The Victory of Faith:
How the Spirit of God Built Civilization and Transformed Your World
“Give thanks to the LORD, call upon His name; make known His deeds among the nations…”
“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I consider the work of Your hands.”
“History is the True Demonstration of Religion”
-John Dalberg-Acton, Catholic Historian, (1834-1902)
By: Andrew Alleman
Its influence is all around us.
Human dignity and compassion. Modern science and technology. Origins of human rights and religious freedom. Professional healthcare in every city. Abundant prosperity combined with voluntary charity. A world with nations in which the Spirit of goodness and compassion presides over the hearts of the people, governing how they treat one another- “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). Nations which are not ruled by all-powerful kings or centralized dictatorships, but by its citizens with a spirit of righteousness and justice. Populations that view life as sacred and worthy of protecting at great costs.
While it is maddeningly clear to us, these attributes of civilization are visibly declining all around us in different ways. Very few deny these are indeed the markers of the modern world and are still thoroughly enjoyed in many places. Namely of course, very few at our home in the United States of America and Western Civilization as a whole.
What or who created our modern world and its values we so cherish? What built our social infrastructure of peace, security, and freedom that allows us our way of life? Did these ideas simply sprout out of the ground or were perhaps an invention due to the forces of secularist atheism?
Maybe you’ve heard the frequent accusations of the Church being “backward”, “hateful”, “bigoted”, or even “evil”? Or been told it's bringing on a “dark age”, destroying the glorified civilization the Romans built? Attached to these are stories such as the supposed suppression of science by jailing the famous Galileo and the torture of anyone who disagrees through an Inquisition court. It is likely you’ve heard these accusations and others on more than one occasion.
Through a wide survey of history with a birds-eye view, we know today these are exaggerated distortions at best and wholesale fabrications at worst. Some of these indictments continue to be used again and again to attack christian’s faith with malicious intent. Contrary to the hostile mainline opinions of some, it was the spirit of Christianity that served as the key force that birthed our civilization and inspired numerous world accomplishments.
We will examine the early transformation of the Roman Empire, the compassion that brought us hospitals, the development of modern science, the beginnings of educational universities, the early abolition of slavery, and the pioneering origins of religious freedom.
Jesus Christ introduced the modern notion of dignity and compassion towards human beings unparalleled in the ancient world. He demonstrated a spirit of mercy to all regardless of their social class, whereas the Roman Empire valued a spirit of order and loyalty to state gods and the Jews sought adherence to the traditions of Hebrew Law. Beginning with Christ's ministry and self-sacrifice at the cross, the culture of Christianity was born and the Spirit of God was carried into the world. Intertwined with this Spirit was life being sacred and dignified, not expendable, and the concept eventually changed the culture of Rome from the inside-out. Many examples and accomplishments are present in early church history.
Family and Social
Marriage between Christians and the overall status of women became greatly dignified in contrast to the Romans. Child brides were common in Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome and the average age of brides among christian marriages increased from about 14 to 19. Practices such as pederasty, infanticide, forced abortions, and child abandonment were all systematically opposed. Christian figures such as Callistus and Benignus gave refuge to abandoned and crippled children whom would otherwise be left out to die or drowned.
Due to the influence of the church fathers such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, infanticide was outlawed by the christian Emperor Valentinian in 374 A.D. and child abandonment through the Code of Justinian. Abortion was further condemned through a multitude of church leadership meetings such as the synod of Elvira in 305 A.D., the Council of Ancyra in A.D. 314., and the Synod of Lerida 524 A.D.
This set the stage for prominent christian leaders to stand up for the rights of the unborn in the medieval world such as Martin Luther, whom stated “those who pay no attention to pregnant women and do not spare the tender fetus are murderers and parricides” and John Calvin, whom stated “the unborn child…though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human…and should not be robbed of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy”. All this contributed to even secular historians such as W.E.H. Leckey to admit “the value and sanctity of infant life…broadly distinguished Christian from pagan societies.”
Other accomplishments of note include the elimination of the Roman gladiator games through christian emperors Theodosius and Honorius in the 5th century, the outlaw of slave branding and the end of crucifixion during Constantine’s rule after his conversion to Christianity.
