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Saint Augustine and the spread of Christianity.


Intellectuals of Saint Augustine's time recognized his educational accomplishments in Numidia and in Carthage as exceptional. He philosophically cultivated unambiguous perspectives based on spiritual ideologies primarily emanating from ancient Kemet (Egypt) (ben-jochannan, 1991). As part of his intellectual development, Saint Augustine mastered the concepts of Neo-Platonism, a philosophical perspective credited to Egyptian-born intellectual, Plotinus, who shared Augustine's African roots although Plotinus was of Greek ancestry. Neo-Platonists believed God initially created a person's soul, which Plato defined as cognition, emotion, conation, and motivation that always has existed and is imperishable (Burns & Ralph, 1969). As part of the human maturation process, matter (the body) integrates with the soul. To complete the developmental progression of life, each person's goal is to return to the original form, which is the divine state (Perry, 2001).

Along with Neo-Platonism, Augustine valued and taught the principles of Manichaeism. The framework of Manichaeism consists of on-going struggles between opposites, the greatest of which is the interrelationship between good and evil (Burns & Ralph, 1969). However, Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism are similar to the teachings of the ancient Egyptian (Kemet) priests. They instructed students about the ability to maintain physical and spiritual balance in a world of interrelated opposites. Furthermore, Egyptian priests taught their students about the attainment of everlasting life, which is contingent upon the development of inner divinity (James, 1980).

In addition to his intellectual progression, this study examines Saint Augustine's social experiences and family influences in the context of his cultural and spiritual development. To dispute physical representations of Saint Augustine as a European theologian, an investigation of his self-reflective study, The Confessions of Saint Augustine as translated by notable linguist Outler (2002), reveals that Saint Augustine describes himself as an indigenous African. Although Saint Augustine identifies himself as an African, artists of the European Renaissance (1400-1600) and the Early Modern period (1500-1800) exhibited him as a confident, strong-minded European intellectual. They depicted Saint Augustine in this manner without any evidence or original pictures of him from the Greco-Roman period (30 BCE-476 CE).

Furthermore, in his autobiographical analysis (Outlet, 2002), as part of a discussion Saint Augustine has with his associate Simplicianus, they generate a strong inference specifically about the roots and evolution of Christianity in Africa before it spread to Europe. As Saint Augustine travelled to different parts of the world, he discovered that Romans practiced traditional Egyptian spiritual beliefs. When Saint Augustine's mother, Monica, was a devout Christian in North Africa, Romans worshipped the Egyptian God Osiris and the Goddess Isis. The worship of Osiris and Isis was an integral part of Mediterranean European culture. However, as Christianity spread to Europe, religious leaders struggled with their concept and application of monotheism and polytheism. Although Saint Augustine's mother taught him to believe in one God, his African cultural influences and intellectual persuasion enabled him to navigate through the contrasting concepts.

Physical Descriptions of Saint Augustine

Although born in Africa, traditional portraits of Saint Augustine depict him as a person with European physical characteristics. Historians often recognize two distinguished painters, Sandro Botticelli (15th century) and Philippe de Champaigne (17th century), for their artistic interpretations of Saint Augustine as a European intellectual. It is reasonable to consider that Botticelli and Champaigne did not have knowledge of Augustine's physical appearance. Neither original pictures nor literary observations about his portraits were in existence during the European Renaissance and the Early Modern period. However, according to their representations of Saint Augustine, both painters chose to believe he was a European. As evidence of their choices, figures A and B below depict the European characteristics of Saint Augustine as perceived by Botticelli and Champaigne.



Botticelli and Champaigne perceived Saint Augustine as a European theologian without preexisting evidence of his physical characteristics. In accordance with their paintings, a review of Early Modern and Renaissance portraits depicts Saint Augustine as a person with classic European features. The artistic responses to Saint Augustine's appearance represent a political climate of imprecise suppositions about important historical figures of the European classical period. Furthermore, contemporary educators support the popular trend of inaccurate historical assumptions. The contention of many educators is Saint Augustine was a European because of his theological associations with prominent intellectuals of Greco-Roman culture and his spiritual influence on Europe. Perhaps historians have overlooked Augustine's self-reflective explanations about his African origin. His expressions should be the primary concern of historians, educators, and artists who continue to depict African-born Augustine as a European.

