Page:Western Europe in the Middle Ages.djvu/38

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WESTERN EUROPE IN THE MIDDLE AGES

importance of the individual soul in the eyes of God. These were important factors in spreading Christianity among the poorer classes.

Christianity was not the only religion which appealed to the inhabitants of the Empire. Various Oriental cults, such as the religion of Mithra or the worship of Isis and Osiris, offered some of the same satisfactions. They promised immortality and the forgiveness of sin; they stressed the importance of the individual in the community of believers. They were weaker than Christianity because they were tarnished with gross superstitions and obvious inconsistencies in doctrine. They were not as sure of their exclusive possession of truth as was Christianity; they usually admitted that there was some value in the rites and beliefs of other faiths. These were fatal flaws in an age when men were anxious for positive assurance, for an ideal which could be followed without reservations. Christian doctrine was logical and self-consistent; it was expounded by men who understood and followed the basic rules of classical thought. The leaders of the Christian Church flatly refused to compromise on matters of belief, they would not dilute their faith in order to gain lukewarm adherents. As a result, Christianity spread more slowly than its rivals, but it also spread more surely. Once a Christian Church had been established it seldom went out of existence, and backsliding among individual Christians was rare. The consistency and certainty of Christian doctrine attracted men of outstanding ability, and under their leadership the new faith began to spread to the middle classes. In spite of intermittent persecution the Church grew steadily. By 300 A.D. it included a considerable minority of the population of the East and was well established in the larger towns of the West.

This was the situation when the Emperor Constantine granted first toleration and then official support to the Church. His actions cannot be explained purely on grounds of policy, since he was originally ruler of the northwestern provinces, the least Christian part of the Empire. Even if the Christians had taken an active part