164 Rodney Stark’s Church History

For several decades Rodney Stark, currently a sociology professor at Baylor University, devoted himself to the sociology of religion.  But he was always “a history buff,” and 20 years ago, he read Wayne Meeks’s The First Urban Christians.  Thus began, somewhat as an avocation, his reading widely in Church history.  With an academic outsider’s perspective, he began asking different questions and taking different approaches to the subject, leading to the publication of highly readable and scintillating works such as The Rise of Christianity:  How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, c. 1996; San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco reprint, 1997).  In general, the book seeks “to reconstruct the rise of Christianity in order to explain why it happened” (p. 3).

But the book is not a sustained chronological narrative.  Rather, each of its10 chapters stands alone–a collection of essays providing an analysis of something that strikes Stark as significant.  In chapter one he considers “Conversion and Christian Growth,” seeking to understand how the120 Christians at Pentecost launched a movement that literally won the world for Christ.  The data indicate the Early Church grew at the rate of “40 percent per decade” for several centuries (p. 6).  This is virtually the same growth rate enjoyed by the Mormons for the past century, and at that rate there would have been only 7,530 Christians by the year 100 A.D., and some 40,000 by 150.  Thereafter, as anyone understanding compound interest understands, the numbers dramatically increased and the Roman Empire was “Christian” mid-way through the fourth century.

In chapter two Stark discounts the popular notion that “Christianity was a movement of the dispossessed.”  Friedrich Engels championed this view, arguing that it was a “‘religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights'” (p. 29).  Many historians–and the multitudes of scholars influenced by Ernst Troeltsch–widely embraced such Marxist thinking.  “By the 1930s this view of Christian origins was largely unchallenged” (p. 29), and legions of professors still repeat the litany.  But, Stark insists, it must be discarded because it’s utterly untrue.  Today “a consensus has developed among New Testament historians that Christianity was based in the middle and upper classes” (p. 31).  Aristocrats and wealthy believers, scholars and highly educated folks, were quite prominent in the Early Church.  This squares with current sociological evidence regarding religious sects and cults, which almost never thrive among the poor and dispossessed.  Movements such as the Mormons and Moonies appeal to the well educated and prosperous.  So, Stark argues, it makes sense to envision the Early Christians as appealing to the same social strata.

In the next chapter Stark argues that converted Jews were an enduring Christian constituency.  He thinks that  “not only was it the Jews of the diaspora who provided the initial basis for church growth during the first and early second centuries, but that Jews continued as a significant source of Christian converts until at least as late as the fourth century and that Jewish Christianity was still significant in the fifth century” (p. 49).   There were, of course, far more Jews of the diaspora than Jews living in Palestine.  Many of these Jews had so lost their Hebrew roots that a Greek translation of the Scriptures (the Septuagint) had become necessary.  Among these Hellenized Jews the Christians found a fertile field for the Gospel.  “If we examine the marginality of the Hellenized Jews, torn between two cultures, we may note how Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them” (p. 59).

Further contributing to Church growth were epidemics, cited by Church Fathers such as Cyprian and Eusebius as factors in drawing converts to a community that cared for the sick and dying as well as offered the promise of resurrection and eternal life.   From 165-180 A.D., an epidemic (probably smallpox) decimated the Roman Empire, reducing the population by at least one-fourth.  In 251 another empire-wide epidemic (probably measles) raged.  Such horrendous crises precipitate religious questioning–as  the response of American Indians to similar catastrophes document.  Importantly, for the Church in the ancient world, while pagans fled the scene of suffering Christians came alongside those who were ill, choosing to risk death rather than desert those in need.  They also cared for the poor, the widows and orphans, demonstrating a qualitatively different kind of religious faith.  Consequently, multitudes of disillusioned pagans turned to the Christian way.

