Bishop Frumentius, Apostle to Ethiopia

Dan Graves, MSL

Bishop Frumentius, Apostle to Ethiopia

For all you have done, I reward you with your liberty." In fourth century Axuma, Ethiopia (Abyssinia), the old king was dying. Before him stood two young men from Tyre (a region of modern Lebanon) who had been his slaves for several years. One had served as his cupbearer, the other as his secretary. Their names were Edesius and Frumentius.

A curious train of events had brought them to this moment. As youths, they studied under their Uncle Meropius, a Christian philosopher. Meropius developed an urge to visit Arabia and offered to take the boys, who eagerly embraced this opportunity to see a piece of the world. The outward voyage went well and the ship began its homeward journey. It landed at Adulis to take on fresh supplies. One of the sailors got into a fight with the locals, who killed everyone on the ship including Meropius. (Another tradition says they were shipwrecked.)

Edesius and Frumentius escaped with their lives because they were studying under a tree at some distance from the brawl. The Ethiopians sent them to their king. He was impressed with their bearing and understanding and made them his personal slaves.

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.)

When the king died, neither of his sons was old enough to rule. The queen pleaded with Edesius and Frumentius to help her govern the country and educate her sons. The two agreed. They attempted to spread the gospel; among the steps they took was to encourage Christian merchants to worship openly.

When the new king came of age, the two young men left Ethiopia, despite his plea that they stay. They followed the Nile to Alexandria. Filled with concern for the salvation of the people who had once held him as a slave, Frumentius appealed to Bishop Athanasius to appoint a bishop to the Ethiopians. Athanasius recognized the value of this step. And who would be better suited to the task than Frumentius himself? He trained him, ordained him, and sent him back to Ethiopia.

Frumentius converted Anbaram and ordained him. They led King Ezana and his brother Sheazana to embrace Christianity and baptized them. The two took new names, reflecting their new status as Christians. Frumentius and his co-workers organized Ethiopian Christianity and carried on a mission work in Nubia and Yemen.

Meanwhile, Edesius became a priest, too, and returned to Tyre. There he met church historian Rufinus, who included their story in his works.

The Roman emperor Constantius favored the Arians (who denied the full divinity of Christ). He wrote a letter to the king of Ethiopia, urging him to expel Frumentius and replace him with an Arian. The Ethiopian monarch refused. Frumentius was a man beloved. After his death he became known as "Our Father" and "Father of Peace"--titles which the head of Ethiopian Church still wears today.

The impact of Frumentius is proven by inscriptions on coins minted during the second half of King Ezana's reign. The old pagan inscriptions disappeared and Christian ones emerged in their place. Roman Catholics commemorate Frumentius on this day, October 27 but the Orthodox Church holds his celebration in November and the Copts in December.

Bibliography:

  1. Bent, J. Theodore. Sacred City of the Ethiopians. London: Longmans, Green and co., 1893, source of the picture.
  2. Ott, Michael. "Edesius and Frumentius." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  3. Rabenstein, Katherine. "Frumentius of Ethiopia." For All the Saints;
  4. Redington, Norman Hugh. "Frumentius of Ehtiopia." Ecole Glossary;
  5. Shea, John G. Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1894.

Last updated June, 2007.

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