Not only did Renaissance and Early Modern European literature and art portray Saint Augustine inaccurately, but also recent literature utilizes the same portraits to represent him. For example, on the cover and on page 137 of Western Civilization to 1789 by Perry (2001), the illustrations depict Saint Augustine as a European theologian and thinker. Fifteenth century Italian artist, Sandro Botticelli, painted the picture of Saint Augustine on the cover of Perry's (2001) book. The international Gothic style, which had formed from a combination of artistic techniques during the fourteenth century, influenced Botticelli. Because art critics believed international Gothic painting was a difficult style to master, Botticelli and other Gothic painters attracted patrons from the aristocratic class, which automatically elevated their social status (Hay, 1966).

The appeal of international Gothic style portraits is the subtle realism of royal subjects such as Saint Augustine. The pictures in Perry's (2001) book not only depict Saint Augustine as a European intellectual, but also they convincingly portray him as a person of strong will and conviction. Why did Botticelli paint Saint Augustine as a European instead of as a brown-skinned or melanin-rich man from North Africa? It is improbable that Botticelli had seen a portrait of Saint Augustine from the Greco-Roman period. Nevertheless, it is reasonable, and many would suggest, logical, that the selection of pictures in Perry's (2001) book accurately depict the profile of Saint Augustine as a strong-willed European. In the superficial, color-conscious, discriminatory Western world, many European and Euro-American educators and intellectuals assume that an important religious figure and great Christian thinker could not be African.

Because Botticelli, Champagne, and other European artists painted Saint Augustine as a person of European heritage, American educators assume these portraits precisely represent the man. This type of skin color-based, white-privileged education is prevalent in America. Wilson (1992) insightfully observed this brand of American education when he astutely professed: "One of the major instruments for putting people out of their minds is education. It is often the very basis for making people ignorant" (p. 2). These observations are not only profound, but also they apply to contemporary educational materials. For example, in a study by Strathern (1997), after commenting about Augustine's productive, interesting social life, the author has made it exceedingly clear that he views Augustine the same way Botticelli pictures him:
   From the perspective of history we can only marvel
   at the perversity of Augustine and the other great
   European minds of the period that spent their time
   in similar fashion (p. 33).

When Strathern (1997) erroneously referred to Augustine as one who has a great European mind, similar to other contemporary writers, he assumed Augustine was not an indigenous African. In contrast to Strathern's (1997) assertion, Augustine's mother, Monica, referred to now as Saint Monica, helped her son develop his African mind. Monica was born in 332 CE in the city of Tagaste in Numidia, which was in the region of Algeria and Libya in North Africa. Her son, Augustine, was also born there on November 15, 354 (Nicoliello, 1991). Numidia was a Roman province at the time, but, contrary to Strathern's (1997) implication, the residents were indigenous Africans. Out of this Roman colony, Saint Augustine became "the greatest of the great African Fathers who had been so important for the Western Church" (Left, 1958, p. 33).

Saint Augustine Explains He is an African

In the autobiographical account of Saint Augustine as translated by Outler (2002), through various discussions and cultural activities, Augustine identifies himself and his mother as indigenous Africans. One example of this self-identification occurs when Monica was on her way back to Numidia, North Africa. During the journey Monica's health began to deteriorate.

As a result of her declining health, she had to stop her journey at the port city of Ostia in Rome. According to Outler (2002), although Augustine was speechless, he and his brother tried to comfort their mother. As Augustine describes the family's sentiments, he makes a reference to his homeland:
   I was silent and held back my tears; but my brother
   said something, wishing her the happier lot of dying
   in her own country and not abroad (p. 165).

