Archive for April, 2008

Atheism, Materialism and Pre-Revolutionary Russian Radicalism

April 23, 2008

In my earlier blog posts on the persecution of Christianity in Soviet Russia, I discussed the origins of the Communist attacks on religion and people of faith in the atheism and materialism that formed an integral part of Marxism itself. This seems odd, even profoundly mistaken to many people given the apparent lack of connection between the Communist political programme and the defining tenet of atheism that there is no God or gods. However, metaphysical beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality have throughout history informed the nature and essential political and social institutions of cultures and civilisations around the world. Before the secularisation of society beginning in the 18th century, religion to a greater or lesser extent provided the basis for the justification of political and social institutions. By denying the existence of God and the value of religion, atheism challenged the metaphysical basis of society, and demanded its radical restructuring according to secular political ideologies. Rather than simply being about the non-existence of God, 18th century religious scepticism was necessarily part of a wider debate about the nature of society itself.  

Atheism in Marxism and Early 19th century Russian Radicalism

Marx was strongly influenced in his critique of contemporary 19th century society by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose theory that God was merely a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature caused Marx to consider that all social criticism began with religious criticism, and to state that ‘the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness’. 1 As a result, the Soviet state attacked and persecuted religion and promoted atheism in an attempt to create an atheist, Communist state. However, the connection between atheism and militant political radicalism predated the emergence of Marxism in Russia, dating back to the 18th century philosophes in France and the radical, violent opposition to the French ancien regime and contemporary European civilisation. French positivism, utopian socialism and some German Left-Hegelian ideas entered Russia in the 1840s. The literary circle around M.V. Butashevich-Petrashevsky, before its dissolution by the Tsar’s secret police, actively promoted the ideas of the French utopian socialist Fourier, for example. 2 Deeply concerned by the backward state of Russian society, and particularly serfdom, and the political oppression of Tsarist autocracy, Russian radicals such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobrolyubov and Dmitry Pisarev turned for solutions to their country’s political and social problems to atheism, materialism and western science. 3 This generation of dedicated revolutionaries was later depicted and epitomised by the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in the character of Bazarov in his novel, Fathers and Children. In it, Turgenev attempted to describe the confrontation between the old generation of Russian liberals and traditional civilisation with the younger generation of Russian radicals and their harsh positivism, which had no use for anything that could not be established rationally.  In the novel, Bazarov is a dedicated materialist and revolutionary. A self-described Nihilist, he attacks and rejects anything that cannot be established by rational, empirical science, including literature, philosophy, the beauty of art and nature, tradition, authority, religion, intuition, and all uncriticised assumptions, whether of conservatives, liberals, populists or socialists. 4 Bazarov recommends to his friends contemporary popular explositions of materialism, such as Buchner’s Kraft und Stoff. 5 As part of his personal project to establish science as the only true knowledge, Bazarov dissects frogs. 6 The book was immediately controversial amongst the Russian left, with some feeling that Turgenev had betrayed them by portraying them as Bazarov. Others strongly supported Turgenev. The radical literary critic, Pisarev, declared that he identified with Bazarov, and that the character showed that true progress would not come from tradition, but through active, self-emancipated, independent people like Bazarov who were free from romanticism and religion. 7 Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Herald, the review in which Fathers and Children originally appeared, presented his own perspective on the character in an unsigned review in his magazine. Bazarov, Katkov felt, was not interested in scientific truth, otherwise he would not promote cheap materialist tracts, which were nothing but materialist propaganda. Similarly, Bazarov dissected frogs not because of any genuine interest in science, but simply as a method of rejecting civilised and traditional values. Indeed, Bazarov and the other Nihilists were not true scientists genuinely interested in research, but political propagandists offering radical slogans and diatribes in place of hard, scientific fact. 8 Bazarov has been described as the first Bolshevik, despite the fact the character was as critical of socialism as of the other ideologies he considered to be unscientific. 9 Despite his critical stance towards socialism, Bazarov nevertheless shared the later Soviet regime’s claim to represent atheism and science in his revolutionary views.

Religious Scepticism and 18th Century Revolutionary Ideology

Bazarov’s violent rejection of existing culture was shared by some of the radical atheists of the 18th century. Sylvain Marechal, in his Dictionnaire des athees, demanded the destruction of Christian civilisation, declaring that

‘the utter destruction of a long-standing and imposing error, which affects everything in existence, which distorts everything, virtue itself included, which is a pitfall for the weak, a lever for the strong, and a barrier to genius – the utter destruction of such a gigantic error would chyange the face of the world.’ 10 This attack on Christianity culminated in the attempted suppression of Christianity in favour of the Cult of Pure Reason in revolutionary France, and the demands of Hebertists for the absolute suppression of religious belief as a whole. Marechal himself was a Communist, who, during the French Revolution wrote a Manifesto of the Equals to promote his radical political views. 11

In fact hostility to Christianity and organised religion in French revolutionary ideology extended far beyond Communists like Marechal. Philosophers and political theorists such as Helvetius and Rousseau criticised Christianity not just for being false in their view, but also for being unscientific and preaching a destructive morality in conflict with the loyalty required by the state. One could not be both a citizen and a Christian, according to Rousseau, because of this conflict in loyalties. For Helvetius, the conflict between religion and the state would only disappear if the ministers of the legislative body had both temporal and spiritual powers. 12 Rousseau was not an atheist, and looked back to the ancient Greek city states for the type of civic religion he felt would produce morality and virtue, while Helvetius believed this could be produced simply by social legislation and institutions. 13

Just as 18th century atheism viewed humanity as a machine, rather than an ensouled individual, as in LaMettrie’s book L’Homme Machine, so contemporary radical philosophers also viewed society in mechanistic terms. In his 1755 political treatise, Code de la Nature, Morelly declared that society was a marvellous automatic machine’. 14 Based on the same materialist determinism that influenced Baron d’Holbach and Helvetius’ 1758 De l’Esprit, the radical philosophers of the French revolution believed that they had found the basic rationality that would allow the laws of justice to be formed with the same accuracy and certainty as the natural sciences.  They therefore believed in a kind of cosmic pragmatism, in which it would be possible to create a state in which only those acting against the natural order, the foolish and wicked, would fail to be virtuous. 15 The result was the inflexible, doctrinaire attitudes of the French revolutionaries that resulted in the massacre of hundred of thousands in order to create a new, perfect, revolutionary state and society founded on immutable, rational principles. The failure of these ideologies to recognise the reality of human nature as fundamentally flawed, and their consequent impracticality, was recognised by some of the revolutionaries themselves. Salle, a liberal member of the Gironde, in 1792 wrote in alarm to Dubois-Crance, remarking that ‘the principles in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analysed in this society – no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect.’ 16 Morelly’s book was the first discussion of Communism as an achievable political reality, rather than a utopia, and inspired Gracchus Babeuf’s own attempts to establish it in the 1795 Conspiracy of Equals. 17 Over a century later, the establishment of the Soviet Union as a Marxist state following the Russian Revolution was a continuation of the radical 18th century project to create a perfect state on atheist, materialist principles, an experiment that similarly collapsed through its inability to conform to the realities of human nature rather than abstract political theory.

Conclusion: Marxist Atheism a Continuation of 18th Century Religious Scepticism in Radical Politics

Thus French revolutionary ideology included religious scepticism as part of its radical critique of existing society, and demanded the abolition of Christianity and its replacement by a civil religion as part of its political programme. This is not surprising, considering the quasi-theocratic nature of contemporary European states, where there was no separation of church and state in the modern sense. In 19th century Germany Hegelian philosophy was an official part of the educational system, used to justify the Prussian monarchy, while in the Russian Empire the authority of the tsar was supported by the Orthodox Church. Thus revolutionary ideologies attempted to attack the philosophical and religious basis of the feudal and autocratic regimes they criticised and rejected. However, these ideologies went far beyond advocating the separation of church and state or the toleration of different faiths in religiously neutral state, but advocated instead the abolition of religion, either revealed or as a whole, as part of a complete reorganisation of society. Thus the hostility of the Soviet authorities to religion and their attempts to destroy it were due not just to Marx, but were also part of a long tradition of politically radical atheism dating from the 18th century. In their attempts to create a perfect society based on fundamental materialist principles, the atheism of the 18th century French revolutionaries and their successors in Soviet Communism formed part of a general attempt to create a society based on the absence of revealed religion. For these revolutionaries, atheism was about far more than rejecting the existence of God, but was a metaphysical attitude that affected all aspects of society and political theory. 


1. K. Marx, ‘Religion as Opium: Man Makes Religion’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 229.

 2. Victor Terras, A History of Russian Literature (New Haven, Yale University Press 1991), p. 172.

3. Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, Russian Thinkers (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1978), p. 19.

4. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 277.  

5. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

6. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

7. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 282.

8. Berlin, ed., Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

9. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

10. Paul Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1954), p. 141.

11. J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy: Political Theory and Practice during the French Revolution and Beyond (Harmondworth, Penguin Books 1952), pp. 186-7.

12. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 22.

13. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 23.

14. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 17.

15. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 18.

16. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 20-1.  

17. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 17-18.

Communism and the Persecution of the Churches: Part 2

April 15, 2008

My first blog post discussing the persecution of the churches in the Soviet Union has been criticised by Robert, who writes:

‘In order to make your case, I think you need to demonstrate that people of faith would be excluded from persecution, if the regime was agnostic. This is a tall order, and you only assert it, but don’t demonstrate why.

You’ve labeled communism as an atheist philosophy, which has a very strange ring to it. What in atheism accounts for the historical dialectic, class struggle, the state as a tool of the capitalists, the evil of private property, to name but a few of the main pillars of Marxism?

Quite obviously, nothing. You wrote that, “Marx…was strongly influenced in the development of his philosophical and political system by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach.” “Strongly” overplays the influence, and you ignore many others. Kant? Hegel? The French socialists, like Louis Blanc?

You wish to establish some sort of atheist-religious dichotomy within Communism that’s simply not there. The philosophy is far broader than that.’

No, Communism was still very much an atheist philosophy that attacked religion as an entity in itself, rather than for reasons of practical politics, such as the political or economic power of specific religious organisations such as, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church. And while Communism did not just attack religion, but also all other competing philosophies and political parties and organizations, nevertheless the attack on religion was an integral part of the Marxist critique of feudal and capitalist exploitation, and not just part of a general intolerance.

Atheism as Integral Aspect of Communism

Actually, I’m not trying to set up an atheist-religious dichotomy within Communism at all. Far from it – Communism was intrinsically atheist, and defined itself very much as an atheist movement. My point is that Soviet Communism persecuted Christians, as well as other peoples of faith, because of their Marxism. In fact I stated very clearly that Marxism was intrinsically atheist. Hence the attack on religion that went far beyond mere political expediency, defined purely as the pursuance of immediately secular goals. Remember, Marx declared that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ and stated that the Christian Church was a ‘false consciousness’ and beyond redemption in that it reinforced the alienation and oppression of the workers’. 1 Lenin, the architect of the Soviet state whose ideas were extensively codified after his death into official, Communist dogma, was vehemently anti-religious. He declared that ‘Every defence or justification of the idea of God, even the most refined, the best intentioned, is a jusification of reaction.’ 2 The Soviet Communist party established its ‘Anti-Religious Commission’ in 1922 during Lenin’s presidency in order to promote atheism. 3 The Communists’ anti-religious propaganda campaign was unofficially directed by Trotsky, under Lenin’s authority, with Lenin taking a great interest in it. 4 The Communist Party was, however, at this stage cautious about attacking religion too violently as it considered that insulting the feelings of religious believers would be counterproductive. 5 Nevertheless, the campaign went far beyond the publication of atheist literature and the organisation of lectures promoting atheism. Trotsky viewed the campaign of expropriation of church property undertaken in the 1920s as a tactic for undermining the ideological, as well as the social power of the Russian Orthodox Church in a ‘short, sharp shock’ that would discredit the Church and encourage the Russian people to convert to atheism. 6 Thus Marxism, and Soviet Communism viewed atheism as an intrinsic part of its ideology. The campaign against religion and to promote atheism was therefore a natural product of Communist ideology. It was not something that the Communists happened to do, as part of a general campaign against non-Marxists. Furthermore, the attack on religion was initially partly restrained from fears that it would alienate people from official, Marxist atheism, rather than encourage conversion.

