Another in a series of posts about the many and various ways in which religions spread – often by people who originally had no intention whatever of becoming missionaries, or indeed of leaving their homes.
Sometimes, people really do set out to spread their religion to new parts of the world, and they enjoy great success in doing so. They might be acknowledged missionaries, consciously pursuing evangelization, or else they are refugees and utopians seeking better conditions in which to pursue their faith. Think of the Puritans and their “New England.” In many instances, though, religions spread by non-intentional means, and these can be quite as successful as deliberate mission. Religions or denominations are carried along with larger migration movements. In other less studied cases, the people carrying religious traditions actually do so quite reluctantly, because they have no wish whatever to be in the countries in which they find themselves. (I will concentrate here on the Christian experience, but many of the same observations apply to the spread of other great faiths).
I have in the past written about what I call Daniel Syndrome, named for the Biblical prophet who found himself reluctantly transported to Babylon as part of a forced deportation. Historically, slaves, captives and deportee have actually played a very significant role in transmitting Christianity to new lands, or even in introducing the faith. Saint Patrick himself was carried to Ireland as a slave, and when he returned voluntarily in later years, many of the Christians to whom he ministered were themselves captives. Slaves and captives also introduced Christianity to the Caucasian regions on the fringes of the Roman and Persian empires, in kingdoms like Georgia and Iberia.
In ancient times, warfare often involved the capture of slaves, and the deportation or relocation of whole populations. Such a move could have unintended consequences. During the great wars between the Roman and Persian empires, Persian victories meant that many thousands of Christians were “imported” into their territories, where they created a greatly enhanced Christian presence.
I have previously written of the deeds of the Persian king Shapur:
In the 260s, Shapur settled many Roman prisoners he had taken during his successful war. A city emerged, bearing his name: Gundeshapur (Jundaisapur). In the fifth and sixth, centuries this emerged as one of the greatest intellectual centers of the ancient world, almost a facsimile of a research university, with a special focus on medicine. Although it is difficult to disentangle truth from legend, Gundeshapur is often cited as a major influence on early Islamic learning and scholarship. And it was, par excellence, a Christian center, base of one of the metropolitan provinces of the Church of the East. Its Christian identity became even more marked when it became a refuge for scholars fleeing religious oppression in the Eastern Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, then, by the late third century, the Persian Empire found itself with abundant Christians, drawn from a wide variety of sources and ethnic traditions.
It would have been very difficult to convince those harrowed prisoners in the 260s that the catastrophes they were witnessing would lead to a vast flowering for their faith. Historically, though, wars and disasters often drive religious change and movement, at least as much as any conscious human intent.
Noel Lenski has a book chapter entitled “Captivity, Slavery, And Cultural Exchange Between Rome And The Germans From The First To The Seventh Century CE” in Catherine M. Cameron, ed., Invisible Citizens: Captives And Their Consequences (University of Utah Press, 2008). Dr. Lenski argues that captured Roman slaves were very significant for spreading Christianity among their Germanic captors. As he writes,
The first translation of the Bible into a Germanic language, Gothic, was undertaken by the descendant of Christian captives seized by the Goths during their invasion of Anatolia in the 250s. Ulfilas (Gothic for “Little Wolf”) was directly related to a family of Christian clergy transported back to Gothic territory in the wake of these raids. His family, and no doubt other Christian captives, began the process of converting their captors in the later third century … [Ulfilas] went so far as to invent an alphabet, based on the Greek alphabet, with which to begin writing Gothic and then used it to translate the Bible.
Andrew Walls gives another example (see below for source):
We hear also of remote rural populations turning to Christianity because of what they had seen in the sufferings of Christian deportees being marched across their territory. And the slavery factor also enters the story of the church of the East. A section of the Hun people living in the Central Asian region of Bactria bought Syriac-speaking Christian slaves from sources in the Persian Empire. They made such an impression that the whole Bactrian Hun community decided to become Christians and, in an ironic twist, applied to the Zoroastrian emperor for a bishop to lead and teach them. They might not be experienced in ecclesiastical matters, but they knew that the faith they desired to embrace had come from within the emperor’s dominions.
I read a fine recent book by Catherine M. Cameron, Captives: How Stolen People Changed the World (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Although this focuses on New World indigenous groups, so much of what it says bears close parallels to ancient settings in the Old World. Particularly relevant are the sections on how captives import new ways, and help redefine captor societies. Her sections on cultural transmission relate closely to what I am saying about religious influence.
In a personal communication, Dr. Cameron writes that “it is amazing that no one has written a book about slaves as a vehicle for the transmission of religious ideas! There must be a world of data out there.” She is absolutely correct.
In later periods too, a lot has been written about slaves, conversion, and religious transmission around the Black Atlantic: see especially Jon F. Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2005).
As I mentioned in my earlier post, Andrew F. Walls offers a wide-ranging historical perspective on these matters in his “Mission and Migration: The Diaspora Factor in Christian History,” in Global Diasporas and Mission (Regnum Books, 2014), edited by Chandler H. Im and Amos Yong, 19-37.