Because Augustine noted his brother's concern about Monica's improbable return to Africa, it is an indication that Augustine sentimentally agreed with his brother. Nevertheless, on several occasions throughout his introspective descriptions, Augustine references various aspects of his African background. In the translated version of Augustine's self-reflective study (Outler, 2002), Augustine describes his living situation in Italy. He shares a house with hometown friend, Alypius. As he and Alypius delightfully greet a mutual friend, Augustine, again, speaks about his homeland of Africa "... There came to visit Alypius and me at our house one Ponticianus, a fellow countryman of ours from Africa, who held high office in the emperor's court" (p. 136).

Contrary to contemporary beliefs about Saint Augustine's ethnicity, at different points in his autobiography he identifies himself as an indigenous African, not a native of Rome or Europe. As translated by Outler (2002), Augustine is in Milan, Italy where he often visited another friend, Ambrose, who enjoyed exchanging spiritual concepts about Christianity with Augustine. On this particular occasion, however, Augustine selectively spent time with Ambrose because Augustine's mother came to Italy to visit her son. Because Augustine had yet to convert to Christianity, Monica believed her encouragement would help him embrace the faith. Therefore, Augustine and his mother decided to attend a memorial to the Christian Saints who had become martyrs in the name of Christianity. Saint Augustine vividly describes an important aspect of the event:
   So also my mother brought to certain oratories,
   erected in the memory of the saints, offerings
   of porridge, bread, and wine--as had been her
   custom in Africa--and she was forbidden to do
   so by the doorkeeper. And as soon as she
   learned that it was the bishop who had forbidden
   it, she acquiesced so devoutly and obediently that
   I myself marveled how readily she could bring
   herself to turn critic of her own customs, rather
   than question his prohibition (p. 84).

This passage not only substantiates Augustine's African origin, but also it explains how Christianity in Africa was markedly different from Christianity in Rome. As exemplified by Saint Monica, Africans included traditional practices of acknowledging and honoring the ancestors by offering food and drink. This ritual has been an African tradition since the Paleolithic Age (Perry, 2001), which began approximately 2 1/2 million years ago. Monica's spiritual perspective about the afterlife was foreign to Romans as demonstrated by the bishop who stopped Monica from performing her African Christian customs. Furthermore, according to the passage, Augustine's mother initially questioned the doorkeeper who evidently informed her that the bishop issued the order to stop her African-centered religious practices, which surprised Augustine and his mother.

Saint Monica was a devout Christian who followed the Christian customs of her African society. Because she decided not to question the Western church's policy against the African tradition of offering food and drink to the saints, it astonished Augustine. When he suggested his mother should have challenged the bishop and the church policy about spiritual honor and acknowledgement, it was an attempt, for the most part, to understand his mother's compliance to a foreign Christian custom. Augustine grew up watching his mother practice Christianity. Therefore, according to his reaction to the bishop's orders, his mother's Christian practices did not need any modifications.

In line with traditional African spiritual beliefs, Monica attributed the saints at Milan a similar status to members of her family and others in her circle. According to African traditions, individuals such as saints had completed their earthly existence, which was one phase of life. After physical life, they moved to one aspect of life's spiritual journey African religious leaders refer to as the "stage of the living-dead" (Mbiti, 1970, p. 105). During this phase, family members and others acknowledge and remember the departed person in different ways. One traditional way is to offer libations of food and drink, which Augustine's mother attempted to do at the memorial in Italy before the bishop abruptly interrupted her ritual.

African Christianity and Roman Beliefs

Saint Augustine explains that the majority of the Roman nobility and many Roman citizens did not practice Christianity when his mother was a devout Christian in Africa. He informs us of this phenomenon through his interaction with Simplicianus, the spiritual father of Augustine's friend, Ambrose. In an effort to emphasize the strength of the Christian faith, Simplicianus shares an ethically based story with Augustine. Simplicianus discusses the endeavors of a former professor of rhetoric in Rome, Victorinus, who had converted to Christianity. As part of his investigation of Saint Augustine's life history, Outler (2002) translated Augustine's reflections about the expansion of Christianity in Rome with influences from Simplicianus:
   This man who, up to an advanced age, had been
   a worshiper of idols, a communicant in the
   sacrilegious rites to which almost all the nobility
   of Rome were wedded; and who had inspired the
   people with the love of Osiris and whom Rome once
   conquered, and now worshiped; all of which old
   Victorinus had with thundering eloquence defended
   for so many years - despite all this, he did not blush
   to become a child of thy Christ ... (pp. 129-130).

