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Great Religious Traditions: Christianity

Jesus and children
Figure 1.-- This Italian portrait depictis Jesus laying hands on a small girl as a gesture of blessing. Children are flocking to Jesus and surround these central characters are his disciples as well as the parents of the children who seemed to be moved by the love and compassion that Jesus is bestowing upon the children. The atist was K. Nicolas predominantly known for his religious images of the Virgin Mary.

The Christian religion is one of the three great monotheistic religions to emerge out of the Middle East. Christianity was a small sct of Judiasm until Paul extended the faith to gentiles. Christians believe that Jesus was the son or earthly manifestation of God. The precise character of Jesus and the Holy trinity is a matter of doctrinal dispute among Christian denominations. The major denominations are the Catholic, Protestant and Oethodox or Eastern churches. There have been other denominations of considerable importance, some of which like the Copts still exist. The Church was split by the Great Scism in the ?th century and the Reormation in the 16th century. While Christianity rose in the Middle East, it was largely suplanted there by Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. Christianity adter being adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD eventually became the primncipal European religion and as a result of European colonialism, the principal relogion of South and North America. for centuries in the Medieval Era, the Cathloic Church was the one unifying force in Europe and played a major role in the Feudal System.


The Christian religion is one of the three great monotheistic religions to emerge out of the Middle East. While the theology and ritual of Christian denominations vary widely, there are some common elements that all denominations share to varying degrees. As with all religions, Christians believe that man requires super-human assistance and guidance. Chfristians believe that communion between Gos and man is possible and that God is willing to assist man. Christianity's unique feature is that Jesus Christ is the agent for brining man in communion with God. And it is here that Christians different greatly. Some believe this communion must be mediated by the Church while others that the individual can and should engage in firect communioin with God. While the theology varies widely, all Christians believe that Jesus in some way is the means by which man open communion with God.


Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical figure. Scholars agree on virtualy nothing about him, except that he was a Jew and a very moving and profound spirtual leader. He surely is the most influentil individual in all of history. We do not even know precisely when he was born and died, despite the fact that the modern calendar is based on him, BC meaning before Christ and AD meaning after death. That in itself leaves a gap of over 30 yeatrs--Jesus' life span. That imprecission comes from the fact that the modern dating system (the split betweem BC and AD) was invented 5 centuries after Christ (525 AD). Pope John I assigned a monk named Dionysius the task of preparing a standardized calendar for the western Church. It was based on Jesus' birth. Modern scholars, however, believe that Dionysius was off by a few years. Jesus was probably born about 4 or 5 BC. Most of hat w know about Jesus' life comes from the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written between 65 and 95 A and only two of whom were Appostles. Absent from the Gospels is details on Jesus's family life and childhood. We learn about his increasing wisdom (Luke 2:40-52), but the first real event is when at 12 years of age he comes to the Tempel and is questioned by the Pharisees (Matthew 2:23 and Luke 2:41-51). None of Gospel authors knew Jesus as a child. The only other source about his childhood are the apocryphal gospels, written later and without any historical basis. The central issue about Jesus is just who he was. Most agree that he was a great spiritual leader. Even Muslims accept him as an important prophet. Jews did not accept his as the Messih. Christians did. Christins disagre as to the actual nature of Jesus. Gnoticism was a widely held belief. This disagreement over the nature of Jesus was the central issue within the early Christian Church. It was addressed at the Council of Niccea and essentially settled in Catholic cannonical law. And the tempral opwer of the Church backed by the Bzantine Emperor supressed non-conformists. This left a lingering division which would be a factor in the Aran miltary advance across the Christian lands of the Levant and North Adrica. It is an issue which still concerns Christian scholars. The Chrustian Church is of course based on the worship of Jesus, but it must be remembered that Jesus was a teacher, but did little to found a religion and establish an institutinal structure. This would be left to the Apostles--essentially Paul.

Chronological Development

The histoy of the early Christian Church is an amazing story of how a small splinter group of Judism (itself a very mall religious group) came to dominate the powerful Roman Empire. Christianity competed with many other religious sects within an empire which was largely tolerant of religion--but singled out Christianity for prosecution. Evenually it was Christinity, however, that replaced the state religion upon which the Empire was founded. It is important to note that Christianity grew without any central authoity. The papacy which came to dominate Christianity rose in a later period of the Church's development. Christianity developed in local communities in many scattered locations throughout the Empire. Thus the Church that was legalized by Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century was a Church with no widely agreed threology or canonical tradition.

1st century

Christianity was a small sect of Judiasm until Paul extended the faith to gentiles. Christians believe that Jesus was the son or earthly manifestation of God. The early church has been termed the Jesus Movement. Early Christians were mostly Jews and followed the Jewish religious calandar and practices. Although not bclearly explained in the Gospels, the leadership of the early church fell on Jesus' brother James. He would have seen the Jesus movement as still within the Jewish tradition. It was the Apostle Paul that converted Christianity from a Jewish sect into a religious movement that would eventually emerged as the Roman state relgion. Paul who has never known Jesus became the apostle to the gentiles. He moved away from Jewish ritual, motly notably circumscision. Gradualy Christianity moved away from its Jewish origins to more Greco-Roman influences. A factor here was in the Jewish uprising in Jeruselem. The Roman supression of the Jews in the province included the Jesus movment. Thus control of the movement passed from James to Peter and Paul. Thus the center of Christianity shifted from Jerusalem to the gentile communities in Greece, Turkey, and Rome where Peter and Paul preached. The four Gospels were written some time after not only Jesus' Crusifiction, bit also the Jewish Revolt. By this time the idea of Jesus as son of God has so sabtified Jesus that the Church increasingly felt unconfortable with a discussion of Jesus' brother cand sisters. And thus Janes and the rest of the family are largely written out of Gospels. And Christianity ad shifted from a Jewish movement to one strongly influenced by classical culture. The image of the good shephered for example was a Roman icon for phiiananthropy and civic duty. Romans at first looked on Christians as supertitious. Christians as the movement grew in strength laughed at Roman gods and their myths and traditions. This was, howeve, dangerous. The Roman gods and adoration of the emperor was the state religion and practice of the religion was considered a civic duty. The Romans were unsure how to treat early Christians. Religious authorities, including Jewish, complained because the Christians were attracting their followers. But the Christians for the most part honest, law abiding people. Persecutions in the 1st century were limited involving realtively few people. Early Christians were seen as Jews and thus exempted from certain civic duties such as sacrificing to the emperor. The Christian Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John) provide different views of the gradual separation of Christiand from Jews. Here the general trend was the expulsion of Christiand from the Tempels rather than Christiams leaving the Jewsish faith. The Gospels differ because they were written at different times and in different location. We see Gnostic ideas entering the Cristian movemnent (late-1st century AD).

