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The Development of Christian Society
in Early England


An original article by Tim Bond

As Christianity spread through the Western world, it rarely followed a linear path: different pockets of faith and doctrine were developed by a variety of peoples in an even greater variety of locales. Nowhere is this more evident than in Roman Britain and the era of Anglo-Saxon migrations. In five centuries, English religious culture transformed from one of pagan worship to that of leadership in the Christian world. Controversies included more than merely pagan-Christian dynamics; the Christians were greatly divided, and Christian efforts went through many ebbs before becoming firmly established. One must evaluate the development of both Rome and England to gain an adequate understanding of early English Christianity.

Fifty-five years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar encountered the Druidic religious culture in his invasion of Britain. Although only recently established in Caesar's day, the Druids exerted tremendous influence over British society; they were the priests of the primitive government, and possessed considerable authority as such. In addition to their spiritual duties, Druid priests were responsible for educating the youth, remained immune from military duty and taxes, and presided over civil and criminal legal matters (to the point of deciding controversies among states). They were the expression of both a local government and a community spirituality that were bound to a larger whole. They ruled with an iron fist - decisions by Druid priests were final and irrefutable. Their penalties were swift and severe, with many individual Celts and Britons banished from contact with civilization. Many aspects of Druidic culture surfaced in the formation of Celtic Christianity.

Druidism was a polytheistic cult with a naturist bent: gods and goddesses were believed to inhabit local springs, caves, forests, and mountains, and became the personification of natural objects and events. The entire social structure, both as local community and as loose nation-state, was a caste system, with the Druid priests presiding above all. Caesar viewed them with contempt; he found their brutality and centrality immediately threatening, and wrote of the Druids:

All the Gauls are as a nation much given to superstition, and, therefore, persons afflicted by severe illness or involved in wars and danger either make human sacrifices or vow to do so, and use the Druids as their ministers in these ceremonies. The Germans differ much from the Gauls in these customs. For they have no Druids to preside over their religion.
Druidic paganism was destined to be replaced with the advent of further Roman expeditions into the islands, and finally the full annexation of Britain by Rome. Caesar did little more than establish a foothold on the island; Britain officially became a frontier province of the Empire with the invasion of the emperor Claudius' troops in 43 AD.

The Roman Empire was approaching the height of her power as Britain became her furthest frontier. The Roman army evolved into an institution of social mobility as Britain was romanized in the first and second centuries. Roman legions embarked on a campaign of terror against the Druids, as the latter refused polytheistic Roman religious beliefs, and thus rejected Roman governmental prerogative. Roman religion, much like Druidism, was inherently intertwined with politics. For Britain to be subjugated under the authority of Rome, the rebellious Druids had to be exterminated. The army paved the way for a flourishing Roman culture in southern England by the early second century.

Social conditions in Rome and dissatisfaction with the corrupt Roman government left many peasants in search of a spiritual fulfillment that was lacking in Roman religious institutions. Jews received a high level of tolerance from the state in their religious practices, as long as they maintained loyalty to the empire. The advent of Christianity in the mid-first century, however, developed into a leviathan that eventually strained Roman tolerance. Early Christians were exceedingly zealous in their faith, and as non-Italians gained more important official posts and social status, many of the new breed of landed aristocrats were either tolerant of or converted to Christianity.

Christianity gained a foothold in Britain by the mid-second century, but had yet to gain anything approaching religious supremacy on the island. Early Christian churches were local communal affairs - each board of elders was elected democratically by the community's inhabitants. Early Christians refused to bow before Roman authority as the Jews had previously done, and many were persecuted as enemies of the state (quite similar to the Druidic situation in Britain). Rome would tolerate native religious rites, but would brook no treason. The universality of the empire, however, paved the way for the universality of Christianity, as Christian missionaries traveled easily along Roman roads on evangelistic expeditions.

