Palaeo Christian Church in the
Old Town of Corfu, Greece
Initially, the Christianized Romans had no desire to spread Christianity beyond their borders. Around the time the Roman Empire collapsed Christianity began spreading throughout Europe, primarily through the efforts of monks and missionaries.

The process of the spread of Christianity took place slowly. It took time for the religion to reach different places and then it took time for it to be embraced by local people. In Europe, Christianity began as an urban religion. It spread to wealthy landowners and then to rural tenant farmers.

Missionaries focused their attention on noblemen. The belief was that of leader were converted their people would follow. Attention was also directed at noblewomen. Several Christian queens converted their pagan king husbands.

"Christianity became an inseparable component of the aristocratic identity." Many kings were hesitant about converting to Christianity because they were worried what their noblemen would take it the wrong way. The Russian Svyatoslav wrote, "I'm afraid my retainers would laugh at me."

Many early Christians hedged their bets and worshiped their old pagan gods after accepting Christianity. Richard Fletcher, a University of York professor, "In Denmark and in Sweden little soapstone molds have been found for simultaneous casting of the cross of Christ and the hammer of Thor."

Covenanter Bible
Book: "Barbarian Conversion, From Paganism to Christianity” by Richard Fletcher (Henry Holt, 1998). Fletcher is a University of York Professor. The book chronicles how Ireland, Britain, Northern Gaul, Germany, Scandinavia and most of Central Europe accepted Christianity.

Christianity and the Roman Empire, See Separate articles on CONSTANTINE, CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE and PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ;

Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex

Christian Missionaries and the Spread of Christianity

Missionaries played a greater role in Christianity than any other religion. Unlike Muslims who conquered by the sword, Christians relied on missionaries to spread the word on the fringes of Europe.

Over time reclusive monks and pilgrims became missionaries and monasteries were established that became centers of learning and of Christian preaching. As early as the second century a missionary college was founded in Alexandria and another in Constantinople in 404.

In A.D. 410 Christianity reached Britain from Gaul. The Celtic church was driven west into Wales and Ireland by the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

Then from Ireland Christianity was brought back to the European continent — in Holland, Germany and Switzerland — by the Irish abbot St. Columbanus. Lesser missionaries spread the word across the continent: in the high mountains of Switzerland, in the Rhine Valley, in the Swedish forests, and in frigid Russia.

Missionaries often had their biggest successes converting chiefs and warlords in wild tribal areas of Europe by telling them that Christianity would bring them "victory, wide dominion, fame and riches." These warlords in turn converted the members of their tribes.

Famous Missionaries and Early Christian Figures

Important early missionaries: St. Patrick, St. Columba, Gregory the Great (who sent missionaries to Britain), St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Boniface, Anskar ("the Apostle of the North"), Bebe (the learned and venerable 7th century author of an early Bible), Photius ("perhaps the most encyclopedic intellect ever to flourish in Byzantium”), the Slavic brothers St. Cyril and St. Methodius.

St. Boniface
Augustine of Canterbury was a Benedictine monk sent by Pope Gregory to England in A.D. 597 to convert King Ethlebert of Kent and establish England's first Christian church at Canterbury.

Saint Boniface (675-755) was born in England and ordained as a priest after joining a Benedictine order. He is credited with helping to bring Christianity to Germany and unifying the tribes there. His most courageous act was destroying a sacred oak tree worshiped by the Germanic tribes at the home of their main god, Thor. After that Boniface won many converts to Christianity and was able to found many churches in Germany and establish himself as the archbishop of Mainz in A.D. 748. He was killed by pagans while doing missionary work in Frisia. He now is often referred to as the “patron” or “apostle” of Germany.

Early Christian figure Count Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona; Eric Bloodaxe, the last Scandinavian ruler of Britain, and Nicholas Breakspeare, the only Englishman ever to become pope. On other early Christian leaders in Europe, Fletcher wrote: "Converting to the religion after a fall from his horse in about 1114, Norbert adopted a regime of ferocious asterism (it killed his first three disciples)...Wulfstan was a realist who did not ask the impossible of his clergy. They must shave regularly, must not bring their weapons to church, must try to keep out of fights and must not perform in taverns as 'ale minstrels.'"

Europe Becomes Fully Christianized

The Coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas day in 800 by the Pope Leo III marked beginning of Holy Roman Empire and the unification of church and state in Europe. The Christian conversion process was relatively peaceful until Charlemagne decided to covert the Saxons. The brutal campaign became a "blueprint for the Crusades."

St. Patrick in the
Nuremberg chronicles
Christianity was dealt some setbacks. Islam made its way into Spain, southern Italy and Sicily. Rome was plundered by Muslim in 846. Genghis Khan entered Hungary Poland and Russia. Tamerlane destroyed Christian settlement in Asia Minor.

The church was also weakened by divisions within. There were acrimonious doctrine disputes over Jesus' divinity, the alliance of church and state, the dual nature of Christ, and giving of sacraments by sinful priests. These division were exacerbated by regional rivalries. See Councils.

