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.”
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.)