History of Christianity

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Funerary stele of Licinia Amias on marble, in the National Roman Museum. One of the earliest Christian inscriptions found, it comes from the early 3rd century Vatican necropolis area in Rome. It contains the text IKhThU[?] ZONTON
("fish of the living"), a predecessor of the Ichthys symbol. Stele Licinia Amias Terme 67646.jpg
Funerary stele of Licinia Amias on marble, in the National Roman Museum. One of the earliest Christian inscriptions found, it comes from the early 3rd century Vatican necropolis area in Rome. It contains the text ΙΧΘΥϹ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ ("fish of the living"), a predecessor of the Ichthys symbol.

The history of Christianity follows the Christian religion as it developed from its earliest beliefs and practices in the first century, spread geographically in the Roman Empire and beyond, becoming a global religion in the twenty-first century.


Christianity originated with the ministry of Jesus, a Jewish teacher and healer who proclaimed the imminent Kingdom of God and was crucified c.AD 30–33 in Jerusalem in the Roman province of Judea. The earliest followers of Jesus were apocalyptic Jewish Christians. Christianity remained a Jewish sect for centuries in some locations, diverging gradually from Judaism over doctrinal, social and historical differences. In spite of occasional persecution in the Roman Empire, the faith spread as a grassroots movement that became established by the third century both in and outside the empire. New Testament texts were written, and church government was loosely organized, in its first centuries, though the biblical canon did not become official until 382.

The Roman Emperor Constantine I became the first Christian emperor in 313. He issued the Edict of Milan expressing tolerance for all religions thereby legalizing Christian worship. He did not make Christianity the state religion, but did provide crucial support. Constantine called the first of seven ecumenical councils needed to resolve disagreements over defining Jesus' divinity. Eastern Christianity was already diverging from Western patterns, language and doctrines by the fourth century. Byzantium was more prosperous than the west, and what became Eastern Orthodoxy was more influential, organized and united with the state than Christianity in the west on into the Middle Ages. During the High Middle Ages, Eastern and Western Christianity had grown far enough apart that differences led to the East–West Schism of 1054. Reunion was not achieved until the year before the fall of Constantinople. Both Islam and crusade negatively impacted Eastern Christianity, and the conquering of Constantinople in 1453 put an end to the institutional church as established under Constantine, though it survived in altered form.

In the Early Middle Ages, missionary activities spread Christianity west and north with monks and nuns playing a prominent role. Combined with politicization, it helped develop East Central Europe, influencing every aspect of medieval life up to and including the 1200s. Various catastrophic circumstances, combined with a growing criticism of the Catholic Church church in the 1300–1500s, led to the Protestant Reformation and its related reform movements. Reform and counter-reformation were followed by the European wars of religion, the return of tolerance as a theological and political option, and the Age of Enlightenment. Christianity also influenced the New World through its connection to colonialism, its part in the American Revolution, the dissolution of slavery in the west, and the long-term impact of Protestant missions.

In the twenty-first century, traditional Christianity has declined in the West, while new forms have developed and expanded throughout the world. Today, there are more than two billion Christians worldwide and Christianity has become the world's largest, and most widespread religion. [1] [2] Within the last century, the center of growth has shifted from West to East and from the North to the Global South. [3] [4] [5] [6]

Origins to 312

Little is fully known of Christianity in its first 150 years. Sources are few. [7] This and other complications have limited scholars to probable rather than provable conclusions, based largely on the biblical book of Acts, whose historicity is debated as much as it is accepted. [8] [9]

According to the Gospels, Christianity began with the itinerant preaching and teaching of a deeply pious young Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth. [10] [11] His followers came to believe Jesus was the Son of God, the Christ, a title in Greek for the Hebrew term meshiah (Messiah) meaning “the anointed one.” Jesus was crucified c.AD 30–33 in Jerusalem, and after his death and burial, his disciples proclaimed they had seen him alive and raised from the dead. He was thereafter proclaimed exalted by God heralding the future Kingdom of God. [12] [10] [12]

Virtually all scholars of antiquity accept that Jesus was a historical figure. [13] [14] However, in the twenty-first century, tensions surround the figure of Jesus and the supernatural features of the gospels, creating, for many, a distinction between the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith'. [15] In early Christianity, this was not yet a question. The belief that Christ was both divine and human provided the foundation for Christianity. [16]

It was amongst a small group of Second Temple Jews, looking for an "anointed" leader (messiah or king) from the ancestral line of King David, that Christianity first formed in relative obscurity. [17] [12] Led by James the Just, brother of Jesus, they described themselves as "disciples of the Lord" and followers "of the Way". [18] [19] According to Acts 9 [20] and 11, [21] a settled community of disciples at Antioch were the first to be called "Christians". [22] [23] [24]

While there is evidence in the New Testament (Acts 10) suggesting the presence of Gentile Christians from the beginning, most early Christians were actively Jewish. [25] Jewish Christianity was influential in the beginning, and it remained so in Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor into the second and third centuries. [26] [27] Judaism and Christianity eventually diverged over disagreements about Jewish law, Jewish insurrections against Rome which Christians did not support, and the development of Rabbinic Judaism by the Pharisees, the sect which had rejected Jesus from the start. [28]

St. Lawrence (martyred 258) standing before Emperor Valerianus Lawrence-before-Valerianus.jpg
St. Lawrence (martyred 258) standing before Emperor Valerianus

Geographically, Christianity began in Jerusalem in first-century Judea, a province of the Roman Empire. The religious, social, and political climate of the area was diverse and often characterized by turmoil. [12] [29] The Roman Empire had only recently emerged from a long series of civil wars. [30] Romans of this era feared civil disorder, giving their highest regard to peace, harmony and order. [31] Piety equaled loyalty to family, class, city and emperor, and it was demonstrated by loyalty to the practices and rituals of the old religious ways. [32]

Christianity was largely tolerated, but some also saw it as a threat to "Romanness" which produced localized persecution by mobs and governors. [33] [34] The first reference to persecution by a Roman Emperor is under Nero, probably in 64 AD, in the city of Rome. Scholars conjecture that Peter and Paul were killed then. [35] In 250, the emperor Decius made it a capital offence to refuse to make sacrifices to Roman gods, resulting in widespread persecution of Christians. [36] [37] Valerian pursued similar policies later that decade. The last and most severe official persecution, the Diocletianic Persecution, took place in 303–311. [38] During these early centuries, Christianity spread into the Jewish diaspora communities, establishing itself beyond the Empire's borders as well as within it. [39] [40] [41] [42]

Mission in primitive Christianity

The Oxford and Cambridge Acts of the Apostles - Paul the Apostle's missionary journeys The Oxford and Cambridge Acts of the Apostles - with ontrod. and notes for the use of students preparing for examinations (1894) (14769867871).jpg
The Oxford and Cambridge Acts of the Apostles Paul the Apostle's missionary journeys

From its beginnings, the Christian church has seen itself as having a double mission: first, to fully live out its faith, and second, to pass it on, making Christianity a 'missionary' religion from its inception. [43] Driven by a universalist logic, missions are a multi-cultural, often complex, historical process. [44]

Evangelism began immediately through the twelve Apostles, and the Apostle Paul making multiple trips to found new churches. [45] Christianity quickly spread geographically and numerically, with interaction sometimes producing conflict, and other times producing converts and accommodation. [46] [47]

Early geographical spread

Map of the Roman empire with distribution of Christian congregations of the first three centuries displayed for each century Distribution of the documented presence of Christian congregations in the first three centuries.tif
Map of the Roman empire with distribution of Christian congregations of the first three centuries displayed for each century

Beginning with less than 1000 people, by the year 100, Christianity had grown to perhaps one hundred small household churches consisting of an average of around seventy (12–200) members each. [49] It achieved critical mass in the hundred years between 150 and 250 when it moved from fewer than 50,000 adherents to over a million. [50] This provided enough adopters for its growth rate to be self-sustaining. [50] [51]

In Asia Minor, (Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Pergamum), conflicts over the nature of Christ's divinity first emerged in the second century, and were resolved by referencing apostolic teaching. [52]

Egyptian Christianity probably began in the first century in Alexandria. [53] As it spread, Coptic Christianity developed. [54] Both Gnosticism and Marcionite Christianity appeared in the second century. [55] Egyptian Christians produced religious literature more abundantly than any other region during the second and third centuries. The church in Alexandria became as influential as the church in Rome. [56]

Christianity in Antioch is mentioned in Paul's epistles written before AD 60, and scholars generally see Antioch as a primary center of early Christianity. [57]

Early Christianity was also present in Gaul, however, most of what is known comes from a letter, most likely written by Irenaeus, which theologically interprets the detailed suffering and martyrdom of Christians from Vienne and Lyons during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. [58] There is no other evidence of Christianity in Gaul, beyond one inscription on a gravestone, until the beginning of the fourth century. [59]

The origins of Christianity in North Africa are unknown, but most scholars connect it to the Jewish communities of Carthage. [60] Christians were persecuted in Africa intermittently from 180 until 305. [61] Persecution under Emperors Decius and Valerian created long-lasting problems for the African church when those who had recanted tried to rejoin the Church. [62]

It is likely the Christian message arrived in the city of Rome very early, though it is unknown how or by whom. [63] Tradition, and some evidence, supports Peter as the organizer and founder of the Church in Rome which already existed by 57 AD when Paul arrived there. [64] The city was a melting pot of ideas, and according to Markus Vinzent, the Church in Rome was "fragmented and subject to repeated internal upheavals ... [from] controversies imported by immigrants from around the empire". [65] Walter Bauer's thesis that heretical forms of Christianity were brought into line by a powerful, united, Roman church forcing its will on others is not supportable, writes Vinzent, since such unity and power did not exist in Rome before the eighth century. [66] [67] [68]

Christianity spread in the Germanic world during the latter part of the third century, beginning among the Goths. It did not originate with the ruling classes. [69] Christianity probably reached Roman Britain by the third century at the latest. [69]

From the earliest days of Christianity, there was a Christian presence in Edessa (ancient and modern Urfa). It developed in Adiabene, Armenia, Georgia, Persia (modern Iran), Ethiopia, Central Asia, India, Nubia, South Arabia, Soqotra, Central Asia and China. Christianity's development followed the trade routes as it was spread east of Antioch and south of Alexandria by merchants and soldiers moving into eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arabian peninsula, and the Persian Gulf in the fourth century. [70] [71] By the sixth century, there is evidence for Christian communities in Sri Lanka and Tibet. [72]

