A comparison of Christian collapse in Roman Britain and Roman Africa

Recently, I noted Philip Jenkins’ series on the decline of the ancient British church. His latest installment compares the near disappearance of Christianity in Britain and North Africa. For Jenkins, the key similarity is that the rural areas had not been evangelized

Here is his description of the problem in North Africa:

Where the African church failed was in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of the cities and the great estates, and not sinking roots into the world of the native peoples. Like most regions of the western empire, such as Gaul and Spain, Africa was divided between Latin-speaking provincials and old-stock natives, who spoke their ancient languages, in this case, varieties of Berber. Unlike these other provinces, though, the African church had made next to no progress in taking the faith to the villages and the neighboring tribes, and nor, critically, had they tried to evangelize in local languages. Evidence of the neglect of the countryside can be found in the letters of St. Augustine, by far the best known of African bishops, whose vision was sharply focused on the cities of Rome and Carthage, and he expressed little interest in the rural areas or peoples of his diocese. (In contrast, the Egyptian church did make such efforts, and it rode out the Arab conquest without too much difficulty).

If Africa’s Christian elites had remained in place long enough, then ultimately their faith, and their language, would have permeated the cultures of the lower classes. But the lack of deep roots meant that Christianity was vulnerable to a sudden decapitation, which would remove the Christian upper classes while leaving no infrastructure. In that case, nothing would be left.

Christianity in this region remained as much a colonists’ religion as it would be once again during the French empire of the twentieth century, and just as in that later period, when the colonists left, so did the religion. Long wars during the sixth and seventh centuries forced many Romanized Africans to flee to other parts of the Mediterranean, and the Arab conquest virtually completed this process. As a Victorian scholar noted, ”the African churches were destroyed not because they were corrupt but because they failed to reach the hearts of the true natives of the province… They fell because they were the churches of a party and not of a people.” Muslims did not have to eradicate African Christianity, because the believers had already fled.

Calling Christianity “a colonists’ religion” here seems to go overboard, since (if my understanding shaped by Thomas Oden is correct) Romanized Africans were largely natives of North Africa. But I see the point that he is making.

Here is his description of the parallels in Britain:

I wonder whether similar remarks apply to Roman Britain, especially the point about decapitation. In the western regions, like Wales and Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) Christian kings and secular elites survived long enough for their faith to penetrate the lower orders, particularly through the influence of monasteries and local shrines. These parts therefore entered the early Middle Ages with a thoroughly rooted Christian culture – albeit with plenty of pagan survivals.

In southern and eastern Britain, though, the crises of the fifth century came at too early a stage, when the faith had not yet traveled far outside the cities and the villas, and when as yet monasticism was still at a very rudimentary stage. As W.H.C. Frend pointed out many years ago, the British church seems not to have developed a serious parochial structure – although it is always hard to argue from silence. Assume, though, that this view is correct.

With the head struck off, then, the church’s roots withered quickly. Christianity would therefore have faded at roughly the same stage as British Latin, by the start of the sixth century


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