Meseret Sebhat Leab
Meseret was born on July 7, 1926 in Axum Town, Tigrai Province, to Memhir (meaning “teacher” or “professor”) Sebhat Leab Gebre Meskel and Woizero (Mrs.) Kassaye Gebray. He was the oldest of eight children, five of whom died. His father worked in Saint Mariam (Mary) Church of Tsion (Zion) built during the time of the first bishop Frumentius in Axum in the fourth century A.D. This church is considered the probable location of the Holy Ark of the Covenant and the first Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Meseret went to church school at age four. He became a brilliant student and in a very short time finished memorizing the Book of Psalms, Song of Solomon, the Book of Prayer, the New Testament and finally the rest of the Old Testament books–except the Pentateuch-in the Ge’ez language.
In 1936 Meseret could not continue his studies because of the Italian occupation when his father was imprisoned for not accepting foreign rule. Meseret was forced to go to an Italian-run school. Due to his eagerness to learn, he also continued his traditional education secretly at night. His father was worried that the Italians would convert his son to catholicism but this did not happen and Meseret was released from the Italian school and began to serve his church as a deacon.
He could not continue his studies because of a lack of qualified teachers. As a result he began reading spiritual books on his own with the encouragement of his father. Among all those he read, one book touched his heart and made him think about salvation. Previously he had been told that good works like fasting, giving to the poor, and acts of human kindness were the means of salvation. To subdue his flesh and be justified before God he was taught to pray to the saints to ask them to intercede for his sins, to confess his sins to the priest, and to practice asceticism. However he realized that he was weak and could not consider himself perfect even after doing all the things that he did. He began reading the New Testament but this only confused him because the teachings of tradition and the Bible texts were so different.
In the summer of 1939 he became ill. As a result, he had a lot of time to think about the way of salvation in bed. He stopped praying to the saints because he doubted the efficaciousness of act and began to cry out to the Lord. One day in a vision, he saw a well-dressed man who was at times as tall as the sky and at other times a normal human size. He felt as if he knew the man but when he talked with him he realized that he was the Lord. This man asked Meseret to confess his sins. Meseret said that the man knew all he had done for He was omniscient. Then the man declared Meseret forgiven. At that time Meseret believed in his heart that he was forgiven and saved. When he recovered from his illness a short time later, Meseret was not sure how he had been healed.
In 1941, while studying church music under Merigeta (Teacher) Sebuh, he heard a man named Beyene Damtew preach the gospel with a clarity he never heard before. Meseret knew the texts by heart but none of them meant much in his life. Even though this man inspired Meseret and much of the audience by answering many questions, the priests were against him. Meseret continued to be his friend afterwards. One Good Friday, the day commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion, the church celebrated Jesus’ passion. That day, a group of Orthodox high priests dragged Beyene outside and stoned him like Stephen in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Beyene was praising the Lord for being a partaker in His suffering. After a few minutes of stoning, the authorities came to his rescue and Beyene was not severely injured. Amazingly he refused to accuse his persecutors and even said he forgave them and let God forgive them. All this became a point of discussion among the people. Meseret was deeply impressed by this experience and felt compelled to read and study more about his faith from the Bible. He also developed resentment toward some of the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) and the things it stood for.
Now his skeptical stand toward the traditional faith made him restless. But his father sent him to a monastery named Debre Bankol in Axum to study (poetry) under (Professor) Aweqe. This professor told him that the Apocrypha (included in the old versions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles) couldn’t be regarded as part of the canonized Holy Scripture and made him continue his studies in the canonized books of the Bible. He also read the records written by the early Church Fathers. He still continued searching for the way of salvation. He learned about gnosticism from an Ethiopian man and tried to see whether it worked to obtain salvation. But later he found that gnosticism was heresy. So he abandoned it and held firm to the faith of the Church Fathers.
In 1943, he ran away from his parents to avoid early marriage and went to Wegera, Gondar Province, to continue his studies in Q?ne but his father managed to discover him and took him back after a month. He again continued his studies in liturgy with two teachers in Axum. His interest in further learning was increasing but in June 1945 when his parents again pressed him to marry, he ran away to Gondar and visited five different monasteries there–Ashange, Lasta Wofchat, Woladlanta, Agur Mechet, and Gedeba–within three years. This time his father searched for him but could not find him. Life in the monasteries was uncomfortable for Meseret because, having no food or clothes, he wore animal skins and begged for food in the neighborhood like the traditional students of the church schools, living in a small hut he had built for himself.
In February 1947, he moved to Addis Ababa to study hermeneutics. In October of the same year he made a startling discovery as he read Galatians 2:19-21. Here was the answer to the question that had long been nagging him. This passage clearly stated that salvation was through Jesus alone. Meseret received this understanding directly from the Lord without being influenced by anyone. According to Dr. Debela Birri, this experience makes Meseret was the Luther of the EOC.
Before making this discovery, Meseret always thought that God was cruel and unkind in giving laws to mankind that were not easy to fulfill. But one day as he was walking through the market place, he saw three incidents: A policeman beating his wife on suspicion of unfaithfulness, many people beating a man caught stealing, and a boy injured after falling off a bicycle. The first two incidents led Meseret to ponder how human beings are cruel to one another but the latter made him very sad. The next thing he thought was that God protected people from all kinds of disaster through his mercy and love and he realized God’s love and mercy were greater than his wrath against sin. Those incidents led him to understand the true character of God, that He was good.
Meseret also struggled with the idea that sanctification was possible by trying as hard as possible to be perfect. At one time in 1949, he went to Gojjam for a time of meditation and prayer. He prayed for spiritual gifts and power that could enable him to live free from all sorts of evil deeds and thoughts. He did this repeatedly but there was no answer. The more he prayed the more his bodily desires increased. At this point, he realized that his persistent efforts did not help and he asked the Lord for help. As he relied solely on the Lord, his humanly desires began decreasing. He also thought that he would not receive any of the gifts of the Spirit. However, one day in a discussion between the elders of a village, a Muslim mocked the Christian faith in a crucified man, which he thought was dreadful. Meseret was suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ in a way that astonished all his listeners and left the Muslim speechless. At this point, Meseret realized that the Lord had given him his heart’s desire for empowerment.
Now that Meseret had all his questions answered, the love of saving others became his concern. He was worried about the people in monasteries who were there to be with the Lord but had been misled by the traditions of the EOC. At that point he decided to devote his life to reforming the church. He started by going to the monasteries where he raised questions for discussion. The theologians argued with him and among themselves but they quarreled and never agreed on anything. Nevertheless, they admired Meseret for his depth of knowledge. One time Meseret raised the question of the Lord’s Supper and asked why they teach that Christ suffers at every Eucharist, while the Bible says that Christ suffered once and for all in Romans 6: 9-10 and Hebrews 9:28. After heated discussions, they could not agree with each other and began denouncing Meseret, thinking that the Protestant missionaries had influenced him. But Meseret had not yet had any contact with missionaries. In fact during those discussions, one person mentioned a missionary, David Stocks, whose outlook was similar, and encouraged Meseret to contact him.
Meseret searched for this man and found him at the Amha Desta School in Addis Ababa. Stocks was preaching on Romans 9 when Meseret and his companion arrived. Meseret was excited about this sermon because he never expected to find such a well-to-do and well-dressed man preaching, thinking that luxury was only for the ungodly while poverty was for the godly. Stocks talked with these two strangers and accepted them in his evangelism training class. As part of the training, students went out to evangelize. So Meseret went out happily and moved to different areas of the country. He and his friends went to Sidamo, Arsi, and Bale provinces as the first Ethiopian evangelists of the time.
A few months before leaving the training school, Meseret and his friend went to Ankober where there was great opposition to the gospel. As soon as they arrived, the police arrested them and put them in jail. They began preaching the gospel to the prisoners. So the police deliberately took them to other jails every day so that they would preach to the prisoners. After three weeks, they were put on trial and ordered to leave the place but not before they had done an amazing work of reaching prisoners everywhere in that area.
