The Spread and Influence of Christianity By the first century C.E., Christianity had spread to many parts of the Roman Empire. In later centuries, it also gained followers in Persia, China, and India. Christian missionaries carried the faith to Africa and the Americas. Today, Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world, with some two billion followers worldwide.
The spread of Christianity was not always peaceful, however. Although millions of people converted to the new religion, others resisted. Conversion was sometimes accomplished by force. Christians and Muslims, in particular, clashed over their religious beliefs. In many cases, Christianity also adapted to local cultures. In Latin America, for example, Christian beliefs blended with native traditions, producing a faith that was more meaningful to the local population.
Christianity was spread to Latin America by European missionaries. As in other parts of the world, in Latin America Christian practices and beliefs were adapted to indigenous cultures. This photo shows an Easter Week procession in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Over the centuries, Christianity has had a great impact on culture and society. As with Judaism, Christian ethics have influenced codes of law in many countries. Christian charity has helped millions of poor and suffering people. The power of Christian belief and institutions has also influenced politics and government. Throughout history, many rulers have depended on the support of Christian churches to gain and hold power.
Islam: Origins and Development
Islam emerged in the Middle East in the 600s C.E., centuries after Judaism and Christianity. It grew rapidly, however, and soon became one of the world’s major religions.
Islam was taught by Muhammad, who was born in Mecca, in Arabia, in around 570 C.E. At the time, Mecca was an important trade center and pilgrimage site. A shrine in the heart of Mecca, called the Ka’bah, was filled with statues of local gods and spirits.
Muhammad became a successful and respected merchant. As the years passed, however, he was increasingly drawn to spiritual matters. One day in about 610 C.E., according to Islamic teachings, Muhammad was meditating in a cave when an angel appeared before him and revealed the word of Allah, or God. The angel told him he had been chosen as Allah’s prophet, or messenger.
Around 613 C.E., Muhammad began to preach in Mecca. He called on Arabs to worship the one, true God. In Arabic, the word Islam means “to submit.” Muhammad’s followers became known as Muslims, meaning “those who submit to God.”
After Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., Muslim leaders and their armies continued to spread Islam throughout the lands they conquered. Muslim armies did not usually force the peoples they conquered to convert to Islam, but over time most people in these lands converted to the new faith.
Many local leaders saw Islam as a threat to their power and prestige, however, and began to persecute the Muslims. In 622, Muhammad and his followers left Mecca and traveled to the city of Medina. There, his teachings continued to gain a following among the Arab tribes. By 630, the Muslims were strong enough to retake Mecca and establish Islam as the dominant faith of Arabia. They destroyed the statues of gods in the Ka’bah and turned it into a holy shrine of Islam.
Muhammad died in 632. But the Muslim leaders who followed continued to win converts and expand the religion. By 750, Islam had moved beyond Arabia to become the main religion of the Middle East and North Africa. It also spread to Spain, Central Asia, and India.