2nd century

Christianity by the second century was emerging as an entirely new religion, separate from Judiaism. As a result, Roman attitudes began to reflect that shift. Christianity was not seen as a religion, but rather a superstition. As Christianity emerged from Judiaism, a serious problem developed. Christians lost the protection afforded to members of a recognized religion. The very newness of Christianity precluded Roman authorities from seeing Christianity as a real religion. Roman governors wrestled with how to treat Chridstians. Those adversely affected by Christians (pagan priets, Jewish authorities, personal enemies, competing merchant, ect. denounced Christians. It was the failure to perform civic duties that led to Chrisians being seen as criminals. Pliny the Elder in the early 2nd century was unsure how to deal with Christians brought into his court. Few were accused of any crime other than that they were accused of being Christians. Pliny decided on giving the accused the chance to recant and prove their sincerity by sacrificing to to the emperor. Gradually this approach became strandard practice throughout the empire. The nature of Christianity also evolved. Jesus had preached the coming of the kingdom of God. Gradually Christians began reinterpreting the message. Jesus himself became the message. There were in Imperial Rome many religious sects in the Roman Empire (Isis, Mythrus, and others) of considerable importance. While know long gone, these cults appear to have had a important influences on Christiamity. There are significant similaritities between nIsis and how Mary is venerated. The most important feast day of Mythrus is December 25. Pagan Romen was very tolernt of other religions, as long as they did not threaten Roman political authority. Christians who refused to perform their civic duties such as sacrifice to the emperor and engage in other state ceremonies seemed to represent a danger. Supression of the Christians was not, however, systematic. It was largely local and sporadic. Christians that were denounced were arrested, but Roman authorities never launched a sustematic effort to find and arrest Christians. It was not uncommon for Christians to visit their frinds and relatibes that had been arrested without fear of impriosonment themmselves.

3rd century

It seems strange that Christians officially outlawed by Roman authoirities would triumph in the struggle for the soul od the Empire. Christian historians have stressed the superior religious message of Christianity. Paganism was a polytheistic creed. Monotheism is generally viewed as a more advance level of religion. Christianity offered dignity in this life and hope of after life. Christianity was especially appealing to the huge number of slaves in the Roman Empire. Roman Gods looked much like the emperor and powerful men of the Senate. Christianity preached that man, all men, were created in God's image. This was a powerful message not offered by other competing rligious sects in the Empire. Modern historians stress the social mutual support offered church members as a major reason for the success of Christianity. The Church fed the hungary and cared for widows and orphans at a time when there was no state institutions to do so. Many of the early Church institutions which began to appear in the mid-3rd century developed to administer social welfare. Mutual social support had been a factor from the ealiest days of Christianity, but by the mid-3rd century it had reached a level that formal ibstitutions and organization were required. Christianity became almost a state within a state. Roman Imperial authorites felt poweer slipping away. The Germamans and the Persians reprented increasing dangers. Some see that the declining respect for the traditional religion as the cause of the Empire's inability to deal with its external enenies. The Christians with their rejectionsof the traditional gods were blamed for breaking the contract between Rome anf the gods and were blamed for natural disasters as well as foreign reversals. The Emperot Desius in 250 AD launched a majoir persecution of the Christians. Even the name Chritianius was enouch to be arrested. This persecution was much more extensive than earlier persecutions. The reactions of Christians was different than that of the early martyrs. They did not willingly awccept martyrdom. Some fled to the hills. Many recanted and offered sacrifices to the emperor or at least obtained documents attesting that they had done so. It was Diocletian (284-305 AD) that conducted the last effort to supress the Chritians, but by this time they were just too numerous. In addition, they held many important imperial posts. Many Christians were literate because it was important to read holy scriptures. Thus the imperial admministration could no longer run without Christians. By the last decade of the 3rd century, there was a surge in converts. Christians wre becoming a majority in many areas.

The Papacy

The primacy of the papacy in the Roman Catholic or Western Church is based on authority conveyed to the apostle Peter by Jesus who told him that hecwould be the rock upon which the Church would be built. Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Subsequent popes were primarily bishops of Rome in a Curch that was not centralized in any real way. This of course made in difficult for the Roman Empire to effectivdely supress the early Church. The Roman Empire itself was, however, highly centralized. Even with limited reak authority, the Bishop of Rome had enormous influence in an empire centered on Rome. The first pope who attempted to aggresively exert his authority as pope was Victor I (189-198). Withoutvthe authority of the state, such authority was limited. Victor attempted to secure uniformity in Church practice and took issue with thediffereingb practices in the East such as the date for Easter. The first clearly defined powerful pope was Leo I (440-61). Leo attempted to establish a system of papal vicariates through which Roman church oractice could be inforced. While information on may early popes is sparse, by the time of Gregory I the Great (590-604) we know much more about the papacy. The papacy at this time had extensive land holdings in North Africa, Sicily, and Gaul. Gergory not onlt managed to preserve these land holdings throgh the tumultous period of babarain invasioins, but laid the ground work for the conversion of the pagan tribes and the authority of the papacy as new Feudal states and principalities arose in the West.