Early beliefs and practices

One of the oldest representation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the catacombs of Rome, made around 300 AD Good shepherd 02b close.jpg
One of the oldest representation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the catacombs of Rome, made around 300 AD

Early Christianity's system of beliefs and morality have been cited as a major factor in its growth. [11] In contrast to traditional Roman social stratification, early Christian communities were highly inclusive being open to men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. [73] [74] In groups formed by Paul the Apostle, the role of women was greater than in other religious movements. [75] [76] Intellectual egalitarianism made philosophy and ethics available to ordinary people that Roman culture deemed incapable of ethical reflection. [77] [78] Christian conceptions of sexual morality and free will produced dramatic change from the Roman understanding of sexual morality as determined by social and political status, power, and class. [79] [80] [81]

Christians distributed bread to the hungry, nurtured the sick, and showed the poor great generosity. [82] [83] Family had previously determined where and how the dead could be buried, but Christians gathered those not related by blood into a common burial space, used the same memorials, and expanded the audience to include others of their community, thereby redefining the meaning of family. [84] [85]

Christianity in its first 300 years was also highly exclusive. [86] Believing was the crucial and defining characteristic that set a "high boundary" that strongly excluded non-believers. [86] The exclusivity of Christian monotheism has been cited as a crucial factor in maintaining Christian independence in the syncretizing Roman religious culture. [87] Many scholars interpreted this exclusivity as an intolerance inherent in Christian belief, though this view has been challenged by modern scholarship. [88]

In the mid-second century, Christian writers such as Justin Martyr (100–165 CE), began using the term "heresy." [89] [90] The concept developed as a means of defining theological error, ensuring correct belief and establishing identity. [90] Tension from universality and diversity made the establishment of boundaries necessary. [91] In the early centuries, doctrinal variations were gradually regulated by literature that established a consensus of common beliefs thereby creating "unified diversity". [92]

The modern understanding of freedom of conscience has been cited by some as beginning with Christianity's understanding of freedom to choose one's own religion. Starting with Justin Martyr, freedom of religious conscience is affirmed in the Milan edict of 313. [93] Early Christians were told to love others, even enemies, and Christians of all classes and sorts called each other "brother" and "sister". These concepts and practices were foundational to early Christian thought, have remained central, and can be seen as early precursors to later modern concepts of tolerance. [94]

Church hierarchy

The Church as an institution began its formation quickly and with some flexibility. The New Testament mentions bishops (or episkopoi ), as overseers and presbyters as elders or priests, with deacons as 'servants', sometimes using the terms interchangeably. [95] According to Gerd Theissen, institutionalization began when itinerant preaching transformed into resident leadership (those living in a particular community over which they exercised leadership). [96] A fully organized church system had evolved prior to Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in 325. [97]

New Testament

A folio from Papyrus 46, an early-3rd-century collection of Pauline epistles P46.jpg
A folio from Papyrus 46, an early-3rd-century collection of Pauline epistles

In the first century, new scriptures were written in Koine Greek. For Christians, these became the "New Testament", and the Hebrew Scriptures became the "Old Testament". [98] Even in the formative period, these texts had considerable authority, and those seen as "scriptural" were generally agreed upon. [99] [100]

When discussion of canonization began, there were disputes over whether or not to include some books. [101] [102] A list of accepted books was established by the Council of Rome in 382, followed by those of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397. [103] Spanning two millennia, the Bible has become one of the most influential works ever written, having contributed to the formation of Western law, art, literature, literacy and education. [104] [105]

Church fathers

The earliest orthodox writers of the first and second centuries, outside the writers of the New Testament itself, were first called the Apostolic Fathers in the sixth century. [106] The title is used by the Church to describe the intellectual and spiritual teachers, leaders and philosophers of early Christianity. [107] Writing from the first century to the close of the eighth, they defended their faith, wrote commentaries and sermons, recorded the Creeds and church history, and lived lives that were exemplars of their faith. [108]

Late Antiquity to Early Middle Ages (313–600)

Influence of Constantine in Late Antiquity

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine (centre) and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325) holding the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 Nicaea icon.jpg
Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine (centre) and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325) holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great became the emperor in the West and the first Christian emperor in 313. He became sole emperor when he defeated Licinius, the emperor in the East, in 324. [109] In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, expressing tolerance for all religions, thereby legalizing Christian worship. [109] Christianity did not become the official religion of the empire under Constantine, but the steps he took to support and protect it were vitally important in the history of Christianity. [110]

Constantine established equal footing for Christian clergy by granting them the same immunities polytheistic priests had long enjoyed. [110] He gave bishops judicial power. [111] By intervening in church disputes, he initiated a precedent. [112] [113] He wrote laws that favored Christianity, [114] [112] and he personally endowed Christians with gifts of money, land and government positions. [115] [116] Instead of rejecting state authority, bishops were grateful, and this change in attitude proved to be critical to the further growth of the Church. [111]

Constantine's church building was influential in the spread of Christianity. [111] He devoted imperial and public funds, endowed his churches with wealth and lands, and provided revenue for their clergy and upkeep. [117] This led to similar efforts on a local level, leading to the presence of churches in essentially all Roman cities by the late fourth century. [117]

Synthesis or state religion

Late Roman culture accommodated both Christian and Greco-Roman heritage. Christian intellectuals adapted Greek philosophy and Roman traditions to Christian use. [118]

Substantial growth in the third and fourth centuries made Christianity the majority religion by the mid-fourth century. All Roman emperors after Constantine, except Julian, were Christian. Christian Emperors wanted the empire to become a Christian empire. [119] [120] In the centuries following his death, Roman Emperor Theodosius I (347–395) was acclaimed by the Christian literary tradition, as the emperor who destroyed paganism and established Nicene Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Many twenty-first century scholars see this as a distortion created by Nicene Christian authors as part of their war with the Arians. [121] [122] [123] [124] [125] New explanations of "multiculturalism, cohabitation, cooperation, identity and group cohesion" have shifted modern understanding. [126] [note 1] Errington has written that none of the imperial laws recorded in the Theodosian Code made a noticeable contribution to establishing Christian Orthodoxy in the west, nor did Theodosius ever see himself "as a destroyer of the old cults". [133] [134] [128] No legislation forcing the conversion of pagans existed until the reign of Justinian in A.D. 529. [135]

Relations with polytheists

Christians of the fourth century believed Constantine's conversion was evidence the Christian God had conquered the many polytheist gods in Heaven. [136] [137] [138] This "triumph of Christianity" became the primary Christian narrative in writings of the late antique age in spite of the fact that Christians represented only ten to fifteen percent of the population in 313. As a minority, triumph did not generally involve an increase in violence aimed at polytheists – with some exceptions. [139] [140] [141] In general, there was more violent rhetoric than actual violence. [142]

Constantine wrote the first laws against sacrifice. Thereafter, sacrifice largely disappeared by the mid-fourth century. [143] [144] [145] Peter Brown notes that the language of these anti-sacrifice laws "was uniformly vehement", and the "penalties they proposed were frequently horrifying", evidencing the intent of "terrorizing" the populace into accepting removal of this tradition. [146] Even so, polytheistic religions continued. [147]

The fourth century historian Eusebius also attributes to Constantine widespread temple destruction, however, while the destruction of temples is in 43 written sources, only four have been confirmed archaeologically. [148] [note 2] What is known with some certainty is that Constantine was vigorous in reclaiming confiscated properties for the Church, and he used reclamation to justify the destruction of some Greco-Roman temples such as Aphrodite's temple in Jerusalem. For the most part, Constantine simply neglected them. [160] [161] [162]

Relations with Jews

In the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo argued against the persecution of the Jewish people. A relative peace existed between Jews and Christians until the thirteenth century. [163] [164] Significant Jewish communities existed throughout the Christian Roman empire, and attitudes varied in different areas. [165] Jews and Christians were both religious minorities claiming the same inheritance, and competing in a direct and sometimes violent clash. [165] Although anti-Semitic violence erupted occasionally, attacks on Jews by mobs, local leaders and lower level clergy were carried out without the support of church leaders who generally followed Augustine's teachings. [166] [167]

Sometime before the fifth century, the theology of supersessionism emerged, claiming that Christianity had displaced Judaism as God's chosen people. [168] Supersessionism was not an official or universally held doctrine, but replacement theology has been part of Christian thought through much of history. [169] [170] Many attribute the emergence of antisemitism to this doctrine while others make a distinction between supersessionism and modern anti-Semitism. [171] [172]

Relations between East and West

Eastern Christianity was becoming more and more distinct from Western Christianity by the fourth century. The western church spoke Latin, while the East spoke and wrote in at least five other languages. Theological differences became more pronounced. The Christian church related to the State in almost opposite ways in these different regions. [173] [174]

In the Roman west, the church condemned Roman culture as "demonic" and sinful, keeping itself as separate as possible, remaining resistant to State control for the next 800 years. [175] [176] [177] [178] This is in pointed contrast with eastern Christianity which acclaimed harmony with Greek culture, and whose emperors and Patriarchs upheld unanimity between church and state. [175] [note 3]

Increasing diversity formed competing orthodoxies. [181] Theological controversies led to the Armenian, Assyrian, and Egyptian churches combining into what is today known as Oriental Orthodoxy, one of three major branches of Eastern Christianity, along with the Church of the East in Persia and Eastern Orthodoxy in Byzantium. [182] [183] [184]

Asian and African Christians did not have access to structures of power, and their institutions developed without state support. [185] [note 4] Practicing the Christian faith sometimes brought opposition and persecution. [70] Asian Christianity never developed the social, intellectual and political power of Byzantium or the Latin West. [70] Yet, in 314 King Urnayr of Caucasian Albania adopted Christianity as the state religion. Armenia also adopted Christianity as their state religion in the fourth century, [188] as did Georgia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. [189] [190] [191] In an environment where the religious group was without cultural or political power, the merging of church and state is thought to instead represent survival of the ethnic group. [192]

