Long before the time of the Anglo-Saxons, Christianity was growing within the Roman Empire, and with that growth came increasing discrimination. Roman Emperors were reluctant at first to create laws to battle this trend, but this changed and laws were passed that compelled Christians to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face imprisonment and even execution. From 260 onwards, several edicts passed that opened the way towards tolerance. These lead to a 40-year period of relative peaceful coexistence.
The peace, however, did not last. With Diocletian's accession to the seat of Emperor came a gradual shift in the way religious minorities were viewed. This especially affected Christianity as in a bid to restore Rome's former polytheistic glory, he purged the Empire's armies of Christians and surrounded himself with public opponents of the religion. All this climaxed into what is now known as the Great persecution, or the Diocletianic persecution. Churches were razed, scriptures burned, clergy arrested and many Christians executed.
The great persecution came to an end with Diocletian's death and despite years of bloody oppression, Christianity was still growing and expanding its reach. Its followers were eventually given the legal right to practice their religion when in 311 the then reigning Roman emperor issued an edict permitting it under his rule.
His successor, Constantine I, turned out to be particularly pro-Christian. This is mainly attributed to a rather intriguing event, which is described by Christian sources, in which
The Chi-Rho symbol that supposedly adorned the shields of Constantine's army.
Constantine experienced what some have called a vision: Before a battle after which he claimed the emperorship, Constantine looked up at the sun and saw a cross of light above it. The cross was accompanied by the Greek words ''? '''?? '''??, which roughly translate into 'in this sign you will conquer'. Following this vision, Constantine ordered his men to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol: The Chi-Rho, formed from the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ (''''??, Chi=??, Rho=??). According to chroniclers at the time, this victory; surely made possible due to divine intervention; marked the beginning of his (quasi-) conversion to Christianity and a turning point for Christendom as a whole.
And indeed, Constantine did much to promote Christianity and allow for its growth throughout the Roman Empire: After his victory he supported the church financially, had multiple basilicas built, granted privileges to clergy such as exemption from certain taxes, promoted Christians to high ranking offices and did much to compensate for the losses that Christianity had suffered throughout the period it was considered and treated as heresy.
In part due to the newfound freedom that had been bestowed upon its practice, Christianity was very much a living, evolving faith during the 4th century. Councils were held numerous times to debate and decide upon what was orthodox: which religious doctrines were the correct ones. These ranged from debate about Jesus' divine nature, to the correct date of Easter. Certain movements within the Christian body were declared heretical and even the first Christian on Christian persecutions took place.
Two of these councils came to be known as part of the 'first seven ecumenical councils'. These were held across a period spanning centuries with the first in 325 and the last in 787. Their ultimate goal was to unify and strengthen Christendom across the Roman Empire. To a certain degree this was a success, save from the fact that not all seven councils and their conclusions were (and are) recognized as ecumenical by the different branches within Christianity.
The first of these councils, the council of Nicaea (325), was convened by Emperor Constantine to settle an issue which was controversial at the time: The relationship between Jesus and God. The Emperor, in his quest for unification, wanted a universal agreement on this issue and subsequently had representatives from all across the empire gather.
The significant conclusion of this council was the birth of a universally accepted doctrine: the original Nicene Creed, which received nearly unanimous support. Amongst other things, the creed settled the debate on Christ's nature and declared him 'of the same substance as God'; laying the foundation for Christian Trinitarianism (the father, the son and Holy Spirit).
Eventually in 380, Nicene Christianity was declared the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the then ruling emperor Theodosius. In 381 the first council of Constantinople was held to further establish and refine what was regarded as orthodox; resulting in the definitive Nicene Creed. In 382, a Latin translation of the bible was commissioned. In 391, Theodosius officially closed all pagan temples and formally criminalized pagan worship. All other Christian sects were now also regarded as heretical and subsequently subject to capital punishment.
2.2 State of affairs during Anglo-Saxon emergence
In the early 5th century, Christianity had spread far and wide. Spearheaded by the Roman Empire which had declared it its state religion, the Nicene branch quickly spread to the far corners of the Empire's vast territories. At this point, most of the empire's original pagan religion had died out, and despite some attempts at revival, it slowly disappeared.
Not just the people living within the Empire were converted to Christianity but people outside of it as well. A most notable example of this is the conversion of Germanic tribes, the earliest of which were the Goths. Sources indicate that the Goths were converting to Christianity starting as early as 238. Their conversion was most likely a result of taking Roman Christians as hostages after the Goths had raided Roman lands. These hostages were usually women that were taken as wives and then over time slowly assimilated into Goth culture, introducing Christianity in return.
Following the ecumenical councils, the Goths did not become followers of the Nicene Creed. Instead, the Goths were predominantly followers of Arianism, which they had been since their initial conversion. Arianism was a main and controversial contending doctrine at the time, which was part of the reason why the first council was convened. Arianism mainly differs from Nicene Christianity in how Christ's relationship to God is defined. Whereas Nicene Christianity regards Jesus to be of the same substance as God, Arianism regards Jesus as being created by God, making it impossible for them to be one and the same. This view directly opposed Nicene Trinitarianism. It's no surprise then that following the council's conclusion, Arianism, and its large group of Germanic followers, were declared heretical and missionaries were sent to convert them.
Other, not all, Germanic tribes were converting to Nicene Christianity. A lot of this happened during the period of Mass migrations and therefor was mainly a result of them migrating and settling within Roman lands, slowly adjusting to the indigenous people's customs.
With Roman Britain being so far removed from the center of Roman civilization, a lot of the empire's influences were weaker here than elsewhere. This was also true for Religion.
Historians are still uncertain about the actual extent of Roman Christianity in early Roman Britain, but recent findings are pointing to the existence of an active group of practitioners, mostly centered in cities and towns, in spite of it being an illegal religion at the time.
During this time, before the period in which Christianity became the state religion, it most likely spread to Britain through trade. The first martyrs were present during the Diocletianic persecutions. After this, when the following emperors themselves were Christian, the religion was considered to be an inherent part of Roman identity. This naturally had a positive effect on the further spread of the faith, even in the remote regions such as Britain. Because of this, late Roman Britain possessed a strong Christian presence, strong enough even to persist throughout the Anglo-Saxon invasion and beyond.
Approximate spread of Christianity until roughly the year 600 AD
During the 5th century, when Christianity in Britain was suffering under the strong presence of the Anglo-Saxons and swiftly losing ground, Celtic Christianity was flourishing in Ireland and other, predominantly Celtic, parts of the isles such as Wales and Scotland. Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire and so the faith, free of Roman influence, took on some unique aspects in this part of the world, more so than in the mostly Roman Christian parts of Britain , which is still considered Celtic Christianity by some; probably based on location opposed to customs. One well known actor in all this was Saint Patrick, a Romano-Britain missionary who went on a mission to Ireland and is regarded by many to be the father of Irish Christianity.
The way of life for the average Celt did not drastically change when Christianity replaced the old pagan Celtic beliefs. In fact, the Celtic beliefs and practices actually facilitated the introduction and spread of Christianity. For example, most of the saints were once druids, many sacred places were easily converted to Christian sites, pagan temples become churches and pagan worship of ancestors continued in the form of worship of founder priests and saints. Other examples include the conversion of bard (another form of druidism) schools into monasteries and building churches within circular henges. All this resulted in a form of Christianity that had strong ties to the original Celtic beliefs.
And so, Christianity spread from Roman Britain to the surrounding lands. Then, during the Anglo-Saxon period, Celtic Christianity would in turn play a role in converting the Anglo-Saxons and bringing the faith back to Britain after it had mostly disappeared.
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