The History of Christianity: Meaning, Origin, and Beliefs

Learn more about the history of Christianity and how it has evolved into the multi-denomination religion it is. Find the events and people that brought Jesus’ message to the whole world amid socio-political changes.

They say one needs to look back to his origins so he can succeed in the future. This is true for Christians and for all denominations. Most people wanted to study the history of Christianity to understand the different facets of their faith. 

It is important for Christians to re-explore Christian history. This way, they can understand different beliefs in order to recapture the essence of Christianity. The aim is to follow Jesus Christ and share the good news of salvation and God’s love through good works.

What is Christianity?

Christianity is the world’s largest religion. The Christian faith originated from the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also the most widespread and diverse belief system.

Christianity commenced with the ministry of Jesus, a Jewish teacher, and healer who proclaimed the imminent kingdom of God. According to the Gospels, followers of Jesus believe that He was the Son of God and that He died for the forgiveness of sins and was raised from the dead and exalted by God, and will return soon at the beginning of God’s kingdom. 

Christians comprise over two billion believers. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most influential denomination. Eastern Orthodoxy is the second-most populous, and the Protestant churches are the most diverse.

Christianity, as a tradition, is more than a system of religious belief. It is a religion that has a pervasive influence on modern life. It gives rise to a culture, practices, and artifacts that have been passed on from generation to generation since Jesus first became the object of faith. 

History of Christianity

The story of Christianity is a complex and multi-layered narrative. According to the Bible, the first church was created 50 days after Jesus’ death. This is the time when the Holy Spirit was said to descend onto Jesus’ followers. The church was centered in Jerusalem, and most of the first Christians were Jewish converts. One of the callings of the early Christians was to spread and teach the gospel.

Middle Ages

Christianity rose to prominence under Emperor Constantine. His Edict of Milan legalized the practice of the Christian faith. The Roman Empire changed from a pagan institution to a Christian state. Within the Roman Empire, the early Church built a hierarchy. It exercised strong, legal powers. It governed both the congregation and the political sphere. 

The Church’s tight grip on power remained in both the East and the West. The Roman Empire fell to the barbarians in 476 AD and the Ottomans in the 14th century. Christianity helped guide society and geopolitics and after the fifth century, a new age began for the world.

The medieval ages or Middle Ages saw the church leaders step into the ruins of the Roman Empire. They worked with Christian princes, kings, dukes, and other nobility. These priests were extremely powerful. They even served as chancellors and chief advisors to monarchs. 

Philosophy and theology flourished during Medieval times. Medieval thought, more known as Scholasticism, shows that faith and reason work together. They believe that religion is not just a spiritual concept; it is a rational belief system to support. 

The most famous scholastic thinker was St. Thomas Aquinas. In this time, Christianity became a respectable, methodological field. It was an intellectual jewel of Western culture. It merged the Hellenistic philosophy with the Christian faith. Christianity also revived the amazing, profound critical attitude towards nature and human experience. It used Aristotelian and neo-Platonic ideals.

The Middle Ages also brought forth spiritual renewal. It saw the founding of many monastic and missionary orders. These consecrated orders include the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Paulines. 

The Crusades

During the 10th to 12th centuries, the Church and the European monarchs fell into religious wars. They sent soldiers, monks, and even children to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim control. 

These holy wars are the Crusades. Here, the Christians fought against Islamic monarchs. Some Crusades saw success in occupying Jerusalem, but the crusades, in general, were a failure. 

At first, the Crusades were about fighting for the faith. The Roman Catholic Church wanted to reunite the Eastern and Western churches and restore the Holy Land.  But it devolved into a conflict for glory and gold. One crusade even conquered Constantinople, killed its ruler, and plundered the entire place. So after the Crusades, the Roman Catholic Church grew more wealthy and powerful.

Conquest and Conversion of the World

The Medieval Times also saw the expansion of Christianity through colonization. Priests accompanied the Western conquerors who subjugated nations of all colors. Entire tribes were baptized under the name of Christ. Yet they lost their sovereignty to Spain, Portugal, France, and the imperialist nations. 

The Church also organized several missionary expeditions. From Europe and North America, they went to Africa and Asia. In 1622, the Vatican founded the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide.

The breakup of the Church

It was also during the Medieval Times that the Church cracked. The clergy, especially the popes, suffered from the corruption of power. Priests became embroiled in controversies such as adultery, sexual promiscuity, and selling indulgences. 

As a result, people started to turn away from the traditionalist and strict-laced Church. Even under the threat of heresy, many thinkers rebelled. They chose to fight to make the Word of God more accessible to the laypeople. 

The Reformation

The Reformation started with Martin Luther. The German monk started the protest against the worldly corruption of the Church. The Reformation began as a movement to reform the Church. They wanted a more open and more righteous institution. But in the end, Protestantism rose into a Christian pluralism. 

Christian society underwent a tumultuous upheaval. Many churches and monasteries got destroyed under the royal command. Protestants destroyed the gilded ornaments and carved statues of saints as they considered idolatry. This time also was an age of religious tensions where Christians warred with each other.

Amid the chaos, there was spiritual renewal. Christianity went back to the Early Church’s simplicity and devotion to the Bible. The Reformation believed in: 

  1. the Bible as the sole authority,
  2. that God’s grace is free, 
  3. faith in God alone is enough 
  4. and most importantly, the laity should have more roles in Christian work. Both inside and outside the church.

The Reformation transformed Christianity in more ways than Martin Luther could have imagined. In his 95 theses, he protested the corruption of the Church. It included selling church offices, debauchery, and selling indulgences. But the Church cracked to open up society to the thought of something more than an imperial church.

The Reformation is the most important, pivotal movement in not only Christian history. It also shaped World History. Here the people thought of more than just the Church to govern their lives. They thought about the human experience in more economic and democratic ways.

Renaissance

The Reformation broke the grip of the Church in the sociopolitical psyche, so the Renaissance Era came. Also known as the Enlightenment, this was a time that challenged tradition. It was a multi-current culture. This time was layered with many different beliefs. It ranged from materialistic tendencies, scientific exaltation to anthropocentrism.

This time was all about changing the way we view reality. It bore the freeing ideologies of politics. These include liberalism, nationalism, positivism, socialism, communism, and anarchism 

The Great Awakenings revived the Christian faith in America and around the world starting in the 1730s. Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield showed that one can believe in God but they can stay free from the authoritarianism of the religious establishment.

The Enlightenment and the Great Awakenings shaped the new Christian worldview. This worldview was all about religious and political freedom.

This time of social revolution resulted in a more secular world. But Christianity also evolved to open the faith. It became an institution that cared to solve injustices and act separate from the state.

Modern Christianity

As society moved towards secularization, the world fell into many wars. It was more devastating than the Crusades and the wars of the medieval kings and queens. Here the innovations of science went to fatal weapons that blew entire cities off of the map. In some cases, civilization ceased its nobility in the face of greed for territory. 

The Church also suffered from several internal struggles. This included sexual abuses, complicity to racism, and ideological divisions. Yet out of all this chaos, Christianity flourished. It grew from great strength to recover what it means to believe in God.

War of Ideologies

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the world at war with ideologies. Nihilism spread, especially with Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” philosophy. Christianity hung on a balance between warring nations and rife injustices.

The two World Wars brought devastation across the world. Nazism, in particular, terrorized the world by upholding the Aryan race. They persecuted all who don’t adhere to this humanness. The worst to suffer out of these two wars were the Jews. The Shoah or the Holocaust murdered millions of people of Jewish descent, even those who are professed as Christians. It is even more controversial when the Vatican did not respond against the Nazi regime.

Even after two world-devastating wars, the world superpowers battled still over governing principles. Communism and liberalism fought in a cold war. Nuclear weapons threatened precarious peace. 

Yet against this backdrop of violence came a resurgence of Christian leadership. People all over the world protested against wars. They advocated for the end of slavery, racism, and other social injustices. This communal movement fought to go back to loving one other in peace. It gave rise to universal human rights. But modern society, with all its freedoms, bears its foundation from Jesus’ mission of love and justice for all humankind.

Contemporary Christianity

Christianity saw a modern revival in archaeology. After World War II, there was the most integral archaeological proof of Christianity. It was the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Biblical manuscripts discovered in 1947. This discovery happened by fate. A Bedouin shepherd boy was looking for his lost goat, instead, he found the clay jars containing the scrolls in 12 caves in the West Bank. These scrolls include the Old Testament and the New Testament and other ancient texts.

Before the 20th century, Christians are exclusivists. They believed that God only saved the Church followers.  This belief was like the Old Testament narrative of Israel as the chosen people of God. But this exclusivist outlook did the Church no favors.

Christianity grew with the sociopolitical changes, it shifted to an outreach approach to the world’s religions. In particular, the Second Vatican Council let go of the strict trappings of tradition. They rejected the Latin-only mass, for instance. Many Christians believed in inclusivism. Here everyone can be saved, whether Christian or not, as long as they live with Christian love for all human beings.