The extent of the Byzantine Empire under Justin I is shown in the darker color. The lighter color shows the conquests of Justinian I Justinien 527-565.svg
The extent of the Byzantine Empire under Justin I is shown in the darker color. The lighter color shows the conquests of Justinian I

Events in the Western Roman Empire after 476 had little direct impact on the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople. [193] By the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527–565), Constantinople was the largest, most prosperous and powerful city on the Mediterranean. [194] Justinian attempted to unite East and West by fighting the western tribes, taking territory and control of the Church. From 537 to 752, this meant Roman Popes had to be approved by the Eastern emperor before they could be installed. This required consistency with Eastern policies, such as forcing conversion of pagans, that had not previously been policies in the west. [195] [135]

Regional developments (300–600)

Christianity had no central government, and differences developed in different locations. [66] [67] [68] Donatism developed in North Africa. Some Germanic people adopted Arian Christianity while others, such as the Frankish King Clovis I, (who was the first to unite the Frankish tribes under one ruler), converted to Catholicism. [196] [197] [198] [199] Various Germanic peoples in the West — many of whom had already converted to Christianity — sacked Rome, invaded Britain, France, and Spain, seized land, and disrupted economies. For multiple and various reasons, the Western Roman Empire began to split into separate kingdoms. [200] [201]

Coptic icon of St. Anthony the Great, father of Christian monasticism and early anchorite. The Coptic inscription reads shti  
('the Great Father Anthony') StAnthony.jpg
Coptic icon of St. Anthony the Great, father of Christian monasticism and early anchorite. The Coptic inscription reads Ⲡⲓⲛⲓϣϯ Ⲁⲃⲃⲁ Ⲁⲛⲧⲱⲛⲓ ('the Great Father Anthony')

Though dates and details are disputed by a minority, archaeology supports the slow conversion of the Irish as beginning in the early fifth century. [202]

Pope Gregory the Great sent a long-distance mission to Anglo-Saxon England. [69] The Gregorian mission landed in 596, and converted the Kingdom of Kent and the court of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. [203] However, archaeology indicates Christianity had become an established minority faith in some parts of Britain in the second century. Irish missionaries went to Iona (from 563) and converted many Picts. [204] [205]

A "seismic moment" in Christian history took place in 612 when the Visigothic King Sisebut declared the obligatory conversion of all Jews in Spain, overriding Pope Gregory who had reiterated the traditional ban against forced conversion of the Jews in 591. [206]

Christian monasticism had emerged in the third century, and by the fifth century, was a dominant force in all areas of late antique culture. [207] [208] Monastics developed an unprecedented health care system which allowed the sick to remain within the monastery as a special class afforded special benefits and care by those dedicated to that care. [209] This destigmatized illness, transformed health care in Antiquity, formed the basis of public health care in the Middle Ages, and led to the development of the hospital. [210]

Basil the Great was the central monastic figure in the East, founding the first public hospital (the Basiliad) in 369. [211] In the West, Benedict wrote the Rule of Saint Benedict which would become the most common monastic rule throughout the Middle Ages and the starting point for other monastic rules. [212]

Heresy and the Ecumenical councils (325–681)

Imagined portrait of Arius; detail of a Cretan School icon, c. 1591, depicting the First Council of Nicaea Ariusz.JPG
Imagined portrait of Arius; detail of a Cretan School icon, c.1591, depicting the First Council of Nicaea

From the fourth century on, seven ecumenical councils were convened to resolve theological controversies. [213] The first major disagreement was between Arianism, which said the divine nature of Jesus was not equal to the Father's, and orthodox trinitarianism which says it is equal. Arianism spread throughout most of the Roman Empire from the fourth century onwards. [214] The First Council of Nicaea was called by Constantine in (325) to address it and other disagreements. Representatives of some 150 episcopal sees in Asia Minor attended along with many others. [215] Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople (381) resulted in a condemnation of Arian teachings and produced the Nicene Creed. [214] [216]

The Third (431), Fourth (451), Fifth (583) and Sixth ecumenical councils (680681) are characterized by attempts to explain Jesus' human and divine natures. [217] The category of ‘schism’ developed as a middle ground, so as not to exclude all who disagreed as ‘heretic’. [218] Schisms within the churches of the Nicene tradition broke out after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. [181]

Early Middle Ages (600–1100)

In the earliest part of this period, Christianity's “nerve centers” remained urban bishoprics. Frankish Gaul had 116 bishops. Visigothic Spain had 66, Italy had 237, and North Africa had 242. The Sassanian Empire supported over 50 bishops. The church of Armenia had 20. With over 680 bishops, Byzantium was the center of the Christian world. [219]

Christianity in the 600s saw itself as established, but religion in the Middle Ages was not unified and piously Christian. [220] [221] Christianity and many of the old beliefs existed side-by-side in the emerging Western European world. [222] [223] The church of this period allowed "simple folk" who held an "implicit faith" without complete doctrinal understanding. [224] [225] These centuries stand alone as a period without major controversy over orthodoxy. [226]

In the 720s, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian banned the pictorial representation of Christ, saints, and biblical scenes, destroying much early art history. The West condemned Leo's iconoclasm. [227] By the nine hundreds, Byzantine culture began to recover. [228] [229] [230] By the tenth and early eleventh centuries, Orthodoxy was again manifested in the realms of art, scholarship, monastic revival and missionary expansion. [228]

Church and society

Throughout this period, the western church functioned like an early version of a welfare state sponsoring public hospitals, orphanages, hospices, and hostels (inns). [231] [232] The steadily increasing number of monasteries and convents supplied food during famine and distributed food to the poor. [233] Monasteries actively preserved ancient texts, classical craft and artistic skills, while maintaining an intellectual and spiritual culture. They supported literacy within their schools, scriptoria and libraries. [234] [235] They were models of productivity and economic resourcefulness, teaching their local communities animal husbandry, cheese making, wine making, and various other skills. [236]

Medical practice was highly important and medieval monasteries are best known for their contributions to medical tradition. They also made advances in sciences such as astronomy, and St. Benedict's Rule (480–543) impacted politics and law. [232] [237] The formation of these organized bodies of believers gradually carved out a series of social spaces with some amount of independence, distinct from political and familial authority, thereby revolutionizing social history. [238]

The Middle Ages were complex, with diverse elements, but the concept of Christendom was pervasive and unifying. [239] Medieval writers and ordinary folk used the term to identify themselves, their religious culture, and even their civilization. [240] [241] Membership in Christendom began with baptism at birth. Participation included rudimentary knowledge of the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. From peasant to pope, all were required to rest on Sunday and feast days, attend mass, fast at specified times, confess once a year (after 1215), take communion at Easter, pay various fees, tithes and alms for the needy, and receive last rites at death. These were overseen and enforced by the king and his lords and bishops. [242]

From the ninth to the eleventh century, Christendom encompassed a loose federation of churches across the European continent under the spiritual headship of the Pope. [243] However, the Pope had no clearly established authority over those churches. He gave little general direction, and the few councils that occur in this period were called by kings not popes. [243]

A symbiotic relationship existed between ecclesiastical institutions and civil governments between the sixth and the mid-eighth centuries with churches dependent upon lay rulers; ruling kings, dukes and counts made all appointments to ecclesiastical offices on their land. [178] [244] [245]

Reform and renewal

The spread of Cistercians from their original sites in Western-Central Europe during the Middle Ages Mapa cister.svg
The spread of Cistercians from their original sites in Western-Central Europe during the Middle Ages

There was substantial growth in heretical movements over the five or six decades at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh centuries. Nobles were overstepping in church affairs, many clergy were untrained, church posts were being bought and sold (simony), and there was a general sexual laxity. [246] [247] Religious leaders spoke out against the moral abuses of other ecclesiastical leaders. [248] The eleventh century then became an age of religious reform and renewal. [246] [247]

Owing to its stricter adherence to the reformed Benedictine rule, the Abbey of Cluny, first established in 910, became the leading center of Western monasticism into the early twelfth century. [249] [250] The Cistercian movement was a second wave of reform. After 1098, they became a primary force of technological advancement and diffusion in medieval Europe. [251]

19th century depiction of a Passion play ChesterMysteryPlay 300dpi.jpg
19th century depiction of a Passion play

Beginning in the twelfth century, the pastoral Franciscan Order was instituted by the followers of Francis of Assisi; later, the Dominican Order was begun by St. Dominic. Called Mendicant orders, they represented a change in understanding a monk's calling as contemplative, instead seeing it as a call to actively reform the world through preaching, missionary activity, and education. [252] [253]

The means and methods of teaching an illiterate populace included mystery plays (which had developed out of the mass), wall paintings, vernacular sermons and treatises, and saints' lives in epic form. [254] Rituals, art, literature, and cosmology were shaped by Christian norms but also contained some pre-Christian elements. [255] Christian motifs could function in non-Christian ways, while practices of non-Christian origin became endowed with Christian meaning. [256] In the synthesis of old and new, influence cut both ways, but the cultural dynamic lay with Christianization. [257]


As literacy spread, western universities, the first institutions of higher education since the sixth century, began as cathedral schools, or were directly formed into self-governing corporations chartered by popes and kings. [258] [259] [260] Divided into faculties which specialized in law, medicine, theology or liberal arts, each held quodlibeta (free-for-all) theological debates amongst faculty and students and awarded degrees. [261] [262] The earliest were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Oxford (1096), and the University of Paris where the faculty was of international renown (c.1150).

Regional developments (600–1100)

The 6th century Madonna of San Sisto is perhaps the oldest existing image of Mary. Rome, S. Maria del Rosario; Madonna of San Sisto (after restoration).png
The 6th century Madonna of San Sisto is perhaps the oldest existing image of Mary.

