Stark's "The triumph of Christianity": review and notes

Rodney Stark, The triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus movement became the world's largest religion (HarperOne 2011)


This post is a review of Rodney Stark’s The triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus movement became the worlds largest religion, along with my personal notes on each chapter.

Stark’s title sounds decidedly triumphalist, but the book isn’t. One could infer from his title that the author is an evangelical Christian. Not so, apparently. The Wikipedia cites Stark and Bainbridge’s 1987 A Theory of Religion, where the authors describe themselves as "personally incapable of religious faith". In a 2007 interview after he accepted appointment at Baylor University (a Baptist institution), Stark (born 1934) said that he is an "independent Christian" and he has "always been a ‘cultural’ Christian … strongly committed to Western Civilization." This meshes with his perspective on the history of Christianity: sympathetic, yet dispassionate enough to challenge a number of preconceptions about the church’s history, sometimes showing it in a worse (but sometimes in a better) light than traditional perspectives.

The book is not a full history of Christianity, but an attempt to understand why an originally Jewish sect has become the world's largest religion. It is a sociologist’s view of Christian history, less miraculous and more ordinary than the title implies. Stark is a sociologist, and several sociological themes surface at various points in the book.

One is that a religion gains adherents not through dramatic events but through the evangelisation of relatives, friends and neighbours. Stark believes this is sufficient to account for the early spread of Christianity (Ch 9).

A second theme is that a monopoly religion in any society eventually becomes lazy and lax, leading to opposition from religiously more intense sects, as happened to the Roman state religion, to Judaism under Hellenised high priests in the Second Temple period, and to Christianity after Constantine (Ch 17).

Another theme is that, contrary to common belief, much of Europe has never been truly christianised, giving the lie to the claim that Christianity is on the wane in Europe (Chs 11, 15 and 21).

It is customary in the historical disciplines to distinguish between primary texts and secondary texts. Secondary texts are the papers and books that historians write. Primary texts are generally texts from the time the historian is writing about or shortly after, sources on which the historian's analysis and secondary narrative are based. A good secondary text says clearly (often in footnotes) what the historian's primary sources are. Stark footnotes his sources meticulously, but, with the exception of his statistical presentations, these are largely secondary sources rather than primary. This is perhaps inevitable in a work that covers so much ground. Sometimes a primary source is quoted in the text, but when one goes to the footnote it gives a reference to a secondary source rather than to the primary source of the quote. This is irksome, as it makes it more difficult for the reader to check the quote in its original context, and one wonders whether Stark himself has checked it (see footnote 1 for an example). More seriously, though, Stark sometimes rejects the accepted version of a piece of Christian history in favour of a new interpretation, but using secondary sources rather than primary, and, at least in this reader's mind, this calls his reinterpretations into question. It is not that I think he is wrong (mostly I would prefer him to be right), but rather that I am not clear how well supported the  reinterpretation is.

Stark’s most challenging rewrite of recent views on Christian history is his view (see Ch 13) below that Christians do not need to apologise for the Crusades. For me, the jury is still out as to whether his account is fair, as his use of secondary sources makes it difficult to assess his verdict without chasing up his secondary texts and then the latter’s primary sources. But this issue is also particularly subject to the reader’s own beliefs and to how s/he thinks one should evaluate deeds done in past cultural contexts. For me, the matter is not as simple as Stark implies.

A claim that surfaces at various points in the book (Chs 11, 15 and 21) is that Christianity was never fully established in Europe, especially away from the Mediterranean coast, and that is therefore false to claim that Europe is undergoing secularisation (Ch 21), as it was never really christianised. I think this misses an important aspect of secularisation. It is very probably true that the level of European christianisation was low, but it is nonetheless clear that Christian values are being replaced by ‘progressive’ beliefs which have their roots in secular humanism and atheism. To what extent progressivism is penetrating the population at large is unclear, but it is certainly gaining ground in the media and on the political stage. Stark would perhaps respond that this is happening in precisely those countries where Christianity had never been firmly established because lazy state churches have been dominant, but progressivism is nonetheless a phenomenon dating from the European Enlightenment that aims to displace Christian values. It is thus a form of secularisation.

Chapter-by chapter notes

The extent of the notes on a given chapter is not proportional to the chapter’s length. It reflects the degree to which the chapter’s content caught my interest. Nonetheless, I have attempted to summarise what Stark writes and tried not to interpolate my own opinions, except where indicated.

Part 1: Christmas Eve

Chapter 1: The religious context

Stark believes that too little has been made of the religious context in which Christianity came into being. Roman religion was rather impersonal and unemotional. There were no congregations and one simply performed one's rituals by oneself. In this context, oriental religions that focused on a single deity, that encouraged emotional expression, and that involved congregational meetings had already attracted a fair number of followers. These religions, including Judaism, tended to be persecuted by the state, because their congregations were perceived as a threat.

Chapter 2: Many Judaisms

Although Judaism was the most developed monotheism in Roman Empire, it was remarkably pluralistic, with many groups and a large number of scholars, teachers, prophets, and terrorists. There were about 9 million Jews in an empire with a population of 60 million, that is, around 15% of the Roman Empire was Jewish. Many of these Jews were hellenised, living in the 29 Greek cities established by Alexander the Great in the Palestine as well as elsewhere in the Empire. This was the diaspora. There was also a large settlement of Jews in Babylon and in other cities east of Jerusalem. Some Jewish groups required strict obedience of the law, while others were lax. Some collaborated with the Romans, whilst others plotted rebellion and awaited the return of the Messiah who would reestablish Israel as an independent power. There was much conflict among these groups.

