Christianity as we know it is still predominantly a Western religion that has defined its creeds and proselytized its members from a Eurocentric point of view. However, the demographics of Christian communities have been shifting for years now towards the Non-Western nations, which is also leading a number of people to incorporate aspects of those cultures into Liturgies, services and theologies that better serve their communities. This, of course also happened centuries ago in Europe prior to missionaries taking the Gospel abroad.
As those of the Non-Western nations begin to find themselves having more of a say in Church matters we are beginning to find out that the influence of non-Western leaders is indeed nothing new in the history of Christendom. Unfortunately, this is something that is rarely known by most Christians around the world since there has been a bias towards the activities and theological accomplishments of figures from the West. Therefore, this effort will seek to offer a new face to the discussion as it presents the efforts of King Afonso of the Congo, a Christian king whose life rivals many of the great leaders of Christianity, specifically Roman Emperor Constantine.
King Afonso of the Congo was born Mbemba Nzinga and was the first Christian ruler south of the Sahara. He became aware of the Christian faith when he came in contact with Portuguese traders and was baptized on May 3, 1491. He claimed that his conversion came from a, special divine grace, which led him to renounce his former indigenous religious beliefs and idolatrous practices. Following his conversion he worked for twenty years to establish a Christian kingdom in to the provinces that he ruled.
Other than the fact that he was favorable to Christian beliefs Afonso has been compared to emperor Constantine for events in his life that seemed to mirror the life of the Roman Emperor who legalized the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Therefore, it has been common to address him as the new Constantine or even the apostle to the Congo. However, we will see that Afonso was indeed a much more sincere Christian than the Roman Emperor.
The first reason to reference Afonso as a Constantine-type figure is the fact that his ascent to the throne was not without a struggle. Constantine of course had to contend with rival emperor figures including his final confrontation with Licinius whose superstitions prevented him from allowing his soldiers to attack Constantine’s forces directly since he feared the labarum on their shields. Afonso on the other hand had to deal with Mpanzo Nzinga, his half-brother along with his accomplices who attempted to deny him his right to the throne following the death of his father. These similarities are striking but most likely not out of the ordinary. It is nothing new for leaders to struggle in their attempts for power, as it is nothing new for supernatural stories to circulate following such events as they are meant to inspire these leaders to pursue their struggles while giving the hearer reasons to believe that such a leader’s ascent was part of a divine plan. However, we will see that it was in the lives of both men after their defining experiences that separate them in terms of who was a better Christian.
The second similarity to Constantine was his struggle to retain his throne. Religious traditionalists who gathered around Mpanzo accused Afonso and other Christian converts of sorcery while being puppets of the Portuguese foreigners and had a force prepared to fight for the control of their nation. According to tradition Afonso’s forces, upon recognizing the fact that they were outnumbered fell to their knees and called upon St. James, who is also the patron saint of the Portuguese, for assistance. Accounts within the tradition claim that Mpanzo’s forces fled from the scene with survivors claiming that Mpanzo’s forces saw a vision in the sky of a white cross along with St. James and a multitude of warriors on horseback. This is similar to traditions of Constantine. Eusebius tells us that Constantine had a vision in the sky of the Chi and Rho letters of the Greek alphabet, and heard a voice say to him, in this you shall conquer. Lactantius, on the other hand claimed that Constantine had a dream to place a Christian symbol on the shields of his soldiers. Obviously both Roman traditions along with the Congolese tradition are stories that are meant to demonstrate that God was with Afonso and Constantine while implying that these two men were picked by God to be His King.
Fork in the Road
Once we get past the traditions of ascent we can see that both individuals had different objectives in terms of the type of empire that they sought to rule along with their personal examples of behavior. Immediately after his victory Afonso built a church over the tombs of his forefathers and named it Our Lady of Victories so it would serve as a reminder of the battle that led to his ascent as the Manicongo (Lord of Conquest/governor of conquered people). Further, with his intention of creating a Christian nation he personally burned idols, faced rebellions by indigenous traditionalists and, following a blessing the presiding priest, preached to his people after Mass.
Aside from his confrontations with native traditions Afonso also had to deal with problems within the structure of the Church. First, he had to deal with Congolese converts who backslid into their idolatry and polygamous behavior. This led him to contact the Portuguese and request more missionaries and professional preachers in order to reach the heart of the people. Sadly, this would lead to further problems as many Portuguese missionaries would arrive to the Congo and go on to live in homes with slave girls. Once this information went public Afonso was taunted by his own people who claimed that, everything was a lie. Amazingly, Afonso did not give up in his quest to build a Christian nation as this led him to send many of his relatives to Lisbon, Portugal to study in religious houses in his attempt to establish a Congolese clergy and hierarchy.
Constantine on the other hand ended the persecution of Christians and returned church buildings and cemeteries back into the hands of the church. This would happen while the Roman Empire was still divided into two parts with Constantine ruling the West and Licinius ruling the East. Eventually they would meet in battle as Constantine sought to unify the empire, as it was his desire to return Rome to its ancient glory.
Christian history has been favorable to Constantine not only for his generosity in returning property to the Church but also for his issuing of the Edict of Milan, which of course legalized the practice of Christianity. However, it has unfortunately ignored the fact that Constantine’s consideration of Christians and their practices was not something that was unique in his time. In fact, his last rival Licinius while not being a Christian took no measures against them. Some Christians in his territory detested him because he used his power to neutralize public disorders that were created by Christians who were in disagreement over a number of issues. For some reason many Christians felt slighted by Licinius so they begin praying for Constantine to defeat him.
In terms of Christian practice Afonso was Constantine’s superior as the latter did not align himself with the Christian God even though he did appear to believe in the power of Jesus Christ. He also continued to consult the the oracles of Apollo, participated in non-Christian ceremonies and accepted the title of High Priest in the indigenous Roman religion. Further, he never put himself under the authority of any bishop or other Christian teachers. One could argue that it was necessary for Constantine to have good relations with both Christians and those that practiced indigenous Roman traditions since Rome had not yet arrived to the era of emperor Theodosius who would in turn outlaw all indigenous religious practices.
Afonso and Constantine were both kings that accomplished great things so history in general should be aware of and praise both for their efforts. But in the case of who was the better Christian, the apostle of the Congo should be recognized for his efforts by all Christians, regardless of geography. Constantine however, has always benefited from a kinder interpretation of history including bishops of his day who never questioned his associations with indigenous Roman practices while discouraging such behavior form their regular converts. Sure, we can and continue to praise his issuance of the Edict of Milan but in terms of sincere religiosity, one’s character should count when they are praised by the church as a model of faith.
If a church claims to have a universal message and states that it loves and accepts all people then they should expand their vision and praise and share the great faith and deeds of figures such as Afonso as his efforts should be of great inspiration to all Christians, not just African Christians. However, while many moments in Afonso’s life are indeed comparable to Constantine's life we should not be so quick to claim that he is another Constantine for his merits allow him to stand on his own.
The Story of Christianity Volume I by: Justo Gonzalez
2000 Years of Christianity in Africa by: John Baur
A History of Christianity in Africa by: Elizabeth Isichei
Carlos Arthur Solorzano
BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach
Certified Through the Theology of the Body Institute
Theology Teacher at St. Augustine Catholic High School
Co-founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate