Did Africa inspire Martin Luther’s Reformation?

On this day on which the Church remembers the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, we wanted to share with you this fascinating research we came across which shows that Luther’s thinking was influenced by what he learnt about the Ethiopian Christian Church of his time.

We were drawn to this research because we love ideas that expand our understanding of the Church and its history; and we particularly like anything that reminds us that Christianity was multicultural and diverse right from the start!  

A number of scholars have in recent years pointed to evidence that Martin Luther was influenced by the visit of Michael, an Ethiopian cleric to Germany in 1534. Historians know that there were small Ethiopian Christian communities living throughout Europe by the sixteenth century, and influential Christian clerics and scholars would refer to the history of Christianity in Ethiopia — Luther himself mentions Ethiopian Christianity 85 times in his writing. 

Like many of his contemporaries, Luther believed (incorrectly as subsequent research showed) that the very first Christian Church was established in Ethiopia. People like Luther were interested in the differences between the Eastern Church, including the Ethiopian Church, and the Roman Church. The Ethiopian Church was, in his eyes, unsullied by Roman papacy and such practices as indulgences. Ethiopian Christianity also contained practices not seen in Roman Catholicism — Communion in two kinds, married clerics, and vernacular scripture. Jennifer Powell McNutt notes that the emphasis on “hearing and receiving the Gospel” in your own language was a foundational idea at the heart of the Reformation; and what the Protestants were just daring to imagine, the Ethiopian Church was already living out. For Reformers such as Luther, using the Bible in local languages was pentecostal; “not only a primary mission of the church but also a reflection of the church itself: one rooted in time and also destined for eternity”.  

According to David D. Daniels, Luther’s discussions with Michael enhanced his understanding of Ethiopian Christianity and led him to conclude that ”the Church in Europe needed to be reformed in the direction of the Church of Ethiopia. Possibly for Luther the Church of Ethiopia was proof that his reform of the Church in Europe had both a biblical and a historical basis.”

Recognising the influence of the Ethiopian Church, argues Jennifer Powell McNutt, enriches our understanding of the Reformation, reminding us that it took place in the context of a “familial bond” of global Christianity. 

So as we remember Martin Luther today, and his contribution to Christianity, we also remember the global reach of our faith, its deeply multicultural history, and our longstanding traditions of learning from each other!

Sources list

David D. Daniels. 2017. “Martin Luther and Ethiopian Christianity: Historical Traces”.

David D. Daniels. 2017. “Martin Luther’s fascination with Ethiopian Christianity”.

Jennifer Powell McNutt. 2020. “An Unsung Inspiration for the Protestant Reformation: the Ethiopian Church”.