The history of Palestine in the centuries before Jesus' birth had been turbulent. Following Alexander's conquest of entire East, Palestine became part of the Ptolemaic Egypt. Hellenised Jews soon became dominant and won control of the high priesthood under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BC), ruler of the Seleucid Empire. When the conflict broke out between Jewish factions over the appointment of the high priest, Antiochus desecrated the Temple, imposed paganism and initiated a purge of the Jews. This led to the Maccabean revolt and Maccabean rule until 63 BC, when Palestine came under Roman rule.

Herod was a non-Jewish upstart whom the Romans had made king. He went through 10 wives, progressively disinheriting the children of his previous wives, and had at least three of his sons killed, so his decree that all children under two in Bethlehem should be killed in order to eliminate a competitor was entirely in character.

By the time Jesus was born the priesthood was in the hands of the Sadducees, Jewish nobles with a secularised theology which taught that God's rewards came in this life and that laws due to Jewish oral tradition were not binding. They denied the immortality if the soul. The Pharisees, however, were the majority sect, opposed to these positions. They had established the institution of the synagogue. Opposed to both were a number of high-intensity small sects, like the Essenes, who withdrew from mainstream society, and the Zealots, nationalists who stood for the overthrow of Roman rule.  The most extreme were the Sicarii, so called because the used a sica, a small dagger hidden in their clothing, to assassinate Jews who colluded with the Romans. Their activities led to the great revolt that culminated in the destruction if the Temple in 70 AD and the martyrdom of about a thousand Sicarii at Masada in 73 AD.

A constant theme of Judaism had been that one day the Messiah (Aramaic Meshiah 'anointed one') would come and would usher in an age of perfect happiness in which Jewish greatness would be restored and God's justice would prevail. Beyond this, however, there was no consistent or agreed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah but rather a large collection of confused, complicated and conflicting notions. One point of agreement, though, was that his would be a worldly Kingdom. This is why many Jews rejected Jesus' claim to Messiahship.

Part 2: Christianizing the Empire

Chapter 3: Jesus and the Jesus movement

Stark asks whether the Gospels can be trusted, and concludes on the basis of known historical events they mention that they can. Jesus was probably born in 6 BC (and no later than 4 BC, the end of Herod's reign). The gospels tell us little about Jesus's life before his ministry, but it seems very likely that he was literate and had received rabbinical training. Hence he was addressed as Rabbi 'teacher'. Most of Jesus' ministry took place in Galilee, and he appears to have been based in Capernaum. The thought that Jesus was a carpenter comes from Mark 6:2-3. But contrary to tradition, his family may have been fairly well off. In Chapter 5, Stark comments on the verse, 'For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich,' (2 Cor 8:9). It is usually assumed that Paul is referring to spiritual wealth, but this interpretation is compromised by the fact that he is asking if the Corinthians to contribute money. It is also significant that Jesus often used examples involving investment, borrowing, servants and tenants, and inheritance.  Jesus' disciples were certainly not all poor men: James and John owned a fishing boat and Peter and Andrew were partners with them (Luke 5:10). Mark's mother owned a house in Jerusalem that later served as a house church(Acts 12:12). Matthew was a tax collector.

Little is known about Christianity in its first century. Tacitus, the only independent report of Jesus' death, is very brief. We know that Jesus' brother James headed the Jerusalem church until his murder in 62 (according to Josephus), and that Paul accepted his authority. We also know that powerful Jews persecuted the Jesus movement (e.g. Stephen's death by stoning, Paul's acts of persecution; Acts 8:1-3). In the late 60s around the time of the First Jewish Revolt the Christian leadership left Jerusalem and probably settled in Pella (east of the Jordan, in the Decapolis), whence they probably played a role in the rapid christianising of the East, especially of Syria and Persia. Paul also worked in the east after his conversion. Despite the Acts and Paul's letters, we also know little about the christianisation of the West. Stark thinks this is basically because Christianity spread through the conversion of relatives, friends and neighbours. This claim accords with the fact that Paul met with Christian groups in their homes, and that his journeys include little talk of dramatic conversions.

Chapter 4: Missions to the Jews and the Gentiles

Stark attributes the initial success of Christianity to conversions among diaspora Jews, who were Hellenised and only weakly observant. Paul was sent to Damascus to punish Jewish converts, and our earliest knowledge of Christians in Rome comes from disorders within the Jewish community over 'Chrestus'. Paul's missionary journeys mostly involved preaching to Jewish communities, not surprisingly, as this is where his social networks must have been. It is simply not true that the mission to the Jews failed. It was only after pagans were permitted to become Christians without first becoming Jews that Christianity spread among the Gentiles. At first these Gentiles were probably so-called God-fearers, non-Jews who had found themselves attracted to Jewish monotheism. In any case, Christianity offered a degree of apparent cultural continuity with paganism: blood sacrifice, virgin birth, death giving rise to life.

This analysis is consistent with Stark's (2006) own earlier statistical research showing that Graeco-Roman cities with a large Jewish community had Christian congregations far sooner then other cities.

