Out of Africa

Posted by Mike Aquilina on 03.07.11

For St. Perpetua’s day, visit early Christian Africa—in one of the earliest posts on my blog.

Carthage, the cosmopolitan port city of ancient North Africa, had a thriving economy, a lively culture, and no small influence in world affairs. Christianity reached the Roman province of “New Africa” no later than the mid-second century, and possibly much earlier. From that time through the rest of the age of the Fathers, African Christians play prominent roles in Church history. We need mention only a few to make our case: Tertullian, Perpetua and Felicity, Cyprian, the Martyrs of Abitina, Monnica, and Augustine.

Before his conversion, Tertullian had been a prominent citizen, a lawyer and legal scholar. He appears on any short list of the greatest writers of his time (and on the agnostic H.L. Mencken’s list of the best writers of all time). His thought is memorable, quotable, and always provocative. It’s also plentiful, as many of his works have survived the centuries. And in his enormous literary legacy Tertullian left us a vivid record of civic and Church life in second- and third-century Africa. Here’s the summary from the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In his “Apology”, written at Carthage about 197, Tertullian states that although but of yesterday the Christians “have filled every place among you [the Gentiles] — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palaces, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods”. If the Christians should be in a body desert the cities of Africa, the governing authorities would be “horror-stricken at the solitude” in which they would find themselves, “at a silence so all pervading”, a stupor as of a dead world. Fifteen years later the same author asks the Proconsul Scapula: “What will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every age, sex and rank, when they present themselves before you? How many fires, how many swords will be required?” And with regard to the Christians of the African capital he inquires: “What will be the anguish of Carthage itself, which you will have to decimate, as each one recognizes there is relatives and companions; as he sees there, it may be, men of your own order, and noble ladies, and all the leading persons of the city, and either kinsmen or friends of those in your own circle? Spare thyself, if not us poor Christians. Spare Carthage, if not thyself.” It is clear from this that the Christian religion at the beginning of the third century must have had numerous adherents in all ranks of Carthaginian society.

It is impossible to be steeped in the Fathers unless we come to know the particular character of North African Christians. They practiced a tough piety. They tried to keep “standing hours” of prayer throughout the day — and they even arose in the middle of the night to pray some more. They showed an eager willingness to suffer as confessors and die as martyrs. When they fell into heresy, they tended toward the rigorist, unforgiving kind, which would make no room in the Church for mortal sinners, especially repeat offenders. The African sectarians became Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, and (alas!) Tertullianists, when our hotheaded lawyer himself went off the rails. It took the political and religious genius of an Augustine to restore unity to Christian Africa and snuff out these heresies once and for all.

If all Africa did for the rest of the Church was to give us Augustine, it would be enough to keep us in debt forever. But there’s so much more.

Africa gave us the first Latin-speaking pope, St. Victor I (189-198). A contemporary of St. Irenaeus and fellow kicker of gnostic butt, Victor also managed to establish diplomatic relations between the Church and the imperial household.

Africa gave us the first full-scale treatise on the Eucharist (early third century). African synods put an official stamp on the limits of the New Testament canon (late fourth century). Africa gave us Perpetua and Felicity, who are remembered forever in the Roman Canon of the Mass. Africa gave us Augustine’s mother, St. Monnica, who taught Christians ever afterward to persevere in prayer for their wayward children.

In 429-430, as Augustine lay dying, Carthage was besieged and then taken by the Vandals, who favored the heretical strains of African Christianity. The emperor Justinian briefly restored order. But the final catastrophe came when Carthage fell to Muslim invaders in 698.

You’ll find abundant online resources for the study of African Christianity in the age of the Fathers. The Tertullian Project is a knockout of a site, with all of the master’s works, most available in English translation as well as the original Latin, along with a truckload of secondary scholarship.

At this site, you can walk with an enthusiastic scholar as he retraces the footsteps of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.

Old Tertullian famously asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Bypass the question altogether, as you spend a few days in ancient Carthage.

Also,

Here is an interview with Mike Aquilina on Spirit Catholic Radio where Mike discusses the life and martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity.

Audio File

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