The precise character of Jesus and the Holy Trinity is a matter of doctrinal dispute among Christian denominations. It was an issue that several early Church councils wrestled with and continues to separate the major Christian denominations today. Here the early Church did not have the organization or the scholarship to deal with many issues arising from Christian scriptures such as the Trinity. Thus the Church had to turn to classical scholarship which had traditions like purgatory which have no basis in the Gospels or earlier Jewish tradition. As a result, the Church that emerged from the Roman Empire was a combination of both Jesus' teachings and classical scholarship. [Hanson]

The Question of Evil

question of evil is one that had absorbed the energies of countless Christian theologians. It is a fundamental theological question in the Christian West, with our secular society. Christians of course would provide essentially the same arguments that our Pakjistani reader employs. In fact Christian theologians have puzzeled over this for centuries. Christian theologians contend that God created all things, but they do not accept that God created evil. St John the Apostlke writes, for example, "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1,5). When God finished his creation, he appreciated that "all that he had made was very good" (Genesis 1,31). God is declared to be all-powerful. St. John writes, "And I heard as it were te voiceof a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voive of mighty thinderings, saying Alleluja: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." (Revelation 19,6). To HBC and many other secular observers this makes no sence. There is obviously evil in the world. It is obviously illogical to say that if Gold is all powerful, all knowing, and the creator of the universe that he is not therefore the creator of all that exists in that universe. Christian theologians have devoted such energy addressing this question precisely because it is so illogical. The work of their weighty tomes, however, does not reverse the basic logic. It strikes us that Christian theologians like many men do not want to accept responsibility for what they have created. And Christian thelogians persue an even more illogicall position by saying God is all good, since as the creator of everything that he created evil. Christan theologians have devoted edless tomes struggling with these issues. One author summarizes, "From here arises a major puzzle: If God is all-good, he should want to stop evil; if he is omnipotent, he could stop it; but evil exists in the world, so God lacks either all-goodness (if he can stop evil but does not want to) or omnipotence (if he wants to stop evil, but cannot), or both." [Valea] A HBC reader has provided an informed review of the Christian concept of evil and the doctrine of free will.


Heresy is a belief that deviates from some standard, orthodox belief. Christian authorities after Christinity became the officil religion of the Roman Empire began to tighorously condemn heresies. The other Abrahamic rerligioins, esoecially Islam also viugirisly pursued heresies. There is Koranic justification fior this, but no such Biblical instruction. What became the Roman Catholic Church and the Byzantine Church was particulrly vigorous in pursuing heresy. When Christian religious authorities determuned that a belief was heretical, they took active and often brutal efforts to eradicate the belief. This usually meant the removal of the offending believers by excommunication. Today that does not sound like much. In the Medieval era it vwas a powerful weapon. But the Church od=ften wnt beyound that using civil authorities to arrest and punisgh individuals nor wage war on offending groups. Most Christian heresies centered around two findamental issues. First, the nature of the Trinity econd the realted issue of nature of Christ. The dominant nelief on these issues, despite bitter religious wars was sahared by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. God is a Trinity, three persons but one essence. Jesus Christ was one person, simultaneously human and divine. The fact these principles statements are not particularly rational was considered irrelevant. The Trinity was seen as mysterious and a matter of faith, not reason. Mmay modern Chrustian churches are increasingly rejecting basic Christian metaphyical belief withoutb admitting it. This has occurredvin Europe, but evamgelicals in the United states and Latin America maintain a bekieff in standard Christian theology.

Christian Saints

A saint is an individual who has been recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue. The term appears to have originated in Christianity, but is now often used by Western historuians to describe exceptional individuals of other religious traditions. The term 'saint' has been used by Christians with changing meanings. And the various Christian denominations have used the term differently. Early Christian used the term for every individual who is 'in Christ' and in whom Christ dwells, both those who had past on to heaven or still on. Orthodox and Catholic teachings describe all Christians in heaven assaints, but some are seen as having achieved greater honor meriting emulation, or veneration. Official church recognition over time was given the especially important saints through canonization or glorification. The Christian artistic tradition was to depict saints with halos, like the Holy Family. St. Benedict played a major role in founding monastaries and the monastic tradition. Perhaps the most beloved Christian saint is St. Francis of Asisi (1181-1226). He fondly remembered for his decication to povery as well as the love of animals and nature. His greatest desire was to follow the teachings and examples of Jesus as closely as possible. Even during his life time, Francis seems to have been lost in his own legend. As sainthood is not mentioned in the Bible (except as authors of the gospels), the institution came under attack by the Protestant reformers. While Protestants often accepted the designation of the Appostles as saints, they rejected the sainthood of subsequent individuals. As a result, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches are often named after saints, especially the apposltes, while this is less common with Protetant churches.


Most religions have formal rites, commonly practiced or overseen by a priesthood. Over time the Christian Church has developed formal rites which are called sacraments. These are seen as rites in which God's grace is believed to be present. These sacraments are based on the New Testament, although some interpretation is needed to actually reach the formalized sacraments developed by the Church. There is considerable disagreement about these sacraments among the various Christian denominations. Most denominations accept sacraments. The Quakers are one denomination which do not practice the sacraments, believing that they lead a "sacramental life". While most other denominations do teach the importance of the sacraments, there is a wide variation amomg the different denominations as to the number of sacraments and how they are celebrated. The two most important and widely celebrated are batism and holy communion. One Protestant dnomination even aquired their name from baptism--the Basptists. Catholics and several other denominations celebrate seven sacraments, but the precise number and ritualistic approach varies widely. Differences appeared from an early point in the development of the church. The early church attempted to suppress many of the differences, but they became permanent with the break between the Eastern and Western Church. Many more differences stem from the Protestant Reformation. The sacrements in which children are most involved are: baptism, communion (especially first communion, and confirmtion.