According to Saint Augustine, wealthy, educated Romans and many common people worshiped the Egyptian God Osiris. However, because Augustine anticipated this phenomenon with his knowledge about Rome's invasion of Egypt in 30 BCE, that aspect of Simplicianus' story did not surprise him. Osiris represents the Father in the Egyptian Trinity Christianity adopted: Osiris, Isis, and Heru--the Father, the Mother, and the Son (ben-jochannan, 1989). These historically imbedded realities reveal that all Roman classes worshiped Osiris. Furthermore, Romans certainly knew and understood the influence of Isis and Heru as spiritually dominant forces in the region.

In fact, it was an acceptable practice for Romans to join religious, spiritually oriented groups based in Egypt. One mainstream organization was the association of Isis. As its image, the organization featured the physical representation of Isis as a dark-skinned or melanin-rich woman (Redd, 2000). Such religious institutions were in existence in Europe before the start of Roman civilization. By the time Rome ruled Italy and the Mediterranean, the Isis persuasion had been woven intricately into Mediterranean European society (Begg, 1985). Some of the literature of the Greco-Roman period verifies the importance and influence of Isis.

During the first half of the second century CE, for instance, the period historians refer to as the Silver Age of literature in Europe (late 1st & early 2nd centuries CE), Latin writer, Apuleius, published a narrative. Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, Hsia, and Smith (2003) examined Apuleius' classic novel, The Golden Ass, which depicts the endeavors of the protagonist, Lucius, an energetic, daring young man who has a fascination for magic and sex. On one occasion, Lucius, with inadequate magical skills, failed to improve his social status with women and inadvertently transitions into a donkey, resulting in the loss of his spirit. Faulty experimentation left Lucius feeling vulnerable and despondent as he could not unravel the aftermath of the magic formula. Fortunately for Lucius, however, African Goddess Isis rescues him. The power of Isis disengages the magic, which enables Lucius to recapture his humanity and regain his physical structure and soul. The semi-autobiographical profile of Lucius and its influence supports the significance of Egyptian theological concepts in the Roman Empire.

With so much interest in Osiris and Isis, the idea to institute the Egyptian model of the Trinity was under discussion many years before the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). This famous congregation of religious leaders and theorists officially organized the theological concepts of Christianity in Europe such as afterlife, Immaculate Conception, Easter, and the born Savior (Burns & Ralph, 1969). Although many historians integrate the development of Christianity into the expansion of the Roman Empire, according to Augustine, Romans followed traditional Egyptian beliefs, which were part of common Mediterranean culture. Through his travels and social discussions, Augustine informs us that the basic concepts of Christianity developed in Northeast Africa first; then the religion spread to other regions along the Mediterranean.

African Theology Creates Monotheism vs. Polytheism in Rome

The major theological concepts of Christianity started in Africa, specifically in the Nile Valley region (Dubois, 1961). As these sacred ideas spread to Europe, they became influential among religious and secular intellectuals. However, in the context of Christian expansion, it was difficult for European religious leaders to theorize and apply the Nile Valley concept of practicing polytheism and monotheism simultaneously in accordance with the one, preeminent God. Although the priests of Kemet's Mystery Schools taught students the observance of these interrelated opposites ensured spiritual balance (ben-jochannan, 1990), European theologians often debated the appropriateness of choosing either one or the other. Therefore, unlike the Nile Valley priests, a significant number of influential religious and secular leaders in Europe were reluctant to practice monotheism and polytheism concurrently.

On the other hand, Augustine never struggled over the issue of opposite concepts. With his Christian background and knowledge about Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism, Augustine understood opposites were complimentary necessities. Furthermore, he grew up with the belief in one God, so he viewed Christianity as an integral part of North African culture. He explains this phenomenon as a reflective interaction with Simplicianus. In Augustine's Confessions as translated by Outler (2002), Augustine remarks that Simplicianus asserted:
   In the reign of the Emperor Julian, there was a law
   passed by which the Christians were forbidden to
   teach literature and rhetoric; and how Victorinus,
   in ready obedience to the law, chose to abandon his
   'school of words' rather than thy Word ... (p. 134).

