Did Christianity spread through trade?

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Trade networks help move more than just goods; they also facilitate the spread of religions and philosophies. We call this cultural diffusion.

The Silk Roads were important in helping spread Christianity in the classical era. When Christianity was conceived in the Middle East, it was through peaceful trade that it...

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Trade networks help move more than just goods; they also facilitate the spread of religions and philosophies. We call this cultural diffusion.

The Silk Roads were important in helping spread Christianity in the classical era. When Christianity was conceived in the Middle East, it was through peaceful trade that it spread to Europe and to populations throughout the Middle East, most notably the Nestorian Christians near the Black Sea. Christianity became the main religion of Rome, and once Rome fell in 476, to the Byzantines centered at Constantinople and throughout Western European groups.

Later, when the Silk Roads became less safe for trading, Christianity was effectively spread over oceanic trade routes. With the European Age of Exploration, most notably with the Spanish and Portuguese, Christianity spread to over continents. The Spanish helped spread Christianity to Central and South America as well as the Philippines. The Portuguese brought Christianity to their trading ports throughout Africa and India; the King of Kongo, Nzinga Mvemba, famously converted to Catholicism and changed his name to King Afonso I in order to have a better trading relationship with Portugal.

While sometimes Christianity was forcefully spread by conquistadors and explorers, it was through these trade routes that Christianity was able to spread around the world. This religion, with other proselytizing religions like Islam and Buddhism, found new followers through trade and missionary and merchant activity. Proselytizing religions are religions that actively convert or attempt to convert people from one religion to another.

Linked below is a map that shows the spread of Christianity, and you will see that this map correlates with the other linked map of trade networks.

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Christianity was able to take full advantage of an extensive network of trade routes to spread its radical message. Trade brought people from different cultures, religions, and walks of life together, making it an especially effective means of spreading religious ideas across vast swathes of territory.

In relation to Christianity, maritime trade routes—most notably across the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean—became a highly useful conduit for the dissemination of its teachings. Trade introduced people to religious traditions that they would otherwise never have encountered.

Christianity had the added advantage in that neither of the two main religions at that time, Judaism and Roman state religion, had any tradition of proselytizing or preaching. This left the field open for the new religion to make substantial inroads into the many territories that lined the trade routes of the known world. In the wake of traders and merchants came Christian preachers, each one determined to spread the Gospel to new audiences.

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There is historical and archaeological evidence that suggests trade was influential in the spread of Christianity. Early on, the official means for spreading the "good news" was through missionaries. Men like Paul of Tarsus went out into the world to preach publicly and inspire Jewish and non-Abrahamic peoples to convert. Initially, Christianity was a sect of Judaism, but Paul was significant in permanently separating the two faiths. Many early missionaries thought people should convert to Judaism and then to Christianity as a sect of Judaism, but Paul thought (and taught) this double conversion was unnecessary.

After Paul's journeys throughout the Mediterranean, the next biggest conversion to Christianity was when Emperor Constatine issued the Edict of Milan, which decriminalized Christianity. Constantine is upheld as the first Christian Roman Emperor, and he made it safe for people to practice Christianity in the Roman Empire without fear of death or punishment. 

Between Paul's time in the 1st century CE and Constantine's Edict of Milan in in 313 CE, Christianity was booming in the Roman Empire but had to be practiced almost entirely in secret. Trade played some part in the spread of Christianity, as the entire Roman Empire was connected by trade routes. The only people really likely to be traveling were involved in trade or were intentional missionaries. By the 9th century, Christianity spread as far north as Scandinavia. In Anders Winroth's The Age of the Vikingshe describes graves found in Scandinavia where people were buried with crosses that originated as far away as Turkey or Greece. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, trade routes connected Europe and exposed people to Christianity.

During the second millennium CE, trade expanded globally, with ships regularly sailing from Europe to Africa to Asia and even to the New World. Though the primary purpose of far-distance international trade and New World exploration was to acquire valuable goods, there was a significant secondary effect of evangelization. Especially in relations with East Asia, evangelization was on par with trade in terms of importance. With Europeans claiming territory in the New World, they could declare the land as belonging to a Christian nation and officially make anyone who lived there a Christian. By the time the Americas were colonized, Europeans came to see it as a duty to convert the native peoples to Christianity.

Christianity really flourished in the context of a world that was connected by trade, so much so that conversion has almost replaced trade interests in more recent centuries.

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