THE rapid spread of Christianity in the Pacific was not due to its egalitarian doctrine empowering social underclasses, a new study suggests.
The analysis of 70 Austronesian communities that converted to Christianity between the 17th and 20th centuries suggests, rather, that the size of a population and its structure — including the political authority in place — is the key to explaining conversion rates.
The paper — Christianity Spread Faster in Small, Politically Structured Societies — published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour this month, was written by a team of researchers led by Dr Joseph Watts, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany.
The study found that population size was the strongest predictor of conversion times: larger populations took “significantly longer” to convert than smaller ones, although, on average, it took just 30 years for at least half the community to convert.
“Individuals decide whether to convert based on whether those around them have converted,” the authors write. “This process of conversion can result in frequency-dependent transmission whereby the probability that any given individual converts is proportional to the frequency of Christianity within the population.”
They speculate that “this relatively simple process of cultural transmission may help to explain how Christians in Ancient Rome numbered in the thousands in the year 100, and the tens of millions in the year 350.”
The study refers to two “theories of conversion”: a “top-down” one, in which political leaders, such as the Roman Emperor Constantine, played a significant part; and a “bottom-up” one, in which Christianity spread “because its relatively egalitarian doctrines appealed to majority underclasses rather than through an elite minority”.
The 70 communities in their study, which ranged in size from 62 to 500,000, included varying levels of political authority, from no centralised authority to multiple levels of political authority. Some were egalitarian, and some had moderate or high levels of “social stratification”.
Missionaries enjoyed varying levels of success. On Kapingamarangi, in Micronesia, missionaries arrived after a period of famine, and the entire culture converted peacefully within one year. But it took about 65 years for half the Kwaio population in the Solomon Islands to be converted: the study notes that “multiple missionaries were killed in the process, and today around one-third of the population retain their earlier beliefs and remain unaffiliated with Christianity.”
The researchers found that communities with political authority converted faster, and suggest that this lends weight to the “top-down” theory, noting that “a common strategy for missionaries was to focus on winning over political leaders by providing them with material goods and access to trade opportunities.”
The presence of an “underclass” in more stratified societies did not facilitate the spread of Christianity, they write. “Historical records show that, even when missionaries did not focus their efforts on political leaders, there was little to suggest that Christianity spread because it empowered social underclasses or appealed to ‘slave morality’.”
The paper recounts the story of Nias, in Indonesia, where “rapid conversions of the broad population occurred after around 65 years of extensive work by missionaries. The eventual conversion was attributed to the missionary Ruderdorf’s threat of ‘expulsion from the Last Supper’ for those who did not repent. This threat resonated with the ultimate and socially damaging Nias snub of excluding someone from the division of meat at feasts.”