Chapter 5: Christianity and privilege

There is a tradition that Christianity first spread amongst the poorest and least privileged members of society, but this is incorrect. New religious movements are typically launched by the privileged classes. Buddha was a prince, Zoroaster converted a king and his court. The Cathars included a number of nobles. Waldo, founder of the Waldensians, was a rich merchant from Lyon. Luther's Reformation was supported by princes and merchants. Many mediaeval Roman Catholic saints were from the nobility. The founders of Methodism were young men of privilege. it is the privileged to have time to act on their spiritual dissatisfaction.

When Paul says that 'not many of you were powerful, not many were noble birth' (1 Cor 1:26), there is a clear implication but some were powerful or of noble birth. Given the small number of people in the Roman Empire who were of noble birth, it is remarkable that any Christians were nobles. Certainly a number of the people whom Jesus attracted were privileged: Zacchaeus (A tax collector), Jairus (a synagogue leader), the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea, Joanna (wife of Herod Antipas' steward; Luke 8:3).

Paul wrote the Jewish Greek of the Septuagint, and similarly moved among the upper classes, attracting upper class women in particular. When he arrived in a new city Paul typically stayed in a wealthy household and conducted his mission from there. In 1 Timothy, Paul instructs Timothy on what to preach to the wealthy members of his congregation (2:9, 6:17-18). Historical sources also tell us that there were privileged people among the Christians of Rome in the late first century and in various parts of the Empire in the second century.

Chapter 6: Misery and mercy

Ancient cities were miserable places, with large numbers of people crammed into small spaces. Crime rates were high. Conditions were filthy: there was no soap, and the open ditches running along streets often served as sewers which emptied into the river. Disease and physical afflictions were rife. In the midst of this, ‘Christianity provided an island if mercy and security’ (p112). Christians are enjoined to look after each other and after others (Matt 25:35-36, 40; James 2:15–17), but in the pagan world mercy was regarded as pathological. Caring for others was made possible by the fact that Christianity was a congregational religion (cf Ch 1). A congregation had deacons whose primary task was to support its weaker and needier members.

In 165 an epidemic, perhaps smallpox, swept through the Empire. Those who could flee the cities did, but Christians stayed and cared for the sick, at risk to their own lives. As a result, Christians were more likely to survive, and this must also have led to conversions. A study of ancient tombstones indicates that Christians lived longer than their pagan neighbours.

Chapter 7: Appeals to women

The evidence of the epistles themselves indicates that the early church had a disproportionate number of women in its membership, specially upper-class women, an inference supported by various kinds of historical evidence.  Stark attributes this to two factors: first, women are generally more religious, and second, Christianity was especially attractive to women. 'Women in the early Christian communities were considerably better off than their pagan or even Jewish counterparts.' (p122),

Traditional perceptions of the role of women in the early church are based on a statement attributed to Paul: ‘The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.' (1 Cor 14:34). This appears to be a later insertion, as Paul clearly approved of women in leadership (cf Rom 16:1-2) and there is ample historical evidence of women in leadership in the first few centuries,

There was a shortage of women in the ancient world because of the pagan practice of female infanticide. As a result the church grew faster than other groups, as it practised neither infanticide nor abortion. Non-Christian men took Christian wives and then became Christians themselves, as did their children,

Chapter 8: Persecution and commitment

There were sporadic persecutions of Christians in various parts of the Empire, starting with Nero's persecution, which began in 64. Things worsened when Decius became emperor in 249. Invaders were making incursions across the Empire’s borders and the economy was in a mess. Decius decided that this was due to impiety, and required everyone to sacrifice to the gods. Christians who refused were killed. Jews were spared because Decius respected their adherence to their ancestral faith, but was contemptuous of Christians who had in his view left theirs. Eusebius notes that some Christians, not surprisingly, did sacrifice under the threat of torture. The persecution continued under Valerian. but stopped under his son Gallienus, whose wife was a Christian.

The 'Great Persecution' of 303 began under Diocletian (whose wife and daughter were Christians), but was probably initiated by Galerius, who was to succeed Diocletian, but was already rising to power. Galerius was a 'fanatical pagan' who demanded that Christians pay for the ills that had befallen the Empire. Prominent Christians were rounded up and executed. Galerius revoked his anti-Christian decrees on his deathbed in 311. Stark concludes that, although thousands were killed, this made only a small dent in the  Christian population, as by 303 10 percent of the Empire’s population were Christians.

Stark discusses motivations for martyrdom. He mentions that it sometimes brought a degree of glory to the martyr before their death, but he ends with a quote from Eusebius, who wrote that martyrs 'accounted a horrible death more precious than a fleeting life ...' (p152).

Chapter 9: Assessing Christian growth

Christian historians have attributed very high growth rates to the early church, but Stark disagrees with them. He uses various pieces of evidence to estimate a growth rate for the western church between 40 and 350 AD of 3.4%, and sketches certain tendencies. Christianity’s early growth was in cities, not in the countryside. Churches in cities nearer Jerusalem and/or with a port were likely to have a Christian community earlier than those further away or with no port. Growth was more rapid in Hellenic than in Roman cities. Cities with temples to other monotheistic religions (Cybele or Isis) were likely to have a church earlier than those without.

