In 1742, a Franciscan friar reported to Rome the remarkable news that a hitherto unknown Christian community had been discovered on a river island in Nubia, the region south of what had once been Roman Egypt. The Nubian church was thought to have been extinct for centuries, cut off as it was from other Christian communions. But this ancient Nubian church, established no later than the fourth century, had persevered through a millennium of Islam and periods of isolation from the patriarchate of Alexandria, which traditionally supplied it with bishops. Pondering the fate of the Nubian church, the Franciscan posed a rhetorical question: “Did Nubia go astray from the Christian faith?” His answer was surprising but unequivocal: “Only because of a lack of pastors.”

The Nubian laity had long struggled to keep the faith. In the early 1500s, a Syrian traveler reported finding more than 150 well-tended churches, with crucifixes, altars, and images of the blessed Virgin. While the people were not officially Christian, the traveler found they “lived in the desire of being Christians.” Then in the 1520s, a Western Christian witnessed perhaps the last attempt by the Nubian laity to revive their dying church. Since contact with the mother church in Alexandria was impossible, six Nubian Christians traveled to Ethiopia and begged the emperor there for priests and monks. But the Ethiopian church was struggling with its own challenge. It also depended on Alexandria for its...

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About the Author

Kenneth L. Parker is associate professor of historical theology at St. Louis University.