Growth of the Early Church
It is often the case that long standing beliefs about historical trends are found to be in error. This happens so often that one might argue that it the extreme reverse of this is actually true. That the long standing beliefs about historical events and motivations have it exactly wrong. For example, the BEF approach to trench warfare in WWI was in fact innovative, tactically responsive, and did in fact learn from their mistakes … the reverse of the common notion.
The popular impression of that Christians (and others) have about the growth of Christianity in the first 3 centuries hinges on martyrdom. It is often quoted and said that oppression and violence against a group of that sort causes it to spread and strengthen. However, in class this weekend, I learned that this impression on the growth of Christianity in the first few centuries and the example of the martyrs being a primary inspiration for the movement is wrong.
So the, what did drive Christian growth? Apparently, it was the widows and orphans that were the key. In the first few centuries of the Roman empire and the ancient world in general infanticide was common and the lot a widow was very very hard. It was common for a family that had an infant abandon it on the side of the road. They might hope that slavers might pick it up (and it should be noted the lot of slaves was nowhere near as bad as slavery in the Americas which in turn is nowhere nearly as bad as it is in today in the modern era. Slaves likely had as much or more upward mobility than a wage labourer.) Christians began the practice of collecting these infants and either adopting them or bringing them to orphanages which they established. Who ran these orphanages? Likely it was run by monks and widows (living now in convents) … supported through contributions of Christian parishes and wealthy Christians. It was this example and practice and not the example of martyrs which inspired many to consider and join the Christian faith.
This means that Christian charity not Christian heroism (martyrdom) was a more important driver of Christian expansion in the time of persecution. There are two points to draw from this. First this is not meant to deny the important example of those martyrs of the first centuries or even of today. Second, that martyrdom while convincing others of the depth and solidity of the faith was not (and likely remains not) an important evangelical technique but instead that charity was and still remains the key.
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