Emperor Julian reigned for approximately three years, 361-363. Unlike Emperor Constantine (306-337) who made Christianity equal to all other belief systems in the Roman Empire, Julian attempted to reinstate polytheism as Rome's official religion. In other words, Julian intended to re-establish Egyptian theology as the state's mandatory belief system (Hunt et al. 2003). At the end of Julian's office, Augustine was about nine years of age living in Africa. His mother was a devout Christian whose parents most likely had been Christians. It is not clear when exactly Victorinus became a Christian, but his conversion appeared to happen around the time Emperor Julian's law against Christians went into effect. Because Simplicianus highlights the test Victorinus faced as a Christian, when Victorinus resigns from his teaching position in favor of Christianity, it suggests the fortitude a recently converted Christian must demonstrate.

Vietorinus rejected Emperor Julian's requirements of polytheistic practices. This decision was an example of the on-going struggle over the choice of either polytheism or monotheism in Rome. Victorinus chose monotheism, but the emperors following Julian did not institute monotheism until Theodosius I (379-395) took the throne (Hunt et al. 2003). However, Augustine's family and other African Christians never struggled with such a problem. They did not grapple over acknowledging either polytheism or monotheism. The major reason for this religious continuity is in all African traditional religious practices, one God is immanent and predominant although people may acknowledge other divinities (Mbiti, 1970).

Christianity Began in Africa

Christianity emerged in Africa, specifically Northeast Africa, from a theological base of religious, spiritual, and philosophical concepts that had been in existence before Asians and Europeans invaded the region (Ben-Jochannan, 1989). One example of these early beliefs is the idea that a God could be born on earth. Basic ancient Egyptian theology disagreed with this concept. Egyptian priests taught their students that all people are mortals at birth (Karenga, 1990). However, Pharaoh Hatshepsitu (1479-1457 BCE) contradicted this predominant theological view when she asserted the birth of a god occurred in her family.

When Hatshepsitu claimed to reveal her true identity to the Egyptian people, she proclaimed Thotmes I, her father and a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, was not her biological father; he was only her mother's husband. According to Hatshepsitu, God Amen and her mother, Ahmes, created her through a divine union one night when Amen appeared in her mother's room as her husband (Rogers, 1974). In other words, Hatshepsitu believed her birth was an Immaculate Conception. Unlike other pharaohs who claimed to personify God, Hatsepsitu was an exception to the rule. She professed to be a direct descendant of God, which, like the Son of God, is a basic theological concept of Christianity.

Spread of Christianity

When the Romans invaded and controlled Egypt in 30 BCE, Alexandria was the academic and commercial center of the country. In Alexandria, theologians and philosophical theorists discussed religious ideas (Du Bois, 1961). They incorporated these ideas into the Christian doctrine as many people understand it today. As early as the first century CE, the basic theology of Christianity spread from the Nile Valley to North Africa where Augustine's family accepted it. Monica then taught her son the religion. Monica synthesized Christianity with traditional religious practices, which included honoring the ancestors by offering food and drink.

Because Christianity emerged out of established African theological, philosophical, and spiritual concepts, African religious leaders and many African martyrs, who were the most enthusiastic, vigorous defenders of that belief system, popularized Christianity. Romans viewed Christians, in general, especially North African Christians, as religious, political threats, and Romans whole-heartedly disliked Christian spiritual practices. Consequently, the Roman government persecuted thousands of Christians constantly and unmercifully on the African continent (Shillington, 1995). As Rome zealously persecuted Christians, they became equally as passionate about their faith. As defiance against Rome in the name of Christianity expanded into Europe and parts of Asia, Christianity became extremely popular (Dubois, 1961). Through the efforts of African Christians such as Augustine, Monica, and the many African martyrs, Christianity became a world religion.