The church grew faster in larger cities, and fastest in the largest, namely Rome, where Stark estimates that 66% of the population were Christians by 300 AD.

There is almost no evidence about the growth of the eastern church, but Stark assumes it was more rapid than that of the western church.

Part 3: Consolidating Christian Europe

Chapter 10: Constantine’s very mixed blessings

In Stark’s view Constantine’s legacy was a Christian church that was rich, powerful and intolerant, putting an end to a flourishing Christian diversity and paving the way for lazy leadership.

Recent scholarship says that Constantine’s conversion was real. He did delay his baptism until shortly before his death, but this was common practice, as it was believed that baptism washed away sins, so the later it occurred the better, leaving less time for new sins to pile up. [This indicates that the church, at least in Rome, had already moved away from its early theological roots and was becoming a rather formal institution—MR] Why did Constantine appeal to the Christian God before the battle at Milvian Bridge in 312? Stark suggests it was because Christianity was by this time the majority religion in Rome (cf Ch 9), and because his mother Helena had become a Christian.

Before Constantine Christians had tended to meet in homes, or converted private dwellings, but Constantine literally ‘built’ the church’, building churches across the Empire. Large churches were modelled on imperial throne halls. One was the original St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Another was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Another the basilica in Trier. Yet others where in his new capital, Constantinople. But Constantine’s most significant contribution was to elevate the clergy to status, power and wealth. Contrary to popular belief, he did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, but gave episcopal courts official status, exempted the clergy from taxes and civic duties, and made bishops ‘grandees on a par with the wealthiest senators’ (Duffy 1997:27).

Even before Constantine, there had been disputes and schisms within the church: groups like Marcionites, Montanists, Manichaeists and various gnostic groups were frowned on by the Christian establishment. But Constantine was determined to unite the church and convoked councils in which he expected unanimity, thus sowing the seeds of persecution. Donatus, Bishop of Carthage (consecrated 315, died ca 355), led a group who considered that sacraments administered by clergy who had collaborated with Roman officials during the Great Persecution (cf Ch 6) were invalid. At the Council of Arles the bishops excommunicated Donatus, but this was ignored in Africa. In 317 Constantine sent troops to Carthage to enforce the council’s decision, but the Donatists wouldn’t budge, and the troops were withdrawn in 321. It was St Augustine, bishop of Hippo, who finally called on Roman forces to crush the Donatists.

Arius (Ἄρειος, 250–336) was a Berber priest working in Baucalis, Alexandria, who became leader of the faction that emphasized the Father's divinity over the Son, claiming that the Son had been created by the Father. He was thus an opponent of what would become the dominant Christology, and this made him a primary topic of the First Council of Nicaea, which was convened by Constantine in 325. The Council adopted the formal Nicene Creed as a statement of Orthodox belief, which in its convoluted way explicitly rejects Arianism. Arius’ writings were to be burned.

Ironically, Constantine reserved his most ferocious rhetoric for dissident Christians, not for pagans, who were tolerated during his reign.

Constantine’s Christianity led indirectly to a massacre that the history books usually forget. Shāpūr II became King of Persia at his birth in 309, and after a period of regency ruled until his death in 379. In 337, the year Constantine died, Shāpūr sent troops across the Tigris in an attempt to regain Armenia and Mesopotamia from the Romans. Shāpūr feared that Persian Christians were potential traitors, a fear played on by Zoroastrian priests who told him that Christian bishops were betraying secrets to the Romans. Shāpūr doubled the tax on Christians, but this did not result in the defections he had hoped for, and so on Good Friday 344 Shāpūr had 5 bishops and 100 Christian priests beheaded outside the walls of Sousa, inaugurating a massacre of Christians that lasted several decades, probably resulting in more deaths than in all the Roman persecutions together.

Chapter 11: The demise of paganism

Until recently it was fashionable to assume, following the early Christian historian Eusebius (born around 263, died 339 or 340), that paganism died out quite quickly during the early years of Christianity, but recent scholarship, reexamining the evidence, suggests this is not true. Despite its power, the church did not persecute pagans, and at times deliberately engaged in syncretism in order to bring Christianity to the less educated. Local feast days and celebrations were incorporated into the Christian calendar and the use of spells persisted. As the countryside in much of Europe was never really christianised, bits of pagan practice have hung on into the present, e.g. in English well-dressing ceremonies.

Chapter 12: Islam and the destruction of eastern and north African Christianity

As a result of Islamisation by the end of the fourteenth century only tiny remnants of Christianity remained in the east and in North Africa. Christianity had become ‘a major presence in Syria, Persia, parts of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Turkestan, Armenia, and on into India and even with several outposts in China’ (p199). In 325 55% of the bishops invited to the Council of Nicaea were from the east, which was also home to a number of ‘unorthodox’ sects. As a result of these enormous losses, culminating in the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Christianity became by default a mainly European religion.

Islamisation began with the fall of Syria in 636 and continued until the fall of Sicily and southern Italy in the 9th century. However, Stark rejects the view that Islam spread by immediate forced conversion, and believes that, once established, it spread slowly across the population. He also rejects the view that Islam was tolerant of Christians, pointing out that dhimmitude was a form of subjugation, even though dhimmis sometimes occupied quite elevated positions in society. There were also a number of massacres of Christians at various locations in the east, but relatively little is known about the destruction of eastern Christian communities.