Faith Healing

Christian faith healing is as as old as Christianity, in fact older. Jesus as a Jewish teacher before the Christian Church was established was noted for performing miracles, especially healing the sick. As the New Testament accounts progress, Jesus' healings become more and more marvelous, culminating in raising the dead. In the early Church, the remains of the saints as other icons came to be seen as having curative powers. Cathedrals vied with each other over the holy icons they possessed, in part to more effectively attrat pilgrims, many of which had aliments for which they were seeking cures. The Protestant Churchs formed by the Reformation for the most part looked askance at icons and faith healing. Protestant faith heeling did There is, however, did develop, although not among the main steam denominations. There have even been children noted for their curing abilities.


There are interesting aspects of Christianity and other religions that are not theological in nature, or only tangently so. Ans one of these are bells and the importance in Christian practices. Bells and gongs are important in many religions. For Christianity it is primarily bells. While many religions use bells, no religion is more associated will bells than Christianity. And interestingly there is virtually no scriptural justification for this. Christianity is an off-shoot of Judaism. And there is virtually no reference in the Torah. There was some use of bells, mostly small bells on priests' robes--'bells of gold'. 【Exodus 28:31-35】 There is also no justification for bells in the New Testament. The Bible takes no position on bells and certainly does no suggest that churches should have bells. There is an indirect reference, instructing the faithful to 'make a joyful noise.' 【Psalm 100】 This could be used to justify bells as well as music. While not mentioned in the Bible, bells were soon a adopted by the early church. And this despite the fact that there was not only no scriptural justification and only limited Roman precedent. There were no bells associated with Christian worship as the Church evolved from the Jewish Jesus movement to a small religion within the Roman Empire (1st century AD). Nor were there any bells when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity (4th century AD). This began to change with Bishop Paulinus of Nola (southern Italy) began using bells (400 AD). Nola was located in Campania, the region where Naples is located. Bells gradually increased in popularity in Italy. Since that time, many Christian churches have been ringing bells. The practice is highly variable, but the bells are used for both spiritual and a range of more practical purposes, especially to call prisoners to worship. 【Smyth】 Pope Sabinian officially authorized ringing of church bells during worship. Pope Sabinian introduced the custom of ringing church bells as part of the the celebration of the Eucharist as well as to announce the times of daily prayer -- the canonical hours. This practice gradually spread throughout Europe. As new churches were built, the congreants usually wanted a bell. And the lack of Biblical origin, Protestants did not reject bells during the reformation. In a time before watches and clocks, Church bells were used to signal time. Various denominations developed a range of of uses. Western churches tended ton use church bells to call the faithful to worship. Eastern churches were more inclined to involve the bells in the Church services. Church bells were also used to commemorate important events such as coronations. During World War II, the British planned to ring church bells when the German invaded. And then the bells were rung to commemorate the great victory at El Alemein (1942), the first major British victory over German armies.


The major denominations of the Christian faith are the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox or Eastern churches. There have been other denominations of considerable importance, some of which like the Eastern Catholic Maronites in Lebanon and the Copts in Egypt still exist. There are operhaps more religious traditions in the Christian Church than any other major religion. This is primarily because Christianity became the accepted religion in so many different countries. In addition, some Christian theologians, especially Protestant scholars argued that salvation was a personal matter and promoted Bible study and personal reflection. This of course necesitated mass literacy and was one reason why the Protestant states of Europe and America led the Catholic states of Europe in providing free public education.


Roman Empire Adopts Christianity (4th century AD)

Despite three centuries of supression, Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 4th century AD. The turning point occurred in the first decade of 4th century with the resignation of Diocletian (305 AD). A power struggle followed. A first political, open hostilities broke out between Maxentius and Constantine (310). Constanine was not a Christian, but a devotee of god of war Mars and the Sun god Apollo--Sol Invictus. He was, however, favorably disposed toward the Christians because his mother, later consecrated as St. Helena, was a Chritian. Constantine the night befor the decisive battle with Maxentius had a vision of the Sun with the image of the Cross and the legnd "By this coinquer". He had his men paint croses on their shields and won the decisive victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 AD), leaving Constantine in control of the Empire. When Diocletian and Maximian retired (305), persecution of the Christians was still in progress. Constantine realized that the Christians were a major force. They had tp be supressed or integrated. There were still many in imperial circles that wanted to supress the Christians. Constantine was a pragmatist and astutely asessed the growing strength of the Christians. After Constantine's victory, he rally ended all persecution and even made arrangment for restitution if possible. He not only end the suppression, but actively promoted the Church, allocating money to build churhes, pasy salaries, copy and manuscripts. Christians were granted freedom of worship, including publi devotions. Sunday was made a day of rest, although the name suggests this was in deference to Apllo. Constantine also relocated the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinopke, a straetegic location on the Bosporous. Constantine sought unity. While the Church received official sanction and support, the Church now was less independent and had to submpit to imperial political control. One of the first actions of the Church once it obtained imperial sanction was was to begin the procecutions of other Christians who did not conform to approved theology. Church leaders sought to supress Marsian and Gonostics Christians.

Church Councils

Over two millenia, important questions of Church dictrine have been addressed bu church councils. The most important was the Council of Nicea called by the Emperor Constantine (325 AD). At the time there was no unified Christian faith. Constantine wanted to bring order out of the many f=disperate versions of Christiamity. It was the first effort to attain consensus within the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. One of the central issues it considered was the divity of Jesus. Another major council was the Council of Trent called to address the chllenge of the Protestant Reformation. In modern times the Second Vatican Council held during the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI made major change in the Church, including abamding the Latin mass. The impact of Vatican II is still debated within the Church.