Another position of religious belief in contemporary Christianity is pluralism. In this view, God goes to each person in different ways. So it should come as no surprise that there are different religions. Religions are independent roads to salvation.

Why Study the History of Christianity

To study Christianity in its historical context is to discern its meaning. One must learn from the past to find God’s Will. Even in the darkest and most tragic moments, God is there; He directs the course of time. As we read through what happened to the Christian religions, we need to see it in God’s eyes.

Everything has its place in time. It is already planned by God since the beginning. We need history to help us realize that God is within us. Like clay, He molds us and our communities so we can be fully human. As we study the history of Christianity, we see what is good and evil. We see the decisions, the principles that led to progress and to ruin.

We find meaning in the suffering of others and ourselves throughout history. We learn the value of redemption and hope. Most importantly, Christian history tells us that we need to evolve; to be open, but still, stay true to our mission of compassion for all.

Above all, in our Christian history, we see our imperfections. Despite all human mistakes, God is still with us, He guides us to do better.

Beliefs of Christianity

In Christianity, there are different religions but the most common beliefs are:

Monotheism: Christians worship only one God. He is the Creator. His divinity comes in three incarnations: God the Father, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit. 

Redemption from Sin: Christianity is built upon the death and resurrection of Christ. God, in His great love for the world, gave up His only begotten son to save all men. All sins are forgiven and washed by the blood of the Son of God. This belief also underscores the devotion to the cross as the symbol of salvation.

Bible: All Christians concur on the significance of the Scriptures. They strive to live according to the tenets of the Bible.

Types of Christian Churches

Christianity grew from a small, grassroots movement in Galilee to a multi-religion entity. 

It currently has three major branches:

Roman Catholic

Roman Catholics are the largest religious group in the world. They have a strict hierarchy that sees its origins direct from St. Peter himself. The Pope leads them. He appoints the bishops and cardinals to manage the different priests and congregations around the world. 

Roman Catholics have similar beliefs as other Christian denominations. But they have three distinct doctrines. These are papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. They also practice seven sacraments that channel divine grace into the believer. These sacred rites are baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, matrimony, consecrated orders, and anointing of the sick.

Protestant

Protestantism directly came from the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church called them “Protestant” because they railed against papist principles. 

Protestants believe that the Holy Bible is the sole authority in faith. They live by faith that salvation comes from God’s grace alone, not by works. They also believe that everyone should spread the Word of God. They open up the ministry to any who choose to take up the mission of evangelization.

Common Protestant Christianity denominations include:

  • Baptist
  • Episcopalian
  • Evangelist
  • Methodist
  • Presbyterian
  • Pentecostal/Charismatic
  • Lutheran
  • Anglican
  • Evangelical
  • Assemblies of God
  • Christian Reform/Dutch Reform
  • Church of the Nazarene
  • United Church of Christ
  • Quaker
  • Seventh-Day Adventist

Eastern Orthodoxy

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches are autonomous. They also are more in tune with nationalism and cultural differences.

They believe in the Bible as the doctrinal authority. Their clergy can marry before getting ordained. They practice the Nicene Creed with the Filioque. They use leavened bread in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

The Orthodox churches live with the rich culture of their respective nations. They incorporate indigenous practices for healing and exorcisms.

Essence of Christianity

Essence. It is something that cannot be taken away from an object lest it ceases to be. It is something intrinsic. Essence is what gives something its character, its uniqueness from everything else.

Now let’s do a simple exercise. After learning the history of Christianity, we need to capture what it means to be a Christian. 

Is it the Bible? Not necessarily, Judaism also subscribes to the Scriptures.

Is it the devotion to saints? No. It is like the different gods that pagans go to for their different needs back in ancient times.

Is it the religious festivities? Still no. But I think we’re getting near the answer.

Is it Jesus Christ? Yes! Christianity, at its core, is a faith that believes in the redemption back to God through Jesus Christ. We go back to putting God at the center of our lives when we live with Christ’s principles in our hearts.

In Summary

Christianity has a long and checkered history. Christians triumphed in overcoming the persecution of the Romans. Then they became the sole state religion of Rome. Here the church set up the society of Western civilization. But as the Christian leadership grew more powerful, they lost their soul. They fell to the excesses of worldliness and sin.

So the people fought back. They protested against the authoritarian rule of the religious establishment. In the process, they broke the Church into many different parts. Amid the turmoil of this breakup, Christians returned to simplicity and devotion to the Word of God. 

Even as Christianity became a pluralist religion, it became stronger more than ever. It never lost its essence. It is to follow God through Jesus Christ’s mission of love and justice for all. 

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Alex Shute
EDITOR
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.

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