Chapter 13: Europe responds: The case for the Crusades

[This is the longest chapter in the book, and argues against the views of recent Christian historians. I have endeavoured to report what Stark says without imposing my own views, for which see my Introduction above. — MR]

Stark denies the need for Christians to apologise for the Crusades. He writes:
The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. The Crusades are not a blot on the history of Christianity. No apologies are required. (p234)
Those who take an avowedly negative view of the Crusades overlook the fact that the spread of Islam entailed a massive conquest of largely Christian lands (cf Ch 12). In 1009, Muslims had destroyed Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and tried to destroy the alleged tomb itself (cf Ch 10). In the late 11th century the Seljuk Turks, recent concerts to Islam, conquered Asia Minor, and villages along the pilgrimage route began to demand a toll from each pilgrim. The endangerment of Jerusalem and Byzantium had a deep effect on sincere Christians among the upper ranks of society.

The Byzantine emperor wrote to the Count of Flanders asking for western Christians to come to Byzantium’s defence. In response Pope Urban II organised a large gathering near Clermont. France, on 27 November 1095, described what had happened to Christians in the east and called upon the nobility to mobilise to push Islam back. He was also motivated to unite the nobility in a common cause, in order to stop them warring with each other.

Economically, the crusades cost a great deal and brought little in return. The crusaders were not in search of booty. Rather, many of them had killed during previous wars and sought to do penance by responding to the Pope’s call. Significantly, when Pope Alexander II had in 1063 proposed a crusade to drive the Muslims out of Spain, there had been little response, despite the wealth to be gained, Jerusalem, however, had a special significance because it was the most sacred goal of pilgrimage.

Stark reckons that of 130,000 who left for the crusade, perhaps just 15,000 survived to participate in taking Jerusalem after a brief siege on 15 July 1099. The rest had succumbed to privations, fighting and desertions along the way. After this victory four crusader states were created, from north to south with the durations of their existence, the County of Edessa (1098–1149), the Principality of Antioch (1098–1119, then united with Jerusalem), the County of Tripoli (1102–1289) and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099–1291). These were hardly colonies, as they depended on the west for support, and allowed their Muslim citizens to live in peace.

The story that the streets of Jerusalem ran knee-deep in blood is due to Christian chroniclers who wanted to portray a ritual purification of the city, and are at best an exaggeration. Killing the population of a city that had not surrendered and had therefore been besieged was normal mediaeval practice. Much emphasis is placed on the fact that when Saladin retook Jerusalem in 1187 he didn’t kill the population, because he had offered the knights safe conduct in exchange for surrender. This, however, was an exception to his normal butchery of crusader knights. In contrast, the massacre of the population of Antioch in in 1266 by Baybars, Sultan of Egypt, goes unmentioned in many histories.

Stark differs sharply from Karen Armstrong ([1991] 2001), who claims that the Crusades are a direct cause of today’s Middle East conflicts. He writes that even at the time, Muslim chroniclers paid little attention to the Crusades, which they treated as incursions by non-Muslim barbarians. Arabs in any case dismissed them as attacks on their Turkish enemies. Renewed Muslim interest in the Crusades dates only from the 19th century, when Christian Arabs translated French histories into Arabic and created an Arabic term for ‘crusade’. The first Muslim history of the Crusades, by Sayyid Ali al-Hariri, published in 1899, compared modern attacks on Islam to the Crusades. Meanwhile the alleged romance of the Crusades became a popular literary theme in, among others, the novels of Sir Walter Scott (decatholicised by emphasising the conflict between the Knights Templar and the Pope), and this influenced the way that troops in the Middle East were seen in British newspapers and propaganda and from the pulpit. The Ottoman Empire was seen as a decrepit relic, highlighting the backwardness of Islamic culture, which in turn provoked anger among Muslim intellectuals, ‘eventually leading them to focus on the Crusades’ (p233).

Part 4: Medieval currents

Chapter 14: The “Dark Ages” and other mythical eras

Stark argues that the ‘Dark Ages’, from the collapse of the Roman Empire until the mediaeval period, are a myth created by Renaissance and Enlightenment writers seeking to glorify their own eras in relation to the past.

He points out that Roman culture and invention had become stultified, with a fabulously wealthy elite whose excesses bled the rest of the population and removed opportunity for creativity. Creativity reemerged only with the Empire’s collapse.

Thus the ‘Dark Ages’ saw the invention of the water wheel and the windmill, and their amazing spread across Britain and Europe as sources of power. Agriculture was revolutionised by the three-field system whereby one third of productive land was left unplanted each year but continued to be weeded and fertilised. Homes were improved by the invention of the chimney. Spectacles were invented around 1280. The invention of the stirrups and the saddle made cavalry possible. The Franks were able to defeat the Muslim invaders in 732 on the battlefield at Tours because of their cavalry, armed with crossbows. At sea, sailing ships captured the power of the wind.

The roots of modern classical music lie in mediaeval polyphony and harmony, and innovation dating from perhaps the 9th century and supported by the invention of musical notation in the 10th. Modern art and architecture are similarly rooted in the early mediaeval period in their Romanesque and Gothic manifestations. Literature in modern European languages replaced Latin, and the first universities were established by Catholic scholars in Paris and Bologna around 1160 (cf Ch 16).

