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​Randall Professor Calls Early Christianity ‘Astonishing’

Providence, R.I.--The global reach of Christianity in the first century was “astonishing,” spreading as far south as present-day Sudan and Ethiopia, and as far east as India and even China, said Dr. Robert Louis Wilken, the Robert J. Randall Professor in Christian Culture at Providence College.

Wilken, professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia, conveyed that message in his recent fall Randall Lecture. Wilken, who is teaching a course this semester in PC’s Liberal Arts Honors Program on Christianity and Islam, spoke on “Global Christianity in the First Millennium,” which is also the topic of his next book. 

“The spread of Christianity into the East beyond Jerusalem seldom figures in the general history of Christianity as told in the West,” Wilken said. “We are so conditioned by the New Testament’s account of the missionary journeys of St. Paul to Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome that we overlook the spread of Christianity to the East.”

The Silk Road, the trade route that carried merchants and supplies between the Mediterranean and the Great Wall of China, also served as a conduit for Christianity, Wilken said.

“In caravans along the entire length of the Silk Road from Antioch through Persia to China and India, Christian merchants were active,” Wilken said. “Their role in the historic spread of Christianity, and that of the clergy and monks who followed them, is singular, for they carried the Gospel to lands far more distant than those reached by missionaries from the Latin-speaking West, or missionaries from the Greek-speaking East.”

The merchants spoke Syriac, the language of those living east of Jerusalem. Also called Aramaic, it was the language of Jesus, and like Greek and Latin, is “an honored member … among the small company of languages that reach across linguistic divides,” Wilken said.

“More than any other ancient Christian communion, the Syriac-speaking Christians of the Church of the East made Christianity into a global religion,” Wilken said.

A black limestone monument containing Syriac words with Chinese translations was discovered in the 17th century in Chang-an, China, Wilken said. It was erected in 781 on the site of a monastery of the “Church of the East,” as Christianity was then known, and contained a history of the “luminous religion” in China, including the arrival of the first Christian monk from Persia.

Islam’s “lengthening shadow”

But Christians in the Far East were also the first to come under the rule of Islam, Wilken said. For most, that meant decline, and for some, extinction.

“Most of the territories that were Christian in the year 700 are no longer Christian, and most are still under Muslim rule,” Wilken said. “This is a sobering fact that casts a shadow over the implicitly triumphalistic history of Christianity told in the West, a shadow that is lengthening in our own day.

“Many have said that the great religious story of the 21st century will be the rivalry between Christianity and Islam. If one considers the global reach of Christianity in the first millennium, that story is already part of our history.”

The Randall Professorship, the College’s first endowed chair, was established in 2002. It honors Rev. Robert J. Randall, who taught at the College for more than 25 years, and exemplifies his commitment to educational excellence and teaching in the Department of English, the Development of Western Civilization, and the Liberal Arts Honors Program.

Father Randall, who attended Wilken’s lecture, was introduced by College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80. Father Shanley expressed his appreciation “for the blessing of this chair for the last nine years. It has brought some wonderful, distinguished faculty here, wonderful teachers.”

Wilken will lecture again in the spring on “The Roots of Religious Freedom.”

--Vicki Downing


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