Constantine’s Impact on Christianity

By Ian Mugford

As Christians today, we have a tendency not to think about how it is that Christianity came to be our known and widely accepted religion. We’re born, baptized, and raised in the Christian faith while being surrounded by of our friends, family, and other acquaintances, the majority of whom are also Christian. We’re brought to church on the weekends, we say our creeds, drink the ‘blood,’ and eat the ‘flesh,’ all the while never questioning how it is that this became the norm of our society; never questioning the beginning of Christianity, what becoming a Christian in that time period would have meant, or why people chose to convert, if, that is, they had a choice at all.


In this paper I intend to discuss the long and complicated process of becoming a Christian in the third and early fourth centuries, what the appeal was to encourage people to take the drastic measure of becoming Christian, and ultimately how the reign of Constantine changed not only the process of becoming Christian, but also the incentive to become Christian.

Prior to the reign of Constantine, becoming a Christian was a very long and strenuous process; a process in which the converts would truly need to be dedicated not only to becoming Christian, but also to changing everything about their beliefs, behaviour, and lifestyles. This process was broken down into four stages. [1]

The first stage of conversion, evangelization, was a stage in which the candidate would have met with Christians and decided that he would like to embark on becoming one himself. He would apply to the church and ask for instruction on how to go about making this possible. The church would examine the candidate’s lifestyle and life choices before permitting them to move on to stage two. For example, if a candidate was enlisted in the military, he could remain a soldier but would need to promise not to kill any more, or risk being rejected.

Upon being examined and accepted by the church, the candidate would move on to stage two, the catechumenate. It was in stage two that the transformation, or conversion, of the candidate’s behaviour and way of life would take place. This process would involve meeting with the church several times a week to receive instructions on the conversion process. Depending on the candidate, the catechumenate could last up to five years. The church was not concerned with the amount of time it took for the conversion to take place: “if a man is keen, and perseveres well in the matter, the time shall not be judged, but only his conduct” (Ap. Trad. 17). [2]

After the church had accepted the catechumen’s behaviour as being worthy of being Christian, the catechumen would then be able to move on to stage three, enlightenment. Stage three, as its title suggests, focussed on the beliefs of the individual. Throughout stage three, the catechumen would receive orthodox teachings. It was also customary for the candidate to be exorcised many times throughout this stage to ensure that he was 'pure'. The catechumen would then, after becoming thoroughly learned in the way of the church and the church’s beliefs, be baptised. This was a very elaborate and ritualistic process in itself. [3]

Finally, as a new member of the church, he or she would move on to the final stage, mystagogy. In this stage the catechists, in the week succeeding Easter, would explain the meaning of the baptismal and Eucharistic rites which the new-born Christians had just experienced. [4]

Men and women would endure this long and strenuous process en route to becoming a Christian despite knowing that once they had done so they could be murdered on that basis. [5] People went through this process for, in many cases, a simple sense of belonging or the hope of a more glorious afterlife. [6]

Constantine, whether he intended to or not, would eventually change this process drastically. This may not appear to be the case initially, but as you look at his successors and the laws that they would pass along the line, you can’t help but trace them back to Constantine, his edicts, and his conversion. Was this his intention? Did he have any idea of how the changes he made would affect the choices of the emperors to follow?

In 312, on a night prior to a decisive battle, Constantine had a dream. In this dream, the emperor saw a heavenly sign in the sky, 'a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round'. Attached to this sign were the words "By this conquer". [7] Christians of the day believed this to have been the labarum although there is a dispute amongst modern historians as to whether the sign was truly Christian or whether it was actually an ancient paganistic symbol. [8][9] It is also argued that it may have even been of that date's astronomical origins. [10] Regardless of what it actually was, it was accepted by Constantine as a Christian symbol and the following day he had this sign attached to all of his men’s armour. They entered the battle under the sign and were victorious. Constantine attributed his victory to the power of the labarum. [11]

The victory over Maxentius in 312 under the sign of Christ would eventually lead to a meeting between Constantine and Licinius, the eastern Augusti, in Milan the following year. During this meeting, Constantine and Licinius came to an agreement that they would issue a letter declaring that the empire would be neutral on the grounds of religious worship. [12] This letter, better known as the edict of Milan, granted Christians toleration in the empire and forced the return of all of their property which was seized. No longer would they be persecuted, which would inevitably make Christianity a more appealing religion to convert to.

