A major study on the history of Christianity found that political power, and not poverty, caused the spread of Christianity around the world.
A team of researchers examined how Christianity grew from being a small religious group to one of the major religions in the world. Experts studied historical documents of 70 Austronesian cultures to find out whether top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top cultural forces affected the growth of the religion, reports Science Alert.
The test we applied was that if it’s a top-down process, then those cultures that have a strong political structure with a clear leader are going to be more likely to convert more quickly. —Quentin Atkinson, author
The Pacific was chosen for this huge study since it has diverse cultures, different political hierarchies, different population sizes, and conversions are well documented.
Led by Joseph Watts from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the team of researchers tested several hypotheses and used a variety of statistical measures to compare the growth rate of Christianity in Austronesian cultures. The study revealed that Christianity, despite having its humble origins, spread fastest because of strong leaders in the community.
“The test we applied was that if it’s a top-down process, then those cultures that have a strong political structure with a clear leader are going to be more likely to convert more quickly. If it’s a bottom-up process that appeals to the common person, then we predicted that conversion’s going to be faster where there is more inequality,” said Quentin Atkinson, one of the report’s authors.
The report, published in the journal, Nature Science Communications, noted that groups which didn’t have any form of political organization “took the longest to convert in this study.”
Professor Atkinson of Auckland University said early missionaries befriended leaders of small communities, bringing gifts to them, to win their favor. This also served as the missionaries’ survival strategy in a new place, reports Radio New Zealand.
“If you go back to some of records of the early missionaries, a couple of the successful missionaries actually explicitly talk about deliberately targeting the leaders because that’s where they see the power,” explained Professor Atkinson.
The report also noted that the growth of Christianity in the Pacific occurred at the same time trade routes were established and during the colonization of the region.