Islam (7th and 8th Centuries)

While Christianity rose in the Middle East, it was largely suplanted there by Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Byzantine Empire for several centuries oprevented the spread of Islam into Europe, Moorish warriors from North Africa conquuered most of Spain and battle for France un the 8th century.

Medieval Church

The Christian Church developed in the Roman Empire. The supression of Christians was a constant theme during the reigns of many emperors. The early Church fathers (Peter, Paul, and many others) operated in this hostile environmnt. Finally with Constantine, the Church became the official religion of the Empire. Early Church theologiand like Augustine lived at a time that the Church was not only tolerated, but the official religion of the Empire and a rligion that acted to supress other rival creeds. The Church was thus significantly influenced by the Empire. Much of the Church's organization (pope, cardinal, bishop, ect) was a relection of how the Roman Empire was organized, although the modern organization of the Church and the primacy of the Pope only developed over time. The political structure of the Empire was reflected in how Christian diosceses were set up. Even before conversion, important local officials (Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) might protect or even endow monastaries and convents seeing it beneficial to have "a powehouse of prayer" in their territory. [Brown] One remarkable aspect of the triumph of Christianity in Europe was the fact that Christianity was the religion of the defeated Empire, yet it was gradually adoped by the victorious barbarians. The story of medieval conversions is a fascinating one. Actual conversion took many forms. Very few European people were Christianized by conquest. Rather conversion occurred by coverting leaders, primarily by persuasion. This process took many forms (missionary zeal, princly fiat, election, and shamanistic vision). Many features of the modern Church were not aspects of the early Church. One of the most important is the cult of the saints. Another is the confessional, intitially only practiced by the most deeply pious. One aspects of the confessional was tariffed penances based on penitentials. Surviving medieval penitentials provide a wealth of information to sociologists concerning the intimate details of everyday life. [Brown] Christianity became the principal European religion and as a result of European colonialism, the principal relogion of South and North America. for centuries in the Medieval Era, the Cathloic Church was the one unifying force in Europe and played a major role in the Feudal System.

Conflicting Papal Roles (10th Century)

The Papacy fased a crisis in the 10th century. The modern papacy had not yet emergred. Popes experienced increasing difficulties with their conflicting roles. The pope was responsible for the religious duties of the Rome bishopric, but the pope was also a aprince of Italy, the political leader of the Roman state, a sizeable part of central Italy. Even more the pope was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. There were considerable conflicts between these roles and the pope found himself in political conflict with important European rulers rather than the recognized head of the Church. This badly damaged the reputation and spiritual authority of the papacy.

The Crusades

East-West Division (1054)

Even before the fall of Rome, differences had begun to develop between the Eastern and Western churches. After Rome fell these differences gradually grew in significance and the Pope in Rome increasingly lost authority over the eastern churches to Patriarch of Constantinople. When the final break came in the 11th century, there were already in practice two separate churches. The formal schism came in 1054 when Pope Leo IX took the extrodinary actioin of excommunucating Michael Caerularuius who was the patriarch of Constantinople (1043-59) and by extension the entire Eastern Church. After the division of the Eastern and Western Empires it was perhaps inevilatable that the Church would also divide. It is perhaps surrising that the division took so long to become formalized.

Catharists (12-14th Century)

Historians use the term Catahrists or Cathari to described a large number of widely defused sects and were related to Gnostic Christianity. The Novatians in the 3rd century who had heretical beliefs about baptism. Some include the 10th century Paulicians in Thrace. The sect by the 12th centiry was of considerable importance in thecBalkans (Albania, Bulgaria, and Slavonia) before the Turkish conquest. In the West the sect began to gain importance in Turin about 1035 and were called Patarini from a street in Milan where rag gatheres were common. The Catahrists gained their greatest influence in southern France, especially around Montaillou, where they were called Albigenses or Poblicants (a coruption of Paulicians). They are also assiciated with the Waldenses of France, Germany, and Italy. The Catharists held Manichaean view and held to an asectic life style. Their religious ritual was simple. The Church was apauled at the growing strength of this hersey by the 13th century. The Catharists refused to pay tithes or give obedience to the Roman Church. Religious leaders were called "perfects" or "Good Men". The Church's reaction was to organize the only Crusade ever carried out in Europe. [Weis] The Cathar books and scrolls were destroyed to an extent that there are virtually no surviving documents. All we have are the records of the Dominican inquisators who persecuted them. Slowly the Catharists fell into the hands of the Inquisition. Many Catharists themselves were also condemned to the flames. The Catharists were doomed by the 14th century Crusade supported by the French monarchy which coveted the lands of unruly nobels who supported them. One writer describes the Crusade that suppresed the Catharuists as the largest land grab in French history. The province of Languedoc where people spoke Occitan was seized by the French. [O'Shea]

Great Schism (1378-1409)

The Great Schism occurred in 1378 as a result in the disputed succession after the death of Gregory XI. The cardinals chose a Neoploitan, Bartolommeo Prignano , pope as Urban VI at the conclave in Rome. Afterwards, several catdinals claimed they had been unduly pressured by the vilonence perpetrated by Urban's supporters. They elected Clement VII who took up residence in Avignon, France. This continued including rival successions. Finally at the Council of Pisa (1409), both rival popes, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, were deooised and Alexander V elected as pope of a reunited Church.


Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. The precise time is difficlt to set and of course varied accross Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook.


