What country was the first Christian nation? Some say Armenia. Others say Ethiopia. But it definitely was not the Roman Empire, as many believe.
For centuries, many people accepted Armenia as the first Christian nation. But that theory is now being challenged by scholars who believe oral history and a political agenda created that ‘history’.
Ethiopia’s case: First century A.D.
Ethiopia may have a stronger case. Acts tells of Phillip and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch shortly after the death of Christ. Eusebius, the first church historian, tells of how the eunuch returned to Ethiopia to share the gospel. How many did he convert? Not the king. When St. Matthew later took the gospel to Ethiopia, tradition says the king had the saint killed while celebrating Mass. Apparently the king lusted after his own niece, who already was a Christian—a nun in fact—and thus a ‘bride of Christ.’ Perhaps the Ethiopian eunuch had baptised that nun. So, there were Christians living in Ethiopia shortly after Jesus’ death. But that didn’t mean it was a Christian nation.
Ethiopia’s case: Ezana embraced the faith in 330 A.D.
During the persecutions of the Roman leader Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), Christians fled south along the Red Sea and received sanctuary in Ethiopia, increasing the Christian influence. Historian Kevin O’Mahoney argues that the Christian faith first took root in “the upper social classes and gradually spread downwards to become the religion of the people.” So, before the Ethiopian king Ezana embraced Christianity for himself and decreed it for his kingdom (330 A.D.), his nation already had many Christians. And, unlike the case of Armenia, there is tangible proof of this conversion as historians have uncovered Ezana’s public acknowledgement of the Christian faith. In addition, coins bearing Ezana’s image depict the cross after his conversion. Christianity became the centralizing force behind the Ethiopian Empire, which endured through 1974, despite religious and political threats from all sides.
What is a nation? A group of people who share a common heritage is a common definition. For Ethiopians, this shared heritage was Christianity. (Source: Abyssinian Christianity: The First Christian Nation? Edited by Brendan Pringle.)