Persecution of Soviet People of Faith Different from Liberal Attacks on Church Power and Property in Mexico and Italy

As for the statement that people of faith would not have been persecuted if the Soviet regime had been agnostic, rather than atheist, it’s probable that if a non-atheist, socialist party had seized power in the Soviet Union, then indeed religious believers would not have been persecuted simply for being religious believers. During the 19th century, for example, secularising liberal governments in South America and Italy had attempted to restrict the economic, social and political power of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding education. In Mexico from 1827 to the early 1850s under the regimes of Guerrero, Valentin Gomez Farias and Benito Juarez, legislation was passed restricting the power of the Church. These included legislation limiting the jurisdiction of the Church courts to the maintenane of internal discipline in the Church; the disentailment of Church lands, and a restriction on the fees the Church could charge for services such as burials and marriages. These pieces of anti-clerical legislation were incorporated into the Mexican constitution of 1857 and survived until 1917. 7 These policies created considerable opposition from the Church and Conservative politicians, resulting in their repeal by subsequent governments and even in a coup by the army officer, Anastasio Bustamente in 1829, in which Guerrero was overthrown and shot. 8 Nevertheless, despite the attacks on Church property and privilege enacted through this legislation, there was no persecution of Church or of religious believers themselves simply as the Roman Catholic Church and believers. The reformers simply wished to confine the Church’s role to the religious sphere, rather than the economic and political. Similarly, the forcible incorporation of the papal states by the founders of the Italian state during the Risorgimento created strong opposition to it by the Roman Catholic Church, who also viewed the Liberals as exploiters of the poor. The Church did not recognise Italy, and ordered that no Roman Catholic should vote in Italian elections, although this ban was partially lifted in 1899. 9 Despite the Church’s opposition, Italian Liberals did not persecute the Church and its members, although religious education was excluded from Italian secondary schools and religious, rather than civil marriages were no recognised by the state. 10 Now in both Mexico and Italy there were regimes and politicians alienatd from and passing legislation against the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, despite attacking the power of the Church in particular areas, there was no attack on the Church itself for simply being a religious institution. It can similarly be argued that if the Bolsheviks had been motivated primarily by immediate political concerns and with the political and economic power of particular religions in the Soviet Union, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, been genuinely indifferent to questions of religious faith as metaphysical beliefs, and thus agnostic in that sense, then their attack on these faiths would similarly have been confined to the political and economic spheres. Instead, the Soviet authorities attacked the religions and their members themselves, and not simply for the political and economic power they possessed as institutions and individuals.

Influence of Feuerbach’s Atheist Critique of Christianity and Feudalism on Marx’s Critique of Capitalism

Now Communism is an atheist philosophy in the sense that it rejects and attacks religious belief, and also because it based its criticism of capitalist society on the atheist critique of religion by Luwig Feuerbach. Marx himself considered that the criticism of religion was the beginning of the criticism of society. 11 Furthermore, Feuerbach’s atheist critique of Christian belief as the legitimisation of European feudalism, in his statement, for example, that the spirit of subjection arises from religious humility and passivity, is also a criticism of the political relationships in society. 12 Now as I said in the first blog post, Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s Hegelian critique of Christianity, used his concept of the Gattungswesen – the species being – to critique contemporary capitalism society. I also stated that Marx moved beyond and rejected Feuerbach’s Humanism. Now Marx clearly was influenced by a number of different ideologies, such as Hegel and French Socialism. Nevertheless, Engels described Feuerbach’s Humanism as the mid-point between Hegel’s philosophy and his and Marx’s own conception. 13 Scholars have also stated that through its elevation into historical materialism Feuerbach’s critique of religion prepared the way for Marx’s own critique of ideology. 14 Thus, Feuerbach’s Humanism did indeed influence Marx in its statement that God was merely a projection generated by the alienated human psyche which legitimised oppressive forms of society such as feudalism. Marx went beyond Feuerbach in his development of dialectical materialism and adoption of socialism. Nevertheless, Marxism was influenced and informed by Feuerbach’s atheist critique of belief in God and its societal consequences. In that sense, Marxism is clearly an atheist philosophy as atheism clearly is a major, though not the sole element, in Marx’s critique of capitalism.

Lifting of Restrictions on Religion in USSR and Gorbachev’s Perestroika

Regarding Gorbachev and religion, yes, he did lift restrictions on religion in the USSR in his programme of democratising and restructuring Soviet sociey. In his book Perestroika, Gorbachev includes a number of admiring letters written to him to encourage his reforms, including one from a Lithuanian Roman Catholic stating that through his efforts, believers had something to learn from him and that they were praying for him and his family every Sunday from 9 am. to 1. pm. 15 Now I don’t doubt that Gorbachev was genuine in his attempt to create a humane, democratic form of Communism. However, for all his arguments that perestroika was based on Lenin’s ideas, much of Gorbachev’s programme of reforms contradicted previous Marxist-Leninist ideology. 16 Indeed, Gorbachev complained that not only were Lenin’s ideas being ignored, but that they had also been ‘canonized, idealized and turned into dogma’. 17 Gorbachev’s lifting of the restrictions on religion clearly contradicted the Soviet state’s policy to restrict religion which had been established for decades and which also claimed a basis in Lenin’s ideas. Moreover, Gorbachev’s programme of glasnost – ‘openness’ – his attempt to allow the free discussion of ideas allowed the official atheism of the Communist state to be challenged. A 1989 letter to the Soviet journal, Ogonyok, from someone who had just read the Gospels for the first time, praised them for ‘the austere power of their words, the eleganc of the finely tunedaphorisms, the subtle poetic quality of the images.’ The author stated that the book had reached him quite by accident, and he had read it purely out of literary curiosity. Nevertheless, after reading it the writer of the letter stated he became very angry and having been denied reading the Gospels. ‘What a treasure they had been hiding from me! Who decided, and on what basis, that this was bad for me-and why?!’ The writer continued by criticising the official atheism of the Soviet state and its attempt to impose this on its citizens. ‘A state that is separated from the church should also be separated from atheism. Isn’t spiritual totalitarianism more terrible than the political kind? In returning social fredoms, a democratic state has no right to continue to la claim to its citizens’ freedom of spiritual quests.’ 18 As with other areas in Gorbachev’s perestroika programme, there was opposition to the new toleration of religion in some parts of Soviet officialdom. In 1988 church attendance at the Preobrazhensky Cathedral was so great that in November the Council on Religious Affairs recommended that the Vvedensky church should be re-opened for worship. However, opposition by local council officials meant that the church was not re-opened until 15 members of the church association declared that they were going on a hunger strike and Ogonyok ran the story supporting the members of the church against the party bureaucracy. 19

Conclusion: Persecution of Churches and other Religions in USSR Product of Official Marxist Atheist Ideology

 Thus the Soviet persecution of Christianity and the other religions was indeed based in Marxism as an atheist philosophy, rather than on immediate political reasons. Unlike previous secularising regimes in Mexico and Italy, which were also alienated from and attempting to restrict the power of the Church, the Soviet Communists did not limit themselves to attacking the churches’ political and economic power, but also attacked them as part of a deeper attack on religion itself. This hostility to religion had its origins in Feuerbach’s Humanism, which attacked religion for its role in creating and preserving oppressive social relationships in wider European society, a critique which was influential in inspiring Marx’s own critique of religion and capitalism, and the development of his own ideas for its replacement based on contemporary French socialism. Finally, although Gorbachev attempted to lift the restrictions on religion as part of his attempt to reform and humanise Communism, this contradicted the offical policy of previous decades and led to criticism of the official atheist stance of Soviet ideology and education. While Marxism clearly does not comprise the whole of atheist attitudes and philosophies, it does nevertheless constitute an atheist ideology, and atheism in its turn provided Marxism with the philosophical basis for attacking religion as an integral part of its programme to destroy and supersede feudal and capitalist social relations.



1. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2001), p. 524.

2. V.I. Lenin, Religion (New York 1959), p. 93, and C. Lane, Christian Religon in the Sovie Union (London 1978), pp. 26-7, cited in Chidester, Christianity, p. 527.

3. Chidester, Christianity, p. 528.  

4. Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1979), p. 495.

5. Chidester, Christianity, p. 528.

6. Chidester, Christianity, p. 527.  

7. Peter Bakewell, A History of Latin America (Oxford, OUP 2004), pp. 431-3.

8. Bakewell, Latin America, p. 431.

9. ‘Christian Democracy’ in Philip V. Cannistraro, Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (Westport, Greenwood Press 1982), pp. 117-8.

10. ‘Lateran Pacts’ in Cannistraro, Fascist Italy, p. 299.

11. ‘Marxism’, in John R. Hinnells, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (London, Penuin Books 1984), p. 205.

12. ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, in Florian Vassen, Vormarz, (Stuttgart, Philipp Reclam jun. 1979), p. 84.

13. ‘Feuerbach’ in Vassen, ed., Vormarz, p. 84.

14. ‘Feuerbach, in Vassen, ed., Vormarz, p. 85.

15. Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World (London, Collins 1987), p. 70.

16. For an example of the argument that Lenin was the ideological basis of perestroika, see ‘Turning to Lenin, an Ideological Source of Perestroika’ in Gorbachev, Perestroika, pp. 25-6.

17. Gorbachev, Perestroika, p. 45.

18. Sergei Zubatov, ‘Why Only Now? Why So Late?’, (1989), in Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee, eds., Voices of Glasnost: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok Magazine, 1987-1990 (London, Kyle Cathie Ltd 1990), pp. 82-4.

19. I. Kholina, V. Tuvin, L. Zoltukina, M. Pilenkova, T. Alekseyeva and 3,000 others, ‘Freedom of Religion, But…’ (1989),in Cerf and Albee, eds., Voices of Glasnost, pp. 149-51.

Missionaries and the British Annexation of New Zealand

April 15, 2008

Christianity has been attacked for its role in supporting and promoting European colonialism. According to some critics of Christianity, its character as a universalist religion and mission to convert those outside the faith was used to support European imperialism and the conquest and displacement of indigenous peoples. Christian evangelism provided the pretext and legitimised the dispossession of indigenous, non-Christian peoples from their lands, the destruction of their way of life, and their exploitation and enslavement by their new colonial masters. 

Now some of the most vicious and expoitative imperialist regimes did indeed attempt to justify their conquest of and expoitation of their new, non-European subjects through the claim that they were saving the souls of the indigenous peoples by bringing them Christianity. The Spanish Conquest of the New World, for example, was based on the theological notion originating from the Crusades, that as God was lord of all creation, pagan states and political structures, which failed to recognise Him had no validity. It was the duty of the Amerindian nations to convert to Christianity. If they did not, the Spanish crown had the right to impose Christianity by force and overthrow them. 1The atrocities committed by the Spanish against the Amerindians during the conquest of South America became notorious, though they were hardly alone. Other nations, such as the Portuguese and British, also committed atrocities in their campaigns of imperialist expansion and colonisation.

Demand for Missionaries and Missionary Opposition to Imperialism in New Zealand

However, the justification of European imperialism was one aspect of a complex relationship between European states, the churches and indigenous peoples. Elsewhere Christian evangelism was invited and encouraged by indigenous leaders because it brought their peoples literacy, modern medical care, and access to European goods and markets, while Christian missionaries also acted as peacemakers between warring indigenous nations. Nor did Christian missionaries always see indigenous peoples as inferiors to be colonised by Europeans. While most, if not all, certainly believed in the superiority of European culture, many also took the view that contact with Europeans brutalised and exploited extra-European peoples. As a result, some missionaries were strongly opposed to imperialism, while others supported it as a means of controlling and punishing the lawless behaviour of European traders and settlers who were already encroaching on indigenous territories. This was the case in New Zealand in the early 19th century, where British missionaries such as Henry and Edward Williams, and Dandeson Coates of the Church Missionary Society, supported the annexation of New Zealand by Britain under the Treaty of Waitangi as a means of protecting the Maori against oppression by European colonists.