Women too were drawn to the Early Church, where they were more highly revered than in the Greco-Roman world.  This has long been recognized, but Stark seeks “to link the increased power and privileged of Christian women to a very major shift in sex ratios.  I demonstrate that an initial shift in sex ratios resulted from Christian doctrines prohibiting infanticide and abortion; I then show how the initial shift would have been amplified by a subsequent tendency to over recruit women” (p. 95).  Due to the exposure of female babies–in many families only one baby girl was allowed to live–there were significantly more men than women in the first and second centuries.  This meant, of course, a dramatic depopulation trend!  Christians, conversely, with their high view of marriage and fidelity, considered children a blessing and encouraged large families as well as opposed abortion (thus saving the lives of many women who would have died as a result of this dangerous procedure).  Contrary to some feminist readings of the documents, Stark insists that women were drawn to the Church not because it offered them places of political status and power but because Christians insisted that marriage is sacred, life is sacred, and children are to be treasured.

Finally, Stark proposes a thesis in his final chapter that explains why women and others were drawn to the Church: “Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations” (p. 211).  Love and mercy, rooted in the Christian understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, were not celebrated by pagans, but they formed the foundations for Christianity.  Nor did pagans endorse the sanctity of life.  But “above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death” (p. 214).

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In One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, c. 2001), Stark pursues the thesis that monotheism is the most important “innovation” in history.  He makes a clear distinction between “godless religions,” such as Buddhism and Taoism, and “godly religions” such as Judaism and Christianity.  “Godless religions” may assume a distant, unknowable deity of some sort, but they appeal to an intellectual elite of monks and philosophers.  “I am comfortable,” he says, “with the claim that Taoism, for example, is a religion, but it seems unwise to identify the Tao as a God.  Indeed, for centuries sophisticated devotees of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism have claimed that theirs are Godless religions.  I agree” (p. 10).  Remarkably different, however, are the “godly religions,” that proclaim the reality of the “one true God” who has revealed Himself and has a clear plan for mankind, and they have proved historically momentous.

Primitive cultures–as ably documented by Andrew Lang, Paul Radin and Wilhelm Schmidt–often believed in “High Gods” remarkably akin to monotheism, but only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam embraced a coherent vision of God’s nature and of His will for the “chosen” people.  Monotheists call for conversion, and “to convert is to newly form an exclusive commitment to a God” (p. 50).  Monotheists, uniquely, were missionaries.  Though no longer so, Judaism, in the Ancient World, was known as a “missionizing faith” (p. 52), a fact noted by Max Weber, who credited the success of Jewish proselytism to “‘the purity of the ethic and the power of the conception of God'” (p. 59).  In turn, Christians so successfully spread their faith that within 300 years “more than half of the population of the empire (perhaps as many as thirty-three million people) had become Christians.  More recently, of course, missionaries have taken the Gospel almost literally to the uttermost parts of the earth.

By definition missionaries are true believers!  Clergy in established churches easily lose their evangelistic zeal, and broad-minded “liberals” during the past century (with their focus on tolerance and pluralism) quickly abandoned evangelism of any sort.  Indeed, “churchmen who no longer believed in One True God” lost any reason “for attempting to convert non-Christians” (p. 99).   Skeptical churchmen, who no longer believed “in anything more Godly than an essence, began to express doubts as to whether there was any theological or moral basis for attempting to convert non-Christians” (p. 99).  Following WWI, American liberals rejected the notion of God “as an aware, conscious, concerned, active being” and anticipated Paul Tillich’s hypothetical “God as a psychological construct, the ‘ground of our being'” (p. 100).  Rather that seeking “converts,” liberal Christians engaged in various forms of humanitarian “service,” endeavors which enlist few life-long vocations and attract few converts.

True believers seeking converts cannot but engage in religious conflicts, because “particularism, the belief that a given religion is the is the only true religion is inherent in monotheism” (p. 116), and Stark details some of the darker moments of monotheism–persecution of the Jews by both Muslims and Christians at various times, the Crusades, the 30 Years War.  This same particularism also explains the powerful persistence of the monotheistic religions.  Amazingly, however, as the last chapter–”God’s Grace: Pluralism and Civility”–shows, believers have lately learned to peacefully co-exist.  “Adam Smith’s great insight about social life is that cooperative and socially beneficial outcomes can result from each individual human’s acting to maximize his or her selfish interests” (p. 221).  Such seems true in today’s religious world.  Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, have found “that people can both make common cause within the conventions of religious civility and retain full commitment to a particularistic umbrella” (p. 248).

