“The Lord’s angel said to Phillip, ‘Go south along the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ So Phillip left. An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road to his chariot . . . Phillip ran up close and heard the man reading aloud from the book of Isaiah . . . . So Phillip began at this place in the Scripture and explained the good news about Jesus.” —Acts 8:26-27, 30, 35

Sudan Interior Mission Forced Out of Ethiopia, April 17, 1937

 

The Bible mentions Ethiopia sixty times, and that country boasts the oldest Christian Church in the world. The Ethiopian Eunuch led to Christ by Phillip in Acts 8 marks the beginning of that ancient church, although historians date the national adoption of Christianity in the early 4th Century. Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia, has the second largest population in Africa, and about 60% of the people (40-46 million) identify as Christian, in a region where most other nations are large majority Muslim. Most Ethiopian Christians are similar in belief to the Coptic Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, although there are also more than thirteen million Protestants. One of the most vigorous and successful Protestant mission agencies of the 20th Century—Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina—has carried on a powerful witness in Ethiopia since they were established in 1893.


Exemplifying the long Christian history in Ethiopia, the Church of Saint George, dating to the late 1100s, is among nearly a dozen rock-hewn churches in the city of Lalibela


SIM Founders (left to right) Walter Gowans, Tom Kent and Rowland Bingham aimed to evangelize the “Soudan” region of Africa, but Gowans and Kent died of Malaria. Finally, in 1902, through Bingham’s persistent efforts, a base was successfully established 500 miles inland in Patigi, Nigeria

In 1927, SIM sent missionaries to a wild Satan-worshipping tribe known as the Wallamos, who live in the southernmost area of the country. Once a year the tribe sacrificed a bull to Satan and smeared the blood on their doorposts, a kind of pagan Passover. In the nine or so years that SIM missionaries worked among the Walaytas, their common name today, forty-eight of them had professed Christ and started a small church. In 1935, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, invaded Ethiopia with the Italian army and fought a bitter war that lasted about seventeen months. The Italians rounded up the twenty-six SIM missionaries working among the Walaytas and sent them packing back to their home countries on April 17, 1937, leaving the handful of devout Christians who, for the first time, would have to “stand on their own feet.” Missionary Raymond Davis wrote that:


A caption accompanying this image from Bingham’s autobiography reads: “The heathen in his hunger bows down to wood and stone. A hunter entreating his idols. Typical of the fifty million without the Gospel that created the ‘burden of the Sudan’ upon the hearts of the three pioneers of the Sudan Interior Mission”

“…we knew that God was faithful and that He was able to preserve what He had begun among the Wallamos. But still we wondered what we would find if we were ever able to come back.”


Military actions during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War from February to May 1936

The “Second Italian-Abyssinian War” proved to be a mere warmup to the Second World War, and Italy joined with Germany to help form the Axis powers. In November of 1942, the Allied forces landed in North Africa to begin the counterattack against the Axis. The American and British forces whipped the Italian army in short order and eventually drove the Germans back to the European mainland. The SIM missionaries were able to return to Ethiopia on the 4th of July, 1943. Apprehensive of what they might find, the American and British missionaries were astonished by what they discovered.


Colorized photo of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) in his commander-in-chief uniform


Italian artillery in Tembien, Ethiopia, 1936


Abyssinian soldiers, 1936

After they had left their Wallamos people, the Italians had tried to stamp out the Church. They whipped the church leaders, one of them 400 times! The elders could not lay on their backs for many months. Several of them died from the beatings. One of the leaders, Wandaro, was publicly whipped but preached to the crowd between lashes. Another, Toro, though whipped with a hippo-hide whip, shouted out the Gospel while receiving his stripes. More and more Wallamos people confessed faith in Christ and the church got so large, they began sending missionaries to other villages in the region. When the SIM missionaries arrived back in 1943, they found not forty-eight believers, but 18,000! The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.


The cover art of the December 27, 1936 issue of “La Domenica del Corriere” depicts the Italian victory of the war in Ethiopia

The Walaytas today represent only 2.3% of the Ethiopian population—2.4 million. They have exercised a large influence over the country, however, in music, dance and cuisine. The vast majority of them are Christian, and most of those are Protestant. Islam has made large inroads in Ethiopia, and the Coptic Church has its own doctrinal aberrations and peculiarities, but one of the oldest Christian nations in the world has been kept by God to this very day through persecution, war, invasion, and hardship unknown to American Christians.


Modern-day Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia