TODAY IN HISTORY: On Sunday, June 21, 1931, Onesimus Nesib, a former slave who translated the Bible into his native language, died of a stroke on his way to preach the morning sermon.
Onesimus was born in 1856 near today’s Illu Abbaboora, Ethiopia. His parents named him Hika, a name that in the Oromo tribal tongue meant “translator.” But Hika’s father died when he was only four years old and soon raiding tribesman kidnapped him from his mother and sold him as a slave. He was given a new name by one of the traders, “Nesib.”
Nesib was stolen from his original owners and sold four more times over the next ten years before being purchased by Werner Munzinger, the vice-consul of the French Consulate. Munzinger saw that Nesib was a brilliant boy, granted him freedom, and sent him to the Swedish Evangelical Mission boy’s school in Eritrea, on the coast of the Red Sea. Nesib excelled in his classes and converted to Christianity when he was sixteen, choosing for himself the name of Onesimus, the name of a Biblical slave who was converted by the apostle Paul.
As a young man, Onesimus hoped to be a missionary to his native people, the Oromo. Even though he had left them at age four he never forgot his home and wanted to share with the Oromo the teachings he was learning in the Bible. His prayer was, “How long, O Lord, how long will it be before you send a preacher of the gospel there?”
The political situation in Ethiopia in the late 1800s was tumultuous. Onesimus tried several times to return to his people but found obstacle after obstacle. The Amharas in the north had often enslaved the Oromos and insisted that all education be carried out in the Amharic language rather than the native language of the Oromo, their goal being to eradicate the distinctiveness of the tribe.
Onesimus began translating Christian books into his native language, including some of the works of John Bunyan. But he used the letters of the Ge’ez alphabet rather than the alphabet of the Oromos hoping that this would make it more acceptable to the ruling elite. He taught Oromo refugees who found their way to the Swedish mission. One of these was a young woman named Aster Ganno, whom Onesimus discovered had a wonderful aptitude for languages. She also knew more of the idioms and stories of the Oromo people than Onesimus, who had left when he was only four. Together they translated books and wrote down the stories and legends of their people, publishing an Oromo reader. Above all, Onesimus Nesib took on the serious task of translating the Bible into the common language of his people, publishing it in 1893.
His Bible was taken to the Oromo people by others who were able to travel more easily. When Onesimus was finally able to travel to the area he left as a young boy, it was 1904. The Oromo, who had had his Bible for ten years, welcomed him, eager and thankful to learn to read and write in their own language.
However, Onesimus soon meet opposition from the Orthodox priests. Although Christianity had been in Ethiopia since the time of the New Testament (see Acts 8:26-39), the Ethiopian Coptic church had never translated the Bible into a language average people could understand. For their part, the governing Amhara’s insisted that all people be educated only in Amharic. In addition, Onesimus was an evangelical who did not believe it was proper to pray to the Virgin Mary. Many of the Oromo’s Bibles were confiscated and Onesimus was placed in chains and imprisoned. He was released with the understanding that he would not preach and teach and was sent to retire as a quiet farmer.
While Onesimus did not continue at his school, he did continue to teach young people from the Bible when they came to his home and was under constant pressure from those around him. However, by 1916, Emporer Haile Selassie I was aware of the benefits of the evangelical gospel in the areas of education and medical care and moved to allow the gospel to be preached without restriction.
It was on June 21, 1931 that Onesimus was hurrying to church to preach in the morning service. However, he felt that something was not right and stopped off at the home of a doctor friend. There within just a few very short minutes, he died of a stroke.
His name is not as well-known as it should be. His commitment to evangelical doctrine and his work of translation puts him in the camp of the great reformers of church history. Today, many people in Ethiopia worship and pray in the evangelical tradition and in their own language thanks to Onesimus Nesib, who was named “Hika” – the translator – by his father.