Charlemagne began the Carolingian Renaissance in France of the 800s. Sometimes called a Christian renaissance, it was a period of intellectual and cultural revival of literature, arts, and scriptural studies, a renovation of law and the courts, and the promotion of literacy. [263]

Gregorian Reform (1050–1080) established new canon law. That included laws requiring the consent of both parties for marriage, a minimum age for marriage, and laws making it a sacrament. [264] [265] This made the union a binding contract, which meant abandonment was prosecutable with dissolution of marriage overseen by Church authorities. [266] Although the Church abandoned tradition to allow women the same rights as men to dissolve a marriage, in practice men were granted dissolutions more frequently than women. [267] [268]

The veneration of the Virgin Mary grew dramatically in the Middle Ages within the monasteries in western medieval Europe. It spread through society and flourished in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries with the emergence of affective piety, which grew from empathy with the human Christ and his suffering, and exhibited itself in compassion toward the suffering of others. People of the time praised Mary for making God tangible. [269] [270]

Throughout the Middle Ages, abbesses and female superiors of monastic houses were powerful figures whose influence could rival that of male bishops and abbots. [271] [272]

Having begun in Christianity's first 500 years, Christian mysticism came to its full flowering in the Middle Ages. [273] [274] This period included a longing for the genuine "apostolic life" with particular sensitivity to the practice of voluntary holy poverty. [275]

Near East, Byzantium and schism

The Church of the East during the Middle Ages Church of the East in the Middle Ages.svg
The Church of the East during the Middle Ages
Hagia Sophia was the religious and spiritual centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. The Hagia Sophia and the Parthenon were converted into mosques. Violent persecutions of Christians were common and reached their climax in the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocides. Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (focused on the original Roman building).jpg
Hagia Sophia was the religious and spiritual centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. The Hagia Sophia and the Parthenon were converted into mosques. Violent persecutions of Christians were common and reached their climax in the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocides.

In the 600s, Byzantium faced invasion by the Persian Empire, which took land, and the rise of Islam and the establishment of an Arab Empire to Byzantium's east, which also took land. [278] [note 5] Towards the end of the sixth century, two main kinds of Christian communities had formed in Syria, Egypt, Persia, and Armenia: urban churches which upheld the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) saying Christ had one human/divine nature, and Nestorian churches which came from the desert monasteries asserting Christ had two separate natures. [280] The distinctive doctrinal and cultural identities of these churches played a decisive role in their history after the Arab conquest. [281]

Intense missionary activity between the fifth and eighth centuries led to eastern Iran, Arabia, central Asia, China, and the coasts of India and Indonesia adopting Nestorian Christianity. Syrian Nestorians had settled in the Persian Empire which spread over modern Iraq, Iran, and parts of Central Asia. [282] [283] The rural areas of Upper Egypt were all Nestorian. Coptic missionaries spread the faith up the Nile to Nubia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. [281]

From the early 600s, a series of Arab military campaigns conquered Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. [284] [285] Conquest, conflict, and persecution exercised a lasting influence on the churches in these regions. [286] Under Islamic rule, persecution of non-Muslims was particularly devastating in cities where Chalcedonian churches were located. The monastic background of the Nestorians made their churches more remote, so they often escaped direct attention. In the following centuries, it was the Nestorian churches who were best able to survive and cultivate new traditions. [287]

Andalusi Christians, [288] from the Iberian Peninsula lived under Muslim rule from 711 to 1492. [289] The martyrdoms of forty-eight Christians for defending their Christian faith took place in Córdoba between 850 and 859. [290] [291] [289] [292] Executed under Abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I, the record shows the executions were for capital violations of Islamic law, including apostasy and blasphemy. [291] [289] [292]

Many cultural, geographical, geopolitical, and linguistic differences between East and West existed. There were disagreements over whether Pope or Patriarch should lead the Church, whether mass should be conducted in Latin or Greek, whether priests must remain celibate, and other points of doctrine such as the Filioque Clause and Nestorianism. [293] [294] [295] Eventually, this produced the East–West Schism, also known as the "Great Schism" of 1054, which separated the Church into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. [294]


The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Crusader states with their strongholds in the Holy Land at their height, between the First and the Second Crusade (1135) Map Crusader states 1135-en.svg
The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Crusader states with their strongholds in the Holy Land at their height, between the First and the Second Crusade (1135)

After 1071, when the Seljuk Turks closed access for Christian pilgrimages and defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, the Emperor Alexius I asked for aid from Pope Urban II. Historian Jaroslav Folda writes that Urban II responded by calling upon the knights of Christendom at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095, to "go to the aid of their brethren in the Holy Land", an appeal aimed largely at those with sufficient wealth and position to subsidize their own journey. [296] [297] The First Crusade captured Antioch in 1099, then Jerusalem, establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem. [298]

The Second Crusade began after Edessa was taken by Islamic forces in 1144. [299] Christians lost Jerusalem in 1187 through the catastrophic defeat of the Franks at the Horns of Hattin. [300] The Third Crusade did not regain the major Holy sites. [300]

The Fourth Crusade, begun by Innocent III in 1202 was subverted by the Venetians. They funded it, then ran out of money and instructed the crusaders to go to Constantinople and get money there. Crusaders sacked the city and other parts of Asia Minor, established the Latin Empire of Constantinople in Greece and Asia Minor, and contributed to the downfall of the Byzantine Empire. Five numbered crusades to the Holy Land culminated in the siege of Acre in 1291, essentially ending Western presence in the Holy Land. [301] Crusades led to the development of national identities in European nations, increased division with the East, and produced cultural change for all involved. [302] [303]

Investiture and papal primacy

1882 depiction of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at the gate of Canossa Castle during the Investiture controversy Canossa-gate.jpg
1882 depiction of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at the gate of Canossa Castle during the Investiture controversy

The Investiture controversy began in the Holy Roman Empire in 1078. Specifically a dispute between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) concerning who would appoint, invest, bishops, it was more generally, a conflict between king and pope over control of the church. [304] [305] [306] [307] The Church had become committed to the doctrine of papal supremacy by the end of the ninth century, but it wasn't until the eleventh century that Gregory recorded a series of formal statements strongly asserting papal supremacy saying the church could no longer be treated as servant to the state. [308] [309] [310]

Ending lay investiture would undercut the power of the Holy Roman Emperor and the ambitions of the European nobility, but allowing lay investiture to continue meant the Pope's authority over his own people was almost non-existent. [311] [note 6] Disobedience to the Pope became equated with heresy. [314] Before this, kings had been largely exempt from the requirement of obedience to the Pope because they occupied a special position of their own based on divine right. [315]

It took "five decades of excommunications, denunciations and mutual depositions...spanning the reign of two emperors and six popes" only to end inconclusively in 1122. [316] [317] A similar controversy occurred in England. [318]


Under Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), the Roman Church became what John Witte Jr. calls "an autonomous legal and political corporation" that functioned as a "state" with a strong sense of its own socioeconomic and political interests. [319]

Western High Middle Ages (1100–1300)

Following the era of Innocent III (1198–1216), the Papacy stood as the highest authority in the West for nearly two centuries. [320]

Between 1150 and 1200, intrepid Christian scholars traveled to formerly Muslim locations in Sicily and Spain. [321] Fleeing Muslims had abandoned their libraries, and among the treasure trove of books, the searchers found the works of Aristotle, Euclid and more. Reconciling Christian theology and Aristotle created High Scholasticism, the works of Thomas Aquinas on law, politics, reason and faith, and the Renaissance of the 12th century. [322] [323] [324]

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry. Early 15th century painting, France. Studying astronomy and geometry.jpg
Clerks studying astronomy and geometry. Early 15th century painting, France.

This included revival of the scientific study of natural phenomena. Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253) devised a step-by-step scientific method; William of Ockham (1300–1349) developed a principle of economy; Roger Bacon (1220–1292) advocated for an experimental method in his study of optics. [325] Historians of science credit these and other medieval Christians with the beginnings of what became modern science that led to the scientific revolution in the West. [326] [327] [328] [329]

Hospitals, almshouses, and schools continued to be founded by the church of this era. [330] Between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, the church also built cathedrals using architectural innovations. [331]

Christianization of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) occurred in two stages. [332] In the first stage, missionaries arrived on their own without secular support in the ninth century. [68] Next, a secular ruler would take charge of Christianization in their territory. This stage ended once a defined and organized ecclesiastical network was established. [333] By 1350, Scandinavia was an integral part of Western Christendom. [334]

Beliefs, practices and heresy

By the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, the parish church emerged as one of the fundamental institutions of medieval and Old Europe. [335] Formed from the needs and interests of their local communities, the parish church became the center of medieval village life. [335] By the thirteenth century, "parish" could refer indiscriminately to both village and church. [336]

Medieval folk invoked Christian norms and practices as the ideal toward which they strove, but medieval religious life included a constant struggle to maintain those norms. [337] Most believed that access to Heaven was available only through participating in the Church's sacraments, and living morally as defined by a list of seven virtues and seven vices. [338] [336] [339] Private confession became a routine event required annually of every Christian after 1215. [336] Confession and penance were the chief means of personal religious formation. [340] Purgatory was officially adopted in 1215. [341]

Between 1150 and 1350, the scope of how one could transgress began to widen. [342] [343] Heresy, which previously had applied only to bishops and church leaders who knew theology, began being applied to ordinary people as concern over heresy grew and response to it became more severe. [344] [345] [346] [343] Based on the assumption that, in order to maintain a peaceful society, it was necessary to allow only one religion, heresy became a religious, political, and social issue. [347] Prosecuting it, therefore, included both church and state. [348] [349] The courts that did so are jointly referred to as the Medieval Inquisition. This includes the Episcopal Inquisition (1184–1230) and the Papal Inquisition (1230s–1240s), though these courts had no joint leadership or organization. Created as needed, they were not permanent but were limited to specific times and places. [350] [351] [352]

Inquisition represented a change in church juridical procedure. Echoing Roman rather than Germanic tradition, it was initially directed toward policing morality, especially sexual sin among the clergy. Sin then became aligned with crime. Crime applied to everyone. Crime justified the use of coercion. [353] Torture was an aspect of civic law. [354]

The Fourth Lateran Council allowed clerics to search out moral and religious "crimes" even when there was no accuser. [355] In theory, this granted inquisitors extraordinary powers, but in practice, without local secular support, their task became so overwhelmingly difficult that inquisitors themselves became endangered. In the worst cases, some inquisitors were murdered. Inquisitors did not possess absolute power, nor were they universally supported. [356] The belief held by Dominicans that only they could correctly discern good and evil has been cited as a contributing factor to the riots and public opposition that formed against their order. [357] [358] The Medieval Inquisition became stridently contested both in and outside the Church. [350] [359]