Beginnings of Christians Missionary Work in New Zealand

Missions to New Zealand by citizens of the British Empire began in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1808 the Anglican Church’s Church Missionary Society proposed sending missionaries to New Zealand.  Six years later, in 1814, Thomas Kendall and William Hall, two Anglican lay readers from New South Wales, and the Anglican clergyman Samuel Marsden established a mission at the Bay of Islands. They were followed by the Wesleyan Methodists, who under Leigh and William White, established a missionat Whangaroa in 1821. Their activities were closely monitored by Maori chiefs, who, in return for allowing the missionaries to preach the Gospel and attempt to convert their subjects, expected the missionaries to promote trade between themselves and the Europeans, teaching their subjects the necessary skills for successful commerce. If the missionaries failed to provide these practical, commercial benefits, they were threatened with dismissal and being replaced by those of a rival denomination. 2 Furthermore, missions were vulnerable to attack and looting by the Maori. In January 1827 the Wesleyan mission at Whangaroa was destroyed, forcing the missionaries to flee to Kerikeri, and the Church Missionary Society’s stations at Rotorua and Tauranga were also occasionally attacked and looted in the 1830s. At least in the early 19th century Christianity was not imposed on the Maoris by force. Indeed, the Maoris themselves welcomed the missions, with distant Maori communities demanding their own missionary. 3

Opposition of Christian Missionaries and British Imperial Authorities to Exploitation by European Colonists

Europeans began trading with the Maori in the late 18th century, with merchants and traders arriving from Britain and Australia to acquire kauri wood for ship’s masts, and hunt whales and seals. 4 Most of the traders viewed Maoris with contempt as savages, and frequently abused and exploited them. The only groups that did not do so and treated the Maori with respect were the Quakers and Congregationalists from New England. 5 The British government, however, soon became concerned at the lawlessness and brutality of many of the European colonists and settlers towards the Maori. By 1813, the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan MacQuarrie, declared that the Maori were under British protection in order to stop their brutalisation and exploitation. In 1817 the British parliament passed an act that, while recognising New Zealand as an independent state, provided for the punishment of those committing murder or manslaughter outside British imperial territory. It granted the authorities of Britain and New South Wale the powers to enforce British law on British subjects in New Zealand. Further acts were passed in 1823 and 1828 granting the courts of New South Wales and Tasmania the powers to try Britons for misdemeanours committed in New Zealand. Missionaries were granted powers to act as justices of the peace and enforce the law. In 1831 the governor of New South Wales also prohibited the trade in tattooed heads. Under pressure from the missionaries to bring law to New Zealand, and permit colonisation from the land speculators, the British government sent James Busby from Sydney to New Zealand as the official British Resident in 1833. 6 These measures to bring law to New Zealand and protect the Maori were strongly supported by Marsden. Although he considered Maori culture as ‘barbarous’, he also declared them to be ‘a noble and intelligent race and prepared to receive the blessings of civilisation and the knowledge of the Christian religion’. 7 He and the other missionaries believed that the Maoris had become suspicious and violent towards Europeans because of their maltreatment by them. He believed firmly that Maori confidence in Europeans would be restored through contact with Europeans, and the acquisition of new skills and practical and religious instruction. When the expected change in Maori attitudes was slow in appearing, Marsden blamed the lack of improvement on the absence of a recognised authority, the lack of regulations governing settlement and trade, disputes over trade in alcohol, firearms and women, and European involvement in local conflicts. 8 In 1837 he lamented the lawlessness in Waimate, complaining that Europeans were running public houses and encouraging every type of criminality, including drunkenness, adultery, and murder without any laws, judges or magistrates. He concluded that ‘Some civilized government must take New Zealand under its protection or themost dreadful evils will be committed from runaway convcts, sailors and publicans.’ 9 Marsden’s view of the brutalisation and corruption of the Maori by lawless Europeans agreed strongly with the conclusions of a House of Commons Select Committee which met in 1836-7 to debate the question of securing justice for the indigenous peoples of British colonies, as well as promoting civilisation and the spread of Christianity. The Select Committee on Aborigines was the result of a campaign by the great antislavery campaigner T.F. Buxton to protect the indigenous peoples of the British – Canadian Indians, Polynesians, Aboriginal Australians and the Black and Khoi-San peoples of South Africa, as well as the Maoris, who were threatened by European expansion and colonisation. 10 It concluded that contact with Europeans had been disaster for indigenous peoples, that Europeans were generally responsible for the conflicts generated. The only way the situation could be improved was through government intervention. In fact, the Committee declared that from the view of economy, security, trade and Britain’s reputation, non-intervention was a disastrous policy. It also viewed that the British had been granted their immense global power for reasons beyond commercial prosperity and military success glory. Britain had a responsibility under God for educating and civilising indigenous peoples, and giving them the Christianity and commercial benefits under which Britain had prospered. The Select Committee’s Report stated

‘The British empire has been signally blessed by Providence and her … advantages, are so many reasons for peculiar obedience to the laws of Him who guides the destinies of nations. These were given for some higher purpose than commercial prosperity and military renown … He who has made Great Brtain what she is, will inquire at our hands how we have employed the influence He has lent to us in our dealings with the untutored and defenceless savage; whether it has been engaged in seizing their lands, warring up on their people, and transplanting unknown disease and deeper degradation … or whether we have, as far as we have been able, informed their ignorance, and … afforded them the opportunity of becoming partakers of that civilization, that innocent commerce, that knowledge and that faith with which it has pleased a gracious Providence to bless our own country.’ 11

Public Demand for Colonisation, British and French Colonial Rivalry and the British Annexation of New Zealand

However, without an established system of courts, enforced by a police force and supported, if necessary, by the army and navy, the missionaries were unable to prevent the violence and criminality. Furthermore, there was pressure in Britain and Australia for a programme of commercial colonisation. This began in 1829 with the publication in the Morning Chronicle of two articles, ‘The Act of a Proposal for Colonising Australasia’ by Robert Couger, and ‘A letter from Sydney’ by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. These recommended the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand through the sale of land and the establishment of planned settlements and the British class system there. Busby attempted to end the lawlessness by making the missionaries Justices of the Peace and the Maori chiefs constables, but he was unable to enforce his authority and on several occasions the criminals successfully defended themselves from arrest with firearms. His authority was further challenged by Baron de Thierry from France, who, laid claim to a large block of territory and styled himself ‘sovereign chief of New Zealand’. 12 The French arrived in New Zealand 1838, and by 1844 had established 12 missionares staffed by 41 missionaries, strongly supported by the French navy and diplomatic service. The British annexation of New Zealand was therefore motivated party by religious rivalry between Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as geopolitical rivalry between Britain and France. 13 In order to defend the Maori from such colonialist claims and force the Maori chiefs themselves to become responsible for justice, Busby in October 1835 Busby persuaded 35 northern chiefs to sign a declaration of independence, proclaiming them as the ‘united tribes of New Zealand’ under British protection. Furthermore, British policy in the 1830s was of indirect rather than direct rule by advising and placing diplomatic pressure on indigenous institutions. It is possible that if the new tribal federation had been supported by Maori militia and police force under British officers, annexation would have been postponed. However, parliament was under increasing pressure from the New Zealand Association and land agents in Sydney to promote colonisation and sales of land there, as well as the increasing opinion that the British crown had the right to demand foreign territories to submit to British administration in return for protection. Thus the British government eventually decided to annex New Zealand in order to bring law and justice to both the Maori and British. New Zealand was to become a dependency of New South Wales, administered by a lieutenant-governor under the governor of New South Wales. A British naval captain, William Hobson, was despatched to make the final arrangements with the governor, George Gipps, before acquiring sovereignty from the Maori through their ‘free and intelligent consent … expressed according to their established usage’, and become the nation’s first consul and lieutenant-governor. 14

The Treaty of Waitangi and the Dispossession of the Maori the Result of Cultural Misunderstanding not Fraud

The Treaty of Waitangi was translated into Maori on the 4th February 1840 Henry Williams and his son, Edward. It was read to 40 Maori chiefs from Hokianga and the Bay of Islands at Busby’s house the next day. After considerable debate, with some influential chiefs urging its rejection, it was signed by 43 chiefs on the 6th February. 15 The Treaty of Waitangi has been extremely controversial because of its role in giving legality to the British annexation of New Zealand, and the appropriation of Maori lands by the colonial authorities and the subordination and replacement of Maori tribal authority by British governmental institutions. In the 1980s many Maori felt that the true intentions of the Treaty of Waitangi, which in their view retained Maori autonomy and lands, had been betrayed by the British colonial authorities. There were Maori demonstrations in New Zealand demanding that the Treaty should be honoured and the return of Maori lands unfairly appropriated by the colonial authorities.

Many New Zealand historians, on the other hand, believe that the Treaty was not a deliberate fraud, and that rather than being a deliberate deception it was a case of both sides mistakenly assuming that their concept of landholding was shared and understood by the other side. The first article ceded to the British crown complete sovereignty over all New Zealand ‘without reservation’. It did not, however, suggest that the Maori would become subject to British law or be required to assume the roles and duties of British subjects. Thus the Maori assumed that while they would be under the protection and authority of the British Crown, traditional Maori tribal institutions and authority would still be preserved.

The Treaty’s second article was also a cause of serious misunderstanding between the British and Maori. The Treaty stated that the Maori would retain the ownership of their lands, estates, forests, fisheries and other properties. However, the British assumed that the Maoris owned only the lands that they immediately occupied, such as the marae, pas and the land immediately surrounding them. The rest of country was seen as unoccupied waste land whose ownership would naturally pass to the British government, to be disposed of and developed in whatever manner they considered suitable. 16 The Maori, however, viewed the unoccupied lands as rightfully theirs. Although these lands were not permanently settled, the Maoris nevertheless considered the land their possession as it was used and exploited by the Maori as a source of a wide variety of foods in the Maori hunter-gatherer culture. They were also culturally important as the site of tribal marae, sacred burial grounds, and memorials to ancient battles and the heroic events of ancient legends. The Maori therefore assumed that they would still retain their ancient rights to this unoccupied land, with the British Crown merely acting as an overall guardian. 17 These misunderstandings over the nature and role of Crown authority and Maori landownership, with the assumption of cultural superiority by the British, led to the eventual subjection and dispossession of the Maori as New Zealand was annexed by the British Empire.

Missionary Support for Treaty of Waitangi

The missionaries played a leading role in the drafting of the Treaty and its translation into Maori. Six of them had assisted Hobson when he drew it up, and it has been alleged that Williams was deliberately vague in his translation of the Treaty through his political support for annexation. However, while the missionaries supported Crown involvement and control in New Zealand, they were strongly opposed to colonisation. They advocated the extension of British authority to New Zealand as a way of protecting themselves and the Maori against European criminals and occupation by the Roman Catholic French. 18 Moreover, there was considerable pressure in New South Wales and Britain to annexe New Zealand regardless of the attitudes of the missionaries. New Zealand was regarded as a highly suitable territory for British colonisation, as was made clear to Hobson in the orders for the country’s annexation given to him on 14 August 1839. These stated that regarding New Zealand, ‘there is probably no part of the earth in which colonisation would be effected with a greater or surer prospect of national advantage’. 19  New Zealand possessed valuable natural resources, but the increasing violence and lawlessness of European settlers, provocative acts by American merchant ships and a major outbreak of tribal warfare in 1837 convinced the British authorities that the system of government under a British resident and tribal federation had failed to provide stability and order. The British thus considered that they to annexe New Zealand in order to impose peace and law in the islands, while taking possession of the country’s economic resources. Some historians have therefore suggested that New Zealand’s annexation and colonisation by the British was inevitable in these circumstances. 20

As for Williams personally, it has been suggested that his possession of land made him an interested party and so led to his support for annexation. However, the missionaries had been informed that following annexation there would be an official investigation of land claims. If Williams’ possession of his lands had been illegal or in any sense dubious, then he would not have supported Hobson in bringing New Zealand into British possession. Williams has also been criticised for the term he used to translated ‘governorship’ in the Treaty. Instead of using the existing Maori term ‘mana’, Williams coined a new term ‘kawanatanga’, and this may have played a role in the misconception of the nature of British authority that led the Maori to cede complete authority to the British Crown without really understanding the full implications for their own traditional political structures. 21 However, ‘Protestant Missionary Maori’ was the common Maori of the time, and that the Waitangi Tribunal in 1985 declared that it considered that Williams’ use of ‘kawanatanga’ for ‘governorship’ was ‘fair and apt’ and ‘an appropriate choice of words’. 22 Thus, rather than deliberately deceiving the Maori, Williams and the other missionaries were genuinely trying to protect them through the Treaty, which they saw mainly as a device for restraining and controlling European abuse of the indigenous New Zealand peoples.

