BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. By Rodney Stark. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 1, 1997 - Pages 131-136

How often, in refuting the cult animus attached to the Unification Church, have we argued, “Look, early Christianity was a cult.” It is a seemingly obvious statement, yet few church historians have taken it seriously. It has been commonplace to regard the growth of new religions as a social phenomenon explainable by theories of deviance, e.g. as appealing to people disaffected from society and deprived of satisfying social goods. Theologians and not a few church historians, on the other hand, typically view the rise of Christianity is a triumph of faith, as exemplified in the legendary conversion of the emperor Constantine; thus St. Augustine opined, “Christianity must have reproduced itself by means of miracles.” If the statement, “Early Christianity was a cult,” means anything, then the abundant findings from sociological studies of the conversion to and the growth of new religious movements should be of more than passing interest to historians of early Christianity.

With The Rise of Christianity, such an analysis of early Christianity is at hand for the first time. Sociologist Rodney Stark, who pioneered the study of new religions back in the early 1960s when, together with John Lofland, they studied Young Oon Kim’s early mission to America,[1] turns his sociological insights to the subject of early church history. The result is a book full of powerful insights that is well worth reading—and pondering for ourselves.

A number of findings learned from studying new religions are helpful in elucidating issues in church history. For example, what was the population of Christians in the days of Paul’s ministry? Paul addresses a church in many cities of the Greco-Roman world; in Romans 16 he salutes no less than 28 fellow-workers and many house churches. Do these abundant greetings indicate a flourishing Church of many thousands? Stark compares letters which Dr. Kim (then known as ‘Miss Kim’) wrote to her pioneer missionaries in the 1960s, in which she also includes profuse greetings, typically, “To sister Ella, to brother Howard, to Dorothy visiting from Dallas, and to all who now partake of the Unification Church in San Jose, greetings in Father’s name.” (p. 218) Yet in all America at that time there were fewer than 200 church members. Stark concludes that there may well have been fewer than 2,000 Christians when Paul wrote his letters.

A comparison with new religions also indicates why Christianity was never attacked by the Romans as a political threat, even though Jesus was crucified ostensibly for his political claims—as “king of the Jews.” The Jews in Palestine were subjected to brutal conquest and deportations for two abortive uprisings against the state, yet the persecutions against Christianity were never so brutal, and far more haphazard. Why? Based on a wide range of empirical data, Stark notes, “Cult movements overrecruit persons of more privileged backgrounds.” (p. 46) Like modern cult movements, Christianity was never a proletarian movement. According to Stark, “had Christianity actually been a proletarian movement, it strikes me that the state would have responded to it as a political threat, rather than simply as an illicit religion.” Instead, Christians included members who were well-connected, who could use their influence to secure favorable treatment. Unificationists do the same.

A look at another example allows us to glimpse the theoretical core of Stark’s perspective. He asks, What positive value does persecution and social stigma have in promoting church growth? Why, in the words of Tertullian, is “the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church”? Eschewing supernatural explanations, Stark discusses these issues informed by the socio-economic theory of cost-benefit analysis. Joining a religion is a “rational choice” (p. 169), he says, in which consumers weigh the costs against the benefits of affiliation. What are the rewards and benefits of joining a new religion, even one that is severely persecuted? Among the benefits of religion, some are worldly, e.g. social status and power. Others are scarce, e.g. health, good fortune and long life, and may be available to some outside the church. A third type of benefit is absolutely unavailable to anyone in this life: the promise of heaven, eternal life, the resurrection. While affiliation with an established church might bring worldly rewards, it is the new religions which have the most compelling promise of supernatural benefits. Nevertheless, even the most spiritual of benefits must be established through social interactions in this world. A successful new religion must bear witness, by its collective commitment and sacrifice, to rewards that are sure and worth the cost.

I should point out that Stark’s theoretical framework of cost-benefit analysis is hardly universally accepted among sociologists of religion. Is it true that religious affiliation can be explained by the economic model of rational choice in the religious marketplace? Is self-interest, even for spiritual rewards, sufficient to explain the motivation of religious commitment? Such criticism of Stark’s theoretical foundations has been joined by many sociologistists.[2] Nevertheless, even for those who regard his paradigm as metaphor rather than as causal explanation, Stark’s analysis is revealing and insightful.

From a sociological perspective, martyrdom helps deal with three problems faced by any new and struggling religion: (1) the credibility of the faith, (2) the discouragement that providential timetables are delayed, and (3) the problem of ‘free riders.’ As regards credibility: in a society with a plethora of choices, people must have confidence in the great value and benefit that their religion confers, or they will shop elsewhere. The martyrs, by testifying to the ultimate preciousness on the Christian faith, often suffering tortures and death in public spectacles for all to see, confer great credibility to the religion.

Furthermore, martyrdom, especially the deaths of James, Paul and Peter in the 60s, eased the discouragement of the first generation of Christians who had expected the imminent return of Christ in the glory of the Kingdom (e.g. Mark 13:30, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before these things take place.”) They would also be disheartened by the small size of the Church, as the number of Christians in the decade of the 60s could not have numbered more than a few thousand. Yet Peter was resolved to die even when he had opportunities to flee, and Paul refused many chances to recant and save himself. The witness of their deaths eased the crisis of the first generation, demonstrating the abiding worth of faith in Christ. We may compare the heartening effect of Rev. Moon’s Danbury imprisonment on a discouraged American church.

