Page:Western Europe in the Middle Ages.djvu/39

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23
THE MAKING OF EUROPE

in politics, which they did not, Constantine had less to gain from their support than his co-emperors in Italy and the East. He seems to have become sincerely convinced of the power of the Christian God and the truth of the Christian faith. His unbroken record of victories over rival emperors strengthened his belief, and though his understanding of Christian doctrine and Christian ethics was always rudimentary, he gave unwavering support to the leaders of the Church. His successors, with one brief exception, continued his policy, and by 400 Christianity was firmly established as the official religion of the Empire.

The acceptance of Christianity by the emperors did not mean that the Church at once became the dominant influence in the lives of their subjects. The conversion of a people is not something that can be rushed through by a few edicts, and all through the early Middle Ages there was a considerable time lag between the official acceptance of Christianity by a ruler and its actual acceptance by the mass of the population. One of the great tasks of the Church after 300 was to make real Christians out of nominal Christians — an undertaking which required generations of patient endeavor. Both the organization and the doctrine of the Church had to be perfected before it could reach the position of unquestioned supremacy which it held in later centuries.

There were two main weaknesses in the organization of the early Church — inadequate provision for inhabitants of rural districts and lack of a centralized administrative system. Both weaknesses go back to the first centuries of the Church when the new faith spread from city to city, jumping over the great stretches of agricultural country which lay between the towns. The early churches were city churches; peasants could learn the new doctrine and follow its rites only if they visited the towns. They were naturally slow to become converts, especially in the West, where towns were small and scattered. As a result the pagani — the country dwellers — became the pagans — the typical non-Christians of the Late Empire. The complete conversion of this group did not