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The Stark Truth

Tracking the growth of Christianity 2,000 years ago is an ambitious undertaking for a sociologist. But Rodney Stark found it irresistible. Reading recent histories of early Christianity, he began to do some number-crunching. Soon, he says, it was a consuming “hobby.” And, before long, he had written a best-selling book, The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

What he found in his study of the first Christian centuries was an astonishing growth rate in the number of Christians of 40 percent per decade. From a small band of twelve, the Church had grown to 6 million people by 300 A.D. Stark maintains that the Emperor Constantine did not so much ensure Christianity’s success as acknowledge it. Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313 was overdue recognition that the Church had already won the empire.

But Stark is most interested in how the West was won. Contrary to pious histories, he holds that most growth came from individual conversions, and from the merchant and upper classes rather than the poor. Contrary to secular feminist pieties, he makes the case that most converts were women, that women benefited greatly from conversion, and that women were leaders in the early Church.

He also shows the remarkable effects of charity on Church growth. Christians, he demonstrates, were much more likely to survive epidemics because they cared for one another. And the pagans who received Christian care were much more likely to become Christians. In times of epidemic, Stark says, pagan priests and doctors were among the first to leave town.

Stark’s book vividly describes the misery of ordinary citizens of the pagan world. Most lived in cramped, smoky tenements with no ventilation or plumbing. Life expectancy was around 30 years for men and perhaps much lower for women. Hygiene was minimal. Medical care was more dangerous than disease, and disease often left its victims disfigured or dead. The human body was host to countless parasites, and tenements were infested by pests. For entertainment, people thronged to the circuses to see other people mutilated and killed.

Pagan marriage was no respite. Greco-Roman women suffered in predatory relationships rife with abortion and unnatural acts. But Christian marriage was a different story. Christian husbands and wives tended to love one another, as their religion required. Their mutual affection, Stark says, and their openness to fertility led to more children, and thus to a still higher growth in converts for the early Church.

Stark demonstrates that Christian doctrine, hope and charity transformed the Roman Empire—one person at a time.

Of The Rise of Christianity, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper said: “It is ironic yet satisfying to find sociology, so often used to attack dogmatic Christianity, now objectively confirming some of the claims that Christianity has made for itself.”

Read my Touchstone interview with Rodney Stark here.

I regularly write about the Fathers in Touchstone. You’ll find some of that work by searching Touchstone’s archive here. (Just plug in my last name: Aquilina.)

Subscribe to Touchstone here.

6 thoughts on “The Stark Truth

  1. I really enjoy Stark’s book, and appreciate your interview with him. Thanks for posting it!

  2. Michael:
    I have Rodeny,s book on my amazon wishlist, I should encourage my family and friends to buy it for me :)
    Your post brings up many interesting questions but I’ll limit myself to 2
    1) How come the merchants converted and not the poor? It,s counterintuitive but fascinating
    2) How did Christian marriage transform Roman law? I remember reading Alan Watson’s book on the subject and quite honestly women were nothing more than bargining chips and property to be traded (I suspect that all herder/breeder cultures are similar and the IndoEuropean group is merely a clearer example.

  3. I don’t think Stark says that the poor didn’t convert. He’s just asserting that the merchants did. Ever since Engels, many sociologists have examined the history of early Christianity in terms of class struggle: the church was a refuge for the poor who were oppressed by the rich. Stark is upsetting that apple cart, and he makes a very good case. He also demonstrates very persuasively that women had greater freedom in terms of vocational discernment, marital choice, and self-determination. One remarkable set of data he draws from the ages at which females married. Stark considers all the women we know about from late antiquity — from histories, letters, tombstones, censuses, etc. — and notes that pagan girls tended to be married off at an average age of 11-12, and that these marriages were consummated. Christians tended to marry at around 18, and women were usually given rights of refusal on the guy. Christians seem also to have been more liberal in the education of women.

  4. Michael:
    Thansk for the clarification. I’m unsurprised that Christian women had much more choice. But I was unaware that they married at 18. Obviously at that age, they could carry babies to terms and were healthier, more mature (physically and emoitionally) as well as better prepared for the rigours of married life.
    It’s interesting to contrast that with Islam which appears to have preserved the classical world’s gender roles. Moslem women either are married or unmarried; doctor, teacher, mom and wife. There’s no outlet for those who chose not to marry or don’t seem inclined.

    OK why did early Christian women marry at 18? Was this a social convention among Christians or prudential sense gained from real life experience?


  5. Why did early Christian women marry at 18? I don’t know that it was a norm. I think it’s an average.

  6. Dr Aquilina:
    Though I am glad for Stark’s work from a sociological perspective, I would add the following caveat: Stark at no point takes the supernatural into consideration.
    Nor should he as a sociologist. But the Christian reader should supplement Stark with the lives of those saints known for converting many people for a fuller picture.
    God bless,

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