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The Conversion of Constantine and the Ascent of Christianity

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  • 0:05 Conversion Experience
  • 1:34 Legalization and Legislation
  • 2:35 Corruption
  • 3:12 Nicaea and the Bible
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the conversion of Constantine and the ascent of Christianity. In doing this, it will highlight the Edict of Milan and the famous Council of Nicaea.

Conversion Experience

There are moments in time that have changed the world, standing out as turning points in history. For the United States, there's Lexington's shot heard 'round the world; for Europe, the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. Although these events shaped continents, many historians give them a back seat to the conversion of Constantine, an event which elevated Christianity to political prominence and power. Ironically, such a profound event is believed to have begun with a vision and a dream.

To explain, tradition holds that Constantine converted to Christianity after an odd experience in the 312 CE battle of Milvian Bridge. While warring against Maxentius, his co-heir, Constantine began praying for assistance. In the midst of such prayer, he saw a beaming cross bearing the words: in hoc signo vinces (translated 'by this sign you will conquer'). When he had a dream that very night in which God reaffirmed this vision, Constantine was sold.

After having his vision reaffirmed in a dream, Constantine was converted.
Constantine Converted

Now, whether Constantine's conversion was heartfelt or whether he used his new found faith as an exaggerated good luck charm is still fodder for great debate among historians and theologians. However, everyone agrees on one point. Constantine's conversion caused the political ascent of Christianity.

Legalization and Legislation

For starters, Constantine wasted little time promoting his new found faith. In 313, his reign saw the issue of the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity and freed its followers from the vicious, state-instituted persecutions experienced under emperors like Nero and Diocletian.

Not content with merely legalizing Christianity, Constantine had no problems mixing church and state. In fact, the integration of church and state is often referred to as Constantinism. In other words, he enacted legislation that acted like fertilizer for the faith. He declared Sunday as an official Roman holiday, making getting to church much easier for his subjects. He also offered tax exemption to the church and many of its clergy. Adding to this, Constantine changed December 25th from a celebration of a pagan God to a celebration of Christ's birth, giving Christianity and kids all over the world Christmas!

Corruption

It must be mentioned that although these things definitely aided the ascent of Christianity, many historians also credit them with its corruption. Seeing the favor Constantine bestowed on the church and its members, it's believed many flocked to the faith for political gain and personal advancement. Yes, their hearts may have been a bit tugged but their pocketbooks were downright sucked in.

This trend only increased as Constantine became more and more intolerant of the pagan faiths throughout his reign. Anyone wanting to climb the social ladder would have been a fool not to convert.

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