The growth of the ancient church: not just through conversion

Peter Leithart passed on Paul Stephenson’s contentions about why Christians grew numerous in the Roman Empire: the requirement of husbands’ faithfulness to their wives, the forbidding of anal and oral sex, and the rejection of abortion and infanticide.

Infanticide often targeted girls in Rome. Leithart here quotes Stephenson’s book Constantine:

“If the population of the Roman Empire was sixty million at the time of Constantine’s birth, only around twenty-four million of these were women.  Given that boys are more problematic in the womb, more sickly and more inclined to die at a young age in military activity or by violence, this figure is quite remarkable and can be explained only by the fact that baby girls were frequently murdered.”

He goes on: “It was rare for all but the wealthiest families to raise more than one daughter, however many were born . . .

“and infanticide was the surest way to dispose of unwanted girls. It was legal, philosophically justified and widely practiced.  An infamous letter sent by a man to his pregnant wife in 1 BC instructs her: ‘if it’s a boy keep it, if it’s a girl throw it away.’ . . . far fewer girls than boys were allowed to grow to maturity, that is to child-bearing age, and consequently the general rate of reproduction in the late Roman world was kept artificially low.”



  1. Rodney Stark of Baylor has also written on this topic in the Rise of Christianity. Roman cities were notoriously dependent upon immigration from the counryside to maintain their populations, not unlike the West is dependent upon immigration from Mexico and Northern Africa to maintain its population levels.
    So, the earliest Christians rejection of contraception, abortion, infanticide and homosexual acts. Funny how the moral teachings of so many Christian churches, even those representing themselves as true claimants of the apostolic faith (vis-a-vis the Catholic Church), have rejected one or more of these prohibitions. It reminds me of a quote by Newman.

  2. “Meanwhile, before setting about this work, I will address one remark to Chillingworth and his friends:—Let them consider, that if they can criticize history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. It might, I grant, be clearer on this great subject than it is. This is no great concession. History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. ***And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism.*** If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

    And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. {8} Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicæa and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. ***To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.***”
    –J.H. Newman — An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

  3. Regarding early Christian examples on the prohibition of contraception, this is a decent sampling…

    One might also ask which church fathers promoted contraception? Several heretics did so, for it was common throughout the Roman empire.

    There is a reason withdrawal is referred to as Onanism in the dictionary (Gen. 38:8-10) and both historical Judaism and Christianity have indisputably rejected condoms and spilling the seed as sinful.

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