‘Williams saw the Treaty mainly as a device for controlling British settlers, Faced with a unilateral decision by Britain to annex New Zealand, he saw it his duty to assist the government in such as  way that his flock would be best advantaged. He did not perpetrate a ‘pious fraud’. Later misuse of the Treaty to defraud its Maori signatories should not impugn evil intentions to missionaries who were forced to translate and advice their charges ina  matter of days, and who for a time believed they could control the hand that held the sword of state’. 23

Conclusion: British Missionaries Reluctant Imperialists, who Supported British Imperialism as Action against Colonisation

 Thus, far from being enthusiastic supporters of British imperialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the Protestant missionaries in New Zealand were hostile towards European colonisation. The complete annexation of the country by the British was very much a last resort, after gradual, piecemeal attempts to impose British authority on the European colonists who had already settled there, including the creation of a united, independent Maori state under British protection, had failed. The missionaries supported British imperialism out of a genuine belief that it was the only way the Maoris could be protected from further European brutalisation, exploitation and corruption. Furthermore, rather than being imposed upon the indigenous peoples by force through a powerful, expansionist European state, Christianity, at least at this period in New Zealand history, was not  imposed through military conquest but by missionary work from the religious denominations themselves beyond the British imperial state. The missions also had the support of the Maori themselves through the educational and trading opportunities they offered to aspiring chiefs and tribes, and missionary expansion was initially at the request of the indigenous peoples, who subjected the missions to their own tribal authority. In this instance, rather than being enthusiastic supporters of an imperialist campaign to exploit and dispossess indigenous peoples through the imposition of Christianity by force, missionary support for British imperialism was very much a last resort, taken in order to protect the Maori from a process of exploitation and dispossession that was already occurring, and which, to the missionaries, could only be restrained, regulated and corrected through the power of the British state. In fact the annexation of New Zealand did indeed lead to the dispossession of the Maori and its colonisation by the British. While this process was arguably almost inevitable given European cultural, and economic and political assumptions of the time, it was against the missionaries’ will. It was a tragedy of history that the missionaries who worked hard to gain protection for the Maori against other European from the British state ended up through the imposition of imperial rule inadvertently causing the very dispossession they wished to avoid and so vehemently condemned.


1. Mark A. Burkholder and Lyman L. Johnson, Colonial Latin America (Oxford, OUP 2004).

2. Laurie Barber, New Zealand: A Short History (London, Hutchinson 1989), p. 32.

3. Barber, New Zealand, p. 34.  

4. Barber, New Zealand, p. 34.

5. Barber, New Zealand, p. 35.

6. Barber, New Zealand, p. 38.

7. Letter from Marsden and others to the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society of 25 October 1815, cited in Andrew Porter, Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester, Manchester University Press 2004), p. 141.

8. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 141.

9. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 142.

10. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 139.

11. Report from the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements) (1837), cited in Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 143.

12. Barber, New Zealand, p. 38.

13. Porter, Religion Versus Empire, pp. 154-5.

14. Barber, New Zealand, p. 39.

15. Barber, New Zealand, p. 40.

16. Barber, New Zealand, p. 41.

17. Barber, New Zealand, p. 41.  

18. Barber, New Zealand, p. 42.

19. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

20. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

21. Barber, New Zealand, pp. 41, 43.

22. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

23. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

The Soviet Persecution of the Churches

April 9, 2008

There seems to be an attempt by atheist polemicists to deny or play down the extent to which atheism informed and provided the ideological basis for the persecution of Christianity and other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and the indigenous shamanic religions of Siberia and the Soviet Far East by the Communist regime in the USSR. According to some atheist commentators, the Soviet persecution of people of faith was motivated not by atheist ideology, but by political expediency. The Russian Orthodox Church was attacked and persecuted because of its support for the Tsarist autocracy. The supporters of this view point to the reconciliation between the religions and the state that emerged in the 1940s when Stalin lifted some of the restrictions on organised religion, which resulted in the reopening of churches, seminaries, theological academies and monasteries. This tolerant attitude towards religion by the officially atheist Communist states continues today, according to this view, in China, where Christianity has been tolerated by the Communist authorities, and Buddhist and Taoist temples and monasteries re-opened after the savage persecution of Mao’s cultural revolution.

Religious Toleration by and Opposition to the Soviet Regime 

Now initially the Soviet authorities did indeed consider that the individual had the right to freedom of belief. Lenin himself hated religion, but felt that the individual should be free to seek comfort in the religion of his choice and that this freedom should be guaranteed. 1 He also does not seem to have considered religious belief to have necessarily been an obstacle to membership of the Communist party. In the 1920s it was not unknown for Communist delegates in Central Asia to take prayer mats to party meetings. 2 There was indeed a political dimension to the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. Lenin probably launched his attack on the Church because he was afraid that the Orthodox Church, which had been a central pillar of Tsarist autocracy, would provide inspiration and a centre for anticommunist activities. In a Civil War the Church, through its influence with the rural peasantry, could lead to the Bolsheviks’ defeat. 3 The Soviet attack on the Russian Orthodox Church began after Patriarch Tikhon condemned the bloodshed of the revolutionaries. In a speech in January 1918 Tikhon had commanded the Bolshevkis to ‘Come to your senses, ye madmen, and cease your bloody doings!’ 4 Many Orthodox priests did indeed speak out in opposition to the Soviet Regime, and it was partly as a consequence of this clerical opposition that the supporters of the Soviet system denounced the Orthodox Church, declaring that every priest personified the ‘cursed past’ and was ‘for the Tsar’. 5

Stalin also became far more tolerant towards the Russian Orthodox Church during the Second World War, largely as a result of the need to enlist its aid as an inspirational, patriotic force, as in some areas the clergy were encouraging collaboration with the Nazis and attacks on the Soviets during the Nazi invasion. From 1942 there was a tacit understanding between the Church and the Soviet authorities that they should unite against the invader, an alliance which appeared to be cemented by Patriarch Sergius’ letter in Pravda hailing Stalin as the ‘God-chosen leader of our military and cultural forces’. The Mufti of the Soviet Muslims prayed that Allah would make Stalin victorious in his ‘work of freeing the oppressed peoples’ while the Jewish community in Moscow declared that ‘the Almighty has prepared for the Fascist horde the inglorious and shameful destruction suffered by all the Pharoahs, Amalekites and Ammonites’. 6 As a result of this active encouragement, many of the restrictions on religious worship were lifted. The Soviet government reopened 22,000 Orthodox churches that had been closed, two theological academies, eight seminaries and some monasteries. 7

Atheist Nature of Marxism

However, the view that political expediency, rather than an ideological commitment to atheism, was responsible for the persecution of people of faith in the Soviet Union ignores the essentially atheistic nature of Marxism and the continuation of the persecution of religious believers long after the Stalin era, from Khruschev’s presidency until Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Some of the early ‘utopian’ socialist ideologies before Marx had either included a place for religion in their grand schemes to reform society, or else made use of arguments from Scripture even when the founders were religious sceptics. In England, Thomas Spence, the founder of the Spenceian Philanthropists who advocated the nationalisation of the country’s land, came from a Glassite family. These were a small sect who preached and practised to a limit extent community of property. 8 Spence was also strongly influenced by the Rev. James Murray, a Presbyterian clergyman who led an independent, democratic congregation and who taught that the Gospels provided humanity with the best charter for human rights and liberties. Murray attacked what he saw as the government’s oppression of the poor, and demanded civil and religious liberty. He was a strong opponent of the War with the American colonies, and believed that the Americans had been cruelly oppressed by Britain. 9 Although Spence later denounced religion as a delusion, he nevertheless tried to justify his arguments using Scripture. 10 

Similarly, the French Utopian Socialist Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, although initially a follower of Auguste Comte, also appealed to religion in his campaign to establish a perfect, Socialist political and social order. In his Nouveau Christianisme of 1825, Saint-Simon declared that the most important of the sciences was morality. Morality was far more important than either physics or mathematics as it formed the basis of society. However, while the sciences of mathematics, physics, chemistry and physiology had made enormous progress since the 15th century, the fundamental principles of morality had been laid 1,800 years previously by Christ, and despite research by the greatest geniuses had not been superseded. 11 Saint-Simon considered that the essence of the divine revelation in Christianity was the command that all men should treat each other like brothers, and so urged the creation of a New Christianity in opposition to the existing sects and denomination to put this article of faith into practice. 12 Saint-Simon believed that with the establishment of such a form of Christianity, in which the form of worship and dogma wuold be merely an accessory to the teaching of morality, would lead to Christianity becoming the sole, universal religion, converting the peoples of Africa and Asia. 13 While Saint-Simon’s highly politicised version of Christianity to many Christians departs very far from the historic conception of the Church, nevertheless it is remarkable that Saint-Simon saw a place for Christianity in his radical reconstruction of society, and felt that it was needed in order to put this reform into practice.

Marx, however, was strongly influenced in the development of his philosophical and political system by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach. In his 1841The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had argued from a Hegelian perspective that religion was merely the alienation of humanity’s own powers by substituting the human species for Hegel’s ‘subject’ in his Philosophy of Mind. 14 Marx thus became extremely critical of religion. His doctrinal thesis, ‘On the Difference between the Democritian and Epicurian Philosophies of Nature’, was produced as an anti-religious work, while Marx used Feuerbach’s concept of the ‘species-being’ or Gattungswesen, which denoted the sum of humanity’s collective abilities, to analyse the political state and capitalist economy in his Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State of 1843 and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. 15 Marx eventually rejected Feuerbach’s Humanism because it assumed an ideal human nature to which social institutions could be remoulded after Marx developed his own idea of historical materialism in which ideas, religion and ideologies were all the product of the material conditions of specific points in history. 16 In place of the ideal society imagined by philosophers, Marx and Engels recommended scientific investigation of the real world and revolutionary action to change society. 17 Thus from its very beginning an atheist critique of society was an intrinsic part of Marxist philosophy, and the philosophical materialism supporting Marxist atheism informed Communist attitudes to other philosophies, including those of science. When Alexander A. Bogdanov, a physician, economist, socilogist, philosopher and Lenin’s leading lieutenant in the early years of the Bolshevik party attempt to synthesise Marxism with a empirio-criticism of the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach and the German philosopher Richard Avenius it provoked an angry reaction and party purge by Lenin. Mach was an empiricist and one of the founders of Logical Positivism. He believed that as the mind could not know anything apart from its own sensations, so scientific theories were not the discovery of true, objective facts about the world that exist apart from human sensations, but merely a device for predicting the course of the world and its constituent objects. 18 Thus Bogdanov in his 1905 Empiriomonism stated that ‘laws do not belong at all to the sphere of immediate experience; laws are the result of conscious reworking of experience; they are not facts in themselves, but are created by thought, as a means of organising experience, of harmoniously bringing it into argreement as an ordered unity. Laws are abstract cognition, and physical laws possess physical qualities just as little as psychological laws possess psychic qualities.’ 19 Lenin’s response to Bogdanov, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, asserted the primacy of matter and that thought, consciousness and mind were secondary, and denounced the empirio-criticism as idealism and agnosticism, which left the way open for fideism, and declared that it was a kind of professorial scholasticism ‘unable and frequently unwilling, to separate objective truth from belief in sprites and hobgoblins’. 20 With this, Lenin established an oversimplified 19th century materialism as official Communist philosophy. Thus Lenin’s specifically materialist conception of atheism bitterly attacked other philosophies, even those based squarely on empiricism, as insufficiently scientific and leading to idealism and the primacy of mind and non-physical objects in the shaping of the cosmos.

Atheism and Soviet Persecution of the Church

This intensely atheist, materialist philosophy lead to conflict and persecution of the Church. While Lenin believed that individual religious liberty should be protected, he also strongly believed that the Bolshevik party should engage in a propaganda campaign to promote atheism and convince the Russian people that religion truly was an opium. 21 Stalin stated that the party could not be neutral towards religion, and that it was engaged in struggle against any and all religions. 22 The Soviet Constitution of 1918 allowed freedom of ‘religious and anti-religious propaganda. This, however, was changed in 1929 to ‘freedom of religious belief and of anti-religious propaganda’. 23 The 1977 constitution permitted freedom of worship and of antireligious propaganda’. 24 The Soviet authorities guaranteed a limited freedom of worship, but prohibited religious evangelisation. Although Khruschev  signed a resolution in Novemeber 1954, ‘On Mistakes in the Conduct of Scientific-Atheistic Propaganda among the Population’ condemning violent persecution and offensive attacks on religious belief, the resolution also required that the campaign against religion be continued at a higher ideological struggle. 25

Excommunication of Bolsheviks by Tikhon because of their Atheism and Violence, rather than Political Programme

The Russian Orthodox patriarch Tikhon had excommunicated the Bolsheviks not for political reasons, but because of their atheism and violence, particularly their attacks on the Church. He made no comment about their political and economic programme, but criticised them for their violence and suppression of freedom. In his letter on the first anniversary of the Revolution, Tikhon stated

‘It is not for us to judge earthly powers … However, to you who use your power for the persecution ooand destruction of the innocent, we issue our world of warning: celebrate the anniversay of your rise to power by relaseing the imprisoned, by ceasing from bloodshed, violence, and havoc, and by removing restrictions upon the fiath; devote yourselves not to destruction but to the building up of order and law; give to the people the respite from civil warfare which they have both desired and deserved. For otherwise the righteous blood which you have shed will cry ot against you.’ 26

In 1923 Tikhon stated:

‘The Russian Orthodox Church is non-political, and henceforward does not want to be either a Red or a White Church; it should and wil be the One Catholic Apostolic Church, and all attempts coming from any side to embroil the Church in the political struggel should be rejected and condemned.’ This statement did, however, come following his imprisonment by the Bolsheviks between 1922-3, and it is possible that it was the result of Soviet coercion. 27