Constantine would certainly now seem to be favouring the Christians, but had he himself become one? He hadn’t completed the four steps of conversion but yet he addressed the bishops as his 'beloved brethren', and would eventually place himself under them referring to himself as their 'fellow servant'. [13] If Constantine was accepted as a Christian, by any means, what would this mean for the Church and its conversion process?

For the first two decades of Constantine’s reign he offered the world a new possibility. He offered the possibility of becoming Christian without being baptized or catechized. It wasn’t until Constantine was on his death-bed that he fully submitted himself to the church and completed the necessary tasks. Even then it was only because he knew he was about to die. [14] Constantine’s behaviour could not have been judged to have changed in the short period of time that is allotted for the catechumenate stage. He states, “I shall now impose upon myself rules of life which are worthy of God,” but how hard would it be to not kill anyone or to avoid wearing the colour purple for the short period of time he had left to live? [15] It is not as if he would have been going into battle, and people don’t generally commit sins when they’re dying.

Allowing Constantine to have been considered Christian during his reign and to eventually welcome him into the church prior to his death was unconventional to say the least. But what effects would this have on Christianity? Traditionally, you would need to truly devote yourself to the church and be sincere in your reasons for doing so in order to be accepted. However, during the reign of Constantine as the 'Christian Emperor', we see an enormous change in the motivation behind becoming Christian.

Constantine was against conversion by coercion: “It is one thing voluntarily to undertake the conflict for immortality, another to compel others to do so from fear of punishment”. However, he was not against bribing people into converting or making it the only way of leading a successful life. He provided, as Sir Herbert Butterfield calls them, inducements. These inducements included: imperially conferred benefits for church leaders, including immunity from public duties; imperial cash gifts; the enrichment of Christian churches; the advancement of careers of civil servants who had become Christian; and the respectability which adhering to the emperor’s religion would entail. [16][17]

Constantine may have made his attempts to avoid coercion but ultimately he had the empire converting to Christianity for all of the wrong reasons. If you’re converting to Christianity so that you can obtain a cash gift, get an imperial position, or to simply get the emperor’s respect, then how could it be possible that your conversion would be true? The conversion to Christianity was supposed to have involved a change in beliefs, behaviour, and belonging. [18] The only belief that these converts would truly have had would have been the belief in being rewarded for their conversion. They would not have the required devotion to God. Is the conversion for financial gain or imperial office any better than conversion by coercion?

Despite his attempts to avoid it, there were signs of coercion very shortly after Constantine’s death. Less than a decade after he had died, there was an imperial edict issued stating that pagans were an intolerable deviation from society’s norms and behaviours. In the year 380, the orthodox authorities banned ‘heretical’ Christian groups from public acts of worship; in 392 it was outlawed for anyone who held onto any form of paganism to participate in public worship. [19] It was made very difficult for anyone who still held pagan beliefs or practices to get work in imperial establishments. In 408 it was prohibited for any enemy of the Christian church to serve the palace. [20] In 416 there was an edict issued banning anyone who held beliefs or practices which weren’t Christian, including pagan beliefs, from being hired by the armies or civil service – only Christians could be hired. By the closing decades of the century there was use of armed force compelling people to convert to Christianity; [21] failure to convert could result in a death sentence. [22] Finally in 529, Justinian issued an edict stating that conversion to Christianity was compulsory. This included the baptising of all infants. [23]

Constantine would have been against the actions taken by his successors but nevertheless one could attribute their decisions to his life, his edicts, and moreover his conversion. Prior to Constantine’s reign, the imperial government was in the midst of an effort to remove all forms of Christianity from the empire. At the time of his death in 337, Christians had assumed all imperial ranks, dress, and the duties of the civic elite. [24] Every emperor, except for a very brief period in the 360s, was, in one form or another, Christian. [25] I believe it’s fair to say that if it had not been for Constantine that none of this would have happened. That is, if he hadn’t converted to Christianity, the conversion process would have stayed quite the same as it was. Furthermore, the religion which Constantine’s successors forced upon the empire, in all likelihood, would have been paganism, and it is quite possible that Christianity would no longer be an accepted and practised religion of today.