Meseret worked with Stocks for six more months after that incident and then the school was closed. Even though Stocks wanted him to stay, Meseret had to leave because of his urgent desire to testify about salvation and because of his need to do more research into the roots of the EOC doctrine. Therefore he left for monasteries in Gojjam in 1949.
He moved from monastery to monastery as a student–since non-monks were not allowed to stay long–and began begging food to live among them. He began teaching his way of salvation but the monks all opposed the message labeling him “anti-Mary.” They wanted to use his outstanding skills in d?gua (Ethiopian music book) but as soon as they understood his theological position, they denounced him. However, Meseret won many individual converts who, as a result, were not allowed to stay in their churches. After strict follow-ups, they were expelled and had to join different Protestant churches.
Before he left Gojjam, his opponents plotted to kill him as they had killed others with similar goals before him. After two and half years, when Meseret heard about the plot he left and moved to monasteries located near the border of Gondar. From there, he went to the monasteries of Gondar. At the Wegera monastery he became popular as a mer?geta (choir leader in the EOC) for four months. During his stay in Gondar, someone suggested that he hold a theological debate with the Falashas (Ethiopian Jews). One falasha priest could not face Meseret and avoided him but others volunteered to debate with him. Their stand was that it was possible to be saved by observing the law. To their shock Meseret showed that even Moses could not keep the law perfectly, quoting Numbers 20:10-13. They yielded to his teaching although he apparently did not have any further debates with them because he arrived in Addis Ababa three days after that discussion.
During his time in the Gojjam and Gondar monasteries studying the foundations of the EOC doctrine, he found out that at the beginning, the teachings brought by Abuna Selama–Frumentius, the Syrian missionary who brought the gospel to the Axumite court in the fourth century–were entirely evangelical and sound in doctrine. But later, during the reign of Aºe (Emperor) Zära Yaqob (1434-1468), the king made official declarations on non-biblical ideas such as praying for the saints. Meseret used this information to teach those sincerely seeking God. Nevertheless his opponents always sought to keep him from teaching this part of the history of the EOC. However, Meseret never stopped speaking the truth.
During his ministry among the EOC people, he discovered that especially the church leaders knew that the EOC had gone astray and held distorted teachings. But they clung to the EOC for their own personal benefit without considering what the eternal outcome would be. A bishop once asked Meseret for a list of issues that he thought had to be addressed in order to reform the EOC so that he–the bishop–could present it to a higher body. Meseret drew up the list and passed it on to him. Though the bishop approved Meseret’s list of proposals, he made excuses in order to avoid presenting it to the higher body and the Ethiopian people, because he knew he would be condemned as traitor to the faith of the Orthodox Church.
After his return to Addis Ababa, Emperor Haile Sellassie wanted to reform the EOC during Patriarch Basilios’ leadership. Consequently, a committee including Mr. Stocks and many other Ethiopian officials was established. The committee decided to open a Bible school, Saint Paul’s School, but they said that reformation could not happen until young Ethiopians were educated spiritually. As a result, Holy Trinity Faculty was opened as part of Haile Sellassie I University.
Mr. Stocks suggested Meseret’s name as a qualified teacher for the Bible school. But when people searched for him, he was nowhere to be found. Only two years later, after the idea of the reformation was all but forgotten, Meseret reappeared but he was unwilling to teach in the school. Later, he joined the school as a student and began a revival. The school administrator found out about his activities and warned him to stop. He also reported him to the patriarch and to Empress Menon, the queen, who was angry at Meseret for being anti-Mary. She wanted severe measures taken against him but the emperor would not entertain that idea and Meseret was saved from danger.
Meseret met with Rev. Gidada Solon, a blind man and a leader at the Bethel Mekane Yesus Church. A few weeks after their encounter, Meseret was asked to teach Amharic at the Bethel church. Seizing this opportunity, Meseret left Saint Paul’s Bible School and joined the Bethel Mekane Yesus Church in 1954. Even though his circumstances led him to make this move at that time, he had not previously harbored any intentions of running away from the EOC.