Attack on Russian Orthodox Church

Following Khruschev’s condemnation of the violent persecution of religious believers, the Soviet authorities turned instead to severely restricting church activities in an attempt destroy religious belief. In 1961 the Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church adopted changes in parish regulations that subordinated parish priests to parish councils of 20 lay people, selected by the authorities and the Council on Affairs of Religious Cults. 28 The 1961 parish regulations were very similar to the provisions of the early Soviet legislation on the Church and other religions of 1917 and 1918. This organised religious believers into local religious associations, which had to have at least twenty members in order to lease a church from the government and hire clergy as ‘servants of the cult’. The Religious instruction of children was banned, and clergy could only attend conferences with express permission of the authorities. 29 Under the 1961 parish regulations, Orthodox priests were also reduced to employees. Unless they had the express permission of the local authorities or government agencies, they could not visit their parishioners at home or in hospital, perform the last rites at home or allow children into the church, give them eucharist or hear their confessions. The priests were also required to demand identification from parents bringing their children to be baptised and couples wishing to be married. The priest was also supposed to inform on his congregation, supplying Communist officials with the names of those who had been baptised, married or had the last rites performed, and on their other parishioners, who could be persecuted in their jobs or at their schools and universities. 30 Thus, although parish clergy could preach sermons, they could not give religious instruction, organise study groups for children or adults, organise catechism classes or Sunday schools. The only books that the parish church may own are service books, and the printing of the Bible was deliberately restricted. 31

As well as placing restrictions on evangelisation and the abilities of priests to perform their traditional duties to their parishioners, the Communists attacked the Church as an institution. The Decree on the Separation of Church and State of 5 February 1918 deprived the Church of its status as a juridical person. 32 It could not hold property, and the decree provided for the nationalisation of Church land, funds, and buildings, which believers were required to lease back from the state. 33 Churches could be closed down by the local authorities without the consent of the worshippers if the workers requested this. This resulted in the systematic closure of Orthodox churches. Of 54,457 churches in 1914, only 4, 255 remained in 1941. The number of active priests fell from 57,105 in 1914 to 5, 665 in 1941. Of the 1,498 monasteries and convents that existed in 1914, there were 38 left in 1941. None of the 4 theological academies, 57 seminaries and 40,150 other religious schools that existed in 1914 survived into 1941. 34 The unofficial Concordat between Stalin and the Church did allow many churches and other religious institions to be reopened. In 1947 for there 22-25,000 churches, 33,000 active priests, 80 monasteries and convents, 2 theological academies and 8 theological seminaries. The other religious schools supported by the Church before the Communists seized power remained closed, however. 35 However, from 1959 the Church was again attacked and ecclesiastical institutions closed by the Soviet authorities. By the late 1970s less than 7,000 Orthodox churches were open in Russia. Five of the eight seminaries opened in 1945 had been closed down by 1966, and of the 80 monasteries only 16 still survived by the 1970s. During the closure of the Monastery of Saint Job of Pochaev one monk was beaten to death in prison, several others taken to hospital for injections, despite their good health and others placed in psychiatric hospitals. 36 In 1918 and 1919 28 bishops were killed by the Communists. A further fifty were killed between 1923 and 1926 and from 1917 to 1926, 2,700 priests, 2,000 monks, and 3,400 nuns were killed by the Communists. Emigre Russians estimated that from 1917 to 1983 at least 12,000 priests were killed. 37 The Metropolitan of Petrograd was executed for anti-Soviet activities and the Patriarch Tikhon jailed in 1922. The Communists also attempted to destroy the Church by encouraging a group of clergy sympathetic to the Communist regime, calling themselves the Living Church to take over its leadership, and arresting their ecclesiastical opponents. Tikhon was deposed by the Living Church, and his trial set for 1923, but he signed a confession and publicly repented of his past opposition to the Communists. He was thus released, and reinstated as the head of the Church. Nevertheless, the Living Church continued to exist and the Communists attempted at times to play it and the Orthodox Church off against each other. 38 The Living Church split into a number of increasingly smaller factions and lost its significance in 1926.

Other Christian denominations, such as the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostalists and the Seventh Day Adventists were also subject to terrible persecution.

Persecution of Soviet Baptists

Although the Bapists were able to hold their meetings and publish their religious literature from 1918 to 1929 without restriction, from 1929 until the Second World War they were subjected to an increasing campaign of persecution. Approximately 50,000 Baptists, including most of the clergy, were arrested for ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and sentenced to 25 years each in the gulags, where 22,000 died. Of the numerous Baptist churches, only four in Moscow and other large cities survived as the Soviet authorities closed them. 39 

During the War, however, the Soviet authorities turned from outright persecution to the authoritarian system of control and repression used against the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1942-3 the regime established the Council on the Affairs of Religious Cults under the control of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. 40 Baptist ministers who were prepared to collaborate with the government in the control of their churches were released from the camps and internal exile to form the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists. 41 At the end of the war, 5,000 Baptist communities  were revived. However, as with the churches, these communities were required to register with the authorities. Unregistered Baptist churches were closed. As a result, 1/3 – 1,696 of the revived Baptist churches were registered, and staffed with ministers from the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists. Hand-picked members of the ministery were used by the Soviet authorities in 1947 to give the impression that there was no religious persecution in the Soviet Union by travelling abroad to meet their co-religionists and deny that such persecution was occurring. 42 This is similar to the way the Russian Orthodox Church was required to support Soviet propaganda. 43 In 1960 further restrictions were placed on the Baptist Church through the publication of the New Regulations of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists and the secret Instructive Letter to Senior Church Officials. These two documents demanded that Baptists cease from evangelism and placed increased restrictions on worship. Baptists were prohibited from using some musical instruments, such as guitars, in their services. They could not invite choirs from neighbouring communities to sing in their churches, and church attendance by children under 18 years of age was also prohibited. Those over 18 years old could only be baptised after a probationary period of two to three years. Preaching was restricted to the area of each individual Baptist community and was to be held entirely within the church building. No part of the service could be held outside the church. Baptist communities were prohibited from visiting and assisting each other. Children’s meetings, Sunday school outings attended by members of different Baptist churches and private religious services at home were banned. 44 The Instructive Letter was a secret document intended to be read only by the Baptist Church leadership. However, ordinary Baptists learned of it, read it, and in outrage led a campaign against it. This resulted in the establishment of an independent Baptist Church, with its own governing body, the Council of Churches of the Evangelical Christian Baptists in 1965. 45 The leaders of the independent Council of Churches, G. Kryuchkov, Nikolay Baturin and G. Vins, were arrested in May 1966, after which all the leaders of the Council of Churches lived in hiding to avoid arrest. By 1981 all of the members of the Council of Churches were in prison, charged with violating the statutes in the USSR separating church and state, ‘performance of rites injurious to church members’ and occasionally with slandering the Soviet system. 46 Although private services in the home were prohibited under the regulations of the All-Union Council, there was no official Soviet secular legislation against them. Despite this, however, private prayer meetings were broken up by the police, both regular and volunteer, and with those attending them frequently beaten. Ministers and community leaders who organised such domestic services, and often the person in whose home the service was held, were arrested. For the person whose home was used, the charges were often that of ‘hooliganism’ or ‘resisting’ the police’. Russian Baptist weddings are traditionally large, as the entire local religious community is often invited. Because the guests often filled the house into the yard or garden, the Soviet authorities frequently broke them up as ‘ritual assemblies’ that were illegally being held in the open air. Ordinary, unregistered Baptists were fined for attending services at an unregistered church, the amount fined often exceeding their monthly salary. 47 Moreover, Baptists, like other religious believers, were excluded from higher education. 48 The Civil Rights group formed to support the independent Baptists in February 1964, the Council of Relatives of Evangelical Christian Baptist Prisoners, amongst its other activities collected examples of the official persecution of the Baptist community. In addition to the arrest and imprisonment of Baptists, persecution by the Soviet authorities also included removing Baptist children from their families for being brought up in the faith, the persecution of school children for their religious beliefs, the confiscation of the homes in which religious services had been held, and the sacking of Baptists from their jobs because of their religious beliefs. The first president of the Council of Relatives was Lidiya Vins, the widow of a Baptist minister, Pyotr Vins, who had died in one of Stalin’s gulags, and who herself was imprisoned in a forced labour camp from 1970-3. 49

Persecution of Soviet Pentecostal Christians

The Pentecostalists were also savagely persecuted by the Soviet regime after 1929, using the same methods the authorities used against the Baptists. The Soviet authorities viewed them as the same church as the Baptists, and they were forced to submit to the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists. 50 Pentecostalists were particularly subject to severe persecution by the Soviet authorities because of their absolute refusal to compromise their religious beliefs. Pentecostalist children refused to join the Soviet youth organisation, the Octobrists, Pioneers and the Komsomol. As a result, their grades were lowered, they often suffered criticism at school meetings were beaten up by other schoolchildren, often at the command of the school teacher. Soviet teachers also questioned Pentecostalist children in order to get them to admit that their parents forced them to take part in religious ceremonies and prayer meetings. If the child admitted that this occurred, their parents would be prosecuted or the child taken away from them. 51 The Pentecostalists also suffered for their pacifism. Church doctrine prohibits Pentecostalists from joining the military, being arms or killing. This led to persecution in the Soviet Union, which still had compulsory National Service. Refusal to take the enlistment oath was punished by five years in a labour camp. Additionally, Pentecostalist servicemen were also subjected to vicious beatings, which left some of them permanently handicapped. As religious believers, they were also excluded from higher education, and were frequently sacked from their jobs on the command of the local Communist party. Like other religious believers, Pentecostalist services at home were broken up by the police and the homes destroyed. Weddings and funerals were similarly broken up by the authorities, and leaders and elders arrested under the regulations against religious evangelism, and also slandering the Soviet system and engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda. 52 Pentecostalist clergy were also accused of performing savage religious rites which traumatised their fellow believers, and even human sacrifice. In 1960 the Pentecostalist elder, Ivan Fedotov, was sentenced to ten years in prison on the charge of attempting to influence one of his congregation so that she murdered her daughter. 53

Persecution of Seventh-Day Adventists in Soviet Union

The Seventh Day Adventists were also subjected to persecution, particularly because of their pacifism, in which the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is taken so literally that they are vegetarians, and their refusal to work on Saturday, which they observe as the Sabbath. In 1928 the Congress of Seventh Day Adventists, under pressure from the Soviet authorities, passed a resolution that forced members to violate these tenets of their faith, and to perform all the duties expected of other Soviet citizens. As a result, the Church split, and a separate Church emerged which refused to conform to these restrictions, the All-Union Church of True and Free Seventh-Day Adventists. From its very beginning this church was not recognised by the Soviet authorities, and was savagely persecuted. Its first leader, Gregory ostvald, died in a gulag in 1937, and his successor, Pyotr Manzhura, also died in a camp twelve years later in 1949. The third leader of the church, Vladimir Shelkov, was arrested several times in his career before his death in a gulag in 1980. 54 During the 1980s the Soviet authorities imprisoned and tortured a number of Seventh-Day Adventists in an attempt to find their underground publishing house, True Witness. 55

Attacks on Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches

The Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches also suffered terrible persecution. In Lithuania, for example, persecution of the Roman Catholic Church began on 2nd July 1940, when Soviet troops entered the country. The Concordat with the Vatican was annulled. This was followed by the prohibition of all Catholic organisations, the nationalisation of Catholic schools and the closure of the Catholic press. The monasteries were looted, and the four Catholic seminaries in Lithuania were closed, with the exception of the one at Kaunas, and this had its buildings confiscated. All the Roman Catholic bishops except one were arrested and imprisoned in 1946-7. In the 1940s and 1950s, 600 priests, more than a third of all Roman Catholic priests in Lithuania, were imprisoned, and many died. Mecislovas Reinys, the bishop of Vilnius, died in Vladimir Prison in 1953. 56 The evangelism of children was strictly prohibited. In September 1970 a Catholic priest, Antanas Seskevicius was sentenced to a year in prison camp for teaching the catechism to schoolchildren, despite the fact that this was done at the request of their parents and so perfectly legal under the existing regulations. 57 In Estonia the Lutheran Church also suffered persecution like the other Churches, though it was particularly attacked as a ‘German’ Church after the Second World War. 58

Promotion of Atheism by Soviet Regime

In addition to the persecution of the churches and their members, the Soviet state also embarked on a campaign to promote atheism through the educational system, and in officially sponsored lectures, demonstrations and atheist publications. Atheism was explicitly taught in schools. In 1949 the former Secretary of the League of the Militant Godless, the official Soviet anti-religious organisation, writing in the teacher’s newspaper Uchitelskaya Gazeta, stated ‘A Soviet teacher must be guided by the principle of the Party spirit of science; he is obliged not only to be an unbeliever himself, but also to be an active propagandist of Godlessness among others, to be the bearer of the ideas of militant proletarian atheism.’ 59 The official campaign against religion began soon after the Revolution when the reliquaries of the Orthodox saints were opened by the revolutionaries in the presence of the Church, press, party and ordinary members of the Church. Some of the relics on display were found to be fakes, made from wax or plaster. These disinternments were filmed and shown in propaganda films throughout the Soviet Union. 60 Some of the closed churches were converted into ‘museums of religion and atheism’, including the former Kazan cathedral in Leningrad. 61

Soviet propaganda posters regularly attacked religion. A 1918 propaganda poster, for example, shows an Orthodox priest, flanked by a pair of rich peasants – kulaks – supporting the fist of the Tsarist general Denikin. 62 A 1930 poster by the Soviet propagandist Yuri Pimenov urging Soviets to fulfill the five year plan in four shows an express train hurtling down the rails towards a group of the regime’s opponents, one of whom is an Orthodox priest. One of the poster’s slogans is ‘No Religion’. 63 The regime also attempted to promote atheism through television and pop music. In the 1980s Soviet television screened a pop song denouncing belief in Christ at Christmas.