Third, the ‘free rider’ problem arises in every organization when people join to gain the benefits of membership without contributing their share to the collective effort. Free riders are a plague upon churches, and for new religions they are particularly baneful. Demanding constant attention, they undermine the movement’s resolve to achieve its higher goals. Their weak commitment undermines the discipline and faith of everyone else. As long as a group is persecuted, however, free riders will be reluctant to join. “Sacrifice [e.g., martyrdom] and stigma [being branded as deviant by society] mitigate the free-rider problem faced by religious groups,” says Stark. (p. 177) Under such conditions, those who join necessarily sacrifice more and participate more zealously in church activities. At the same time, the collective religious experience becomes emotionally richer and more fulfilling. As Stark summarizes, “Membership in an expensive religion is, for many people, a good bargain. Conventional cost-benefit analysis alone suffices the continued attraction of religions that impose sacrifices and stigmas upon their members.” (p. 178)

An issue in the rise of Christianity—and of new religions—is the role of the theology. A religion’s teaching is proven in its practice. Christian teaching proved its worth when the Roman empire was gripped by plagues: two epidemics, around the years 165 and 260, each striking with such virulence as to wipe out a quarter to a third of the population. In the midst of pervasive fear and death, while pagans fled for their lives leaving stricken family members to fend for themselves, Christians volunteered to nurse the sick. In showing Christian charity, some of them lost their lives to the contagion. According to Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria:

Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead… (p. 82)

Their charity and dedication, so opposite the survival instinct of the general public, was the direct result of Christian teachings, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink… I was sick and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36) In addition to commending the Christian faith, their charity actually saved many lives and gained converts.

Unificationists may take many lessons from Stark’s presentation of the growth of the early Christian church. In the midst of a diverse and pluralistic America, much like ancient Rome with its abundance of religions and cults, how can the Unification movement distinguish itself and prosper in a competitive religious marketplace? Does our commitment, sacrifice and charity testify to the fact that in the True Parents we have access to a spiritual benefit far more valuable than that offered elsewhere? Does our lifestyle commend True Parents to others, as the early Christians by their charity and morality commended Christ to the people of the Roman Empire?

Just as importantly, we may reflect upon some of the ways in which the Unification movement may differ from the early Christian church. Stark echoes many historians in arguing that Christian universalism made Christianity far more attractive than Judaism with its ethnic requirements of the Mosaic Law. What of the persistence of Korean culture in the Unification movement: to what extent, if any, has that been an obstacle to its universal spread?

More significantly, the advent of the Blessings of 3.6 million and 36 million couples may signal that the Unification Church is moving away from the paradigm of a high-demand religious movement (a ‘cult’ in sociological terms) towards something more like a low-demand ‘client cult’ in which a few priests service a large population without requiring much of them. The statement, “Being a Moonie today is an act of deviance” (p. 17), hardly applies to the millions of Blessed couples in the FFWPU. The rapid growth of Blessed couples far outstrips the growth rate of the early Christian church, and it seems that in some countries the Unification movement may be on its way to achieving a kind of majority status even though the population of full-time dedicated members remains small. It is ironic that at the moment when a scholar has given us such an insightful treatment of religion based upon the model of a new religion as a high-demand cult movement, the Unification movement, always for sociologists the archtypical ‘cult,’ is breaking out of that mold.

Should the Unification movement become a client cult? As with most client cults, membership in the FFWPU is non-exclusive, as adherents can retain their membership in other churches at the same time. If so, here is a caution to us, for the sociology of client cults is not encouraging. The pagan cults of Isis, Orpheus and Mithra—client cults all—had millions of followers, but they crumbled in the face of a determined Christianity. Since affiliating with a client cult is so easy, the price of the grace it offers is perceived as correspondingly slight. As Stark points out,

Exclusive firms [e.g., high-demand Christianity] are far stronger organizations, far better able to mobilize extensive resources and to provide highly credible religious compensators [perceived rewards] as well as substantial worldly benefits. (p. 204)

He quotes historian E. R. Dodds:

A Christian congregation was from the first a community in a much fuller sense than any corresponding group of Isiac or Mithraist devotees. Its members were bound together not only by common rites but by a common way of life.… Love of one’s neighbor is not an exclusively Christian virtue, but in this period Christians appear to have practiced it much more effectively than any other group. The Church provided the essentials of social security… But even more important, I suspect, than these material benefits was the sense of belonging which the Christian community could give. (p. 207)

A strength of the Unification movement has been its strong sense of intense, purposeful community. Unless the FFWPU can nurture in all Blessed couples a similar commitment, community and collective action, creating a mass movement in the fullest sense, we may lose power even as we gain membership. History teaches that no freely-dispensed blessing, no matter how ultimately precious, can by itself substitute for a community built on absolute faith, absolute love and absolute obedience.



[1] John Lofland and Rodney Stark, “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective,” American Sociological Review 30 (1965), pp. 862-875.

[2] See the substantial review by Joseph Bryant in Sociology of Religion 58/2 (Summer 1997), pp. 191-95.