The Medieval Inquisition brought somewhere between 8,000 and 40,000 people to interrogation and sentence. [350] Death sentences were a relatively rare occurrence. [360] The penalty imposed most often by Medieval Inquisitorial courts was some act of penance which could include public confession. [361]

Between 1478 and 1542, inquisition was transformed into permanently established State controlled bureaucracies. These modern inquisitions were political institutions with a much broader reach. [362] [363] [364]

Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229)

Pope Innocent III and the king of France, Philip Augustus, joined in 1209 in a military campaign that was promulgated as necessary for eliminating the Albigensian heresy also known as Catharism. [365] [366] Once begun, the campaign quickly took a political turn. [367] The king's army seized and occupied strategic lands of nobles who had not supported the heretics, but had been in the good graces of the Church. Throughout the campaign, Innocent vacillated, sometimes taking the side favoring crusade, then siding against it and calling for its end. [368] It did not end until 1229. The campaign no longer had crusade status. The entire region was brought under the rule of the French king, thereby creating southern France. Catharism continued for another hundred years (until 1350). [369] [370]

Baltic wars (1147–1316)

When the Second Crusade was called after Edessa fell, the nobles in Eastern Europe refused to go to the Near East. [299] The Balts, the last major polytheistic population in Europe, had raided surrounding countries for several centuries, and subduing them was more important to the Eastern-European nobles. [371] These rulers saw crusade as a tool for territorial expansion, alliance building, and the empowerment of their own church and state. [372] In 1147, Eugenius' Divina dispensatione gave eastern nobility indulgences for the first crusade in the Baltic area. [299] [373] [374] The Northern Crusades followed intermittently, with and without papal support, from 1147 to 1316. [375] [376] [377] Priests and clerics developed a pragmatic acceptance of the forced conversions perpetrated by the nobles, despite the continued theological emphasis on voluntary conversion. [378]

Eastern Christianity (1000–1586)

Bulgarians, Alanians (modern Iran), Russians and Armenians had come under the auspices of the Byzantine Patriarch by the early eleventh century. [379] [380] These rulers preferred the Byzantine over the Roman view of culture and politics because it strongly supported their right to the throne, saw the ruler’s law making and enforcement as divinely inspired, and gained them the respect, authority and obedience needed to establish their states. [381]

St. Cyril and St. Methodius monument on Mt. Radhost Cyril Metodej.jpg
St. Cyril and St. Methodius monument on Mt. Radhošť

Conversion of the Slavs dates to the time of Eastern Orthodox missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Basil I (r. 867–886). [382] [383] Serbia can be seen as a "Christian nation" by 870. [384] Cyril and Methodius translated the Gospels into the Old Church Slavonic language, developing the first Slavic alphabet, and with their disciples, the Cyrillic script. [385] [386] It became the first literary language of the Slavs and, eventually, the educational foundation for all Slavic nations. [385] The adoption of Eastern Christianity and the use of vernacular Slavic language influenced the direction of the spiritual, religious, and cultural development of the entire region through the rest of the millennium. [387]

Southeastern Europe in the late 9th century Southeastern Europe Late Ninth Century.png
Southeastern Europe in the late 9th century

In the last two decades of the 9th century, missionaries Clement and Naum, disciples of the brothers Cyril and Methodius, arrived in Romania spreading Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet. [388] By the 10th century, the Bulgarian Tsars imposed the Bulgarian church model and its Slavic language without opposition. [389] This ecclesiastical and political tradition continued until the 19th century. [390]

Introduction of Christianity in Poland, by Jan Matejko, 1888-89 Matejko Christianization of Poland.jpg
Introduction of Christianity in Poland , by Jan Matejko, 1888–89

The dynastic interests of the Piasts produced the establishment of both church and state in Poland. [391] The "Baptism of Poland" in 966, refers to the baptism of Mieszko I, the first ruler, which was followed by the building of churches and the establishment of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. [391]

Image of the King Saint Stephen I of Hungary, from the 14th century codex Chronicon Pictum SztIstvan 5.jpg
Image of the King Saint Stephen I of Hungary, from the 14th century codex Chronicon Pictum

St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king, suppressed rebellion, organized the Hungarian State around strong royal authority, established the church by inviting missionaries and suppressing paganism, and by making laws such as one which required people to attend church every Sunday. [392] [393] [394]

Basil I with a delegation of Serbs Delegation of Croats and Serbs to Emperor Basil I, Skylitzes.jpg
Basil I with a delegation of Serbs

Conversion of the Croats was completed by the time of Duke Trpimir's death in 864. In 879, under duke Branimir, Croatia received papal recognition as a state from Pope John VIII. [395]

Near East and Africa

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, the Christian churches in Egypt, Syria and Iraq became subject to fervently Muslim militaristic regimes. [396] Christians were dhimma. This cultural status guaranteed Christians rights of protection, but discriminated against them through legal inferiority. [397] Various Christian communities adopted different strategies for preserving their identity while accommodating their rulers. [396] Some withdrew from interaction, others converted, while some sought outside help. [396] As a whole, Christianity in these areas declined demographically, culturally and socially. [398] By the end of the eleventh century, Christianity was in full retreat in Mesopotamia and inner Iran. Some Christian communities further to the east continued to exist. [283]

Byzantium and the Fall of Constantinople

In the mid-eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire was the largest and most prosperous polity in the Christian world. [380] Constantinople remained its capitol and center, and its wealth and safety was seen, even by distant outsiders, as resulting directly from the religious devotion of its inhabitants. [229]

The eleventh century was a period of relative peace and prosperity, and Christianity was the ‘glue' holding the empire together until April of 1204, when western crusaders in the Fourth Crusade stormed, captured, and looted Constantinople. [399] [400] It was a severe blow. [401] Byzantine territories were divided among the Crusaders establishing the Latin Empire and the Latin takeover of the Eastern church. [402] [403]

By 1261, the Byzantines had recaptured a much weakened and poorer Constantinople. [404] [405] Mongol invasions to the East caused many Turkic refugees to pour in, strongly affecting Asia Minor, the core of Byzantium. [406]

In 1339, the Ottoman threat prompted leaders of the Eastern and Western churches to make overtures toward reunion, but as the threat waned, nothing of substance was accomplished. [407] In 1439, an agreement was made, but there was popular resistance in the East. As a result, it wasn't until 1452 that the decree of union was officially published in Constantinople. Resolution of the Roman-Greek conflict in Christianity was overthrown the very next year by the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. [408] [409]

The conquest of 1453 destroyed the Orthodox Church as an institution of the Christian empire inaugurated by Constantine, sealing off Greek-speaking Orthodoxy from the West for almost a century and a half. [410] [411] However, even as political fortunes declined, the spiritual and cultural influence of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, and Mount Athos the monastic peninsula, increased, forming a spiritual epicenter that continued to provide the norm of correct doctrine and piety for all the Orthodox nations. [411]

Islamic law did not recognize the Patriarch as a ‘juristic person,’ nor did it acknowledge the Orthodox Church as an institution, but it identified the Orthodox Church with the Greek community, and concern for stability allowed it to exist. [412] [413] The monastery at Mt. Athos prospered from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. [414] Ottomans were tolerant and wealthy Byzantines who entered monastic life there were allowed to keep some control over their property until 1568. [414] Compulsory resettlement meant Constantinople reacquired a considerable population of Greek Orthodox inhabitants. [415] Leaders of the church were recognized by the Islamic state as administrative agents charged with supervising the loyal submission of its Christian subjects and the collection and delivery of their taxes. [416]

The regularly levied and compulsory taxes, higher and higher "bids" to the sultan in hopes of receiving his appointment to the Patriarchate, and other financial gifts, corrupted the process and bankrupted the Christians involved. [417] [413] Conversion became a solution. [418] The oldest Ottoman document lists 57 bishoprics existing in 1483. By 1525, their number decreased to fifty, and only forty are recorded from 1641–1651. [418] Even so, by the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520 – 1566), the patriarchate had become a part of the Ottoman system, and it continued to have great influence in the Orthodox world. [419] [413]


The Baptism of Kievans, by Klavdiy Lebedev Lebedev baptism.jpg
The Baptism of Kievans, by Klavdiy Lebedev
Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv 80-391-0151 Kyiv St.Sophia's Cathedral RB 18 2 (cropped).jpg
Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv

The event associated with the conversion of the Rus' has traditionally been the baptism of Vladimir of Kiev in 989. However, aristocrats had been making attempts to unify since the mid-ninth century, and contacts with Christian countries had led the ruling class to conclude that Christianity would aid in this process. [420] From the 950s up to the 980s, polytheism declined and many social and economic changes fostered the spread of the new religious ideology. [387]

The Rus' dukes maintained control of the church which was financially dependent upon them. [421] [note 7] This new Christian religious structure was imposed upon the socio-political and economic fabric of the land by the authority of the state's rulers. [423] While monasticism was the dominant form of piety, Christianity permeated daily life for both peasants and elites who identified themselves accordingly, while keeping pre-Christian practices as part of their religion. [424]

In a defining moment in 1380, a coalition of Russian polities headed by the Grand Prince Dmitrii of Moscow faced the army of the Golden Horde on Kulikovo Field near the Don River, there defeating the Mongols. This began a period of transformation fusing state power and religious mission, transforming the Kievan Rus into the Russian state. [425]

Ivan III of Muscovy adopted the style of the ancient Byzantine imperial court a generation after Constantinople fell to the Turks. [426] This gained Ivan support among the late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century Rus elite who saw themselves as the New Israel and Moscow as the new Jerusalem. [427] Jeremias II (1536 - 1595) was the first Eastern patriarch to visit north-eastern Europe. His visit culminated in Moscow with the founding of the new Orthodox patriarchate of Russia. [428] [413]

Late Middle Ages (1300–1500)

In Europe of the Late Middle Ages people experienced plague, famine and war. [429] There was social unrest, urban riots, peasant revolts and renegade feudal armies. [430] The feudal system declined, parliaments and general literacy grew, and written records multiplied. [431] Christianity remained varied, at times approving in one place what it opposed in another. [432]

Kings had begun centralizing power into the State in the twelfth century, but it wasn't until the fourteenth century that Papal power stopped increasing, and French kings substantively gained and consolidated power. [431] [433] [434] Societal persecution and discrimination grew, becoming core elements of society and accepted tools of the powerful. [435] [436] [note 8]