The Holy Office of the Inquisition was a system of tribunals which became a permanent institution charged by the Catholic Church to eradicate heresies and preserve the Faith. The Catholic Church, reflecting its Roman origins had a hierarchical structure with a strong central bureaucracy. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, heresy became a crime under civil and not just cannon law. Heretics could now be punished by secular authorities. For centuries the Church addressed heresy in an ad hoc manner. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, the Church decided to create a permanent institution to fight heresy. The Church in the 12th century was at the peak of its power. Its moral authority was unquestioned. The Papacy decided that strong action was needed to disuade non-conformistrs like the Catahri. Pope Gregory IX in 1231 published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and created the Inquisition to enforce his decree. Pope Gregory gave the Dominican Order responsible for organizing the search and investigation of heretics, although individual inquisators did not have to be Dominicans. The Holy Office of the Inquisition by the end of the 13th century had been established througout Europe in all principalities loyal to the Catholic Church. Inquisitors had the authority to bring suit against any individual. Those accused by the Inquisition had virtually no rights as we know them today. The inquisators employed various means to ensure the accused cooperated in the trail. Until the creation of the Holy Office, there had been no tradition of routinely employing torture in Christian canon law, although it was commonly resorted to in civil trails. The Inquisition gradually adopted the measures used by civil authorities. Inquisators were commonly resorting to coersive measures including torture by the mid-13th century. The inquisators findings were read before a large audience. The now chastened penitents would abjure on their knees with one hand on a Bible held by the inquisitor that they now rejected their heretical beliefs. A variety of absues soon occurred in local inquisitions. The confiscation of property was a powerful inducement to coruption. Also accusations to the Inquisition became a an all too frequrent way of settling persoinal disputes and vendettas. The papacy, as a result of local abuses, acted to limit the Inquisition. The papacy both issued reforms and regulated the Inquisition. Paul III became pope in 1241. He quickly established a more organized system for administering the Inquisition. Secular authorities in many areas began to intervene by the 14th century. Ferdinand and Isabel, after finally defeating the Moors in 1492 embarked on an effort to purify Spain. They gave the Spanish Inquisition independent from Rome. Spanish authorities dealt harshly with suposedly insincere converted Moslems and Jews ( conversos ) as well as illuminists. The Spanish Inquisition with its massive public autos-da-fé became notorious throughout Europe, but especially Elizabethan England which was targeted by the Spanish Armada and would have faced the Inquisition if Phulip II's forces had succeeded. Elizabethan courtiers and churchmen were thus active in spreading especially lurid accounts of the Spanish Inquisition. Elsewhere in Europe, especially the North, the Inquisition was more benign.

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestan Revolution was the religious struggle during the 16th and 17th century which began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church and ended with the splintering of the Western Christendom into the Catholic and Protestant churches. Combined with the Renaissance which preceeded it, the reformatuin marked the end of the Medieval world and the beginning of a modern world view. The French Revolution which followed the Reformation in the 18th century marked the beginning of our modern age. Conditions developing in Medieval Europe laid the groundwork for the Reformation. The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luthur nailed his Martin Luthur nailed his 95 Thesis on the Castle Church in Wittenberg (1517). Luthur was offended by the papal sale of indulgences by which the Renaissance popes were fiancing the splendid new church of St. Peters in Rome. Luthur's concern with indulgences were soon mixed with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take Ruropean Church anfd temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars, especially the 30 Years War in Germany. Western Christendom would be left permanently split and even the Cathloic Church profoundly changed. Changes in man's view og himself and the Church were to also affect his view relative to the state and many in Europe began to question royal absolutism and divinr right monarchy, a process keading to the French Revolution.

Counter Reformation

The Catholic revival in Europe gained momentum during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Council of Trent (1545-63) was the 19th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church was held at Trent in northern Italy. It was the principal effort of the Catholic church to respond to the Protestant Reformation and was the basis of the Counter-Reformation. The Council was delayed because of concerns of Emperor Charles V and French King Francis I. The council met during threeseparate periods (1545-47, 1551-52, 1562-63) under three different popes (Paul III, Julius III, Pius IV). The Council refused any concessions to the Protestants. All of the major theological issues which Protestantism had challenged were confirmed by the Council: seven sacraments, transubstantiation, purgatory, the necessity of the priesthood, and justification by works as well as by faith. Clerical celibacy and monasticism were continued, and the efficacy of relics, indulgences, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints were all masintained. The Council also declared tradition as coequal to Scripture as a source of spiritual knowledge and insisted that the Church had the sole right to interpret the Bible. The Council did adopt reforms to end the abuses within the church that had played a major role in causing the Reformation. The Catholic movement following the Council of Trent involved only Catholic theologians and a few princes had taken part. Later a much wider movement developed with clergy and laity and was characterized by an more fervent religious spirit. Rather than gradually seeking accomodation, Catholics were becoming less tolerant of Protestantim. Ptotestants were also intolerant, but the force of religous fervor in the early 17h century sems to have been strongest with the Catholic party. The Church by the beginning of the 17th century had reconstituted itself as a resesult of its efforts to combat the Reformation.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment along with the Renaisance and Reformation was a key step in the formation of the Western mind. Many of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers were French, but the Enlightenment was a movement which over time affected all of Europe to varying degrees. America was also affected by the Enlightenment, but the American exoerience was different, in part because of the Great Awakening. The Enlightenment is also termed the Age of Reason. Authors define it differently and there were many different aspects, but the Enlightenment at it heart was a basic turn in the Western mindset. The West for more than a milenium had been dominated by religion, often descrined as faith. Even the Reformation had not changed this. In fact the Protestants were often more consumed with faith and theological questions than the Roman church. With the Enlightenment, primacy was given to reason. Intelectuals began to think that objective truth about life and the universe could be achieved through rational thought. The advances achieved in physics, led by Sir Issac Newton in Britain, had a profound impact on European intellectuals. Enlightenment writers begasn to think that the same kind of systematic thinking could be used to understand and improve areas of human activity as well. A whole new system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and logic was developed based on reason. The Enligtenment was an era of great optimism. Enlightenment thinks were convinced that reason could dramatically improve society. They were not openly athiestic, but they were highly critical of religion which they often equated with irrationality and superstition. The Enlightement also attacked political tyranny. The intelectual ferment of the Enlightenment led to the American and subsequent Latin American revolutions as well as the French Revolution which had a much more pronounced impact on Europe. the Enlightenment prepared the foundation for both classical liberalism and capitalism. There were comparable movements in music (high baroque and classical) and art (neo-classical).

