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Frumentius Begged a Bishop for Ethiopia—and He Was It

Frumentius evangelized Ethiopia.

DISASTER FOR TWO YOUNG MEN named Edesius and Frumentius became a blessing for Ethiopia. Their uncle, a Christian philosopher from Tyre, had taken the boys with him to see the world, sailing to lands bordering the Indian ocean and the Red Sea. The Greek-speaking youths were on their way home with him when their ship either landed at Andulis in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) or was wrecked near the port. 

It is not clear why the boys ended up as slaves of the King of Axum. One account says local Abyssinians became infuriated with the sailors and butchered everyone connected with the ship except the two boys who were studying apart under a tree. This may have had to do with the lapse of a treaty with Rome, or boorish behavior on the part of an individual sailor. Another tradition says the boys alone escaped from a shipwreck. At any rate, the Abyssinians sent them as a gift to their king. 

Impressed by their knowledge and conduct, he entrusted Edesius with the task of cupbearer and placed Frumentius in charge of court records. Before his death, he freed them. The queen, his widow, pleaded with the two to stay and to assist in governing the country and training her sons Abreha and Atsbeha, who were not yet of age. Edesius and Frumentius agreed to help out and did so until the princes were of age. Frumentius lived with Anbaram, a Jewish priest with Christian sympathies. (Ethiopia had a long association with Judaism, possibly going back to the days of Solomon.) Edesias and Frumentius used their authority to spread the gospel; among the steps they took was to encourage Christian merchants to worship openly. 

When Abreha and Atsbeha were old enough to assume the throne (which they did under the names Ezana and Sayzana), Edesius and Frumentius resigned their posts. Although the Ethiopians pleaded with them to stay, they were filled with longing to see Tyre again. Following the Nile northward, they arrived in Alexandria, Egypt. 

At that time, Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria. Frumentius pleaded with him to appoint a bishop for Abyssinia. Athanasius agreed, but picked Frumentius as the ideal candidate. Frumentius was not to see Tyre after all. After Athanasius had trained and ordained him, he returned to Abyssinia with helpers. 

Frumentius converted Anbaram and ordained him. He led King Ezana and his brother Sayzana to embrace Christianity and baptized them. Frumentius and his co-workers organized the Christian church in Abyssinia and also conducted mission work in neighboring lands. Coins minted after that time no longer carried pagan inscriptions, but Christian ones instead. 

After his death, Frumentius was affectionately remembered as Abuna “Our Father” and Aba Salama “Father of Peace”—titles still used for the head of Ethiopian Church. Edesius became a priest in Tyre, where he related these events to the church historian Rufinus. The Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of Frumentius on this day, 30 November.

—Dan Graves


For more on Frumentius and the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia, read "From Abba Salama to King Lalibela" in Christian History #105, Christianity in Early Africa

Against Great Odds tells of a modern resurgence of Christianity in Ethiopia.

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