The Presbyterian missionaries who had began the Bethel Church handed over the church administration to a committee, which unfortunately did not last long, probably because of financial mismanagement. After Meseret joined the church, he started a private Bible study in addition to his formal teaching classes, and the number of those attending the study grew and grew. He took on a larger class with the permission of the missionaries and Gutema Rufo, who had returned from England after finishing his studies, worked with him.
Another committee was formed with Meseret as chairman. This group grew into the present congregation of the Bethel Mekane Yesus Church. Somehow the missionaries were not happy with this new work and began to put obstacles in their way. In fact, they sold the land to a Muslim group to build a mosque on it. But Meseret opposed the sale and the matter reached the missionary base in America. After studying the case, the missionary base supported the Ethiopian group and promised to offer $125,000 to build a church on the land. Even after that the missionaries went to great lengths to hamper the growth of that congregation but they were not successful and the Bethel Mekane Yesus Church was built–the biggest evangelical church in Addis Ababa. After the church construction was finished, he could not continue dealing with the missionaries and resigned in 1968 after fourteen years.
When Meseret completed his first book on reforming the EOC, Emperor Haile Sellassie read it and liked it so much that he wanted to grant him a favor but Meseret refused it. Then the emperor ordered that he be given a job in the Ministry of Education and this Meseret accepted. Later the leaders of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) decided to establish a seminary and he was invited to teach the history and traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As he was praying to God for a way to leave the Ministry of Education, he took this as an answer to his prayers. In 1968 he accepted the offer to teach at Mekane Yesus Seminary (MSY) after getting a release from the ministry within four months. He also started teaching Amharic and Ge’ez and his contribution was much more than was expected of him.
In 1972, he married Woizero Sehen Saifu and they were blessed with a son, Fekade Sellassie.
During the Dergue Regime, in 1976, when Patriarch Theophilos was detained Meseret was appointed with Dr. Yacob Tesfai to go to Jerusalem to negotiate his release. After his stay in Jerusalem, he went to England for personal reasons. He had to stay there for two years because his ticket expired and he had to work to raise money for his return. He began studying English and made friends who wanted to learn about Ethiopia. He also met with Mr. Stocks there. During his stay he found books from Ethiopia and studied any material he found about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This research was eventually useful in his future writing work. In the meantime, he was asked to join Oxford University as a special student and a resource person on Ethiopia. But he refused to stay any longer as he had promised Rev. Dr. Johnny Bakke that he would return to MYS. This he did in 1978. He continued teaching at MYS until he retired in 1983.
He was the founder of an association called Mahbere Bekure *(Association of the First-Born) which has an ongoing magazine called *Chorra (Light). Many of his publications and teachings come in this magazine continuously.
On January 14, 1996, Aleqa Meseret died. He is considered a great reformer of the EOC after Abba Estifanos of the 15th century who was persecuted and killed by Aºe Zära Yaqob (1434-1468) in Debre Berhan.
Alemayehu Haile Mariam, “Biography of Aleqa Meseret Sebhat Leab,” student thesis, ETC, Addis Ababa, May 2004.
Dawit Chiblsa, “Meseret Sehat Leab: an Orthodox Evangelical Conversion,” student thesis, Mekane Yesus Seminary (MYS), Addis Ababa, May 1990.
Select Bibliography of Works by Meseret Sebhat Leab:
Sellassie Betewahido (Trinity). Addis Ababa: Berhanena Selam Printing Press, 1996.
Towfite Hasabe Zemen and History (Ethiopian Church Calendar, Its Computation and History). Hong Kong: New Life Literature, 1988.
Qal Egizeabeher Nebere (The Word was God). Addis Ababa: Artistic Printing Press, 1995.
Simea Tsdique Beherawi (Indigenous Witness for the Truth). Addis Ababa: Artistic Printing Press, 1959.
Sire Bizu (Many Roots/Anchors). Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press, 1969.
Ariyosawiyan (The Arians-Jehovah Witnesses). Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa Mekane Yesus Literature Department, 1993.
This article, received in 2006, was researched and written by Dr. Dirshaye Menberu, retired professor from Addis Ababa University and 2005-2006 Project Luke Fellow. She is a graduate of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST), a DACB Participating Institution.