Michelangelo's Pieta (1498-99) in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City Michelangelo's Pieta 5450 cropncleaned edit.jpg
Michelangelo's Pietà (1498–99) in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The later Middle Ages produced a series of formal and informal groups composed of laymen and secular clerics seeking a more apostolic life. [438] Inside and outside the church, women were central to these movements. A vernacular religious culture for the laity rose. [275]

By 1330, the Ottomans had largely conquered Anatolia, much of the Balkans by the end of the century, and Constantinople, the last vestige of the Roman Empire, in 1453. [439] The flight of Eastern Christians from Constantinople, and the manuscripts they carried with them, is one of the factors that prompted the literary renaissance in the West. [440]

The Church became a leading patron of art and architecture and commissioned and supported many such as Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci. [441] Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern Western musical notation leading to the development of classical music and all its derivatives. [442] Scholars of the Renaissance created textual criticism revealing the Donation of Constantine as a forgery. [443]


Portrait of Pope John XXII (1316-1334) (by Giuseppe Franchi) who was referred to as "the banker of Avignon" Portrait of Pope John XXII Dueze (by Giuseppe Franchi) - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.jpg
Portrait of Pope John XXII (1316–1334) (by Giuseppe Franchi) who was referred to as "the banker of Avignon"

In 1309, Pope Clement V moved to Avignon in southern France in search of relief from Rome's factional politics. [445] Seven popes resided there in the Avignon Papacy, but the move to Avignon caused great indignation costing popes prestige and power. [446] [317] [447]

Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377. [448] [449] [450] After Gregory's death, the papal conclave met in 1378, in Rome, and elected an Italian Urban VI to succeed Gregory. [445] The French cardinals did not approve, so they held a second conclave electing Robert of Geneva instead. This began the Western Schism. [451] [445]

For thirty years the Church had two popes, then in 1409, the Pisan council called for the resignation of both popes, electing a third to replace them. Both Popes refused to resign, giving the Church three popes. The pious became disgusted. [445] [452] Five years later, Sigismund the Holy Roman Emperor (1368-1437) pressed Pope John XXIII to call the Council of Constance (1414–1418) to depose all three popes. In 1417, the council elected Pope Martin V in their place. [445]

Jan Hus defending his theses at the Council of Constance (1415), by the Czech artist Vaclav Brozik Brozik, Vaclav - Hus pred koncilem 6. cervence 1415.jpg
Jan Hus defending his theses at the Council of Constance (1415), by the Czech artist Václav Brožík

John Wycliffe (1320–1384), an English scholastic philosopher and theologian, attended the Council of Constance and urged the Church to give up its property (which produced much of the Church's wealth), and to once again embrace poverty and simplicity, to stop being subservient to the state and its politics, and to deny papal authority. [453] [454] He was accused of heresy, convicted and sentenced to death, but died before implementation. The Lollards followed his teachings, played a role in the English Reformation, and were persecuted for heresy after Wycliffe's death. [454] [455]

Jan Hus (1369–1415), a Czech based in Prague, was influenced by Wycliffe and spoke out against the abuses and corruption he saw in the Catholic Church there. [456] He was also accused of heresy and condemned to death. [455] [456] [454] After his death, Hus became a powerful symbol of Czech nationalism and the impetus for the Bohemian/Czech and German Reformations. [457] [458] [456] [454]

Relations with the Jewish people

Expulsions of Jews in Europe from 1100 to 1600 Expulsion judios-en.svg
Expulsions of Jews in Europe from 1100 to 1600

A turning point in Jewish-Christian relations took place in the early 1200s when contents of the Talmud mocking the central figures of Christianity became public. [459] [460] The medieval Catholic church never advocated the expulsion of all the Jews from Christendom, nor did the Church ever repudiate Augustine's doctrine of Jewish witness, but new canon law from the Third and Fourth Lateran councils supported discrimination as secular rulers repeatedly confiscated Jewish property and evicted Jews from their lands. [461] [462] [463]

The Spanish inquisition was authorized by the Pope in answer to royal fears that Conversos or Marranos (Jewish converts) were spying and conspiring with the Muslims to sabotage the new state. [464] [465] Early inquisitors proved so severe that the Pope soon opposed it and wanted to shut it down. [466] Ferdinand is said to have threatened the Pope to prevent that. In October 1483, a papal bull conceded control to the Spanish crown. [467] [468] The inquisition became the first national, unified and centralized institution of the nascent Spanish state. [469]

Anti-Judaism had become part of the Inquisition in Portugal before the end of the fifteenth century, and forced conversion led many Jewish converts to India where they suffered as targets of the Goa Inquisition. [470]

Frankfurt's Jews flourished between 1453 and 1613 despite harsh discrimination. They were restricted to one street, subject to strict rules if they wished to leave this territory and forced to wear a yellow patch as a sign of their identity. Within the community they maintained some self-governance. They had their own laws, leaders and a Rabbinical school that functioned as a religious and cultural center. [462]

Criticism and blame

The period from around 1100 to 1349 can be identified as an era of “anticlerical revolution". It describes developing attitudes and behaviors against the clergy. [471] [note 9] Hostility was usually targeted at bad priests, ineffective incumbents or inadequate curates. [473] In addition, the many great calamities of the "long fourteenth century" led folk to believe Armageddon was immanent. [450] This sentiment ran throughout society and became intertwined with anticlerical and anti-papal sentiments. [474] [note 10]

Multiple strands of criticism of the clergy between 1100 and 1520 were voiced by clerics themselves. [476] Such criticism condemned abuses and sought a more spiritual, less worldly, clergy. [477] However, there is a constancy of complaints in the historical record that indicates most attempts at reform failed. The church's entanglement with the secular and lay exploitation were too deeply rooted. [477] [note 11] Power within the church tipped away from the monastics toward bishops, but this didn't help with the problems since many kings and noblemen drafted competent bishops to improve their own governments leaving many diocese without spiritual leadership. [480]

Civilization itself was changing its character. The Old Order was being challenged. The influence of educated and wealthy lay people increased as the influence of clergy waned. [481] Practices meant to Christianize people had become "burdensome" and contributed to discontent. [482] By the 1300s, nations were becoming more formidable opponents than they had been in the 1100s when the struggle over papal superiority first took political form. [483] [484] Evidence of decline in papal power can be found by 1302. [485] [note 12] Franciscans provided evidence against Pope John XXII (1316-1334) as the failings of a succession of popes contributed to criticism. [487] [488] The combination of catastrophic events, both within the church and those events beyond its control, undermined the moral authority and constitutional legitimacy of the church opening it to local fights of authority and control. [489] [446] [317]

Early modern (1500–1750)

Following the geographic discoveries of the 1400s and 1500s, increasing population and inflation led the emerging nation-states of Portugal, Spain, and France, the Dutch Republic, and England to explore, conquer, colonize and exploit the newly discovered territories and their indigenous peoples. [490] Different state actors created colonies that varied widely. [491] Some colonies had institutions that allowed native populations to reap some benefits. Others became extractive colonies with predatory rule that produced an autocracy with a dismal record. [492]

Colonialism opened the door for Christian missionaries who accompanied the early explorers, or soon followed them. [493] [494] Although most missionaries avoided politics, they also generally identified themselves with the indigenous people amongst whom they worked and lived. [495] On the one hand, vocal missionaries challenged colonial oppression and defended human rights, even opposing their own governments in matters of social justice for 500 years. [495] On the other hand, there are as many examples of missionaries cooperating with colonial governments as there are of missionaries opposing colonialism. [496]

Reformation and response (1517–1700)

Martin Luther by Cranach-restoration.jpg
Luther 95 Thesen.png
In 1517, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation with his Ninety-five Theses .

Though there was no actual schism until 1521, the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) is generally described as beginning when Martin Luther, a Catholic monk advocating church reform, nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenburg in 1517. Edicts handed down by the Diet of Worms condemned Luther and officially banned citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas. [497] [498]

Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and many others protested against corruptions such as simony (the buying and selling of church offices), the holding of multiple church offices by one person at the same time, and the sale of indulgences. The Protestant position later included the Five solae ( sola scriptura , sola fide , sola gratia , solus Christus , soli Deo gloria ), the priesthood of all believers, Law and Gospel, and the two kingdoms doctrine.

Three important traditions to emerge directly from the Reformation were the Lutheran, Reformed, and the Anglican traditions. [499] Beginning in 1519, Huldrych Zwingli spread John Calvin's teachings in Switzerland leading to the Swiss Reformation. [500]

At the same time, a collection of loosely related groups that included Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Evangelical Rationalists, began the Radical Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. [501] They opposed Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican church-state theories, supporting instead a full separation from the state. [502]


The Roman Catholic Church soon struck back, launching its own Counter-Reformation beginning with Pope Paul III (1534–1549), the first in a series of 10 reforming popes from 1534 to 1605. [503] A list of books detrimental to faith or morals was established, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which included the works of Luther, Calvin and other Protestants along with writings condemned as obscene. [504]

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed books forbidden by the Catholic Church. Index Librorum Prohibitorum 1.jpg
The Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed books forbidden by the Catholic Church.