Capitalism arose not, as Weber claimed, with the Protestant Reformation, but with the commercial activities of large monastic estates, and during the 13th century Christian theologians were forced to rethink traditional doctrines that opposed profit and interest. Slavery was, according to Stark, abolished twice. The first abolition was instituted by the Franks in the 7th and 8th centuries, but had its origins earlier in the extension of the sacraments to slaves and in priestly urging against the enslavement of  Christians.

In the light of these innovations, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment simply represent a continuation of trends initiated during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

Chapter 15: The people’s religion

A further myth is the idea that the Middle Ages were the ‘Age of Faith’. The religious beliefs of the great majority of Europeans—those outside the educated elite—were ‘a hodgepodge of pagan, Christian, and superstitious fragments’. People attended church infrequently, a fact attested in a number of sources from the 13th to the 17th century. Chapels tended to be built by the upper classes for their own use, and there was often no church for the peasantry to attend. The populus was ignorant of Christian doctrine, and neither the Catholic nor, after the Reformation, the Protestant, churches presented a Christian lifestyle that was either appropriate for the majority of the population or attractive to them. Whereas the lifestyle presented by the early church offered a better life (cf Chs 6 and 7), the churches in the Middle Ages and beyond offered nothing to the common person, as Luther lamented in the preface to his 1529 Small Catechism, quoted by Stark (p272).[1] 

The clergy were frequently no better educated than their parishioners, were often dissolute, and lived a lifestyle that offered no example. Only after the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation were clergy training institutions established.

Instead, people went to the ‘wise ones’,who functioned as healers, midwives and purveyors of spells for good weather, seduction and revenge. The mediaeval church tried to cash in on their influences by christianising spells and magical locations like healing springs, wells and shrines, but rejected love and revenge magic. Campaigns against ‘wise ones’, i.e. witches, were motivated by their competition with the church: the concept of the witch as an instrument of Satan was a product of Christian theologising, not of popular mediaeval imagination.

The claim that empty churches in Europe reflect a steep decline in Christian activity is thus wrong. There has never been a high level of Christian faith among the European masses.

Chapter 16: Faith and the scientific ‘revolution’

It follows from Ch 14 that the ‘scientific revolution’ is also a myth created by (mostly Enlightenment) historians, as modern science is the produce of work that started in the ‘Dark Ages’ and continues into the present. Discrediting of the mediaeval Scholastics begins with John Locke’s 1689 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

The idea that Columbus wanted to prove that the earth was round dates from Washington Irwin’s 1828 biography of Columbus. The ‘scientific revolution’ is often said to begin with Copernicus (1473–1543). However, he was not an allegedly obscure genius who discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. He received an excellent education at the universities of Bologna, Padua and Ferrara, where he had acquired the basics that led to the heliocentric model. His contribution was to build on these by providing a mathematical model  (which entailed the error that the planets’ orbits are circular, when in fact they are elliptical, as Kepler later showed).

Mediaeval universities were autonomous, and the Scholastics were committed to advancing knowledge on an empirical basis. [2]  The first known human dissection was performed before a student audience in Bologna in 1315, and the practice soon spread. Contrary to later claims, it did not meet with the church’s disapproval.

It is true, however, that Galileo was called before the Roman inquisition on a charge of teaching heresy. This occurred at a time when the Reformation in northern Europe was attacking the Catholic Church as unfaithful to the Bible, which in turn led to a narrowing of acceptable theological positions. Scientists at the time handled this by insisting (correctly) that what they were putting forward were hypotheses. Pope Urban VIII (served 1623–1644), who had long liked Galileo, suggested to him that he make such a statement in his forthcoming book, published in 1632 as Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems. The two systems were Ptolemy’s (the sun circles the earth) and Copernicus’ (the earth circles the sun). The book took the form of a dialogues between two philosophers and the layman Simplicio, who defends the Ptolemaic system. Galileo did include a statement about hypotheticality, but he put it into the mouth of Simplicio, thereby ridiculing it. The Pope felt betrayed, but protected Galileo from serious punishment (he was condemned to comfortable house arrest). The judgment against Galileo was in any case partly motivated by a misunderstanding, namely that by saying the earth moved, Galileo was defending astrology. Stark notes that the Inquisition ignored many other prominent scientists active in Italy at the time.

It was the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) who in a 1925 lecture at Harvard asserted that science and Christianity had not historically been opposed to each other, but that science had its roots in mediaeval Christianity. The Scholastics were committed to the idea that the universe was created by a rational God, and that there were therefore secrets to be discovered about creation.

