The Decline Of European Christianity

The Decline Of European Christianity



Christianity has gone through radical changes throughout history. The establishment of the Catholic Church and the power of the Pope began centuries of Christian power in Europe. This also created a lot of struggles for the power the Pope yielded since the people looked to the Pope for guidance. The Catholic Church went through struggles and decline between the East and West from Rome to Constantinople. The Muslim and Christian relations deteriorated to the point, that it that led up to the crusades. The crusades resulted in creating an intolerance of Christians in Muslim controlled regions. After the Crusades, Rome experienced a type of scholarly reform that helped it to refocus and renew the Catholic faith. When King Henry VIII wanted to divorce and remarry in order to give himself an heir to the throne, this caused a major rift between him and the Pope. It eventually led to the Church of England breaking from the Pope and the Catholic Church. During this time the reformation had begun with Martin Luther and his 95 thesis. This caused yet another break with the people from the Catholic Church. The Protestant faith started to gain momentum as the Catholic faith started to decline from the breakings with the church. Through the decades the persecution of Protestant beliefs begun and eventually led to people groups sailing across the ocean in search for new land and new hope to start again.


The Early Church & Rome

Early Christianity went through a lot of struggles to get the church founded and to survive the persecution of the different Roman rulers and the challenges they faced from the Jewish leaders who opposed them. Ferguson states, “Until the mid-eleventh century the actual influence of the pope, although theoretically head of Western Christendom, was largely provincial.”[1] When Pope Leo IX came into the papacy he had to deal with secular clergy and the issues that faced the church at its very core, which was division of the church. Ferguson points out, “Leo IX’s counterpart in the Greek church was Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople (1043-58).”[2] This division that had grown caused a schism between the East and West. The church needed to be led by one person and not have major differences in the leadership of the clergy. William Earnest Beet stated of this time, “Distracted and wearied, Christendom lacked unity; and that lack, it doubtless seemed to many, could be best supplied by a strong ecclesiastical ruler.”[3] Despite the issues Leo IX faced, he overcame them and made himself a very prominent figure during this time by even negotiating with the Huns. Beet summarizes Leo IX best, “As events fell out, it so happened that, at the fateful moment, the Roman Church had in Leo one who could and did rise to the opportunity thus presented; and who possessed the personal respect together with the mental and moral qualities which enabled him to give the guidance which the Church required.”[4] It is important to understand where the Catholic faith really started to gain a momentum shift in order to understand where they start to decline. The papacy grew in its stature and prominence throughout the centuries and surviving the crusades, which caused a intolerant rift between Christians and Muslims.

The Reformation

The Reformation changed Christendom for eternity. Many scholars attribute Martin Luther as the start or catalyst that launched the reformation. While I do believe he is the catalyst, I also think the sentiments of the people, the conditional lifestyle and poverty played a major part. Houlbrooke states,” The idea of a thorough reformation was far from new, Renaissance humanism made the Reformation possible, and the printing press accelerated its impact, but it was this discovery that precipitated the first eruption.”[5] Martin Luther challenged the use of Johann Tetzel to extort money from the poor through indulgences. He did so in a way that caused many people to pay attention and the people started to gravitate in line with his thinking. The pope lacked the ability to adequately deal with Luther, because of the politics and the peoples response to Luther. This sparked a pouring of people to find a better way to understanding what they knew of the Bible and its contents. Debra Shugar states, “Ramie Targoff has pointed out how strikingly corporate and collective prayer-book services would have felt, compared to the public worship of the middle Ages: the priest muttering to himself in Latin while the laity occupied their private thoughts with silent devotions or daydreams.[6][7] People were going through very tough economic times and just when they needed hope they had Johann Tetzel offering indulgences. Tetzel was just a product of the time and means of which the papacy could fill their coffers using his services. Theologians such as Luther and John Calvin played a huge role in changing people’s understanding of the Bible. Houlbrooke stated, “The most powerful explosion was however generated by Calvinism, whose brand mark … was an inner-worldly religious activism that contrasts with the passivity of Lutheranism.”[8] The Anabaptist stated to pop up in different places with no real capitol or home. This started a decline in the Catholic Church. As people left the faith or met in secret to worship as Protestants, the Catholic faith found itself defending its own practices and beliefs. It did not help the Church when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, the aunt of Charles V of Spain. Henry wanted an heir to his throne and Catherine had only yielded him a daughter Mary. Mary will play a large part in the decline of Christianity in Europe later. The pope, Clement VII was prisoner of Charles V for a time and the pope was not in a position to oppose the wishes of Charles. Catherine had implored her uncle to not let the pope annul her marriage to Henry, which further complicated things for Henry. Thomas Cromwell became the architect behind the English church breaking off from Rome. The Church of England was established and Henry was declared the Supreme Being on earth over it. This began a revolution that Henry was not prepared for nor did he intend on happening. One of Henry’s closest allies Sir Thomas More was more interested in taking on Martin Luther and the Lutheran heretics of that day. Cromwell designed policies and orders that increased Henry’s properties and riches, while alienating many close friends. More was found guilty of treason when he would not acknowledge the Act of Supremacy declaring Henry the Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England. Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn bore him another girl, Elizabeth. It was from Henry’s two daughters that Europe experienced great extremes in religion.

The Two Queens

When Henry VII’s son Edward VI died age as king, his older sister Mary ascended to the throne. Mary became known as bloody Mary, because she wanted to convert England back to Roman Catholicism and she had Protestants killed for not converting. She had Protestants persecuted and killed for not converting to Catholicism. When Mary died, her sister Elizabeth assumed the throne and she was protestant. Queen Elizabeth has been widely accepted as a great monarch in England’s history and she reestablished the Church of England. She was not like her sister Mary, Elizabeth did not set out to persecute all believers of the Catholic faith. Elizabeth was more tolerant. This was great for Protestants; however it was not good for Rome which who declared her illegitimate. This break is significant in Christian history because it lasted.


Ironic as the history of how the people would react to persecution, this did not stop the pattern of religious persecution by whichever group was in power over the other. As the Rome and England went back in forth over religious control, they both exercised persecution of Protestants who opposed doctrinal beliefs. This eventually led to groups systematically leaving Europe in search of a new land to found on their beliefs away from persecution.

What is most ironic is that once the colonies were established they persecuted others who were different from their faiths, which sometimes led to groups of them breaking off and founding new colonies. The decline of European Christianity can be followed by one major theme of intolerance. Whenever one group exercised the most intolerant practices of faith, it almost always resulted in a: reformation, revolution, and/or breaking from that faith. In so much, this was a direct cause of the decline of the Christian faith in Europe. Europe may be the seat of the Roman Catholic Faith and Church of England, but still has not regained the strength it once had.


[1]. Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. William Ernest Beet, The Rise of the Papacy: A.D. 385-461 (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1910).

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ralph Houlbrooke, “The Reformation,” English Historical Review CXXI, no. 491 (2006).

[6]. Ramie Targoff, Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England (Chicago, IL, 2001).

[7]. Debra Shugar, “The Reformation of Penance,” Huntington Library Quarterly 71, no. 4 (December 2008).

[8]. Houlbrooke, English Historical Review.

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