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  • Luther's Works in Ethiopian Languages
  • Samuel Deressa

Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia in the fourth century. Lutheran missions started in the late 1860s when the Swedish Evangelical Mission (SEM) planted a mission station in Imkulu, in present day Eritrea. From there they trained and sent missionaries into Ethiopia, a few freed slaves both men and women and former Orthodox priests, to spread the gospel throughout the country. Today, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) is the largest and the fastest-growing Lutheran church in the world with over ten million members. From the very beginning, the EECMY's identity was shaped by Luther's writings, especially the Small Catechism.

Initial Mission Efforts and Translations

The translation and distribution of Luther's works started in Ethiopia with the arrival of the Swedish missionaries in the late 1860s. The SEM initially intended to spread the gospel to the Oromo, inhabitants of the southern part of Ethiopia and followers of Islam and traditional beliefs.1 When the Swedes arrived in Eritrea, however, the Ethiopian king Tewodros II stopped them from going to the southern part. Therefore, the SEM decided to plant a mission station at Imkulu and evangelize the people living in Eritrea while waiting for a favorable time to reach the Oromo. Eritrea during this time, a part of Ethiopia, was controlled partly by Italians.

At the mission station in Imkulu, the Swedish Evangelical Mission established a school named "School for Freed Men" in 1870 where they began educating and evangelizing liberated slaves. Six years later in 1876, they expanded their vision and started a training center for freed slave women on the same campus.2 The SEM wanted to educate freed men and women and send them back to their people as missionaries. The Swedish Evangelical Mission and Italian soldiers who controlled the area were the primary liberators [End Page 61] of the slaves who became enrolled at this school. The SEM missionaries also educated some exiled priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to Gustav Arén, the students were mainly composed of "liberated slaves, poor fugitives, and exiled reformers."3 In addition to academic lessons, the school offered training in carpentry and metalwork. Arabic and Amharic were the languages of instruction. These languages, however, were not intelligible to most of the liberated slaves, since they were Oromo. So Bengt Peter Lundahl, one of the SEM missionaries, suggested translating and printing selected works. In order to accomplish this, he bought a manual printing press in 1882.

The first translation printed at Imkulu was an Oromo hymnbook with a title Galata Waaqayoo Gofta Maccaa. This hymnbook was published in 1886, and contained some of Luther's hymns, such as "A Mighty Fortress" and "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice," translated from Swedish into Oromo.4 The hymnbook also contained a liturgy, and was used for over one hundred years by Oromo-speaking Lutheran congregations in Ethiopia. The second book printed in Imkulu was a revised version of Ludwig Krapf's Amharic translation of Luther's Small Catechism. Krapf, a German Lutheran missionary who in 1866 had translated Luther's catechism into Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, was never able to use it or distribute it among Ethiopians.5 His version was revised by the SEM missionary Anders Svensson and was printed in Imkulu in 1888.6 The schools for freed men and women in Imkulu used this Amharic translation as a main text for instruction. But only a few freed slaves who spoke Amharic, some converts from in and around Imkulu, and reformed Orthodox priests, could use this translation. For Oromo-speaking freed slaves, the Amharic translation was difficult to comprehend, but better than other European language translations. As the Lutheran confession also expanded to other parts of Ethiopia, particularly among the Amharic-speaking community, this translation was mainly used to instruct newly catechized believers before baptism. It was also used as a resource for youth instruction.

In 1899, Onesimos Nesib (1856–1931) translated Luther's Small Catechism from Swedish into Oromo. When translating, Onesimos used Krapf's Amharic translation to help support his work. His [End Page 62] translation was then printed in Chrischona, Switzerland, with the...


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