The League of the Militant Godless

 The League of the Militant Godless was founded in 1925 as part of the Soviet authorities’ attack on religion. 64 At its height in 1932 it had about five million members, before it was eventually disbanded in 1942. 65 Originally its activities included vandalism and the destruction of church property, like smashing church windows and desecrating cemeteries, done more out of its members’ hatred for religion rather than any attempt to spread atheism. Over time it became more sophisticated in its approach, organising meetings in the villages to promote its atheist message. It also organised anti-religious lectures, and published anti-religious books, magazines and journals. These included works of popular science written to show how science had disproved religion. These included quizzes, which presented the approved answers to criticism of Communism as well as attacking religion. Thus a 1930 handbook for the League, Dosug Bezbozhnika, by S. Glyazer and N. Kopievskii, included questions such as:

‘Q. How do reply to a priest who says ‘your communism is just another religion’?

A. All religions involve belief in the supernatural. Communism does not.

Q. How did Karl Marx describe Christianity?

A. As the Executive Committee of the bourgeoisie.’

The League also organised plane trips above the clouds in Tupolevs in order to show that there was no God or heaven up there. 66 Before the Second World War, the League also organised blasphemous processions and demonstrations against religion, especially on religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

Continuation of Government Ideological Campaign against Religion

Although the League was abolished in 1942, its propaganda functions were taken over by the All-Union Society for the Diseemination of Scientific and Political Knowledge, which was established in 1947, and the regime’s campaign to promote atheism continued. 120,679 anti-religious lectures were given in the Soviet Union in 1954, while four years later, in 1958, the number of anti-religious lectures increased to 300,000. 67 The atheist popular science magazine, Science and Life, which was originally founded by the League of Militant Godless, continued publication into the 1970s. 68

These publications and lectures, like the propaganda posters, strongly attempted to present the clergy as agents of political reaction and exploitation. The priests were presented as enjoying the spectacle of the peasants getting drunk, and opposed science and collectivisation because these threatened their hold on them. 69 The attacks on the clergy in the press continued after the League was disbanded. In 1959 the Soviet press carried a number of stories supposedly exposing the corrupt activities and ideas of individual bishops and monasteries. Monks were denounced, amongst other accusations, as ‘money grabbers’, ‘idlers’, ‘libertines’, ‘sexual perverts’. The theological seminaries were particularly attacked, with their students described as ‘any sort of rabble … lovers of an easy life … criminals who should be remoulded by work’, with the papers asking rhetorically ‘Does an honest man go to a theological school, in our century of science and technology?’ 70

Pentecostalist Christians were similarly accused in the press of collaborating with the opponents of Communism, in their case the Americans. They were regularly accused of being Western agents, being paid in dollars for services such as hiding American spies. Film depictions of Pentecostalists often showed them praying along on a beach, where it was explained that they were waiting for an ark filled American money. The newspapers also accused them of isolating their children from life by stopping them from going to movies, dances and other gatherings. In fact, Pentecostalist children tended to avoid such social activities not out of religious reasons, but to avoid abuse and violence from others. It’s also true that many Pentecostalists are more prosperous than their fellow citizens, but this was not from receiving any secret funds from the CIA or any other Western intelligence agency. Rather it was because the Pentecostalists had an ethic of hard work, sobriety and mutual aid. 71

Conclusion: Religious Persecution result of Atheist Ideology in Marxism, and New Atheists Similarly Authoritarian in Attitude to Religion

Thus the persecution of religious believers in the Soviet Union was not the result of political concerns, but from the intrinsically atheist nature of Communism itself. Unlike other forms of Socialism, which were not hostile to religious belief or which made Christianity a part of their programme for reform, Marx had developed his ideology under the influence of Feuerbach’s Humanism. This had view God as an alienate projection of humanity, and demanded the abolition of religion as part of the creation of a system that would allow the fullest exercise of humanity’s powers. Marxism’s essentially atheist nature resulted in the persecution of religion. The fact that it continued after Stalin under Khruschev and successive administrations suggests that it was the brief periods of toleration that were due to political expediency, not the persecutions. Indeed, historians have noted that while the Soviet regime did not make the destruction of Christianity, rather than just the Orthodox Church, a priority after the Revolution, it was also impossible for the regime to attempt it in the short term. 72 Furthermore, while China has become more tolerant of religion, churches are still required to be registered with the authorities and are under strict government control. Ministers and ordinary believers who are considered to violate these restrictions are persecuted.

Away from Communist politics, the persecution of religious believers in Communist states is similar to some of the policies and attitudes towards religion recommended by the New Atheists. While the New Atheists aren’t Communists, they do seem to share the Communist assumption taken from 19th century Positivism that atheism and science are identical, and that the educational and legal systems should be used to combat religion. Nicholas Humphreys, in an address to Amnesty International, demanded that the British government should pass legislation against parents giving their children a religious upbringing, while Daniel C. Dennett in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, supported the idea of using the teaching of Darwinism in schools to destroy religious faith in children. This coercive attitude towards the indoctrination of children in schools with atheism contrasts strongly with the attitudes of some of the Soviet people of faith, such as the Seventh Day Adventist leader, Vladimir Shelkov. Shelkov believed that questions of belief were for the individual conscience, and so should not be imposed on the school system by the government:

‘The materialism of atheism is also a kind of belief or religion. For this reason, it should not be a state religion that imposes its materialistic world view through schools and other government agencies. It should be considered a personal ideology among other ideologies. The principle of separation of church, state, and school also applies to teh separation of government atheism from the state and the education system.’ 73 Thus for some Soviet people of faith, a truly neutral educational system regarding issues of faith meant removing atheism as well as religion from the classroom to allow genuine freedom of conscience. As for the Soviet governments attempt to destroy the Orthodox Church, despite the vicious persecution many Russians still see it as their most trustworthy institution. In 1991 an opinion poll asked Russians in which political force or social movement they had the most confidence? 60 per cent considered it was the Church. 74 


1. J.N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-1986 (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1987), p. 325.

2. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 325.

3. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 323.

4. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.  

5. Ludmilla Alexeyeva, translated by Carol Pearce and John Gad, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Wesleyan University Press 1985), p. 246.

6. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 346.

 7. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 248.

8. H.T. Dickinson, The Political Works of Thomas Spence (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Avero (18th Century) Publications Ltd 1982), p. VII.

9. Dickinson, Thomas Spence, p. VIII.

10. Dickinson, Thomas Spence, p. VII.

11. Ghita Ionescu, ed., The Political Thought of Saint-Simon (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1976), p. 216.

12. Ionescu, Political Thought of Saint-Simon, pp. 206, 209.

13. Ionescu, Political Thought of Saint-Simon, pp 208, 209-10.

14. David Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in David Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1973), p. 11.

15. Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, pp. 11, 14.

16. Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, pp. 19, 21.  

17. Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, p. 21.

18. ‘Mach, Ernst’, in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 217.

19. A.A. Bogdanov, Empiriomonism, in Robert V. Daniels, ed., A Documentary History of Communism: Volume 1 – Communism in Russia (London, I.B. Tauris 1987), pp. 34-5.  

20. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism – Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, in Daniels, Documentary History of Communism, pp. 39-41.

21. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 323.

22. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin 1964), p. 152.  

23. Ware, Orthodox Church, pp. 152-3.

24. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 153.

25. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 172.

26. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 159.

27. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 160.

28. Alexeya, Soviet Dissent, p. 248.

29. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.

30. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 248.

31. Ware, Orthodox Church, pp. 153-4.  

32. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.

33. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 155; Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.  

34. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 167.

35. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 167.

36. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 173.  

37. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 156.

38. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 325.

39. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 160.  

40. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 201.

41. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 201.

42. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 201-2.

43. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 202.

44. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 168.

45. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 203.

46. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 205-6.

47. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 207.    

48. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 208.

49. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 209.

48. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 210.

50. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 215.

51. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 216.  

52. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 217-8.

53. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 218.

54. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 233.  

55. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 237-243.

56. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 72.

57. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 73.  

58. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 96.

59. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 153.

60. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 325.

61. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 154.  

62. Nina Baburina, ed., translated by Boris Rubalsky, The Soviet Political Poster 1917-1980 (London, Penguin Books 1985), p. 5.

63. Baburina, ed., and Rubalsky, trans., Soviet Political Poster, p. 56.

64. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, pp. 325-6.

65. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 327; Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 154.

66. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 326.

67. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 154.

68. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 326.  

69. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 326.

70. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 172.

71. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 218-9.

72. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 323.

73. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 234.

74. ‘Orthodox Church’ in Andrew Wilson and NinBachkatov, Russia Revised: An Alphabetical Key to the Soviet Collapse and the New Republics (London, Andre Deutsch 1992), p. 164.

Christianity and the Survival of Ancient Learning

April 4, 2008

The decline of the Roman Empire and its final collapse was accompanied by a profound loss of the learning of the ancient world that left the West intellectually impoverished before the gradual rediscovery of these ancient texts in Arabic and Greek editions from the 12th century onwards. The loss of so much of the intellectual heritage of the Roman Empire in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire is one of the reasons previous generations of historians have referred to the early medieval period as the Dark Ages. The causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire are numerous – economic decline, political and social stagnation, a massive contraction in population and the barbarian invasions all acted to bring about its end. However, there is also the frequent accusation that Christianity was also a major cause of the destruction of Roman civilisation through its supposed opposition to pagan learning. This is supposed to have resulted in a campaign of destruction by Christians against ancient science and philosophy, so that instead of enjoying ancient science and wisdom, Western Europe was left in scientific and philosophical ignorance under the absolute control of the Church.

The belief that Christianity actively encouraged the destruction of ancient Greek and Roman learning, and so was responsible for the emergence of the Dark Ages can be traced back to the anticlerical writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who admired the intellectual achievements of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and saw the Church as suppressing reason in favour of a rigidly enforced and irrational faith. The early Christians were indeed critical of much ancient literature and the Roman education system, because of their basis in paganism. Despite this, the Church included intellectually curious people who attempted to collect and preserve ancient literature and philosophy as the Roman Empire declined. Much of the ancient learning was lost through a process of apathy and the destruction caused by the barbarian invasions, rather than a deliberate policy by the Church. In the chaos of the barbarian invasions and the following centuries, it was the Church that preserved the ancient learning, and established the system of schools and universities based on the ancient curriculum to teach it and the other, ancient texts when they were rediscovered.