Rome Adopts Christianity

After Rome adopted Christianity as the official state religion in 392 under Theodosius I, a significant number of people in Europe joined the church. When Theodosius declared it a treasonable offense for anyone to practice any other religion, he established the Athanasian form of Christianity, which emphasizes, as Pharaoh Hatshepsitu exclaimed, that a special person could be a God at birth (Burns & Ralph, 1969). Athanasian Christianity contradicted basic Nile Valley theological teachings indicating everyone born on earth is mortal, but at birth each person has a piece of God inside (Karenga, 1990). To develop into a God, which could only happen in the afterlife following judgment, a person must cultivate the divine entity inside to the fullest extent through formal education, righteous practices, or the observance of Goddess Ma'at's 42 Divine Principles (Budge, 1967).

Nevertheless, after 392 it was against Roman law to practice spiritual concepts such as the ones that existed as part of the Isis group. Roman leadership would not tolerate other belief systems. Consequently, Roman emperors and other influential leaders such as Emperor Justinian (527-565) referred to non-Christians as pagans. They promised such believers, or non-believers, that they would receive harsh punishment from the Roman government (Hunt et al. 2003). Therefore, church membership increased considerably in Rome and in Europe after 392 because most people, especially commoners, did not want to endure the repercussions that accompanied the pagan label.


When Theodosius I helped Europe alter its intellectual perspective by outlawing non-Christian organizations, Christianity was a relatively new and undeveloped system of knowledge. For the most part, the lack of literary analysis and evaluation of Christianity created an intellectual void in Europe. Although this period of ambiguity eventually led to scholarly exploration, which generated the prospect of Christianity's acceptance, during the intellectual void Theodosius shut down all temples and schools in Europe that carried the sacred knowledge of the Egyptian Mystery Schools. The legislation of this unscholarly period forced most non-Christians in Europe to relocate. Although non-Christian religious organizations continued to exist within the Roman Empire, those sustained non-Christian organizations existed either in Africa or in Asia. Roman legislation dictated Christian conversion. Therefore, by dismantling the Nile Valley belief systems, Europe philosophically separated from the ancient world knowledge base. These events framed the rationale for the fall of Europe and the onset of the Dark Ages (James, 1980).

During the sixth century, Emperor Justinian exasperated the legislative process and firmly established a Christian society in the Eastern Roman Empire. Justinian autocratically revised the curricula of all non-Christian teaching academies in Greece. He closed all temples and schools in Egypt that acknowledged polytheism as a world perspective. As part of his movement against non-Christian belief systems, Justinian relentlessly persecuted anyone charged with practicing paganism, meaning polytheism. In this way, he forced everyone to adhere to Orthodox Christianity in the form of either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox (James, 1980).

As Christianity spread among European religious leadership, the writings of Saint Augustine became significant. His literature was the only theological substantiation that defined the Christian system of beliefs philosophically, theologically, and intellectually. From his works City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and On the Trinity, European leadership discovered Saint Augustine's concepts about predestination, perfecting the soul, reaching the higher moral ground, and understanding God's will. As the spiritual and intellectual leader of Christian thought, Saint Augustine's theological and scholarly works were the foundation for Christian development. His Christian groundwork cultivated the ability of European Christians to formulate a spiritual perspective in a secular world (Perry, 2001).

Saint Augustine's theory of predestination gained prominence. The influence of his predestination concept caused John Calvin to study Saint Augustine's ideas. As a result of his studies, Calvin reinterpreted the Protestant Reformation, which permanently divided the Western Church into several denominations (Hopfe, 1991). Therefore, Augustine's cultural, spiritual, and intellectual influence extended the religious base of Protestant Christians. Saint Augustine's African Christian roots, exceptional educational training, and religious perspectives are intricately woven in today's Christian doctrine.


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William S. Cook is an adjunct professor of history at Mercy College in New York. He has written a documentary Afrocentricity (2000), a collection of short stories Children of the Sun (2004), and has published more than 40 articles about history, education, politics, and culture. He recently has completed the unpublished manuscript An African Perspective of European History to 1799.
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Author:Cook, William S.
Publication:The Western Journal of Black Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:60NOR
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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