Hospitals and Healthcare
This Spirit of life within christians, which emerged during the early roman period, built a contrasting culture of compassion and eventually produced one of the most important achievements in world history: the creation of the modern hospital. At a church meeting known as the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., bishops were directed to establish a hospice in every city that had a cathedral for traveling pilgrims. The first was constructed by Saint Basil of Caesarea in 369 A.D and contained a large number of buildings for physicians and nurses, even providing a workshop school for patients to learn a trade. The first hospital in Rome was built in 390 A.D. by the Roman noblewomen Saint Fabiola. Saint Chrysostom built hospitals in Constantinople during the 4th and 5th centuries and Saint Augustine built them in Western Europe. By the 6th century many monasteries served as hospitals and by the 16th century there were over 37,000 Benedictine monasteries that cared for the sick! In the Middle East, the Order of the Hospitallers of St. Lazarus and the Knights Hospitallers were knightly orders that ran a large network of hospitals that provided care for sick christians and muslims, including leprosy patients.
As the years progressed through the middle ages, catholic and protestant physicians were at the forefront of several pioneering medical practices and inventions. These include the invention of the stethoscope by the devout René Laennec, the development of modern anesthesiology through the use of chloroform by James Simpson, the emphasis on antiseptic practices of hand washing and sterilization by Joseph Lister, the discovery of bacteria by Louis Pasteur, and the invention of the first vaccine through Edward Jenner, a man who considered himself an instrument of God. The two mothers of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale and Elizbeth Fry, were each devoted Christians who worked tirelessly to bring the profession into the mainstream.
The christian Spirit that brought hospitals into existence eventually expanded its influence in the form of worldwide humanitarian missions and charity organizations. Possibly the most well-known of which is the Salvation Army founded by the devout William Booth in 1865 and the Goodwill store chain by Reverend Edgar J. Helms of the Morgan Methodist Chapel in Boston. Others include the Childrens Aid Society founded in 1853 through Charles Loring Brace, a clergyman of the Congregational Church, and the International Red Cross through Jean Henri Dunant. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the first animal welfare charity to be founded in the world, was created in 1824 through the efforts of William Wilberforce and several ministers including Reverends Arthur Broome, George Bonner, and George Avery Hatch. The YMCA was founded through George Williams, which began as the Drapers Evangelical Union, and was renamed the Young Mens Christian Association in 1844. Under the influence of christian missionaries, the heinous practice of Chinese foot binding was ended in 1912, in which the feet of girls were bound leading to deformity and infection. In India, the practice of forced widow burning was outlawed in 1829 under Governor-General William Bentinck of Britain. A full list of influential organizations and missionary achievements would take volumes to discuss at length, so here we examine only a significant few- I encourage the reader to pursue further knowledge on this topic!
When examining the positive influence of christianity across history, a thought may have come to your mind: what about the so called “Dark Ages” we all vaguely remember hearing about in middle school? Was the Church really a force of oppression during the medieval period, whom secularists in the Enlightenment only just managed to break from, finally able to flourish unhindered by superstition? It may surprise you that this narrative is entirely false, having been originally fabricated in the 16th and 17th centuries by prominent anti-catholics. Figures such as Voltaire admired the ancient Roman Empire, so much so that they felt compelled to distort church history, misleading entire generations, and creating an alternate version of events, which made its way into contemporary education curriculum. Due to recent scholarship, mainstream sources such as the Encyclopedia of Britannica and even Wikipedia now admit the “dark ages” is a myth! In contrast to this misconception, this period was an age of technological advancement, planting the seeds of social freedom, extensive philosophical debate, producing the beginnings of modern collegiate education, and the foundations of modern science.
Technology, Science and Education
The Catholic Church produced the first modern scientists in history and the modern experimental scientific method beginning with the Franciscan Bishop and first Cancellor of Oxford University, Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253). Next we have his student Roger Bacon, whom stated “all things must be verified by science”. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who has been referred to as “the practical creator of scientific induction”, was the first to record his results from experiments. He placed specific emphasis on observation and collection of systematic information in order to understand nature and yet also wrote on psalms and prayer.