Many Christians believe that the Bible is to be understood literally and is inerrant, but it is less commonly recognised that the doctrine of inerrancy is at most two hundred or so years old. From early in the history of Christianity (e.g. Augustine’s Confessions, Origen’s On first principles) it was recognised that the Scripture required interpretation, as God accommodated to the level of comprehension of those with whom he communicated. Calvin asserted that God ‘reveals himself to us according to our rudeness and infirmity’ (Calvin [ca 1555] 1980:52–53) and that the Genesis account of creation was directed at the unlearned. [Stark refers to the account by Benin (1993, ch 7), who comments that Calvin's description of the making of coverings for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21) presents the issue:

Moses here, in a homely style, declares that the Lord had undertaken the labor of making garments for Adam and his wife. It is not indeed proper so to understand his words, as if God had been a furrier, or a servant to sew clothes. Now, it is not credible that skins should have been presented to them by chance; but, since animals had before been destined for their use, being now impelled by a new necessity, they put some to death, in order to cover themselves with their skins, having been divinely directed to adopt this counsel; therefore Moses calls God the Author of it. (Calvin  [1554] 1948, 3:21, 181, cited Benin 1993:192)
Calvin’s explanation of God’s accommodation to humanity is as follows:

Thus, God's constancy shines forth in the fact that he taught the same doctrine to all ages, and has continued to require the same worship of his name that he enjoined from the beginning. In the fact that he has changed the outward form and manner, he does not show himself subject to change. Rather, he has accommodated himself to men's capacity, which is varied and changeable. (Calvin [1559] 1960, Book II, Ch 11, p13, cited Benin 1993:190)
– MR] 

Part 5: Christianity divided

Chapter 17: Two “churches” and the challenge of heresy

An outcome of Constantine’s support of the church (Ch 10) and of the wealth and privilege he bestowed on it was that its senior positions came to be occupied by sons of the aristocracy, many of them ‘immoral, insincere and indolent men’ (p99). Constantine made the church the monopoly religion of the Empire, so that, in line with Stark’s view that monopolies become lazy, it lost its vigour. The church went into terrible decline until the 11th century. Stark calls this ‘the Church of Power’, and contrasts it with the  ‘the Church of Piety’, the part of the church, largely centred on the monasteries, that attempted reform from within and a return to virtue. It was not uncommon for the sons and daughters of nobility to enter a religious order, with the result that the nobility were often more pious than the clergy.

In 1049 the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (1017–1056) placed his cousin Bruno, Bishop of Toul and a strong supporter of the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny, on the papal throne as Leo IX (served 1049–1054). He and several of his successors brought reform to the church, reform which also included the call to the First Crusade (Ch 13). However, the Church of Power regained control at intervals, leading to protest movements that either became encapsulated within the church as religious orders or were brutally persecuted, The persecuted groups included the Cathars and the Waldensians (who still continue), as well as the Prague rebellion of Jan Hus (1372–1415), embraced by the queen and most of the nobility. Hus was given safe conduct to defend his views at a council in Constance, but once there was killed at the stake.

Chapter 18: Luther’s Reformation

The Lutheran Reformation and other reformations around the same time introduced Christian diversity across Europe, but did little to increase the options open to the individual, as in most locations there was still only one church, be it Catholic or Protestant. Typically, these churches remained lazy and did little to increase popular commitment.

Luther’s reform ideas were not new. He recognised himself that Jan Hus had anticipated most of them (cf Ch. 17). Luther was a well educated monk and priest. His order sent him to Rome in 1510, where he witnessed the appalling depravity of the church, but like others in the Church of Piety, he was willing to work for reforms from the inside (cf Ch 17). In 1517 he became so disgusted by the sale of indulgences that he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. They were in Latin and were an invitation to debate. However, they were translated into German and widely circulated and read, and this angered the church. The Pope ordered Luther to Rome, but Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, intervened, and Luther was instead to appear before Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. The latter was interested only in a retraction of the theses. Luther refused, and the cardinal ordered him into seclusion, but friends helped him escape back to Wittenberg. Under Frederick’s protection he wrote tracts against the church’s behaviour and formulated the doctrine that salvation is by faith in Jesus alone, not by good works. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated and ordered to appear before the Imperial Diet in Worms, where he refused to retract his views and was declared an outlaw.

Despite this, numerous German princes supported Luther. One reason for this was that the church is estimated to have owned half Germany’s wealth, paying no taxes itself, but extracting tithes from everyone else. Work by Stark (2003) and by Kim & Pfaff (2012) shows that the 65 or so ‘Free Imperial Cities’ , where the middle classes were in control, were more likely to become protestant, evidently because of the large economic burden imposed on them by the church. Similarly, where the church exercised the most power, local princes were more likely to adopt protestantism.

It has been argued that printing accounts for the spread of the German Reformation, but Kim & Pfaff’s research shows that this has no basis, as towns that had a printing press just as often remained Catholic. Instead they find that the universities attended by the town’s students were more important: if they went to Wittenberg or Basel, the town became protestant; if to Cologne or Louvain, it remained Catholic.

The Council of Trent (1551–1552, 1562–1563) launched the Catholic counter-reformation, ending the sale of church offices, enforcing priestly celibacy, allowing vernacular Bibles, and establishing a network of seminaries to train the priesthood, and putting the Church of Piety firmly in charge for good. This also had a darker side, as the asceticism of the reformed church frowned on business and was intellectually restrictive, giving rise to the false claims that protestantism gave birth to capitalism (cf Ch 14) and to the scientific revolution (cf Ch 16).

Chapter 19: The shocking truth about the Spanish Inquisition

Stark’s ‘shocking truth’ is that the terrible reputation of the Spanish Inquisition for persecution and torture is largely an invention of Dutch and English propagandists during the 17th century. In comparison with secular courts across Europe at the time, the records of the Castile and Aragon Inquisitions show them to have been more enlightened and to have used less torture, and to have surrendered few people to the secular authorities for execution. The inquisitors were more interested in public repentance and reconciliation to the church than in punishment. Their prosecution of witches was less fierce than assumed, as the inquisitors found that the alleged witches generally did not invoke Satan and did not know that they were doing anything wrong.

