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By L. Dean Webb


The spread of early Christianity after its recognition by Constantine was largely an urban phenomenon. Rustics were often ignored by early clergy as being unable to handle the subtlety of Christianity, just as they were unable to handle the subtlety of Greek Philosophy. After Theodosius established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, all other faiths were outlawed, including unorthodox variants on Christianity. During the time of Christian-on-Christian persecutions in the Empire, conversion of heretics was more important than proselytization.

The Empire refused to acknowledge the validity of other forms of Christianity, and would not recognize Arian, Nestorian, or non-Chalcedonian creeds as Christian, even though they flourished on the fringes or outside the pale of the Empire. Nestorians, for example, rejected the hellfire-and-damnation style of Roman Christianity and made tremendous conversions among peoples to the East of the Roman Empire. The Coptic and Ethiopian churches existed outside the range of the Roman emperors and did well expanding their base in Africa. Arian Christianity spread throughout the Germanic tribes making their way through the Western part of Rome, and a top order of business for the Roman administrators and clergy in that region was getting their rulers to convert from Arianism to the Orthodox faith. Of course, they spoke Latin, so they'd use the word Catholic instead of Orthodox.

Western Christianity in Gaul began to focus in earnest on peasant conversions starting around 450 AD. After that, moves into England, Germany, and beyond followed.

Back East, the Roman Empire had its hands full dealing with internal affairs. By internal affairs, I mean they were completely overwhelmed by Slavic and Bulgar invasions, even losing pretty much the whole of mainland Greece. Heraclius then had to contend with first the Persian, then Arab overrun of Palestine and Egypt. The Romans then had to contend with shoring up their Eastern frontier and retaking the Balkans. In such, the retaking of the Balkans would involve proselytization.

Around the same time, Jewish proselytization was viewed as a severe problem in Spain and Southern Gaul. The Frankish rulers of Gaul began to forbid persons converting to Judaism to get a tax break (many tax collecters in the region were Jewish and would cut some slack for their co-religionists). The Gothic kings of Spain were planning to exterminate the Jews there to end the conversions to Judaism when the Arab invasion caught them off-guard. Part of Judaism's appeal lay in both the simplicity of its monotheism (no trinitarian esoteric conventions there) and its well-established tradition of pedagogy: they were much better preachers than their Catholic counterparts.

Western Mediterranean Christianity was also breaking with Eastern Mediterranean Christianity at this time. The Pope in Rome at first served with leave from the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, but after the collapse of the 6th-7th Centuries, the Pope needed a local champion to replace the non-existent Byzantine protection. That champion arose in the Carolingian dynasty and allowed the Pope to break the tradition of having to have his election approved by the Emperor.

The rise of the Carolingians meant there was now a political counterweight to the Roman Empire, and both powers sought to extend their spheres of influence. St. Cyril and Methodius were sent by the Romans when the Slavs in Bohemia requested Christianity -- not from the adjacent Holy Roman Empire, but from a potential protector in Constantinople. Likewise, the Bulgars sought salvation in Catholicism when the Romans began to flex muscles in their direction. Eventually, the Bulgars went Orthodox and the Slavs in Bohemia went Catholic due to military and political realities faith alone could not change.

Catholic Christianity could spread over large areas due to the sparse populations of Northern Europe. The Orthodox church, meanwhile, worked its way through the Southern Balkans and on into Russia, largely through trade contacts with Kievan Rus. Neither branch of Mediterranean Christianity was lax in missionary moves.

Meanwhile, back in the Muslim world, heretical Christians as well as pagans could pay taxes to keep their faith: a refreshing change from the Roman policy of convert or die. This also meant the Greek books they had kept safe from Roman censors survived to eventually be handed over to the Arabs. It was the Nestorians of Persia who did more to preserve Greek science than the violent remnants of the Eastern Empire. Over in Spain, Jews experienced a respite in overt persecution and could even hold positions of high government in the Arab kingdom. One such vizier even once sent letters to the Emperor in Constantinople that if he didn't quit persecuting Jews, something bad would happen to the Christians in Spain. Also during this time was the existence of the Khazar Kingdom, which embraced Judaism as its official religion.

But Christianity could not grow in the Muslim world. Conversions were allowed only one way: from another faith to Islam. Converting in the opposite direction meant death. Interestingly, conversions still happened, but were frequently done in the open so as to invite immediate martyrdom. Such conversions happened to an extent so great that local religious leaders began to doubt the authenticity of such conversions (perhaps the converter had a suicidal wish), or would disown them, as they did not want to upset their precarious relationship with their rulers.

By 1300, there were few areas of Europe not yet Christian or Muslim. In Spain, the Reconquista forced all in its path to eventually convert or leave Spain, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy converged on opposite sides of Lithuania. Christians in Africa and Asia either existed under Muslim rulers, or were surrounded by them, so conversions were not an option for them at this time.

Some excellent resources on this topic include "The Barbarian Conversion" by Richard Fletcher and "Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries" by Ramsay MacMullen.

OK, so someone asked about how Pliny the Younger wrote in the second century after Augustus (between 100 and 200 AD/CE, not yet in AM years... see this page for more stuff on dating systems) about Christians all over the countryside. Wouldn't that go against the comment I made earlier about Christianity focusing primarily on the cities?

Not really. Christianity started out in the hinterlands, but went through a number of changes over the years. The second century after Jesus was a rough one for the Christian church. It was in transition from a prophetic faith to a philosophical one. The Apostles and their appeal to faith based on eyewitnessing Jesus had died out and Christianity had begun to take on Greek philosophical language to present itself in a better light to the urban world. (More info on this in Dodds' "Pagan & Christian in an Age of Anxiety") During that time Christianity is still on the outside of accepted society, and is yet to face its most severe persecutions.

Once Christianity became firmly established in the Empire, it had become an urban religion and there are a number of late antiquity tracts written by bishops about why it was as foolish to teach peasants as it was to teach animals. Most women were also excluded from active conversion: one early council voted on whether women were animals or human... the "women are human" faction won by a single vote. St. Martin of Tours began to reverse this trend, and Irish monasticism spread Christianity to the countryside, as well, but both were mid-4th century CE and beyond.

Even among later European conversions, rural areas accepted Christianity after urban centers. Lithuanian paganism remained alive, if ailing, in the mid-seventeenth century, and there are many Protestant letters decrying having to disabuse some remote populations of both Catholic and ancient pagan traditions.

At any rate, the key to the rural conversions was the Christianization of healing places. People would attribute healing powers to a lake, pond, spring, grotto, or some such place and construct a shrine there. They'd leave behind graffiti praising this god or that for his wonderful healing power. When Christian missionaries moved in, they'd replace images of said god with those of Jesus or Mary, but the healing reputation for the site remained. Over time, the graffiti gives way from praising the old god to praising Jesus or Mary. The author of "The Barbarian Conversion" asked how sincere the conversion had been, but had to also counter that question with a question about how sincere their original beliefs had been. Whoever provided healing, that's who they'd pray to. Rarely did rural conversion have anything to do with doctrinal issues unless it was converting an Arian warlord to Catholicism. Then, the missionaries focused on the court and let the ruler carry it to his people.

It should also be noted conversions were not done lightly. Abandoning old gods meant abandoning the powers which had previously provided harvests, victory, and fertility. It was not uncommon for sons of converted kings to switch back to the old ways to appease a nervous court. Even the Roman Empire had such an experience with Julian the Apostate.

Conversion of an area never was as simple as flicking a switch. It was a lengthy, generational process. That's why I dislike maps that show Christianity spreading in discrete chunks. Instead of saying "Christian by 600", they should say "Mostly Christian by 600".