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A review of How Christianity Changed the World. By Alvin Schmidt.

Sep 7, 2005

Zondervan, 2004. (Formerly entitled, Under the Influence, 2001).

It is common today for the church to be on the receiving end of much criticism. The church is blamed for many of the ills in the world, but is seldom given credit for any good it has done. Indeed, many argue that it is the church that is blocking progress to a more enlightened and peaceable world.

One gets the impression from these secular critics that Christianity has been a negative force in the world, while non-Christian and non-religious alternatives are somehow superior. However, those conversant with the historical record know better. While Christendom has had its dark moments in history, over all, it can be credibly argued that it has been a force for good in the world.

In Kenneth Scott Latourette’s massive 7-volume history of the expansion of the Christian Church, the Yale historian concluded by noting just how much good this expansion had contributed to the world.  More recently D. James Kennedy wrote a brief volume entitled What if Jesus Had Never Been Born? The world would be much worse off, he argued, if it weren’t for this man Jesus.

The most recent and perhaps most thorough examination of the historical record is that of Alvin Schmidt. The American professor of sociology has assembled evidence from various quarters to demonstrate what a powerful influence Christianity has had on Western Civilization. In every area, be it law, government, economics, the fine arts, science, education or health care, the Christian faith has contributed enormously to the overall well-being of mankind.

In this well-documented volume of over 400 pages, Schmidt marshals the evidence for the transforming power of the Christian faith. He shows how Jesus has the power to transform men, who in turn are able to transform society. And on every level, that is exactly what has happened. Several specific examples can be mentioned.

In spite the claims of some today that Christianity oppresses women, the historical record shows just the opposite. Women were oppressed in almost every culture prior to the coming of Christianity. By elevating sexual morality, and by conferring upon women a much higher status, the Christian religion revolutionised the place and prestige of women.

For example, the great importance given to marriage meant that women were spared much of the abuse and mistreatment that they were accustomed to. By rejecting polygyny, prostitution, homosexuality and bestiality – all common during the time – the early Christians not only sheltered women but protected children and family.

The way Jesus treated women was in stark contrast to the surrounding culture. In Roman law a man’s wife and children were little more than slaves, often treated like animals. Women had no property rights and faced severe social restrictions. Jesus of course changed all that. The way he treated the Samaritan woman was one remarkable example. And this was not lost on the early disciples. We know from the New Testament documents that many women exercised various leadership roles in the early church. Indeed, during this period Christian women actually outnumbered Christian men.

Admittedly there were some anomalies later in the church’s history, when chauvinistic and anti-feminine views were allowed to re-enter parts of the church. But such aberrations must not detract from the truly revolutionary elevation of the status of women achieved by Christianity.

Consider also the issue of health care. Prior to Christianity, the Greeks and Romans had little or no interest in the poor, the sick and the dying. But the early Christians, following the example of their master, ministered to the needs of the whole person. During the first three centuries of the church they could only care for the sick where they found them, as believers were then a persecuted people. Once the persecutions subsided, however, the institutionalisation of health care began in earnest.

For example, the first ecumenical council at Nicea in 325 directed bishops to establish hospices in every city that had a cathedral. The first hospital was built by St Basil in Caesarea in 369. By the Middle Ages hospitals covered all of Europe and even beyond. In fact, “Christian hospitals were the world’s first voluntary charitable institutions”.

Care for the mentally ill was also a Christian initiative. Nursing also sprang from Christian concerns for the sick, and many Christians have given their lives to such tasks. One thinks of Florence Nightingale, for example, and the formation of the Red Cross.

Education, while important in Greek and Roman culture, really took off institutionally under the influence of Christianity. The early Greeks and Romans had no public libraries or educational institutions – it was Christianity that established these. As discipleship was important for the first believers (and those to follow), early formal education arose from Christian catechetical schools. Unique to Christian education was the teaching of both sexes.

Also a Christian distinctive, individuals from all social and ethnic groups were included. There was no bias based on ethnicity or class. And the concept of public education first came from the Protestant Reformers. Moreover, the rise of the modern university is largely the result of Christian educational endeavours.

As another example of the Christian influence, consider the issue of work and economic life. The Greeks and Romans had a very low view of manual labour, and so it was mainly the slaves and lower classes that were forced to toil with their hands. The non-slave population lived chiefly for personal pleasure. In these early cultures slaves usually greatly outnumbered freemen.

Thus there was no such thing as the dignity of labour in these cultures, and economic freedom was only for a select few. The early church changed all this. Jesus of course was a carpenter’s son. Paul was a tentmaker. And the early admonition, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” was taken seriously by the early believers. Thus work was seen as an honorable and God-given calling. Laziness and idleness were seen as sinful.

The idea of labor as a calling, and the idea spoken by Jesus that the laborer is worthy of his wages, revolutionised the workplace. The dignity of labor, the value of hard work, and the sense of vocation, soon changed the surrounding society; the development of a middle class being one of the outcomes. The development of unions is another result. Indeed, the works of Weber and Tawney, among others, records the profound effect the Protestant Reformation has had on work and modern capitalism.

More impacts can be noted. The commandment against stealing of course redefined the concept of private property and property rights. And the protection of workers and workers’ rights also flows directly from the biblical worldview. The early unionists were Christians, and concerns for social justice in the workplace and beyond derive from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Other great achievements might be mentioned. The Western political experience, including genuine democracy at all levels of society, equality, human rights and various freedoms, all stem from the Christian religion, along with its Hebrew forebear. The rise of modern science has been directly linked with the biblical understanding of the world. The many great achievements in art, literature and music also deserve mention. For example, how much poorer would the world be without the Christian artistry of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Brahms, Dante, Milton, Bunyan, and countless others?

The bottom line, as Schmidt notes, is that if Jesus Christ had never been born, to speak of Western civilisation would be incomprehensible. Indeed, there may never have been such a civilisation. The freedoms and benefits we enjoy in many modern cultures are directly due to the influence of this one man. And besides all the institutional, cultural, social, political and artistic benefits, there is one last benefit: the countless millions of changed lives due to a liberating encounter with the risen Christ. It is this benefit, first and foremost, which of course accounts for all the institutional benefits.

One could argue that changed lives alone are a sufficient testimony to this unique man. But of course changed lives result in changed families, changed neighborhoods, changed societies. The transformation of individuals and nations for the better can all be attributed to this one man, born in a manger but soon to return as ruler of the universe.

In sum, Alvin Schmidt deserves an enormous amount of gratitude for this sterling collection of information and inspiration. Christians have made many mistakes. But they have also achieved many great things, all because of the one whom they follow.

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3 Responses to A review of How Christianity Changed the World. By Alvin Schmidt.

  • Pingback: Christian Books and Articles Reviews
  • Thank you. It was very useful.

  • I get perplexed at the vitriol that is directed at the Christian faith. When pushed for reasons to despise Christians the critics find it necessary to drop back centuries to the Crusades which were a response to the Islamic conquest of the holy land. The Muslims don’t get maligned for that nor for their ongoing adherence to their vindictive attitude toward all infidels, especially Christians and Jews.

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