Ironically, persecution and intolerance now distinguish secularists rather than religionists!  Deistic clergy fulminate against despised “fundamentalists,” and “a new study has demonstrated that the only significant form of religious prejudice in America is ‘Anti-Fundamentalism,’ and it is concentrated among highly educated people without an active religious affiliation” (p. 256).

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In a companion volume to One True God, Rodney Stark has written For the Gloryof God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, c. 2003).  Four lengthy chapters (each nearly 100 pp. long) focus on the four topics listed in the book’s subtitle.  And in each one Stark tries to rectify the historical record, duly crediting Christians for their contributions to Western Civilization.  Though he acknowledges his debt to historians’ researches, he admits to being disillusioned by their biases.  He was startled by many of their anti-Christian and (especially) anti-Catholic comments.  “Far more pernicious, however,” he says, “are the many silences and omissions that distort scholarly comprehension of important matters” (p. 13).  To shed light on what really happened motivates this study.

For 2000 years the Christian Church has been renewed by continuous reformations, though Stark focuses almost singularly upon the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of these movements were “sectarian” in nature and, like the early Christians, led by “privileged” rebels such as Peter Waldo, John Wyclif, Jan Hus, and Martin Luther.  Almost never were they the “revolts of the poor” so lionized by Marxist propagandists.  Reformers sincerely sought “God’s Truth.”  Theology, not economics, motivated them, though the success of their movements was powerfully shaped by various cultural factors.  Those that truly mattered, Stark says, were three: 1) Catholic weaknesses in lands that turned Protestant; 2) government response–autocratic regimes sustained Catholicism in countries like Spain; (3 monarchs’ “self-interest,” obviously determinative in Luther’s Saxony and Henry VIII’s England, but crucial wherever Protestantism prevailed.

Stark begins his second chapter, “God’s Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science,” with a long quotation from Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, the popular source of much misinformation such as the “fact” that Columbus “discovered” that the earth is spherical.  White, as well as fellow atheists such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, simply falsify the historical record so as to advance their philosophical agenda.  In fact, Stark argues “not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science” (p. 123).  This is not “news” to those acquainted with the work of Stanley Jaki and Alfred North Whitehead (who in 1925 stated that science developed in tandem with Medieval theology), but it certainly challenges conventional textbook presentations.  It cannot be too strongly stated that Christianity uniquely nourished science, whereas neither the Greeks nor the Chinese, neither the Maya nor the Muslims encouraged scientific development.  And many scientists today are strong Christians!  Indeed, “professional scientist have remained about as religious as most everyone else, and far more religious than their academic colleagues in the arts and social sciences” (p. 124).  Stark illustrates his case with an impressive list of great Christian scientists, past and present.

Still more:  neither the “Dark Ages” nor the “Scientific Revolution” is a historically accurate label, for the latter was very much a continuation of the former.  Significant scholarly, and scientific, work took place during the Medieval era, a time of “‘precise definition and meticulous reasoning, that is to say, clarity'” as Alfred Crosby insisted (p. 135).  “Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension” (p. 147).  Thus St. Albert the Great was a great scientist in the 13th century–and probably a much better thinker than was Nicholas Copernicus in the 16th!  The greatest scientist of the 18th century, Isaac Newton, devoted inordinate time (and a million written words) to biblical study and speculation.  His private letters “ridiculed the idea that the world could be explained in impersonal, mechanical terms” (p. 168).  According to John Maynard Keynes, who purchased a collection of his manuscripts, Newton “‘regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty'” (p. 172).

