Ken Collins’ Web Site

The First Christian Nation

Which country (out of this list of countries) was the first to adopt Christianity as its official state religion? My thanks to Marian Sinn for suggesting this question.

62% said:
The Roman Empire.
29% said:
7% said:
no one said:
Russia, Iceland, or the United States of America.

The United States, Never

The United States has never had a state church. American church attendance and church membership was very low, at about 30% of the population, until the revivals at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The First Amendment of the Constitution, which is modeled on the older Virginia law of religious liberty, prohibits the establishment of a state religion.

Italy, too modern

The problem with Italy is not when it became Christian, but when it became Italy. As a nation it did not exist until about 1870. Until then, the area that makes up modern Italy was a patchwork quilt of duchies, kingdoms, and papal states. The final details separating the Italian state from the Vatican were not worked out until 1929 and were finalized in 1944.

Iceland, 1000

Christianity reached Iceland in about 980. In the year 999 or 1000, the Alþing, the Icelandic legislature, voted to make Christianity the state religion. Today, the Icelandic state church is Lutheran. The latest Bible translation into Icelandic was published in 1981.

Russia, 988

Christianity came to Russia in the 9th and 10th centuries as a result of the efforts of Saints Cyril and Methodius. St. Cyril invented the Cyrillic alphabet for the Slavic languages to facilitate Bible translation. (Countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet today were evangelized, directly or indirectly, by Cyril and Methodius.) St.Vladimir established Christianity as the state religion of what is now Russia in 988. Christianity was oppressed under the Communists until Gorbachev. Gorbachev, incidentally, was baptized as an infant in the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its 1,000th birthday, and in 1989, Communism fell.

Roman Empire, about 380

Most of you guessed the Roman Empire, but of the choices, the Roman Empire was the second to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Theodosius I became Emperor of the Roman Empire from in 379, 47 years after Constantine’s death, and ruled until 395. He established Church as the official state religion, but it took nearly his entire reign to make it stick. He ended pagan sacrifices, and outlawed heresies. His actions were met with great resistance from the Roman Senate and from others, but Theodosius prevailed in the end.

The First Christian Nation: Armenia, 301

When Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world, they really did just that. Bartholomew and Thaddeus wound up in Armenia. The evangelization of Armenia climaxed in 301, when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates, who proclaimed Christianity the state religion of Armenia. In 374, the Armenian Church became independent of the Church of Caesarea. In fifth century, St. Isaac the Great and St. Mesrob invented the Armenian alphabet and translated the Bible and the liturgy into Armenian. The Armenian Church did not attend the Council of Chalcedon but repudiated it in 555. That action separated them, with the rest of the monophysite churches, from the Eastern Orthodox. The separation lasted until the twentieth century, when the monophysites and the Orthodox began a reconciliation process. Throughout their entire history, Armenian Christians have been under almost constant persecution, first by Persians, then Arabs, and then Turks. When Armenia came under the Soviet Union, they were persecuted by the Communists until Gorbachev. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia became an independent country once again. The celebration of Christmas never spread to Armenia, so Armenian Christians celebrate the Nativity at Epiphany. Armenians are very proud to be the first Christian nation in the world.

Or Was it Some Other Country?

Armenia was the first Christian nation in the list that accompanied the question, but which country was actually first? The first Christian nation was Armenia in 301, Ethiopia was probably second in about 325, and Georgia was third, somewhere around 337. All three are proud to be the first Christian nation.

It’s possible that everyone is right, if they are using different criteria.

This question was about the date on which the governments of those countries first adopted Christianity as the official state religion. The date on which Christianity became prevalent among the people would be earlier than that, and the arrival of the apostle would be earlier still. (All three countries were evangelized in apostolic times by apostles.) If you use either of those two criteria, the countries could come in a different order.