Chapter 20: Pluralism and American piety

This chapter is devoted to a presentation of Stark’s sociological claim that a church that enjoys a monopoly becomes lazy, whilst churches that are in competition remain more vibrant and attract adherents. The USA provides a major exemplification of this claim, as state churches were abolished at independence, and religious pluralism has flourished ever since. A much larger proportion of the population in America attends a Christian church than in European countries, where, Stark says, attendance figures have always been low (cf Ch 15).

Chapter 21: Secularization: Facts and fantasies

This chapter is devoted to two theses. The first is that, contrary to earlier sociologists’ predictions, religiosity worldwide is not decreasing with modernisation. The exception to the worldwide state of affairs is Europe, where church attendance is low. This leads to the second thesis, following on from Ch 15, namely that Europe, and in particular the northern, protestant, area, has never really been christianised. In other words, it is wrong to talk of ‘secularisation’ in Europe, as the present condition is simply a continuation of the past.

Chapter 22: Globalization

This chapter includes a heavy dose of statistical tables showing the alleged numbers of Christians around the world, and a discussion of their degrees of inaccuracy. However, Stark points out that, even allowing for inaccuracy, there was been a huge increase in Christian numbers worldwide since the massive christianisation of the non-European, non-North American world that started in the 1850s, such that about 40% of the world’s population are Christians of some kind. In much of Africa and Latin America the successes of Protestant missionaries have also spurred the Catholic church to renewed intensity, in line with Stark’s claim that religious pluralism encourages religious activity.

Stark asks the question, Why does Christianity grow? He offers four answers. First, ‘the Son dominates the affective dimension’ (p408): through him Christians are able to have a personal relationship with God and to receive ‘the many experiential confirmations of faith that abound in Christianity’ (p409). Second, Christian scripture is not ‘a compendium of veiled meanings, mysteries and conundrums’: it includes stories that speak directly to people of all ages and all cultural backgrounds. Third, religious pluralism. And last, Christianity is associated with modernity: the West’s success in areas like medicine and technology and the moral foundation of its democracy and economic system also make its religion attractive. In short, Christianity is culturally flexible.

(Stark's) Conclusion

Three events stand out as more crucial than all others in ‘the historical trajectory of the faith’ (p413).
  1. the Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD, when Paul was given authority to convert Gentiles without them also becoming observant Jews (Galations 2:1–10; Acts 15)
  2. Constantine’s conversion, which had the unfortunate effect of imposing orthodoxy on the church and laid the foundations of a lazy and corrupt monopoly.
  3. the Reformations of the 16th century and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which finally reversed the effects of Constantine’s conversion and restored a healthy pluralism to the church.
The Conclusion closes with a set of bullet points that summarise the book.


Armstrong, Karen, [1991) 2001. Holy war: The Crusades and their impact on today’s world. 2nd. edn. New York: Random House.

Benin, Stephen D., 1993. The footprints of God: Divine accommodation in Jewish and Christian thought. New York: State University of New York Press.

Calvin, Jean [1554] 1948. Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, trans. John King. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

— [1559] 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

— [ca 1555] 1980. Sermons on the Ten Commandments. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Duffy, Eamon, 1997. Saints and sinners: A history of Popes. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kim, Hyojoung, and Steven Pfaff, 2012. Structure and dynamics of religious insurgency students and the spread of the Reformation. American Sociological Review 77:188-215.

McLeish, Tom, 2014. Faith and wisdom in science.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parker, Geoffrey, 1992. Success and failure during the first century of the Reformation. Past and Present 136:43–82.

Stark, Rodney, 2003. For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

— , 2006. Cities of God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Whitehead, Alfred North, [1925] 1967. Science and the modern world. New York: Free Press


  • [^1]   This is an instance of citing a secondary rather than a primary source. Stark cites Parker (1992), who cites Luther:
    Hilff lieber Gott, wie manchen iamer habe ich gesehen, das der gemein man doch so gar nichts waiß von der Christlichen lere, sunderlich auff den Dörffern, Und leider viel Pfarherr fast ungeschickt unnd untüchtig sind zu leren, Und sollen sich alle Christen heissen, getaufft sein und der Heiligen Sacrament geniessen, können wider Vater unser noch den Glauben odder Zehen gepot, leben dahin wie das liebe vihe und unvernünfftige sewe, und nu das Euangelion komen ist, dennoch fein gelernt haben alle freyheit meisterlich zu missbrauchen. (Luther's preface to his Kleine Catechismus [Wittenberg, 1529], in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe [Weimar, 1883-], Vol. 30, Part 1, pp265-266)
    Dear God help us, what misery have I seen! The common man, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about Christian doctrine; and indeed many pastors are in effect unfit and incompetent to teach. Yet they are all called Christians, are baptized, and enjoy the holy sacraments — even though they cannot recite either the Lord's Prayer, the Creed or the Commandments. They live just like animals.
    Parker, however, ends with a full stop in the middle of Luther’s sentence. The rest of the sentence is italicised above and reads ‘… and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty in a masterly manner.’

  • [^2]   For more on mediaeval science, see McLeish (2014). My notes on it are here.

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