earlier centuries was chiefly in the middle and lower classes, but it was not solely there. No large number of the aristocracy were reached, but in learned and philosophical circles many were won, attracted both by Christianity’s evident ethical power and by its philosophical character (cf. the Apologists of the 2nd century). That it could seem at once a simple way of living for the common man and a profound philosophy of the universe for the speculative thinker meant much for its success.
But it did not win its victory without a struggle. Superstition, misunderstanding and hatred caused the Christians trouble for many generations, and governmental repression they had to suffer occasionally, as a result of popular disturbances. No systematic effort was made by the imperial authorities to put an end to the movement until the reign of Decius (250–251), whose policy of suppression was followed by Diocletian (303 ff.) and continued for some years after his abdication. In spite of all opposition the Church steadily grew, until in 311 the emperor Galerius upon his death-bed granted toleration (see Eusebius H.E. x.4, and Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, 34), and in 313 the emperors Constantine and Licinius published the edict of Milan, proclaiming the principle of complete religious liberty, and making Christianity a legal religion in the full sense (see Eusebius x. 5, and Lactantius 48. Seeck, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, xii. 381 sq., has attempted to show that the edict of Milan had no significance, but without success).
Constantine, recognizing the growing strength of the Church and wishing to enlist the loyal support of the Christians, treated them with increasing favour, and finally was baptized upon his death-bed (337). Under his successors, except during the brief reign of Julian (361–363), when the effort was made to reinstate paganism in its former place of supremacy, the Church received growing support, until, under Theodosius the Great (379–395), orthodox Christianity, which stood upon the platform adopted at Nicaea in 325, was finally established as the sole official religion of the state, and heathen worship was put under the ban. The union between Church and State thus constituted continued unbroken in the East throughout the middle ages. The division of the Empire resulted finally in the division of the Church, which was practically complete by the end of the 6th century, but was made official and final only in 1054, and the Eastern and Western halves, the Greek Catholic and the Roman Catholic Churches, went each its separate way. (See Theodosian Code, book 16, for the various imperial edicts relating to the Church, and for fuller particulars touching the relation between Church and Empire see the articles Constantine; Gratian; Theodosius; Justinian.)
For a long time after the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, paganism continued strong, especially in the country districts, and in some parts of the world had more adherents than Christianity, but at length the latter became, at any rate nominally, the faith of the whole Roman world. Meanwhile already before the beginning of the 3rd century it went beyond the confines of the Empire in Asia, and by the end of our period was strong in Armenia, Persia, Arabia and even farther east. It reached the barbarians on the northern and western borders at an early day, and the Goths were already Christians of the Arian type before the great migrations of the 4th century began. Other barbarians became Christian, some in their own homes beyond the confines of the Empire, some within the Empire itself, so that when the hegemony of the West passed from the Romans to the barbarians the Church lived on. Thenceforth for centuries it was not only the chief religious, but also the chief civilizing, force at work in the Occident. Losing with the dissolution of the Western Empire its position as the state church, it became itself a new empire, the heir of the glory and dignity of Rome, and the greatest influence making for the peace and unity of the western world.
2. The Christian Life.—The most notable thing about the life of the early Christians was their vivid sense of being a people of God, called and set apart. The Christian Church in their thought was a divine, not a human, institution. It was founded and controlled by God, and even the world was created for its sake (cf. the Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. ii. 4, and 2 Clement 14). This conception, which came over from Judaism, controlled all the life of the early Christians both individual and social. They regarded themselves as separate from the rest of the world and bound together by peculiar ties. Their citizenship was in heaven, not on earth (cf. Phil. iii. 20, and the epistle to Diognetus, c. 5), and the principles and laws by which they strove to govern themselves were from above. The present world was but temporary, and their true life was in the future. Christ was soon to return, and the employments and labours and pleasures of this age were of small concern. Some went so far as to give up their accustomed vocations, and with such Paul had to expostulate in his epistles to the Thessalonians. A more or less ascetic mode of life was also natural under the circumstances. Not necessarily that the present world was evil, but that it was temporary and of small worth, and that a Christian’s heart should be set on higher things. The belief that the Church was a supernatural institution found expression in the Jewish notion of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. It was believed among the Jews that the Messianic age would be the age of the Spirit in a marked degree, and this belief passed over into the Christian Church and controlled its thought and life for some generations. The Holy Spirit was supposed to be manifest in various striking ways, in prophecy, speaking with tongues and miracle working. In this idea Paul also shared, but he carried the matter farther than most of his contemporaries and saw in the Spirit the abiding power and ground of the Christian life. Not simply in extraordinary phenomena, but also in the everyday life of Christians, the Holy Spirit was present, and all the Christian graces were the fruits (cf. Gal. v. 22). A result of this belief was to give their lives a peculiarly enthusiastic or inspirational character. Theirs were not the everyday experiences of ordinary men, but of men lifted out of themselves and transported into a higher sphere. With the passing of time the early enthusiasm waned, the expectation of the immediate return of Christ was widely given up, the conviction of the Spirit’s presence became less vivid, and the conflict with heresy in the 2nd century led to the substitution of official control for the original freedom (see below). The late 2nd century movement known as Montanism was in essence a revolt against this growing secularization of the Church, but the movement failed, and the development against which it protested was only hastened. The Church as an institution now looked forward to a long life upon earth and adjusted itself to the new situation, taking on largely the forms and customs of the world in which it lived. This did not mean that the Church ceased to regard itself as a supernatural institution, but only that its supernatural character was shown in a different way. A Christian was still dependent upon divine aid for salvation, and his life was still supernatural at least in theory. Indeed, the early conviction of the essential difference between the life of this world and that of the next lived on, and, as the Church became increasingly a world-institution, found vent in monasticism, which was simply the effort to put into more consistent practice the other-worldly life, and to make more thoroughgoing work of the saving of one’s soul. Contributing to the same result was the emphasis upon the necessity of personal purity or holiness, which Paul’s contrast between flesh and spirit had promoted, and which early took the supreme place given by Christ to love and service. The growing difficulty of realizing the ascetic ideal in the midst of the world, and within the world-church, inevitably drove multitudes of those who took their religion seriously to retire from society and to seek salvation and the higher life, either in solitude, or in company with kindred spirits.
There were Christian monks as early as the 3rd century, and before the end of the 4th monasticism (q.v.) was an established institution both in East and West. The monks and nuns were looked upon as the most consistent Christians, and were honoured accordingly. Those who did not adopt the monastic life
- Upon the spread of the Church during the early centuries see especially Harnack’s Mission und Ausbreitung des Christenthums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten. An interesting parallel to the spread of Christianity in the Roman empire is afforded by the contemporary Mithraism. See Cumont’s Les Mystères de Mithra (1900), Eng. tr. The Mysteries of Mithra (1903).