Newton’s approach to the universe, however, was scuttled by Charles Darwin and his epigones.  In Stark’s judgment, “the battle over evolution is not an example of how ‘heroic’ scientists have withstood the relentless persecuting of religious ‘fanatics.’  Rather, from the very start it has primarily been an attack on religion by militant atheists who wrap themselves in the mantle of science in an effort to refute all religious claims concerning a Creator–an effort that has also often attempted to suppress all scientific criticism of Darwin’s work” (p. 176).  The theory of evolution through natural selection has not really explained the origin of species, though a great deal of rhetorical disingenuity disguises that fact.  For example:  millions of fossils have been unearthed during the past century, “but the facts are unchanged.  The links are still missing; species appear suddenly and then remain relatively unchanged” (p. 180).  Thus great thinkers, such as Karl Popper, have “suggested that the standard version of evolution even falls short of being a scientific theory” (p. 191)

Yet the Darwinian faithful retained their fervor and Popper was assailed for his obtuseness!  What Stark labels “the Darwinian Crusade” has been propelled by “activists on behalf of socialism and atheism” (p. 185).  Alfred Russel Wallace shared Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis and declared that it unveiled “the coming of that biological paragon of selflessness, ‘socialist man'” (p,. 186).  In Darwin’s library one finds “a first edition of Das Kapital, inscribed to ‘Mr. Charles Darwin.  On the part of his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, London 16 June 1873).’  More than a decade before, when he read The Origin, Marx wrote to Engels that Darwin had provided the necessary biological basis for socialism” (p. 186).  Thomas Henry Huxley’s passionate commitment to Darwinian evolution was deeply rooted in his anti-Christian hostility.  Ideology and emotion, not objectivity, dominates Darwinism!

Stark’s third chapter is entitled:  “God’s Enemies: Explaining the European Witch-Hunts.”  Careful calculations, he insists, indicate that during the witch-hunting era (1450-1750), “in the whole of Europe it is very unlikely that more than 100,000 people died as ‘witches'” (p. 203).  Though radical feminists and anti-Christian historians often toss around numbers in the millions, they are simply venting their feelings and prejudices rather than dealing with the evidence.  Stark suggests that the confluence of satanism, magic, and political developments in the Protestant Reformation best explain the outbreak of witch-hunts.  They rarely occurred in Catholic lands, and they abruptly ended in the 18th century.  Stark’s meticulous research, and his country-by-country tabulations, persuasively discount many of the irresponsible textbook generalizations without defending the irrational frenzy underlying the killing.

“God’s Justice: The Sin of Slavery,” the book’s last chapter, argues that Christians, virtually alone among earth’s peoples, have condemned and eliminated a universal practice (evident in American Indian and African tribal societies as well as Greece and Rome, endorsed by Mohammed as well as Aristotle).  Apart from the Christian world, slavery has been taken for granted, much like the stars’ placement in the heavens.  But, Stark says, “Just as science arose only once, so, too, did effective moral opposition to slavery.  Christian theology was essential to both” (p. 291).  Certainly early Christians, such as St. Paul, “condoned slavery,” but “only in Christianity did the idea develop that slavery was sinful and must be abolished” (p. 291).  Rather than being abruptly abolished, however, it simply faded away, so that in the Medieval World it had disappeared and Thomas Aquinas branded it sinful in the 13th century.

The conquest and colonization of the New World, of course, revived the institution of chattel slavery.  But in Catholic lands it was mitigated somewhat by theological constraints, as is evident in the career of Bartholomew de Las Casas.  And in Protestant lands, by the 18th century, abolitionists began to question its legitimacy.   Revivalists such as John Wesley in the 18th and Charles G. Finney in the 19th century (not “Enlightenment” philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire)  opposed it.  And ultimately, as “Robert William Fogel put it so well, the death of slavery was ‘a political execution of an immoral system at its peak of economic success, incited by [people] ablaze with moral fervor.'” (p. 365)

” Precisely!” Stark says, in his final sentence.  ” Moral fervor is the fundamental topic of this entire book: the potent capacity of monotheism, and especially Christianity, to activate extraordinary episodes of faith that have shaped Western civilization” (p. 365).

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