As Christianity spread throughout the empire, the Roman government found Christian refusals to worship Roman gods and participate in Roman festivals increasingly distressing; Christians endured persecution in the first and second centuries, but on an individualized, local scale.

The third century proved disastrous to the empire: an outbreak of the plague, increasing barbaric invasions from the north, and fifty years of relentless civil war tarnished the image and reputation of Rome. Manpower shortages due to plague sharply decreased trade and commerce. Persians penetrated eastern territories and northern Germanic tribes overran the Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor simultaneously with Frankish incursions in Gaul and Spain. The strong monarchy and "good emperors" of the second century devolved into anarchy under the military regimes of the third century; Roman government was disrupted as any military leader who had enough strength and persuasion could (and did) become emperor. Between 235-284 AD, twenty-two individuals, only two of whom who did not die violently, sat upon the Roman throne.

While the Empire deteriorated, the structure of Christianity gained strength in the third century, as it moved away from the looseness and democratic administration of the first and second centuries. Christianity now appealed to the entire spectrum of society, as the educated and landed aristocracy as well as the peasant and merchant classes, sought a more personal relationship with a deity than was offered by the Roman gods. The role of bishop was crucial to Christian administrative reform: bishops were still chosen by the community in the second century, but assumed more authority as they served as leaders, with presbyters as priests subject to the bishop's control. By the third century, bishops were simply approved by the congregation after being nominated by the clergy, and consecrated in office. The Church had created a hierarchy, a government within a government, which captured the attention of Roman officials. These effects rippled into Britain, but made a lesser impact on the island isolated from events occurring throughout the continental empire.

As Christianity became more organized and gained momentum throughout Roman society, some emperors replied with systematic persecutions. Decius, in 249, was the first to blame the Christians' refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods for the ills befalling the empire. The persecutions were only slightly successful. Emperors in the third century attempted like solutions and were frustrated by lack of enforcement by local officials. Persecutions lasted until the closing years of the reign of Diocletian (284-305), but even he was forced to admit that Christianity had grown in influence to the point that it must, at least, be tolerated.

Roman civilization continued to unravel in the fourth and fifth centuries; Christianity grew ever stronger, poised to supplant the authority of the disintegrating empire. The emperor Constantine (306-337), in the Edict of Milan in 313, granted official tolerance to Christianity and was honored as the first Christian emperor, although he was not baptized until the end of his life. With the exception of the three year reign of Julian (360-363), all subsequent emperors claimed Christianity as their religion. In the reign of Theodosius "the Great" (378-395), Christianity was made the official state religion. Christians in official posts quickly used their new found influence to outlaw pagan practices, such as ritual sacrifice; pagan temples, idols, and altars were destroyed as well. Some degree of Eastern mysticism and aristocratic philosophy remained for several decades, but Christianity had, in fact, triumphed.

The Roman empire was split in half once again (as it was under Diocletian's reforms) in 364 by brother-emperors Valentinian I and Valens in order to better defend the empire from increasing encroachments. The western portion, under the control of Valentinian I and his successors, lasted barely one century, while the eastern sector survived for seven hundred years. Constant pressure from northern barbarians crippled the western empire; the Huns invaded Italy and Germanic tribes sacked Rome twice by the mid-fifth century. In 476, the western empire was extinguished - Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Odavacar, a Germanic chieftain. The eastern empire continued in the new capitol city of Constantinople (ancient Byzantium), but was gradually transformed from Roman to Byzantine in nature.

Church structure underwent further expansion as Christianity grew in the fourth and fifth centuries; bishops became crucial to Church administration. The position of bishop evolved from the president or chief priest of each Christian community, as these high-level priests assumed administrative functions within the growing communities. At first, bishops' duties included administering the sacraments of baptism and communion, but as the bishops' administrative areas increased, these duties fell on priests. The primary concern for priests was the parish. Each major city of the empire came to have its own bishop and became known as a bishopric, approximately equal in size to a Roman city-state.

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