became common practice.

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