The Evolution of Christianity Across Africa

Outline of Africa with a picture of bible and cross main

Today, a staggering 40% of Africans embrace Christianity, a faith that wove its way into the continent’s fabric centuries ago. Christianity spread throughout North Africa and Ethiopia in the first hundred years after the death of Jesus. Islam spread into sub-Saharan Africa in the Middle Ages. European colonization brought Christianity to the coasts (15th Century) and the interior (19th Century). Missionaries helped to spread the faith by learning local languages. Christianity was a means to spread European culture. It also displaced local religious traditions and was used to control the people.


A Jewish preacher died in Palestine around 30 CE. The Romans executed him. Most people thought that was the end of things. It was not. A religion that today has over one billion followers arose from his message. The man was Jesus. The religion is Christianity.  

Christianity slowly spread throughout the Roman Empire. The people were open to new faiths. Jews lived in many parts of the empire. Good Roman roads and infrastructure helped spread ideas long distances. People like Paul wrote letters, helping to spread the faith. 

Christianity In North Africa 

The gospels provide an in-depth description of the death of Jesus. At one point, the Romans forced a man named Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross because Jesus was too weak. Cyrene was a city in Libya. The Romans controlled Northern Africa, including Libya and Egypt.  

The Christian Bible (Acts of Apostles) explains how Philip preached the good news of Jesus to a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia. Christian tradition later taught the author of the gospel of Mark brought the religion to Egypt. Historians question the truth of these facts. 

We do know Christianity spread into North Africa early on. Academics study fragments of Ancient Christian manuscripts from the 2nd Century found in Egypt. 

Tradition holds that Ethiopian King Ezana made Christianity the kingdom’s official religion. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Augustine, an influential early 5th-century Christian philosopher, was the bishop of Hippo in modern-day Algeria. 

Islam Enters The Picture 

Muhammed, a merchant in Saudi Arabia, founded Islam in the early seventh century. Muslims believe their holy book, the Qu’ran, is the word of Allah (God). Jesus is a prophet in their faith. Christianity and Judaism are “people of the book” and should have freedom of worship.

A Golden Age of Islam developed and quickly spread from the Middle East throughout North Africa and into Spain and Portugal. Trade routes helped spread Islam into Sub-Saharan Africa. 

The growth of Islam included spreading new ideas and learning. Islam honors Jesus as a prophet. Muslims knew and respected Christianity. As Islam spread into the depths of Africa, it brought the knowledge of Christianity. For instance, traders brought it into the Ghana Empire.  

Africans were originally polytheistic, believing there were many gods. By the Middle Ages, Christianity spread to North Africa and Ethiopia. Islam was starting to spread southward. Muslims were influenced by and spread Christian ideas. The stories of Jesus spread with them. 

European Colonization 

Portugal began to colonize Africa in the 15th Century. They established colonies on the east and west coasts. Portugal traded with Africans. The Portuguese brought many Africans over to the New World as slaves. African slaves began to learn about Christianity.  

Europeans believed that Christianity was the one true faith. Missionaries came along with them to spread the religion. When Queen Nzinga of Angola wanted to negotiate with the Portuguese in the early 17th Century, she converted to Christianity to get on their good side.  

The Dutch East India Company from the Netherlands settled in South Africa in 1652. Most of the employees were members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Germans settled there as well, members of the Lutheran Church. Catholics and Protestants settled in Africa.  

Christianity remained in pockets of European control along coastal areas. Africans in the interior largely continued to worship their traditional religions.  

19th Century Expansion 

Europeans began a “scramble” for Africa in the 19th Century. They explored and gained control of the interior regions. European culture, including Christianity, began to dominate. 

An increased effort to spread the faith, including foreign missionaries, developed. For instance, Henry Townsend ministered to the Yoruba in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Samuel A. Crowther, the first native African Anglican bishop, translated the Bible into the written Yoruba language. 

Henry Townsend believed education was essential to spread Christianity and civilization. He published the first Nigerian bilingual newspaper. He learned the native language to preach the faith in a way Africans could understand.   

Christianity spread throughout Africa. Many local kings converted to the faith. Christianity, Islam, and traditional polytheistic faiths became the three major African religions. 

Negative Impact Of Christianity 

Karl Marx argued that religion was the “opiate of the people.” Religion was a means to be satisfied with a life filled with difficulty. It justified inequality and colonial control.

Missionaries were a significant way colonial powers spread their ideas to new lands. Europeans believed that Africans were not civilized. Christianity would help civilize them. 

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote about the results of European colonialism in his classic novel Things Fall Apart. The traditional culture of the native Africans died out in favor of foreign faiths. Were traditional faiths not worthy? 

European colonization, including harsh suppression of any dissent, was a flawed way to spread Christianity. Many converts were true believers. However, there was a great deal of coercion. 

Christianity Today 

Christianity today is the world’s largest religion. There are about 718 million in Africa. 

Africa is about forty percent Christian. Certain countries are majority Christian. Many are very passionate about their faith.  African Christians are also often more conservative. 

North Africa is primarily Muslim. Religious differences continue to divide certain nations. 

Meanwhile, like in evangelical churches in the United States, there is a rise in megachurches with weekly attendances of over two thousand people. The earliest Christian evangelicals would likely be very impressed.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.