The faith of the first scientists was linked to their scientific inquiry and never separate. Beginning in the 13th century onwards, nearly every major scientist explained his motivations in religious terms. The first universities themselves were founded as theological institutions in the late middle ages. These include the University of Oxford, Camridge, Paris, and Bologna. Dozens of catholic and protestant scientists and inventors laid the foundations of our technological modern world during the late middle ages and renaissance. These include Issac Newton, Gregor Mandel, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, and the big four of electricity: Alessandro Volta, Georg Ohm, Andre Ampere, and Michael Faraday, to name only a few.
Years before the Scientific Revolution, Benedictine monks invented numerous common items such as clocks, eyeglasses, agricultural techniques, distillation methods, and modern musical notation.
You may recall the infamous Galileo, whom modern secularists have painted a picture of being tortured in a dark dungeon because of his heretical act of simply stating planets move. In reality, Galileo was an honored guest of Pope Paul III and dedicated his Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs (1530) to him. So what led to conflict? He entered the realm of theological debate over the eucharist and was unable to prove his theories though given several chances. After his own friends could not defend him, a court sentenced him to house arrest in the lavish palace of Niccolini, an ambassador to the Vatican, who ensured his comfort.
Perhaps no topic is as essential to the truth about Christianity, as the foundations of religious freedom throughout the centuries. It may surprise you to know not only did the Church not block its development but aided it greatly, being the key driving force that resulted in our modern free society and the precious United States of America and Europe.
As early as 220 A.D. we saw the first advocates for religious freedom in the church fathers Tertullian and Lactantius, whom wrote “it is a fundamental right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions…to which free-will and not force should lead us” and “it is religion alone in which freedom has placed its dwelling. For it is a matter which is voluntary above all others, nor can necessity be imposed upon any, so as to worship that which he does not wish to worship” respectively.
In 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, an act of toleration that declared religious freedom to all of Europe. Mainline historians agree, such as Dr. Thomas Madden of Saint Louis University, that this is the first instance of an official separation of church and state in history with the intention of protecting religious belief from state control.
Though this was not permanent until many years later, christian reformers continued to fight for the building blocks of religious freedom such as the famed Martin Luther.
The first modern legal system in Europe materialized from church canon law which provided for democratic elections for clergy and protected Christians from self-incrimination in court. Inquisition courts, contrary to popular misconception, utilized Roman-esque laws of evidence, placed strict limitations on torture of any kind, provided advocacy for the accused, and executed very few people. They were formulated primarily for ending the witch-hunt craze rather than being a cause, in which thousands died. Unknown to some, this type of persecution was not unique to catholicism or even Europe during the same time period. In Japan, 40,000 Japanese christians were killed for their faith during the 17th century Shimabara Rebellion.
What about the topic of slavery? A little known fact is that the Catholic Church effectively abolished slavery in the 12th century due to biblical reasonings by the great theologians including Thomas Aquinas, only to emerge again during New World colonization centuries later. The Popes denounced slavery no less than six separate times in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839. During the period of Spanish colonization, no less than four papal bulls from Pope Eugene IV, Pius the II, Sixtus the IV, and Paul the III were issued in attempts enforce the ban on slavery internationally.
In the 18th and 19th century, we find one of the greatest christian advocates against slavery in William Wilberforce, whom gave anti-slavery speeches for twenty years, leading to the Abolition Act in 1833 that resulted in the freedom of 700,000 slaves in the West Indies Colonies.
There is always more that can be said regarding the world role of Christianity, its influence throughout the ages, and its involvement in the construction of our civilization. Beginning with the ministry of Christ and its subsequent influence, we saw the transformation of Roman culture, the explosion of organized healthcare, the technological wonders of modern science inspired by God, and the ideas of religious freedom that would culminate in our modern way of thinking.
Many forces have threatened these world-building attributes over the course of history, from Islamic invasions of Europe as early as 600 A.D. to the ideology of Marxism resulting in over one hundred million deaths worldwide in its opposition to religion.
For the skeptic, I challenge you seek discovery, ask questions, and investigate the matter for yourself. I have faith you will see the Lord Jesus as the great architect of creation.
For the believer, know today you can be proud of your history and the great influence the Spirit has had across many generations.
For further reading, the works by esteemed sociologist professor Dr. Rodney Stark of Baylor University are among the greatest on the subject of Christian history.