French Revolution

The Church was a primary piller of the Ancien Regime. One of the main elements of the Revolution was anti-clericism. The Revolution through Catholic forces in Europe, only recently recovering from the Reformation, into disorder. French Republican agents in Italy forced Pope Pius VI from Rome as a prisoner (1798). He died the next year in Valence. Napoleon ordered no new pope be elected. Napoleon was to end the Holy Roman Empire in Germany with its Hapsburg emperor. He might have done the same to the papacy. Cardinal Chiaramonti who became Pope Pius VII (1800-23) managed to save the papacy through the personal relationship with Napoleon. Napoleon was to have him there for his crowing as emperor in 1800. Under his papcy the modern Catholic church began to take shape, both during Napoleon's rule and in the Bourbon restoration that followed it.

Western Culture

The first majaor assault on relgion in our modern world was the 18th century Enlightenment. The second assault was 19th century Marxism which has continued in the 20th and 21st century. Marxists believe in the concept of scientific materialism, which precludes any supernatural being ot any other concept that controls nature other than sciebtifically knowable natural laws. Ironically Marx whoset out to construct an economic and social system based on science made fundamental errors and the the totalitarian states of the 20th century heavily based on his philosophy proved not only to be a failure at science, but to be the most cruel murderous regimes in human history. (The NAZIs of course were not Communists, but were stronly influenced by Marxism and NAZI propaganda railed against capitalist plutocrats.) Economically they proced to be destroyers of wealth unlike capitalism which creates wealth and their people condemned to povery in comparison to Western capitalist states. Marx described religion as an expression of material realities and economic injustice. He believed it was used by the ruling class to control the working class. He aserted that religion was used by oppressors to make workers feel better about their economic consitions which maked exploitation easier. This is why he declared religion go be the 'opium of the masses'. This is why Communists when they seize power conduct atheist campaigns use the full resource of a police state. In the socialist influenced democracies of Western Europe the attacks on religion are more nuanced, but the intelegencia of Westen Europe as well as America tends to despariage religion. A good modern expression of this is Richard Dawkins, author of is an outspoken atheist and a prominent critic of religion is British atheist Richard Dawkins, author of the The God Delusion. Dawkins is one of the more informed athesists. A better example of the popular face of anti-Christian liberalism is commedian Bill Maher. He mocks religious people calling them ignorant and is fond of recounting instances of religious ibtolerance of which they are many (anti-semitism, supression of the Catars, the Inquisition, religious wars of the 17th century, expulision of the Hugenoughts, etc.). Maur like others in academia and the media focus on Christianity. This is largely because one of their other liberal beliefs is cultural relativity and a reluctance to criticise non-western cultures and religions as well as concern that they may be physically attacked if they criticize Islam. While surrounding themselves with the mantel of erudite scholarship, they normally speak on their own shows or friendly main-stream media where their ideas are not subjected to rigorous questioning. They rarely expose themselves to honest inquiry. One simple fact stands out, the great mass murders of history (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot) are all athesists who did their best to stamp out religion. There is, however, much more. Religion was at the heart of Wesrtern civilization which is responsible for modern science, capitalism. democracy, protection of human rifgts, women's rights all emerged from Christian Europe and America. Here Christianity was important not only for its own ethical teachings, but because it was tghe vessel through which the classical heritage was presered and passed on. Many of the critics of Christianity while castigating Christians as ignorant Bible thumpers or making gratuitous statements like 'clinging to their Bibles and guns', are themselves blissfully ignorate of the role of Judeo-Christian faiths in creating our modern world.


The history of Christian missionaies is extensive and an important chapter of European history. It is largely an account of the Catholic Church. From an early point, missionaries help spread the Christian faith. St. Alan helped spread the faith to England and St. Patrick tto Ireland zand St. Alban to England. St. Bruno helped bring Christianity to the Rus. Benddictine priests accompanied the Spanish Conquistadores to the New World. The Jesuites brought Christinity to China. The history of Christian missionaies in China is extensive and an important chapter of European and Chinese history. Catholic and Orthodox missionaries were priests. This pattern did not change measurably until the 19th century. Victorians, especially the English, began to evangelize the Gospel. This belated effort was largely due to the fct that it was primarily Castholic countries which had empires. British missionaries set out to bring the Gospel to the expanding Empire. (Britain lost much of its 18th century empire with the American Revolution.) Protestant missionaries were different from the Catholic missionaries in that they brought their families with them. British colonial officials by the 19th century were also bringing their families, but were more likely to live in cloistered foreign communities. The missionary families were more likely to live with the local population since their mission was to convert them. American and German missionaries joined the missionary effort in the early-19th century. Missionaries were active in Afria, Asia, and Oceania. They were a part of the colonizing effort in Africa and Oceania. Interestingly the Dutch who had an extensive empire were not particulrly active in the missionary effort. The Espeys were part of this missionary effort. The missionaries themselves were concerned with salvation. There effort was, however, much more significant. With them they brought modernity and opening to a wider world. Often they set up schools, the first modern schools in China. In their wake came businessmen. They brought with them American products, stimulating a demand for these goods. Europeans seized control of treaty ports in China. The United States did not do this, but there were military consequences. The Japanese invasion of China (1937) was accompanied with horendous attrocities against Chinese civilians. Reports from missionaries in China had a profound impact on American public opinion. Thus when President Roosevelt began a series of diplomatic efforts including embargoes to force Japan out of China, he received considerable support in still largely isolationist America.