Early Christians Attitudes to Pagan Education

Ancient pagan opponents of Christianity had indeed attacked it for being a religion of the uneducated. Celsus claimed that Christianity was spread by people with only the most basic levels of literacy, such as woolworkers, cobblers, laundry workers, illiterate peasants and stupid women who told children to disregard their fathers and school-teachers and obey them instead. 1 Galen attacked his rivals in medicine by stating that, while he demonstrated his theories, they offered no proof and simply expected to be believed, like ‘the school of Moses and Christ’. 2 Christians, on the other hand, attacked formal education as a way of countering the claim that they were uneducated, stating that philosophers could not agree on anything and only spent time arguing with each other. Christian simplicity was frequently held up as giving a greater understanding than pagan philosophy. When Abba Arsenius, one of the Desert Fathers of Egyptian monasticism, was asked why he consulted an old Egyptian monk, who was a peasant, about his distracting thoughts, when he had a good Latin and Greek education, he replied that it was because, although he knew Latin and Greek, he did not know even the peasant monk’s alphabet. 3 For Abba Arsenius, the peasant monk, in his simplicity, had greater wisdom than Arsenius himself with his excellent classical education. Jerome and St. Augustine both argued against the pagan educational system because they felt that schoolchildren would be corrupted by its paganism. Basil of Caesarea, however, believed that some pagan literature could be used in Christian education, and his work Ad Iuvenes (Advice to the Young) was particularly influential in the Renaissance. 4

In fact the early Christians included extremely well-educated people from nearly all levels of society, from the wealthy to those much lower in the social scale. Abba Arsenius, for example, before he became a monk had been tutor to the sons of the emperor Honorius. Both Ambrose of Milan and Basil of Caesarea were highly educated and used complex philosophical arguments in their discussions of the Christian faith. 5 While there were school texts for Christians that omitted pagan mythology, the educational curriculum for them soon also included Homer for those who spoke Greek, and Virgil for Latin speakers. 6 Indeed, Christianity was from a very early period associated with books and literature. A painting of the Last Judgement in the Catacombs shows a group of Christians arriving holding their books. When a group of Christian prisoners were asked by the governor of Africa what they had brought with them to court, they replied that it was ‘texts of Paul, a just man.’ 7 Clement of Alexandria, in his Paedagogus, wrote in a fine style of elevated Attic Greek, referring to Homer and the Comic poets and basing part of his argument on Stoic philosophy. Contemporary scholars have compared this favourably with pagan works, stating that his literary allusions were proof ‘of the range and stamina of a cultured Christian author and his audience. The pagan schools had produced nothing more dazzling.’ 8 Further down the social scale, in Rome in the late 180s there was a group of Greek-speaking Christians from Asia Minor who studied Euclid’s geometry, Aristotelian philosophy and Galen, led by Theodotus, a leather worker, although this group was subsequently excommunicated for heresy. 9 The Bodmer collection of papyri, a group of nine scrolls and 29 codices discovered at the end of 1952 near the village of Dishna in Egypt also indicates that the early Christian community there read the great works of literature of the Classical world as well as the Bible. 10 As well as 24 volumes of Biblical texts, the collection includes Homer, Menander, Thucydides and Cicero. Some scholars have found the presence of these secular, pagan works amongst the Christian volumes so out of place that they have suggested that the collection is really two hoards, which were added together by the sellers to make the contents more attractive to the Western scholars who purchased them when they were discovered. The simplest explanation, however, is that the various works in the collection do indeed come from the same library, and that the early Christians of Upper Egypt were well acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics. 11

Survival of Classical Culture during the Dark Ages

The fall of the Roman Empire did not result in the end of secular literature and learning in the West. During the reign of Theodoric, who ruled northern Italy from 491-526, both Romans and Ostrogoths read and collected books. These collectors were generally cultured members of the senatorial aristocracy, who were active in preserving and revising the texts of many of the great works of classical culture. Their private libraries included not just Christian texts, but also the works of Greek scientists, philosophers and historians. According to Virgil the Grammarian in the 7th century, it was customary to have two separate libraries for Christian and pagan literature respectively. This practice corresponded to the earlier Roman custom of creating separate libraries for Greek and Latin works. 12 In fact the barbarian invaders were generally literate and Christian, though Arian rather than Catholic, and viewed themselves as the heirs to ancient Roman culture, which was immensely admired. Thus there was widespread book production in Italy, Spain and Gaul during the fifth and sixth centuries. 13 The royal library of the Visigothic kings at Toledo in Spain contained profane as well as Christian works, and the aristocracy and clergy were well-educated in the pagan classics. Isidore of Seville, the author of the Etymologies, one of the first Christian encyclopedias, read Vergil as well as the Christian poets. Spanish monks generally did not reject secular literature, and they defended the study of pagan works, which they sometimes claimed contained prefigurations of Christian truth. 14 

The Ancient Roman Educational System

Nevertheless, much learning was lost due to the barbarian invasions. The Frankish invasion in Gaul resulted in the complete destruction of the education system there by the second half of the seventh century. 15 This situation was not helped by the fact that there was nothing like a system of free public education in ancient Rome. The emperors had early adopted the role of patrons of learning, granting material privileges and sometimes stipends to leading scholars. Vespasian made Quintilian, the great Roman rhetorician and educationalist, a professor of literature and rhetoric, and subsequent emperors established similar chairs at Rome, Athens and elsewhere. Nevertheless, education was restricted to the wealthy, and responsibility for the establishment of lower schools was left to individual local authorities and parents with the necessary funds to pay for a schoolmaster. 16 Elementary classes were held in an open porch in the public square, partitioned off from the passing traffic by a sheet of tent-cloth stretched between the pillars. Schoolmasters in both Rome and ancient Greek had little respect and were poorly paid. Although Athens had passed legislation regulating conditions in schools, possibly dating from the time of Solon, the Greek cities rarely required high standards in their schoolmasters. The unregulated nature of ancient education meant that high qualifications for school teachers were often not demanded. As a result the low status of the school teacher was often insultingly contrasted with the great value of education itself. In the fourth century BC Demosthenes attacked his rival, Aeschines, with the comment that Demosthenes himself had been to school, while Aeschines’ father had only been the schoolteacher. 17 The ludi magister, or elementary school teacher, was often a slave or freedman. The pay for these was so low that they were required to have at least 30 pupils before they had the same monthly salary as a carpenter. Juvenal considered teaching to be in the same category of jobs as bath-attendants, fortune-tellers and tight-rope walkers. Cicero placed them with medicine below members of the liberal professions, but above shopkeepers and manual labourers. 18 The secondary school teacher, the grammaticus, under Diocletian received a salary four times that of the ludi magister, though they were as likely to be a slave or freedman. The secondary schools were better equipped than the primary schools, with a few maps and busts of the poets. Nevertheless, it was still held in an open porch. 19

The Ancient Jewish School System in the Diaspora

The Jewish educational system during the Diaspora was rather different. In order to protect their religion and culture from Hellenization, the Jews established a system of schools. These included the Beth-hasepher, or House of the Book, or elementary school, to teach boys from six or seven to 13 the Torah. Although it was originally held in any suitable room, by the late second century AD it was held in the synagogue. It was a private, fee-paying school, though a tax levied on all parents meant that entry to it was free for those who could not afford to pay. 20 Beyond the elementary school was the Beth-hamidrash, or House of Study or exposition, where boys from 13 to 17 years old were taught the Midrash or Oral Law. 21 The religious nature of Jewish education demanded high moral qualities from its teachers. He was expected to have the required knowledge of the Torah,  a highly moral character, patience, a good understanding of children and be married. It was stated that ‘If the teacher can be compared to an angel of the Lord of Hosts the Torah may be sought at his mouth: if not, if the Torah may not be sought at his mouth.’ 22 As a result, the Jewish elementary school teacher was respected far more than Greek or Roman schoolmasters. Nevertheless, their tenure was not secure. In the early days of the private schools they were placed in the same class as village craftsmen. After the creation of the communally organised school system, they were the lowest of the communal officials. 23 Commentators on the ancient Jewish educational system note that it was not merely intended to prepare the child for adult life at the expense of their present situation. The religious curriculum of festivals, prayers, benedictions and the Torah and psalms was intended to give the child spiritual and moral benefit for himself, so he could play his part in the religious life of the community as a child. It was based on the notion, completely absent in the ancient Greek world, that the child had rights and was expected to play their role in the community. 24

The Roman Curriculum and Lack of Science Education

The Roman curriculum itself consisted of grammar, rhetoric, literature and philosophy with oratory. 25 Although the elementary schools could also include a calculator, or teacher of arithmetic, unlike the Greeks, Roman education did not include science or mathematics. 26 Indeed, Roman scientific works were all translations or adaptations of Greek works. Celsus, however, wrote a history of medicine, and there were numerous handbooks for practical subjects. There were also a number of encyclopedias published. Cato the Censor in 180 BC wrote a summary of all the contemporary knowledge of medicine, farming and oratory. This was later surpassed by Varro’s nine books on grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and architecture. The great textbook of Roman biology, the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, survived into the Middle Ages.  While Pliny’s book was original, Seneca based his work of science, Natural Questions, mainly on Aristotle. 27 The Romans were not, however, interested in mathematics. Cicero described any insoluble mystery as an ‘archimedean problem’. Roman interest in Greek science was limited to brief, practical manuals. These had a wide circulation, but do not appear to have inspired Romans to engage in similar research. 28 Pliny in his Natural History complained of the marked lack of research in the contemporary Roman Empire, and contrasted it with the plethora of works produced by the Greeks when the existence of wars between independent states and pirates disrupted communications. ‘Yet now in these glad times of peace, under an emperor who so delights in the advancement of letters and science, no addition whatever is being made to knowledge by means of original research, and in fact even the discoveries of our predecessors are not being thoroughly studied,’ he lamented. 29 Thus long before Christianity gained power, there was an increasing lack of interest in science and philosophy in the Roman world.

Foundation of Libraries by Christian Church

Nevertheless, despite the decline in scientific and philosophical research in the Western Roman Empire and the chaos and disruption caused by the barbarian invasions, western churchmen were still active in founding libraries. Cassiodorus in the fifth century, for example, had dreamed of founding a Christian university when he was young, and collected books for its library. This project came to an end with the Gothic War of the 530s, but nevertheless he was able to use the books to establish a smaller library at the Vivarium, the monastery he founded at Squilace on the southern coast of Italy. By the 560s the library was the centre of a substantial collection of Christian religious texts, though it did not long survive the death of its founder. 30 Other monasteries in 6th century Italy also contained important libraries. Lucullanum, near Naples, held copies of the Gospels, the letters of St. Augustine, the Excepta of Augustine’s works by Eugippius, and Origen and Rufinus. The most important of these monastic libraries, however, was that established by St. Benedict at Monte Cassino in 529.

Monte Cassino was the mother house of the Benedictine order and so immensely influential in the history of western monasticism. Under St. Benedict’s Rule, all monks were expected to read as well as perform manual work. 31 Originally monks were expected to spend four hours a day reading, but this period was curtailed in the 10th century due to the expansion of the liturgical services. Nevertheless, the obligation to read still continued. 32 They were also expected to spend Sundays reading. 33 Every monk was required to take a book out at Lent to read straight through, with no skipping or putting it aside to do something else. 34 There is a list from 1040 of the books borrowed by individual monks at Cluny. The vast majority of the monks chose religious works, with only one reading a secular author, Livy. 35 Nevertheless, Benedictine libraries also included secular authors. Thus, during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne, the monks studied the rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian, Vergil, and arithmetic, geometry, natural history, astronomy and music, though Aristotle and Euclid were known only in the Latin editions of Boethius. 36 The monastic libraries also included books on agriculture and surveying, as well as medical anthologies, such as the works of Galen and Hippocrates. 37

It was not only the Roman Catholic church that established monastic libraries. The medieval Irish Celtic Church was one of the foremost centres of learning in early medieval Europe. To authors like Thomas Cahill, it was the Irish who saved European civilisation in this period through the preservation of Greek and Roman literature and culture in their monasteries. Each Irish Celtic abbey contained a scriptorium, or teach screptra – ‘house of writing’, in Irish, in which the books were kept in polairi, leather satchels hanging from pegs. These satchels were used to protect the books in them when they were carried from one location to another. 38 Irish monks were missionary and peripatetic, wandering across Europe to spread Christianity. In doing so, they founded monasteries and established libraries. The great Irish abbot, Columban, established a monastery at Bobbio in northern Italy. Although this was originally established to provide the scholarship to combat the Arian heresy, it expanded beyond that to become one of the greatest centres of learning in early medieval Italy. While most of the books were religious, it also included a number of secular works, including authors such as Aristotle, Vergil, Cicero, Ovid, Terence, Martial, Perseus, Juvenal, Pliny, Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, Cato, as well as Orosius, Cassiodorus and Boethius. So devoted were the monks to continuing Latin culture that they even erased Biblical texts so that the parchment could be used for Latin grammars. 39 Eventually the monastery declined due to internal dissension and repeated attacks by rival Christian princes. Nevertheless, it played a major role in the preservation of the ancient classics. ‘We owe to the Bobbio library the texts that we have of many classics of Roman literature – texts that were copied at Bobbio from manuscripts once housed in the villas of Roman patricians.’ 40 In Britain, the Cathedral school at York was also a major centre for European learning. Established by Egbert, a pupil of the great Anglo-Saxon churchman, Bede, under Egbert’s successor, archbishop Ethelbert, it possessed one of the finest libraries in Europe. 41 According to the Anglo-Saxon cleric and scholar Alcuin, who later became one of the leading ecclesiastical scholars in France under Charlemagne, the library not only contained religious works, but also secular authors such as Aristotle, Pliny and Pompey. 42