New monastic orders arose including the Jesuits. [505] Resembling a military company in its hierarchy, discipline, and obedience, their vow of loyalty to the Pope set them apart from other monastic orders, leading them to be called "the shock troops of the papacy". Jesuits soon became the Church's chief weapon against Protestantism. [505]

Monastic reform also led to the development of new, yet orthodox forms of spirituality, such as that of the Spanish mystics and the French school of spirituality. [506]

The Council of Trent (1545–1563) denied each Protestant claim, and laid the foundation of Roman Catholic policies up to the twenty-first century. [507] The Counter-Reformation also created the Uniate church which used Eastern liturgy but recognized Rome. [508]


Reforming zeal and Catholic denial spread through much of Europe and became entangled with local politics. Already involved in dynastic disagreements, the quarreling royal houses became polarized into the two religious camps. [509] "Religious" wars, ranging from international wars to internal conflicts, began in the Holy Roman Empire with the minor Knights' Revolt in 1522, then intensified in the First Schmalkaldic War (1546–1547) and the Second Schmalkaldic War (1552–1555). [510] [511] In 1562, France became the centre of religious wars. [512] The involvement of foreign powers made the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) the largest and most disastrous. [513]

The causes of these wars were mixed. Many scholars see them as fought to obtain security and freedom for differing religious confessions, however, most have interpreted these wars as struggles for political independence that coincided with the break up of medieval empires into the modern nation states. [514] [512] [note 13]


Debate on whether peace required allowing only one faith and punishing heretics, or if ancient opinions defending leniency should be revived, occupied every version of the Christian faith. [349] Radical Protestants steadfastly sought toleration for heresy, blasphemy, Catholicism, non-Christian religions, and even atheism. [519] Anglicans and other Christian moderates also wrote and argued for toleration. [520] Deism emerged, and in the 1690s, following debates that started in the 1640s, a non-Christian third group also advocated for religious toleration. [521] [522] It became necessary to rethink on a political level, all of the State's reasons for persecution. [349] Over the next two and a half centuries, many treaties and political declarations of tolerance followed, until concepts of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of thought became established in most western countries. [523] [524] [525]

Witch trials (c.1450–1750)

Until the 1300s, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church was that witches did not exist. [526] While historians have been unable to pinpoint a single cause of what became known as the "witch frenzy", scholars have noted that, without changing church doctrine, a new but common stream of thought developed at every level of society that witches were both real and malevolent. [527] Records show the belief in magic had remained so widespread among the rural people, it has convinced some historians that Christianization had not been as successful as previously supposed. [528] The main pressure to prosecute witches came from the common people, and trials were mostly civil trials. [529] [530] There is broad agreement that approximately 100,000 people were prosecuted, of which 80% were women, and that 40,000 to 50,000 people were executed between 1561 and 1670. [531] [527]

The Enlightenment

The era of absolutist states followed the breakdown of Christian universalism. [532] Abuses inherent in political absolutism, practiced by kings, and supported by Catholicism, gave rise to a virulent anti-clerical, anti-Catholic, and anti-Christian sentiment that emerged in the 1680s. [533]

Critique of Christianity began among the more extreme Protestant reformers who were enraged by fear, tyranny and persecution. [534] [535] Twenty-first century scholars tend to see the relationship between Christianity and the Enlightenment as complex with many regional and national variations. [536] [537]

Revolution and modernity (1750–1945)

After 1750, secularization at every level of European society can be observed. [538] Enlightenment had shifted the paradigm, and various ground-breaking discoveries such as Galileo's, led to the Scientific revolution (1600–1750) and an upsurge in skepticism. Virtually everything in western culture was subjected to systematic doubt including religious beliefs. [539] Biblical criticism emerged using scientific historical and literary criteria, and human reason, to understand the Bible. [540] This new approach made study of the Bible secularized and scholarly, and more democratic, as scholars began writing in their native languages making their works available to a larger public. [541] During the Age of Revolution, the cultural center of Christianity shifted to the New World. [542] [543] [544] The American Revolution and its aftermath included legal assurances of religious freedom and a general turn to religious plurality in the new country. [545]

In the decades following the American revolution, France also experienced revolution, and by 1794, radical revolutionaries attempted to violently ‘de-Christianize’ France for the next twenty years. When Napoleon came to power, he acknowledged Catholicism as the majority view and tried to make it dependent upon the state. Napoleon practiced and exported policies "appropriating church lands, streamlining worship, increasing state surveillance of religion, and instituting religious toleration." [546]

The French Revolution resulted in Eastern Orthodox church leaders rejecting Enlightenment ideas as too dangerous to embrace. [413]

Church, state and society

Revolution broke the power of the Old World aristocracy, offered hope to the disenfranchised, and enabled the middle class to reap the economic benefits of the Industrial Revolution. [547] Scholars have since identified a positive correlation between the rise of Protestantism and human capital formation, [548] work ethic, [549] economic development, [550] and the development of the state system. [551] Weber says this contributed to economic growth and the development of banking across Northern Europe. [552] [553] [note 14]

Awakenings (1730s–1850s)

Revival, known as the First Great Awakening, swept through the American colonies between the 1730s and the 1770s. Both religious and political in nature, it had roots in German Pietism and British Evangelicalism, and was a response to the extreme rationalism of biblical criticism, the anti-Christian tenets of the Enlightenment, and its threat of assimilation by the modern state. [557] [558] [559] [560]

Beginning among the Presbyterians, revival quickly spread to Congregationalists (Puritans) and Baptists, creating American Evangelicalism and Wesleyan Methodism. [561] Battles over the movement and its dramatic style raged at both the congregational and denominational levels. This caused the division of American Protestantism into political 'Parties', for the first time, which eventually led to critical support for the American Revolution. [562]

In places like Connecticut and Massachusetts, where one denomination received state funding, churches now began to lobby local legislatures to end that inequity by applying the Reformation principle separating church and state. [558] Theological pluralism became the new norm. [563]

The Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s) extolled moral reform as the Christian alternative to armed revolution. They established societies, separate from any church, to begin social reform movements concerning abolition, women's rights, temperance and to "teach the poor to read". [564] These were pioneers in developing nationally integrated forms of organization, a practice which businesses adopted that led to the consolidations and mergers that reshaped the American economy. [565] Here lie the beginnings of the Latter Day Saint movement, the Restoration Movement and the Holiness movement. The Third Great Awakening began from 1857 and was most notable for taking the movement throughout the world, especially in English speaking countries. [566]

Restorationists were prevalent in America, but they have not described themselves as a reform movement but have, instead, described themselves as restoring the Church to its original form as found in the book of Acts. It gave rise to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, Adventism, and the Jehovah's Witnesses. [567] [568]

American anti-slavery tract, 1853 Slavery19.jpg
American anti-slavery tract, 1853
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth escaped and became an advocate for abolitionism, racial equality, women's rights, and alcohol temperance. Pictured c. 1870 Sojourner Truth, 1870 (cropped, restored).jpg
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth escaped and became an advocate for abolitionism, racial equality, women's rights, and alcohol temperance. Pictured c.1870

Western Slavery

For over 300 years, Christians in Europe and North America participated in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. [569] Moral objections had surfaced very soon after the establishment of the trade. [note 15] The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), followed by Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, campaigned, wrote, and spread pamphlets against the Atlantic slave trade and organized the first anti-slavery societies. [572] Those impacted by the Second Great Awakening continued this. [573] [574] In the years after the American Revolution, black congregations led by black preachers brought revival, promoted communal and cultural autonomy, and provided the institutional base for keeping abolitionism alive. [575]

Abolitionism did not flourish in absolutist states, and slavery and human-trafficking remain common in twenty-first century Islamic states. [576] [577] It was the Protestant revivalists in both England and America, the Quaker example, African Americans themselves, and the new American republic that produced the "gradual but comprehensive abolition of slavery" in the West. [578]

Protestant Missions (1800s–1945)

While the sixteenth century is generally seen as the "great age of Catholic expansion", the nineteenth century was that for Protestantism. [579] Missionaries had a significant role in shaping multiple nations, cultures and societies. [44] A missionary's first job was to get to know the indigenous people and work with them to translate the Bible into their local language. Approximately 90% were completed, and the process also generated a written grammar, a lexicon of native traditions, and a dictionary of the local language. These were used to teach in missionary schools resulting in the spread of literacy. [580] [581] [582]

Lamin Sanneh writes that native cultures responded with "movements of indigenization and cultural liberation" that developed national literatures, mass printing, and voluntary organizations which have been instrumental in generating a democratic legacy. [580] [583] On the one hand, the political legacies of colonialism include political instability, violence and ethnic exclusion, which is also linked to civil strife and civil war. [584] On the other hand, the legacy of Protestant missions is one of beneficial long-term effects on human capital, political participation, and democratization. [585]

In America, missionaries played a crucial role in the acculturation of the American Indians. [586] [587] [588] The history of boarding schools for the indigenous populations in Canada and the US shows a continuum of experiences ranging from happiness and refuge to suffering, forced assimilation, and abuse. The majority of native children did not attend boarding school at all. Of those that did, many did so in response to requests sent by native families to the Federal government, while many others were forcibly taken from their homes. [589] Over time, missionaries came to respect the virtues of native culture, and spoke against national policies. [586]

Twentieth century

Liberal Christianity, sometimes called liberal theology, is an umbrella term for religious movements within late 18th, 19th and 20th-century Christianity. According to theologian Theo Hobson, liberal Christianity has two traditions. Before the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, liberalism was synonymous with Christian Idealism in that it imagined a liberal State with political and cultural liberty. [590]

The second tradition derived from seventeenth century rationalism's efforts to wean Christianity from its "irrational cultic" roots. [591] Lacking any grounding in Christian "practice, ritual, sacramentalism, church and worship", liberal Christianity lost touch with the fundamental necessity of faith and ritual in maintaining Christianity. [592] This led to the birth of fundamentalism and liberalism's decline. [593]

Fundamentalist Christianity is a movement that arose mainly within British and American Protestantism in the late 19th century and early 20th century in reaction to modernism. [594] Before 1919, fundamentalism was loosely organized and undisciplined. Its most significant early movements were the holiness movement and the millenarian movement with its premillennial expectations of the second coming. [595]

In 1925, fundamentalists participated in the Scopes trial, and by 1930, the movement appeared to be dying. [596] Then in the 1930s, Neo-orthodoxy, a theology against liberalism combined with a reevaluation of Reformation teachings, began uniting moderates of both sides. [597] In the 1940s, "new-evangelicalism" established itself as separate from fundamentalism. [598] Today, fundamentalism is less about doctrine than political activism. [599]

Christianity and Nazism

Pope Pius XI Papst Pius XI. 1JS.jpg
Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI declared in Mit brennender Sorge (English: "With rising anxiety") that fascist governments had hidden "pagan intentions" and expressed the irreconcilability of the Catholic position with totalitarian fascist state worship which placed the nation above God, fundamental human rights, and dignity. [600]

In Poland, Catholic priests were arrested and Polish priests and nuns were executed en masse. [601]

Most leaders and members of the largest Protestant church in Germany, the German Evangelical Church, which had a long tradition of nationalism and support of the state, supported the Nazis when they came to power. [602] A smaller contingent, about a third of German Protestants, formed the Confessing Church which opposed Nazism. [note 16]

