Christianity, religion founded on the life and teachings of Jesus, acknowledged by all Christians to be the Son of God. Christianity had its beginnings when a small band of Jews recognized Jesus of Nazareth, who died about A.D. 33, as the Messiah, or Christ. Immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus, Christianity counted only a few hundred members, among them the Apostles, who followed Christ's teachings and preached his Gospel, particularly as it concerned the life, sufferings, death, resurrection, and divine nature of Jesus. The Christian community had its center in Jerusalem but soon spread into Asia Minor, Syria, Macedonia, and Greece. While St. Peter was the leader of the Jewish Christian community, Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul the Apostle) was preeminent in the task of converting the Gentiles and establishing churches in the Greco-Roman world. As the faith spread, an ecclesiastical structure evolved. Bishops replaced the Apostles as celebrants of the ritual of the Eucharist. They were assisted by presbyters, or elders, who were given the right to perform the sacred duties connected with the Eucharist, while the bishops retained the right of consecrating the presbyters and of confirming the faithful. Various regions were organized into dioceses and provinces. Within 3 centuries, despite persecutions, the Christian religion had become firmly established; in A.D. 324 the emperor Constantine established Christianity as the official religion. In order to settle doctrinal disputes and establish basic tenets, Constantine called the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325. The Nicene Creed, adopted at this council, stated the basic truths of the Christian Church; departures from this statement of faith were thereafter regarded as heresy. From earliest times the preeminence of the bishop of Rome was recognized by the entire Western Church. However, the Eastern Church, headed by the patriarch of Constantinople, had traditionally retained jurisdiction over organizational and doctrinal matters in its own sphere. The question of papal authority led to the Great Schism (1054), when the Eastern Church broke its ties with the West. The popes emerged as influential rulers in western Europe during the Middle Ages, contending with the Holy Roman emperors for temporal power as well as spiritual authority. Disputes arose concerning papal succession, and popes and antipopes, supported by rival kings and princes, fought for the right to rule with the authority of the Holy See.
The entire structure of the Church was shaken by this dissension, and abuses such as simony and the sale of indulgences also cried out for reform. In the 14th century reform was advocated by John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Czechoslovakia. The Reformation of the 16th century was led by Martin Luther, who denied the supreme authority of the pope and rejected all but 2 of the 7 sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist. He affirmed the supreme authority of the Bible in all matters of faith. The Catholic Church responded to the Reformation with the Counter-Reformation, during which abuses were corrected, several new religious orders were formed, and a spirit of Christian mission was fostered among the faithful. It was a highly active era for proselytizing the faith and a period of great creativity in religious art. Since the 16th century there have existed 2 main currents of western Christianity: Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In Switzerland the Reformation was led by Huldreich Zwingli in Zürich and John Calvin in Geneva. Calvinism, which teaches the predestination of the elect and was adopted by the French Huguenots, forms the basis of modern Presbyterianism and the Reformed churches. During the 18th century John Wesley, who turned from Calvinism to a more traditional Christian view, founded the Methodist church in England.
After the pope refused to annul his first marriage, King Henry VIII declared the Church of England to be free of papal jurisdiction. Under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, the Anglican church became truly Protestant; its tenets were set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles of 1576. The Puritans considered these doctrinal reforms inadequate, however, and sought a form of worship based strictly on the Scriptures. Puritan sects later gave rise to the Baptist and Congregational churches and to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. The settlements founded throughout the American colonies by dissenting members of Protestant churches gave impetus to the development of independent American church bodies, such as the Protestant Episcopal Church, an offshoot of the Church of England. Some distinctly American churches sprang up, among these the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), founded in 1830, and the Church of Christ Scientist (Christian Science), founded in 1882. In all there are more than 200 branches of the Christian Church in the United States.
One of the most significant developments in the continued growth of the Christian church in the 20th century is the ecumenical movement. Although still in an early phase, with its progress often slowed by organizational and doctrinal difficulties, ecumenicism has caught the imagination of a majority of the clergy and the faithful, who envision a future in which the Christian Church will again be one universal body, as it was established by Christ.
See also: Jesus Christ.