Christianity in Europe: History, Spread & Decline

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Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

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Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

Within only a few years of its establishment, Christianity soon found fertile ground to grow in Europe. For almost 2,000 years it would flourish, only rarely challenged by outside beliefs, until new influences, especially from within, slowly caused a decline. Updated: 12/17/2019

Christianity & the Roman Empire

While the word, Christianity might conjure up images of monumental cathedrals and powerful bishops, the religion was not always so powerful. In fact, Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire for centuries. Some, like Emperor Nero, famously blamed Christians for whatever went wrong, including a fire that burned much of Rome. As a result, Christians remained secretive, sometimes going as far as to meet and worship in underground catacombs. However, this persecution couldn't stop the spread of Christianity!

Many people were tired of Roman state rituals that seemed empty and were attracted to the idea of social equality, justice, and the promise of an afterlife that Christianity offered. Beginning in the Middle East, Christianity began its spread north and west into Europe, carried by merchants, missionaries, and soldiers. Of course, the Roman imperial government couldn't ignore the fact that, despite the persecutions, Christianity was growing stronger.

As a result, in 313, the Edict of Milan was passed, which guaranteed freedom of religion throughout the Roman Empire, ending the persecution of Christians. Such a measure was partially designed to help Christians have more faith in the Roman Empire, which was growing weak. Ultimately, however, this wouldn't be enough to restore people's trust in the Western Roman Empire, which fell in the year 476. Still, Christianity was here to stay.

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The Great Schism

While Christianity was dominant in Europe, questions remained. Foremost was the issue of a number of heresies, or so-called false beliefs, that spread throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire, weakening the unified authority of the religion. Ultimately, the teachings of the bishop of Rome, more commonly known as the pope, prevailed over the heresies. This type of Christianity, which is led by the pope is known as Catholicism, which gets its name from the Greek word for universal, due to its adherents' belief that it's the universal, or main branch, of Christianity.

As the position of pope grew in power, each successive pope became more efficient at getting the kings of Western Europe to do what the Church wanted. Although the Western Roman Empire had fallen, the Eastern Roman Empire, called the Byzantine Empire, was still strong, causing tension between the pope in the West and the emperor in the East.

The East had always been the richer half of the Roman Empire, and the emperor of the Byzantine Empire didn't want someone a thousand miles away giving him orders. He made sure that he had the power to appoint whomever he wanted as leaders of the Church in the East. The most important of these was the bishop of Constantinople, known as the patriarch. Increasingly, with the encouragement of the emperors, patriarchs challenged popes on a variety of issues for the next few centuries.

Unfortunately, neither the pope nor the patriarch was going to back down. In 1054, the situation became unbearable when the pope ordered the patriarch to be excommunicated, meaning that the pope no longer recognized the patriarch as Christian and no longer recognized his authority over Eastern churches. The pope did this by sending his couriers to tack the excommunication notice to the patriarch's podium in Constantinople while the Patriarch was speaking from the pulpit!

The resulting break became known as the Great Schism because it divided the Church into two halves: the Catholic half led by the pope and the other half led by the patriarch. This latter group called itself Orthodox, from the Greek word orthos, which means 'straight' or 'right' and doxa, which means opinion, because they felt that they were the original, or proper, Church.

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Additional Activities

Writing Activity for Christianity in Europe:

Imagine you're a Catholic priest in France during the late-18th century. You are concerned with new scientific understandings of the universe, believing that they may undercut religious-based explanations for natural phenomenon. You also hear that the French government is considering establishing religious freedom. Write a 2-3 paragraph letter to your bishop expressing your concerns. Your letter should describe why you believe the scientific understandings and religious freedom is a danger to not only the Catholic Church but to society at large. For example, your thesis statement might be something like: "Dear Bishop, I am concerned that the prevalence of Enlightenment thought as well as the French government's plans to institute religious freedom will undermine the authority of the Catholic Church." Don't forget that this is after the Protestant Reformation, and a Catholic priest might still be worried about the growth of Protestant religious groups in Europe.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • What did the Edict of Milan do? Did it help or hurt Christianity?
  • Why is the year 1054 significant for the history of Christianity? (Hint: Pope's excommunication of the patriarch)
  • What were "indulgences"? Why did the Catholic Church begin using them, and how did that ultimately weaken the power of the Church? (Hint: debt from various causes, opposition to them in the church)
  • Why did dissenters such as Martin Luther become known as Protestants? (Hint: how did they react to Catholic Church practices?)
  • How was Christianity able to spread through the Roman Empire even though Christians were persecuted by the Roman state? What did that ultimately lead to? (Hint: think trade and travel)
  • How did the Protestant Reformation transform Christianity in Europe? Do you think it also changed the political power of monarchs? (Hint: think about the role of the Pope in various Catholic countries)

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