The Byzantine empire also possessed a number of major libraries. Constantine had established a school in Constantinople, which was given a library by Julian the Apostate. Enthusiastically supported by the emperors, this contained 120,000 volumes. In 372 the emperor Valens ordered that it should be staffed by seven antiquarians, charged with maintaining the collection and making new copies. The library had its own scriptorium, but also purchased books from monastic libraries, such as the monasteries at Constantinople and Mount Athos. 43 However, public access to the library was restricted after a fire in 476. Nevertheless, other major monasteries and churches also maintained libraries, though these tended to be overwhelmingly religious in nature. The library at Patmos only contained 15 secular authors amongst its collection of 330 books. 44

Despite this, the Byzantine Empire was highly cultured with an intellectual heritage directly descended from ancient Greece and Rome. The curriculum at the University of Constantinople included ancient philosophy, rhetoric and the natural sciences as well as theology, using texts compiled by Alexandrian schoolmasters in the first century AD. 45 The empire had a much higher literacy rate than that of western Europe, and wealthy patrons of learning themselves created great private libraries. Educated Byzantines knew Plato, as well as the Bible and religious works such as the writings of St. John of the Ladder. 46 There was a flourishing book trade which even exported works to Arab libraries. 47 There was no conflict between ancient classical humanism and Christianity, as they were part of the same living tradition, as both the Church Fathers and the ancient philosophers spoke Greek. Thus clerics like Bishop Eustathios of Salonika, were able to write commentaries on secular, classical authors like Homer, as well as their sermons. 48 Nearly every Greek text that survives today was produced by a Byzantine copyist, usually a monk, and so Byzantium preserved, interpreted and passed on the heritage of the ancient world. 49 Some secular classical learning also entered Kievan Russia through the collections of aphorisms that circulated in Byzantium and were translated into Old Church Slavonic after Russia converted to Christianity. This included the 11th century Melissa, ‘Bee’, which was translated into Old Church Slavonic as the Pchela, and contained quotations from Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Philo and Epictetus. 50

Christian Translation of Scientific Texts and the Beginnings of Muslim Science

Christian scholars were also active in the translation of the classical scientific and medical works that formed the basis of the medieval Islamic scientific project. During the Middle Ages science and philosophy in Islam was more advanced than in the West. The abbasid caliphs al-Mamun, al-Mansur and al-Rashid had attempted to introduce and integrate the scientific knowledge from the various nations of their empire through their translation into Arabic, establishing a Bayt al-Hikma – ‘House of Science’ – as a library of scientific works. These caliphs, according to tradition, acquired scientific and medical texts from Byzantium. The most active translator of medical texts for the library was a Nestorian Christian, Hunayn ibn Ishaq. 51 Hunayn led a team of scholars who translated Hippocrates and Galen into Arabic. His son, Ishaq, who succeeded him, translated Aristotle, Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest. 52 The abbasid caliphs drew for some of their medical knowledge on a medical school established by Nestorian Christians in Jundishapur in Iran after their expulsion from Edessa in 489. This school taught Greek medicine in Syriac and Persian translations, and the head of the school, the Nestorian Jibra’il ibn Bakhtishu, was summoned to Baghdad in 765 AD to serve as the court physician to the caliph al-Mansur. Under the caliph Harun al-Rashid, Jibra’il was responsible for the construction of the bimaristan or hospital at Baghdad, modelled on the Syro-Persian hospital established at Jundishapur. The hospital at Baghdad built by Jibra’il subsequently become the model for other hospitals in Baghdad and elsewhere. 53 

Christian Inclusion of Science and Secular Learning

In Christianity, St. Augustine argued for the inclusion of all the disciplines of the pagan classical world in a Christian curriculum of study in his De Doctrina Christiana. Augustine considered that a knowledge of sciences, such as that of plants and animals, precious stones, numerology, astronomy and music all helped to lead to a greater understanding of the truth of the Bible, especially the allegories and imagery in scripture. 54 He also argued that scholars should learn rhetoric in order to lead people to a love of Biblical knowledge. 55

St. Augustine was not alone in seeking to use pagan, classical knowledge in the service of Christian learning. As well as founding the Vivarium library, Cassiodorus, like St. Augustine, also wrote an educational work, the Institutiones or ‘Divine and Secular Learning’. 56 Describing itself as ‘an introduction to divine and human readings’, this also recommended the study of grammar, history, science and mathematics as leading to a greater understanding of the Bible and God’s creation, and included them with a syllabus of theological study for the practice of monasticism. 57 However, rather than integrate these elements into a single whole, Cassiodorus arranged them into two sections, the first dealing with the Bible, and the second covering the liberal arts needed for its interpretation. This second part could also be read on its own, purely as a summary of secular knowledge, and this is what many of its readers appear to have done. Of the surviving manuscripts of the book, only three contain both parts one and two. The other versions of the book are copies of either the first or second parts of the book on their own. The fact that part two of the book, dealing with secular studies, was copied separately indicates that such learning was already enjoyed and studies for its own sake, apart from its relevance to religious scholarship. 58

Following St. Augustine and Cassiodorus, Gerbert of Reims was also particularly influential in the establishment of the ancient classical scholarship in the medieval curriculum in the late tenth century. From 972 onwards Gerbert taught Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and his works on arithmetic and music, as well as Porphyry’s Introduction to Logic, Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione, Cicero’s Topics, as well as astronomy and the theory of music. He also taught the authors Virgil, Statius, Terence, Juvenal, Persius, Horace and Lucan. 59

Apart from the works of classical literature, there were a number of scientific and philosophical works circulating from the fourth to the tenth centuries in Latin editions. These included the first 53 chapters of Plato’s Timaeus, translated from the Greek in the fourth century by Chalcidius; Aristotle’s works on logic, such as the Logica Vetus, translated by Boethius; the anonymous Greek medical treatise, the Physiologus, which was written in Alexandria in the second century AD and tranlated into Latin in the fifth. A number of technical Compositiones were also translated from the Greek in the 8th century, while the ninth century saw the translation of parts of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. 60 Other works circulating in this period included Macrobius’ manual on dreams, In Somnium Scipionis, and Martianus Capella’s Satyricon, sive De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii et de Septem Artibus Liberalibus, or the Nuptials of Philology and Mercury, a manual on the seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, of the fifth century AD. 61 Amonst the scientific works produced during the Carolingian renaissance was a version of the astronomical treatise, the Phaenomena, written by the ancient Athenian poet Aratus, who lived c. 315-140/39 BC. 62 This ninth century version of the ancient poem on the constellations was produced as part of what the emperor Charlemagne saw as his ‘duty to ensure the progress of our churches.’ 63 Thus, even before the rediscovery of the Arab editions of the ancient classical authors that produced the twelfth century renaissance, the Church was active rediscovering, copying and preserving the classical heritage.

Establishment of Schools by the Christian Church

The Church was also active establishing a system of schools which taught this ancient learning not just to clerics but also to laypeople. Benedictine monasteries maintained two schools, an inner school for the oblates and novices studying for their career as monks, and an outer school for secular clergy and the sons of the nobility. 64 From the sixth to the thirteenth centuries there was a succession of orders from church councils, synods and bishops requiring that all clergy should teach free of charge. 65 There are recorded cases of men who had a monastic education, but did not become monks. Some English abbots maintained schools and schoolmasters to give poor boys a secular education. 66 All education was under the control of the local bishop, and during the twelfth century the schools of the local cathedral became grammar schools, so called because they taught Latin grammar. The education offered by the grammar schools was particularly attractive to laypeople, because in addition to Latin they often also taught one other liberal art. Thus, when the demand for education was too great for the local cathedral school to cope, additional grammar schools were founded, with the permission of the local bishop, attached to other institutions, such as almshouses and chantries, or founded by a trade guild. 67 

Loss of Classical Knowledge and Destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria

Nevertheless, much classical knowledge was lost despite the attempts of the Church to preserve it. Cassiodorus’ insistence on the essentially religious nature of monastic libraries contributed to ending the practice of monasteries copying pagan classics commissioned by wealthy lay people, though this practice returned during the Carolingian renaissance. 68 It has been suggested that the great library at Alexandria was destroyed either by Christians, or the Muslims when they invaded Egypt in 641 AD. In fact, rather than being destroyed in a single act of destruction, the library quietly declined and faded away through apathy and neglect after the decline of classical, humanistic civilisation. 69

Conclusion: The Christian Church Preserved ‘Romania’, the Roman Way of Life, into the Middle Ages

Thus, the Christian Church worked to preserve classical culture and learning during the decline of the Roman Empire and destruction of the barbarian invasions despite the intense dislike of pagan culture by the early Christians in the second century AD. The Roman educational system was destroyed not by the Christians, but through the economic, demographic, social and political decline of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions. ‘Thus the barbarian interlude did not result in a complete break between Christian Europe and the classical world; and the medieval church preserved in its Latin Bible, the Vulgate of St. Jerome, the strong moral emphasis of its Hebrew origins. Augustine owed much to Platonic thought, the medieval schoolmen much to Aristotle, but the bible was the source of their faith. We can trace these Hebrew and classical influences throughout the Middle Ages.’ 70 That the church worked to preserve classical culture is not surprising. St. Augustine, Cassiodorus and the Christian Church considered themselves perservers and supporters of Romania, the Roman way of life. 71 Thus far from working to destroy classical civilisation, the Christian church attempted to preserve and transform it, and in doing so the classical heritage survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions into the Middle Ages, to form the basis of the modern world.


1. Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2004), p. 81.

2. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 82.

3. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 82; Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications 1984), p. 10.

4. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 89; Irena Backus, ‘The Early Church in Renaissance and Reformation’ in Ian Hazlett, Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (London, SPCK 1991), p. 298.

5. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 82.

6. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 89.

7. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Meditteranean World: From the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine (London, Penguin 1986), p. 304.

8. Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 306.

9. Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 308.

10. Christopher De Hamel, The Book: A History of the Bible (London, Phaidon 2001), p. 316-7, 318.

11. De Hamel, The Book, p. 319.

12. Fred Lerner, The Story of Libraries from the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age (New York, Continuum 2001), p. 38.

13. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 38.

14. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 38.

15. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 38.

16. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization – Vol. 2: Selected Readings – The Empire (New York, Columbia University Press 1990), p. 198.

17. E.B. Castle, Ancient Education and Today (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 65.

18. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 126.

19. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 128.

20. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 177.

21. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 180.

22. Castle, Ancient Education, pp. 181-2.

23. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 182.

24. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 185.

25. Naphtali and Meyer, Roman Civilisation, p. 198.

26. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 124.

27. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, Newnes Books 1985), p. 237-8.

28. Wright, History of the World, p. 238.

29. Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, p. 210.

30. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 38-9.

31. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 46; R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, Century Hutchinson 1987), p. 180.

32. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 180.

33. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 46.

34. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 46; Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 180.

35. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 182.

36. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 47.

37. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 48.

38. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 40.

39. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 41.

40. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 41.

41. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 42-3.

42. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 43.

43. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 49-50.

44. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 50.

45. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

46. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

47. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 50.

48. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

49. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

50. George Vernadsky, Kievan Russia (New Haven, Yale University Press), p. 283.

51. A.I. Sabra, ‘The Scientific Enterprise’ in Bernard Lewis, ed., The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture (London, Thames and Hudson 1992), p. 181.

52. Sabra, ‘Scientific Enterprise’ in Lewis, ed., World of Islam, p. 182.

53. Sabra, ‘Scientific Enterprise’ in Lewis, ed., World of Islam, p. 182.

54. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 164.

55. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 165.

56. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 39; Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 165.

57. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 39.

58. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 166.

59. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, pp. 168-9.

60. A.C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo Vol. 1 – Science in the Middle Ages- V-XIII Centuries (London, Mercury Books 1959), p. 37.

61. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, vol. 1, p. 38; J.W. Adamson, ‘Education’ in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, eds., The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 273.

62. Ranee Katzenstein and Emilie Savage-Smith, The Leiden Aratea: Ancient Constellations in a Medieval Manuscript (Malibu, the J. Paul Getty Museum 1988), p. 5

63. Katzenstein and Savage-Smith, Leiden Aratea, p. 7.

64. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 45; J.W. Adamson, ‘Education, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, eds., The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1928), p. 257.

65. Adamson, ‘Education’, in Crump and Jacob, eds., Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 262.

66. Adamson, ‘Education’, in Crump and Jacob, eds., Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 258.

67. Adamson, ‘Education’, in Crump and Jacob, eds., Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 257.

68. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 39.

69. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 30-1.

70. Castle, Ancient Education and Today, p. 188.

71. R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe from Constantine to St. Louis (Harlow, Longman 1988), p. 72.