The Greek Church and Latin Church competed for several centuries. Five equal patriarchs shared power for a period of time. There were struggles between the kings and emperors over the right to have some say in the appointment of bishops.Even so, by 1200 nearly all of Europe was Christian

Unifying the Christian Church and Christians Leaving the Holy Land

In 1948, the World Council of Churches — part of the ecumenical movement to reunify the Christian denominations — was founded. One of the goals Second Vatican Council in 1962-65 was to support the ecumenical movement. Leaders of different Christian denominations — including Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Nestorians — have gathered with Muslim and Jewish leader to prayer for world peace.

spread of Christianity, dark blue to AD 325, light blue to 600

In recent years mysticism has had a profound influence on Christianity in terms of Christians developing an interest in Buddhism and yoga and other eastern religions in a search for the inner self and exploring mystical branches of Christianity and Judaism such as Gnosticsm and Kabbalah.

Christians has traditionally regarded itself as the successor and legitimate heir of Biblical Israel. Even in recent decades Christians in once large, healthy and vibrant communities of the Holy Land and the Middle East has been forced to flee the places of their birth. According to the World Council of Churches, the number of Christians in the Middle East had declined from 12 million in the late 1990s to 2 million in the late 2000s.

For a long time the majority population of Lebanon was Christian — the only country in the Middle East in which that was the case. No longer. Now Muslims make to two thirds of the population, The proportion of Christians in Bethlehem has shrunk from 85 percent to 20 percent . In Egypt the number of Coptic Christian has shrunk from 10 percent to 6 percent . In recent years Christians in Iraq have been forced to flee Iraq at the risk of being killed if they didn’t. Many have been killed.

First Domed Churches

Roman and Greek temples were primarily homes of the gods. A church was different in that it was both a house of god and assembly place for worshipers. The first churches used domes like those on pagan Roman temples such as the Parthenon to create a space for the worshipped; the altar was placed at one end.

20120507-Dome over the Tomb of Jesus Holy Sepulchre.jpg
Dome over the Tomb of Jesus
at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The best example of this kind of church, or basilica, is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (A.D. 532) and Saint Costanza in Rome (A.D. 350). The next advancement was creating a long church with a rectangular plan, instead of round one, and a system or arches and columns to support it that created a long nave to accommodate the worshippers. The original St. Peters (begun A.D. 333) in Rome and S. Apollinare (A.D. 549) in Ravenna are built in this fashion.

In Roman times basilicas were often meeting halls or law courts. Domes were first built over Roman baths, and in the Christian church they later became associates with baptisteries, or places where one gets baptized.

Haghia Sophia

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople) was the largest religious building in the world until St. Peters was completed in Rome. But what was even more amazing was that it was finished 1000 years before St. Peters was even started. Also known as Saint Sophia and Aya Sofya, it was described soon after it was completed by the historian Procopius wrote as “a most glorious spectacle, extraordinary to those who behold it and altogether incredible to those who are told of it. It is distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in is size and the harmonies of its measures.”

Haghia Sophia is comprised of a large dome attached to half domes and semicircular niches. The rectangular basilica measures 230 feet by 250 feet and the dome is 180 feet above the ground and 100 feet across. Its interior spaciousness is created by the arrangement of arches, half domes and 40 stone ribs. Light enters through 40 windows and is focused on the emblematic sun at the dome’s center. There are also great columns and pillars, intricately designed ceramic tiles and some of the world’s most admired mosaics.

"Haghia Sophia" is Greek for “Holy Wisdom.” It is an awe-inspiring site today, but just imagine what it must have been like for people who witnessed it when it was finished in A.D. 536 and there was nothing even remotely like it in rest of the world. Byzantine Emperor Justinian supposedly spent 320,000 pounds of gold to build it and upon seeing the completed product for the first time he exclaimed "O Solomon I have surpassed thee!"

The plans for the church, surprisingly, were drawn up in less than six weeks by an architect named Athememius, who also had the distinction of being the first person to draw an ellipse with a string tied around two fixed points. The architectural advancement Athememius devised that made the building of the great church possible was the balancing of the massive 184-foot-high, 252-foot-long and 234-foot-wide dome on top of a square. Before that domes were built on set of columns arranged in a circle, a design much weaker structurally than a square.

To speed up construction the 5,000 men building one side of the church were pitted against the 5,000 men on other side. When the church was finished five years, ten months and four days later a huge celebration was held in which a thousand oxen, six thousand sheep, six hundred stags, one thousand pigs and ten thousand chickens and fowl were served up.

Hagia Sophia, now a mosque with minarets

Medieval Churches

In the Middle Ages, churches were important gathering places. Town meetings were usually held inside churches and moneychangers often greeted their customers on the square in front of the church. The churches themselves were cold and dark and there often no chairs or pews, only a straw covered floor to sit on. Worshippers often brought hand warmers and cushions when they attended mass. ["Life in a Medieval City" by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Perennial]

The first organs looked like giant accordions and the first pipe organ was built in Winchester Cathedral in A.D. 980. it had over 400 pipes and the keys were so heavy they had to be played with a clenched fist. ["Life in a Medieval City" by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Perennial]

Sermons usually lasted for a about half an hour. They were supposed to be delivered in Latin, but often the priest slipped into the vernacular because most worshippers did not understand Latin. The sermon was typically centered around a biblical episode or a story with a theme or moral. The priest offered communion to the people at the front altar with his back turned to them. ["Life in a Medieval City" by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Perennial]

Romanesque, Byzantine and medieval churches were often dark and gloomy places. Golden mosaics and bright-colored frescoes were regarded as a way of bringing light into the church. A flabellum was "a liturgical fan used to keep the flies away from the priest when saying mass."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Symbols of Catholicism” by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

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