Democracy and Capitalism

Historical assessments are often largely based on one's cultural perspective. Thus we in the West commonly give inadequate attention toward other societies. Stepping back, one is struck by the fact that through much of workd histor, China was the most successful and advanced society on earth. Marco Polo had good reason to be amazed when he reached China. European traders trying to do business in China had a major problem. They had little to offer that the Chinese wanted. Many of the technological developments that led to the indudtrial Revoltion was basec on technologies developed in China which until the 8th century was more advanced than the West. Why then was the major steps to modernity (political demoicracy and economic capitalism) both occur in the West? We have had readers say that it was mere chance. We suspect that it is very unlikely that chance was the driving force. Rather we believe that it was the West's Judeo-Christian traditiion embued with the help of St. Paul with a healty does of Helenism--the c/asuical traditions. Here we are not saying that the political philosophy of John Locke or the economic philosophy of Adam Smith can be found in the Old and New Testament. And passages that appear to reject both democracy and capitalism can be found in the Bible. The overwealming trajectory of Jewish and Christian thought, hoever, is the value the individual and personal choice no matter what his or her social status. And it is this spirit over time thgat has led to both democracy and capitalism which are in essence political and econoimic liberty. Here we are still wrestling with this issue and welcome reader insights and comments.

Modern Europe

It is in Europe that the modern concept of man develops along with democracy, experimental size, and entreprenurial capitalism. The Christian Church had a major role in its development. The Catholic Church helped launch many of the beginning steps, but then became a conservative force, supressing thinkers like Gaileo and Conpernicus. It is the mostly Protestant north where the modern outlook is launched. Historians debate the actual process. Some believe that religious faith played a major role. [Stark] This argument, however, seems rather strasined. Christianity does seem to have played a role in the development of the modern outlook, but it seems more likely that the Reformation with its emphasis on personal study and revelation that played a key role. While Protestant sects were often as authoritarian as Catholocism, the emphasis on self study created so many different sects that eventually religious toleration was the only practical outcome.

Religious Clothing

Church attendance used to be an occasion for dressing up in your best clothes. This was as true for children as their parents. Church is no longer such a formal occasion. Men commonly still wear a sports coat and tie, but often not a suit. Boys are much less likely to wear a sports jacket or suit. Special days such as Easter and Christmas or events such as weddings and christenings, however, still often are occasions for formal dress.

Boys in the Church

Boys apparently had a role in the Church from a very early period. They were involved in different activiyies. Boys assisted the priests in services becoming altar boys. As music became important in Christian services, boy choristers played a prominnt role. We also note boy preachers. This seems to have been a more recent development and one which we have noted in the Protestant and not the Catholic churches. On boy preacher was Paul J. Perkins in 1922.


The issue of toleration has been a moral failing of the Chritian Church for much of its history. This begn with the the point that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman persecution of Chritians does not seem to have generated an appreciation of tolerance, but rather a desire to supress other faiths, a orientation with no basis in Jesus' teaching. The Church by the advent if the second mellinium had become extremely harsh with Jews, the only other religion tolerated. Not all religions are intolerant of other religions, including other stare religions. Hindism and Budhism have tended to be tolerant of other religions. The Abrahamic relgions less so, but this has varied over time. Medieval Christianity was perhaps the most intolerant of all religions, not only other relgions, but other Christian sects as well. It is unclear why Christianity becane so intolerant. This was no part of Jesus' teaching in sharp contrast to Islanic docrine. The Church began using the power of the state to supress pagan religions. There was at first a toleration of Judaism, but this changed over time. There were no other religions in Europe for some time, but from an early point in church history, the Church struggled with theological disputes. And proceeded to supress non-conformist thought as well as Jews. The Church also launched the Crusades during with unbelievable brutality was directed at Muslims and Jews and at times as well as other Christians. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church dealt harsly with those seens as heritics, such as the Cathars in France. The Renaissance launched a monumental shift in European thought, but did change attitudes toward toleration. Even so, by shifting man's concept of himself laid the fondation fir future change. Spain for several centuries was the only multi-cultural society in Eurpe. This ended as the Reconquist finally movd to the ultimate conlusion. The Church created the Inquisition to obliterate both Islam and Judaism, And in the same yer the last Muslim state fell, the Catholic Monarchs (Isabel and Ferdinand) expelled both Muslims and Jews, beginnung the Sephardic Diaspora. A few years later, Marin Luther launched Spanish Inquisition. Unlike previoushericies, Protestantim developed a large enough following that it proved impossible for the church to extinguish, especially afrer several German monarchs adopted Protestantism. This seems more of a political move to create independent nation states than theological fervor. This set in motion some of the bloodiest wars in European history--the religious wars. Europeans for nearly two centuries battered each other relentlessly, but failed to destroy either Catholocism or Protestantism. Finally from exhaustion the religious wars ended and Europe was left with a Catholic south and Protestant north. Only slowly, however did a spirit of toleration devlop out of divided Europe. Here primary movers were first the Enlightenment and then the amercan Revolution. Out of the Revolution came a Constitution in which religious freedom was enshrined as a fundamental principle. Thus Christianity which was once the most intolerant of religions evolved into the most tolerant. Toleration was largely seen as a just or moral principle, only in recent times has it been recognized that tolerant sicieties are not only just, but the most creative and productive societies. At the same time, Islam which had aegree of toleration has evolved into the most intolerant. Islam today demonstrates a level of intolerance unknown at the height of the Caliphate. without the benefit of the Renaissance, Reformation, or Enlightenment has become a firce for medieval intolerance and unbelievable barbarism.

Mainline Media


Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 2nd edition (Blackwell paperback: 2003), 625p.

Hanson, Vicor Davis. Book-TV C-Span 2, March 7, 2004.

O'Shea, Stephen. The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (Walker, 2001), 333p.

Smyth, Dolores. "What Is the origin and purpose of church bBells?" Christuianity.com (July 16, 2019).

Stark, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformation, Science, and The End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003), 488p.

Weis, René. The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars, 1290-1329 (Knopf, 2001), 399p.


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Created: July 22, 2003
Last updated: 7:19 PM 10/13/2023