Works Cited

1 Alan Kreider. The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom. (Pennsylvania: 1941), 21.
2 Ibid., 22-24.
3 Robert E. Van Voorst. Readings in Christianity. (Toronto: 2000), 79-80.
4 Kreider, 21-25.
5 Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity. (New Jersey: 1996), 166.
6 Robert Wilken. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. (London: 1984), 32-34.
7 Ibid., 113.
8 The labarum is a Christian symbol which displays the first two Greek letters of the word Christ - Chi and Rho.
9 R. Ross Holloway. Constantine and Rome. (London, Yale University Press: 1934), 3.
10 Elizabeth DePlane Digester, The Making of A Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome. (London, Cornell University Press, 2000), 122.
11 Holloway, 3.
12 Hans Pohlsander. The Emperor Constantine. (London: 1996), 24
13 Kreider, 34.
14 Ibid., 36.
15 Kreider, 36-37.
16 Ibid., 38-39.
17 Ramsay MacMullen. Christianizing the Roman Empire. (London: 1928), 88
18 Kreider, 34.
19 Ibid., 39.
20 Pierre Chuvin. A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. (London: 1990), 91.
21 MacMullen, 88.
22 Chuvin, 92
23 Kreider, 39.
24 Noel Lenski. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. (Colorado: 2006), 111.
25 Kreider, 38.

Chuvin, Piere. A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. (London, Harvard University Press: 1990)
DePalma Digeser, Elizabeth. The Making of A Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome. (London, Cornell University Press, 2000)
Holloway, Ross. Constantine and Rome. (London, Yale University Press: 1934)
Kreider, Alan. The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom. (Harrisburg Pennsylvania, Trinity Press International: 1941)
Lenski, Noel. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. (Colorado, Cambridge University Press: 2006)
MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire. (New Haven and London, Yale University Press: 1928)
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. (New Jersey, Princeton University Press: 1996) Van Voorst, Robert E. Readings in Christianity. (Toronto: 2000)
Wilken, Robert. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. (London: 1984)

© Ian Mugford, January 2008
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Ian MugfordName: Ian Mugford (More often referred to as Mugz)
D.O.B.: December 5th, 1985
Education: Currently, Ian is in his third year of his Bachelor of Arts program at Cape Breton University with his key focus within the fields of English literature and history. Upon completion, Ian intends to enroll in the University of Maine with aspirations of obtaining his Bachelor of Education degree with future plans of obtaining a PH.D. within a field of literature.
Current Profession: Ian currently works as a technical support agent for the company of iBahn (A hotel based internet provider).
Hobbies: Aside from writing, Ian enjoys various activities including sports, music, partaking in social gatherings amongst friends, and spending time with his family (Father - Eric, Mother - Sabina, Brother - Evan, Sister-In-Law - Candice, Girlfriend - Lauren, and his two nieces which are also his God Daughters - Jessica Sabina-Lynn and Emma Sarah Noelle). Ian also has a great fascination with animals and loves pets. His dog, Maya, is a pure breaded basenji and is with him on most occasions.
Favourite Writers/Inspirations: Ian enjoys reading such authors as James Joyce, Walt Whitman, E.M. Forster, Edgar Allen Poe, Graham Greene, Stephen King, Morley Callaghan, Ernest Hemmingway and most notably Shakespeare (Ian has current intentions of writing his thesis paper on Shakespearean writing)
Other Favourites: Musical Artist - Eminem. Song - The Path (West Avenue). Actor - Will Ferrell; Adam Sandler; Vince Vaughn. Show - House; Criss Angel Cartoon - Family Guy Movie - Remember the Titans; Click. Colour - Blue. Literary Work - Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, (Modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet & Othello)
Pet Peeves: Narrow-minded views and opinions Not finishing an intelligent conversation or debate.
Life's Ambition: To see the world

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