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IYASU STRUGGLED WITH ETHIOPIA'S RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES

ON 7 JULY 1680, Iyasu I (also known as Yasous I or Joseph I) succeeded his father Yohannes I (Hannes I or John I) as emperor of Ethiopia. One of his first actions was to call a church council. He was keenly interested in religious questions and would intervene in church affairs throughout his reign, building many churches and attempting to conciliate his country’s religious differences.

Ethiopia’s Christian monks belonged to rival bodies, partisans of the Dabra Libanos and Abba Ewostatewos traditions. According to explorer James Burke, their most bitter dispute was a quarrel over the “mode and moment of our Savior’s incarnation.” The monks of Dabra Libanos held that there is one God, of the Father alone, united to a body perfectly human, consubstantial with ours, and by that union becoming the Messiah; whereas the adherents of Abba Ewostatewos declared that Jesus is perfect God and perfect man, by the union one Christ, whose body is composed of a precious substance not consubstantial with ours or derived from his mother. Yohannes I had sided with the monks of Ewostatewos whereas his son Iyasu preferred the “high church” position of Dabra Libanos which was more in line with the teaching of Coptic Alexandria. This difference of religious opinion seems to have been a cause of friction between Prince Iyasu and King Yohannes while the latter was still emperor.

The day after his accession, Iyasu deposed one of the Ewostatewos clergymen. On this day, 27 September 1680, Iyasu and representative Ethiopian clergy met in council and deposed yet another Ewostatewos partisan. In the seventeenth century, Ethiopia had no patriarch of its own, but was under the authority of the Alexandrian patriarch. Iyasu requested the patriarch of Alexandria to appoint an abuna(head religious leader) for Ethiopia more to his liking. He held many religious councils and discussions in the following years but was unable to achieve unity among the clergy.

Would-be usurpers seized on Ethiopia’s religious differences in attempts to seize the throne. Iyasu, however, was a successful military leader who prevailed in almost all his many military expeditions and battles. Although he showed himself generous with exiled nobles, he was stern and even vengeful with rebels. 

Throughout his reign Iyasu often retired to the islands of Lake Tana to fast. After the death of his favorite concubine in 1705, he retired grief-stricken and sick to one of these islands. There, at the instigation of his son Takla Haymanot, his maternal uncles murdered him on 13 October 1706.

Dan Graves

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Evangelical Christianity also has taken vigorous hold in Ethiopia as documented in Against Great Odds.

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