Nazis interfered in The Confessing Church's affairs, harassed its members, executed mass arrests and targeted well known pastors like Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [604] [605] [note 17] Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, was arrested, found guilty in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and executed. [607]

Russian Orthodoxy

The Russian Orthodox Church held a privileged position in the Russian Empire, expressed in the motto of the late empire from 1833: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Populism. Nevertheless, the Church reform of Peter I in the early 18th century had placed the Orthodox authorities under the control of the tsar. An ober-procurator appointed by the tsar ran the committee which governed the Church between 1721 and 1918: the Most Holy Synod. The Church became involved in the various campaigns of russification and contributed to antisemitism. [608] [609]

Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow on the orders of Joseph Stalin, 5 December 1931, consistent with the doctrine of state atheism in the USSR Christ saviour explosion.jpg
Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow on the orders of Joseph Stalin, 5 December 1931, consistent with the doctrine of state atheism in the USSR

The Bolsheviks and other Russian revolutionaries saw the Church, like the tsarist state, as an enemy of the people. Criticism of atheism was strictly forbidden and sometimes led to imprisonment. [611] [612] Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers included torture, being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals, as well as execution. [613] [614]

Historian Scott Kenworthy describes the persecution of the church under communism as "unparalleled by any in Christian history". [615] In the first five years after the October Revolution, one journalist reported that 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed. [616] This included many former nobles. Other scholarship reports that 8,000 people were killed in 1922 during the conflict over church valuables. [617] Under the state atheism of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the League of Militant Atheists aided in the persecution of many Christian denominations, with many churches and monasteries being destroyed, as well as clergy being executed. [note 18]

Despite oppression and martyrdom under hostile rule, the Orthodox churches of the twentieth century have continued to contribute to theology, spirituality, liturgy, music, and art. [615] Kenworthy adds that "Important movements within the church have been the revival of a Eucharistic ecclesiology, of traditional iconography, of monastic life and spiritual traditions such as Hesychasm, and the rediscovery of the Greek Church Fathers". [621]

Christianity since 1945

In its second millennia, Western Christianity had expanded, colonized, reformed, and embraced aspects of secularism. At the same time, Eastern Christianity faced the huge challenges (from both Islam and Western Christianity) of being conquered and oppressed, enduring, then reviving. [615] By the twentieth century, the nineteenth-century revolutions that had established the Serbian, Greek, Romanian, and Bulgarian nations had changed Orthodoxy from a universal church into a series of national churches that became subordinate to nationalism and the state. [413] Coptic Christianity went from survival as a small minority church to revival in the twentieth century. [615]

Beginning in the late twentieth century, the traditional church has been declining in the West. [622] Characterized by Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism, a church functions within society, engaging it directly through preaching, teaching ministries and service programs like local food banks. Theologically, churches seek to embrace secular method and rationality while refusing the secular worldview. [623]

Christian sects, such as the Amish and Mennonites, traditionally withdraw from, and minimize interaction with, society at large; however, the Old Order Amish have become the fastest growing subpopulation in the U.S. [624]

The 1960s saw the rise of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity, emphasizing the inward experience of personal piety and spirituality. [625] [626] In 2000, approximately one quarter of all Christians worldwide were part of Pentecostalism and its associated movements. [627] By 2025, Pentecostals are expected to constitute one-third of the nearly three billion Christians worldwide. [628] Deininger writes that Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in global Christianity. [629]

Christianity has been challenged in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by modern secularism. [630] [631] New forms of religion which embrace the sacred as a deeper understanding of the self have begun. [622] [632] This spirituality is private and individualistic, and differs radically from Christian tradition, dogma and ritual, taking various separate directions in its implementation. [633] [634]

New forms

Laying on of hands during a service in a neo-charismatic church in Ghana Laying on of hands, Dr. Ebenezer Markwei.jpg
Laying on of hands during a service in a neo-charismatic church in Ghana

In the early twentieth century, the study of two highly influential religious movements, the social gospel movement (1870s–1920s) and the global ecumenical movement (beginning in 1910), provided the context for the rise of American sociology as an academic discipline. [635] Later, the Social Gospel and liberation theology, which tend to be highly critical of traditional Christian ethics, made the "kingdom ideals" of Jesus their goal. First focusing on the community's sins, rather than the individual's failings, they sought to foster social justice, expose institutionalized sin, and redeem the institutions of society. [636] [637] Ethicist Philip Wogaman says the social gospel and liberation theology redefined justice in the process. [638]

Originating in America in 1966, Black theology developed a combined social gospel and liberation theology that mixes Christianity with questions of civil rights, aspects of the Black Power movement, and responses to black Muslims claiming Christianity was a "White man's" religion. [639] Spreading to the United Kingdom, then parts of Africa, confronting apartheid in South Africa, Black theology explains Christianity as liberation for this life not just the next. [639]

Racial violence around the world over the last several decades demonstrates how troubled issues of race remain in the twenty-first century. [640] The historian of race and religion, Paul Harvey, says that, in 1960s America, "The religious power of the civil rights movement transformed the American conception of race." [641] Then the social power of the religious right responded in the 1970s by recasting evangelical concepts in political terms that included racial separation. [641] The Prosperity Gospel promotes racial reconciliation and has become a powerful force in American religious life. [642]

The Prosperity gospel is a flexible adaptation of the ‘Neo-Pentecostalism’ that began in the twentieth century's last decades. [643] While globally, Prosperity discourse may represent a cultural invasion of American-ism, and may even muddy the waters between the religious, and the economic and political, it has still become a trans-national movement. [644] Prosperity ideas have diffused in countries such as Brazil and other parts of South America, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and other parts of West Africa, China, India, South Korea, and the Philippines. [645] It represents a shift from the Reformation view of biblical authority to the authority of charisma. It has suffered from accusations of financial fraud and sex scandals around the world, but it is critiqued most heavily by Christian evangelicals who question how genuinely Christian the Prosperity Gospel is. [646]

Feminist theology began in 1960. [647] In the last years of the twentieth century, the re-examination of old religious texts through diversity, otherness, and difference developed womanist theology of African-American women, the "mujerista" theology of Hispanic women, and insights from Asian feminist theology. [648]

Post-colonial decolonization after 1945

After World War II, Christian missionaries played a transformative role for many colonial societies moving them toward independence through the development of decolonization. [649] [650] In the mid to late 1990s, postcolonial theology emerged globally from multiple sources. [651] Biblical scholars Fernando F. Segovia and Stephen D. Moore write that it analyzes structures of power and ideology in order to recover what colonialism erased or suppressed in indigenous cultures. [652]


The missionary movement of the twenty-first century has transformed into a multi-cultural, multi-faceted global network of NGO's, short term amateur volunteers, and traditional long-term bi-lingual, bi-cultural professionals who focus on evangelism and local development and not on 'civilizing' native people. [653] [654]

Second Vatican Council (1962–1965)

Pope Francis Franciscus in 2015.jpg
Pope Francis

On 11 October 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. The council is perhaps best known for its instructions that the Mass may be celebrated in the vernacular as well as in Latin. [655]

Ecumenism (1964)

On 21 November 1964, the Second Vatican Council published Unitatis Redintegratio, stating that Roman Catholic ecumenical goals are to establish full communion amongst all the various Christian churches. [656] [657] Amongst Evangelicals, there is no agreed upon definition, strategy or goal. [658] Different theologies on the nature of the Church have produced some hostility toward the formalism of the World Council of Churches. [659] [660] In the twenty-first century, sentiment is widespread that ecumenism has stalled. [661]

Christianity in the Global South and East

Africa (19th–21st centuries)

Countries by percentage of Protestants, 1938 Countries by percentage of Protestants 1938.svg
Countries by percentage of Protestants, 1938
Christian distribution globally based on PEW research in 2011 Percent of Christians by Country-Pew Research 2011.svg
Christian distribution globally based on PEW research in 2011

Western missionaries began the "largest, most diverse and most vigorous movement of cultural renewal in [the] history" of Africa writes historian Lammin Sanneh. [663] [664] In 1900 under colonial rule there were just under 9 million Christians in Africa. By 1960, and the end of colonialism there were about 60 million. By 2005, African Christians had increased to 393 million, about half of the continent's total population at that time. [581] Population in Africa has continued to grow with the percentage of Christians remaining at about half in 2022. [662] This expansion has been labeled a "fourth great age of Christian expansion". [665]

Examples include Simon Kimbangu's movement, the Kimbanguist church, which had a radical reputation in its early days in the Congo, was suppressed for forty years, and has now become the largest independent church in Africa with upwards of 3 million members. [666] In 2019, 65% of Melillans in Northern Africa across from Spain identified themselves as Roman Catholic. [667] In the early twenty-first century, Kenya has the largest yearly meeting of Quakers outside the United States. In Uganda, more Anglicans attend church than do so in England. Ahafo, Ghana is recognized as more vigorously Christian than any place in the United Kingdom. [668] There is revival in East Africa, and vigorous women's movements called Rukwadzano in Zimbabwe and Manyano in South Africa. The Apostles of John Maranke, which began in Rhodesia, now have branches in seven countries. [669]


Christianity is growing rapidly in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. [670] [671] A rapid expansion of charismatic Christianity began in the 1980s, leading Asia to rival Latin America in the population of Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. [672] [673]

Increasing numbers of young people in China are becoming Christians. Council on Foreign Relations data shows a 10% yearly growth in Chinese Christian populations since 1979. [674] [675]

According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, Christianity has grown in India in recent years. [676] [677]


Anti-Christian persecution has become a consistent human rights concern. [678] In 2013, 17 Middle Eastern Muslim majority states reported 28 of the 29 types of religious discrimination against 45 of the 47 religious minorities, including Christianity. [679]

See also

Christian history
BC C1 C2 C3 C4 C5 C6 C7 C8 C9 C10
C11 C12 C13 C14 C15 C16 C17 C18 C19 C20 C21


  1. R. Malcolm Errington studied responses to imperial law by Christian and non-Christian historians and commentators who wrote during and following the publication of the Theodosian Code of 438. [127] Errington writes that these authors were almost universally unaware of the existence of these laws, "even about rulings such as Cunctos Populos or Episcopis Tradi which in modern times have been stylized into turning points in the history of Christianity". [128]
    Some previous scholars interpreted the Edict of Thessalonica (380) as establishing Christianity as the state religion.