Estifanos was born sometime around 1380 CE, in a small village called Sebuha in the Tigray province of northern Ethiopia. His father, Berhanemeskel, was a renowned warrior soldier who died prior to Estifanos' birth. As a result, Estifanos was raised in his uncle's household and in expectations that he would grow up to become a soldier, he was named Hadegeanbesa (English translation: reminiscent of a lion) but during his adolescence he developed religious aspirations and despite his mother's and relatives urging he ran away and joined liturgical school.
Estifanos was ordained a deacon at age 18 by the hands of Bishop Abuna Bartalomiwos at the liturgical school that he was attending. Following a long held custom, he returned to his family once more following his ordination, said his farewell and went on a religious pilgrimage which led him to join the Qoyetsa monastery under Abbot Samuel. He acquired the name Estifanos during his ordination as a monk and obediently followed a path of extreme self-denial and ascetic lifestyle in the hope of obtaining salvation. Ordained a priest at age 30, Estifanos pushed the boundaries of religious observance by fasting more, praying longer and taking pilgrimages to holy sites in a desperate attempt to find fulfilment and eternal life.
It is generally held that it was a hermit by the name Abba Gebre Nazrawi, who had fled religious persecution in the province of Shoa due to his teachings on sola gratia, that first introduced Estifanos to the teaching that salvation is obtained by the grace of God through faith in the redemptive work of Jesus' crucifixion, and not of works. It was this notion that Estifanos took from Gebre Nazrawi and expounded through scriptural studies and meditations giving the hermit a theological framework for the teaching. Following his convictions, Estifanos started (date unknown) proclaiming the doctrine to fellow monks and then to the general public. Estifanos rapidly gained a number of followers, and despite his teaching on sola gratia, Estifanos developed an elaborate teaching on good works not as prerequisites for salvation but rather as fruits of salvation, that led him to denounce alcohol and promote self-denial to an extent that his opponents in the monastery could not keep up with. He developed a network of evangelists to carry out missionary work of distributing his literature, manuscripts of the Bible and help the needy. His lifestyle coupled with his teaching drew an ever growing number of adherents which were referred to as dekika estifa (students of Estifanos) or known as Stephanites.
The first wave of persecution started at the monastery when the abbot, fuelled by the growing influence of Estifanos, had his leading disciple Abukerezun expelled from the monastery and Estifanos imprisoned on charges of heresy for three years. During his imprisonment his disciple Abukerezun had started a congregation of Stephanites to which Estifanos became a leader upon his release. In a few years the Stephanites had grown into nine congregations and fifteen sub congregations, which were all actively engaged in proliferation of Estifanos' literature, bible manuscripts and agricultural projects for the impoverished. Although many aspects of Estifanos' life have been lost, it is known that it was during this period that Estifanos developed numerous doctrines which were at odds with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church including:
- Rejection of prostration to religious icons.
- Rejection of prostration to saints and angelic beings.
- Rejection of prostration to the emperor Zera Ya'iqob.
- Rejection of the claim of solomonic dynasty.
- Rejection of tabot (replicas of the Ark of the Covenant).
- Reorganization of Church buildings from being Sanctuary Temples to assembly halls.
- Rejection of prayer to dead saints and angelic beings.
Emperor Zara Ya'iqob, who was himself an ex-monk and a professed religious scholar, took personal offense to Estifanos, especially being denied prostration from Estifanos was an area that aggravated the Emperor and resulted in Estifanos' numerous arrests and persecution of the Stephanites. The persecutions range from anywhere between martyrdom and losing fingers, limbs, tongues and other body parts. The most severe affliction came in the form of peeling off Stephanites skin to inflict and maximize pain. There is legend which suggests that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church started the tradition of making the sign of the cross whenever one goes past a church in an attempt to distinguish Stephanites from among them for persecution.
Hungry and exhausted from the torture that he received over a seven-month imprisonment Estifanos died in prison due to lack of care and treatment around 1450. His gedel (Book of Acts) enunciates that he cried out Christ's name three times before his death. The emperor in rage that he did not get the chance to inflict more pain upon Estifanos while he was alive forbade his burial, and Estifanos' body was exposed for two years until finally his dried bones were buried at a nearby church.
Following the death of Estifanos, many Stephanites were captured, tortured and killed. Others were forced to renounce their affiliation with Estifanos and his teachings by the threat of death and some were sent away in exile. The emperor Zera ya'iqob, upon not receiving prostration from the imprisoned Stephanites, ordered that the Stephanites be killed and that Estifanos' remains be dug up and burned. The cycle of persecution continued well into the 16th century, until the entire sect was eliminated.
Due to the burning of Estifanos' literatures and books, we do not have the full volume of his teachings. The book The Ge'ez Acts of Abba Estifanos of Gwendagwende is one of the few surviving books from that era describing in full detail the teachings and practices of Estifanos and the Stephanites. There are strong parallels in the teachings and practices of Estifanos with the early Protestant reformers. He removed the banner of monks and celebrated Christian liberty, He held a traditional view of the Trinity, stressed on holiness, and it has also been suggested at some levels he has thought and believed in sola scriptura (bible alone) even though he didn't use the exact words to formulate his teaching on the subject.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church devotional book called Teamere Mariam (The Miracles of Mary) composed during the emperor Zera Ya'Iqob period has a section dedicated to Estifanos and the Stephanites. It states that after the stephanites were killed for denying prostration to the King, The Most Blessed Mary and the wooden cross, God in satisfaction sent down a glowing light upon a mountain for which they named the place debre berhan (The mount of Light).
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims that Estifanos was a heretic on the other hand he is revered as a saint and a martyr by most Ethiopian Evangelicals who also view him as the original leader of their movement and have in a number of books admired him and his teachings. There has also been an academic interest into his life and that of his followers in recent years. Some have called him "the first African Protestant" due to his teachings, but in the end his enduring legacy is as the person that started a reform movement over seventy years before the Protestant reformation.