Why was Christianity so successful

How did Christianity spread across the earth?

Whether this religion became so successful because it was promoted by the powerful, or whether the underprivileged promoted the earthly message of salvation, is controversial. At least in Austronesia, missionaries successfully counted on the mighty.

How could a sect with 13 heads in the rearmost part of Judea become the religious community with the most members in the world in barely 2000 years? Two factions argue about this in research, one of which relies on power structures and top down. Your key witness is the first adherent of this belief at the head of an empire, Constantine the Great, he placed Christians in key positions in his state apparatus, and he poured money into the church.

However, one can also interpret these moves the other way around, on which and on the content of the message of faith, which focuses on socially egalitarian issues such as charity, is what the bottom-up faction relies on: According to them, Roman society was already the same, especially in its underprivileged parts earthly promises of salvation permeated that Constantine couldn't help but ride this wave.

How should one resolve the dispute? Many societies are politically hierarchically organized and at the same time socially stratified into classes. And in many, Christianity came early with the disciples first and then with other missionaries, it is difficult to reconstruct. But in one region of the world, in Austronesia, that is the island world of the Pacific, it took 1668 for the first spreaders of Christianity to arrive. They encountered very different societies: some, like the Isnegg on an island in the Philippines, were organized in an egalitarian manner in family associations, others, like the one in Hawaii, were strictly hierarchical, and there were also many variants in the social structures. And then there were populations that were a few hundred members, others were tens of thousands.

That is why Joseph Watts (MPI Human History, Jena) tested the competing hypotheses in this region, in 70 societies. In most of them, Christianization made rapid progress - on average it was completed after 30 years - others have remained largely with natural religions to this day, the Kwaio in the Solomon Islands, for example, they killed missionaries. It was completely different on Kapinmarangi, the entire population was after converted a year.

Not on pressure from below

But wherever, an effect of the egalitarian message was nowhere to be found: "We find no evidence that the presence of a lower class promoted conversion," reports Watts. This may also be due to the missionaries: “Focus the resources of the mission on the most powerful leader one can win!” That was the motto of one of the most successful missionaries in Austronesia, John Williams (1796–1839), who helped on the island of Erromango In the end they didn't give him anything, the residents were cannibals, they killed and devoured him.

Does Christianization depend on worldly power, did it get this far through their will? Not only, a third factor was even more powerful than the hierarchy, the size of society: Small social units are penetrated by innovations more quickly. This has also been controversial up to now, as innovations are devised more quickly in larger and segmented societies. But it will take some time until they have established themselves (Nature Human Behavior July 23).

"Our finding can probably be generalized," concludes Watts: "There are similar patterns of conversion in Africa and Latin America, where missionaries quickly replaced natural religions with Christianity."

("Die Presse", print edition, July 24th, 2018)