Spain is known around the world as a Roman Catholic country, but little is known for sure about the precise details of how the religion came to the Iberian peninsular.
The Catholic Church is deeply rooted in modern Spanish culture, yet the roots of the religion are not so clear. There is evidence that Christians as far away as Jerusalem knew of Spain, but no clear evidence that they made a journey.
The origins can be traced to small anonymous groups of Jewish people who reached Spain as they fled wars in and around Jerusalem, most notably when Romans destroyed a temple in the city. We don’t know exactly when the emigration took place because the word ‘Christian’ didn’t come into use until later. One of the first written instances is from the year 115 AD.
Early momentum through immigration
But before then, the early history of the religion had been spread by some Jews that believed in Christ. For example, Jewish slaves from Jerusalem founded the Christian church in Carthage, now part of Tunisia.
The real momentum came from the latter part of the second century, when Jews and Christians began to settle in Spanish cities, and slowly began to convert their new neighbours.
Some Christians continued to follow Jewish practices such as specific diets and circumcision, while others followed Gnosticism. In around 200 AD, one writer from north Africa writer claimed there were visible Christians all across Spain.
Around these years, the persecution of Christians was sporadic. Some who refused to decorate their homes in honour of pagan festivals were brought to the attention of the authorities and some were killed. It is believed this happened in León and Carthage amongst other places, but the numbers impacted were fairly small.
The small Christian communities grew slowly through family ties and small community activities. People came together in each others homes to worship, and share cups of wine and pieces of bread. Some estimates say there were around 200,000 Christians in the entire Roman Empire by the end of the third century, although that was less than 1% of the total population.
A violent shift
The growth soon came to a violent end. In 212 AD, Roman citizenship was extended to everyone in the Empire. Although this was designed to increase the tax income, it also impacted religious tolerance. Once everyone was a Roman citizen, there was an expectation to follow the Roman rules of worship.
In 249 AD, the Emperor ordered all Roman citizens to offer sacrifice to Rome’s gods, causing conflict with the significant Christian communities in the Empire’s larger cities. There are records of people in places like Mérida dying because of their faith, and in some places Bishops were brought before the authorities. Some of those who died in this era are today patron saints of various towns.
Some of what we know about the times of martyrs comes from the great poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, born in 348 AD in north-eastern Spain. Prudentius penned hymns in honour of the Spanish martyrs, designed to be sung in churches. Spain’s deep passionate roots in religion can probably be traced back to moments like this.
The creation of the Roman Catholic church
After the efforts in torturing Christians into following the Roman gods failed, Christianity became established in great part thanks to the Roman Emperor Constantine. Although he lived his life as a pagan, he joined the Christian faith on his deathbed. During his life, he played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which declared religious tolerance for Christianity throughout the Roman empire.
Roman authorities granted Christian churches immunity from taxes, and Christians grew in number. Romans worshipped their traditional gods side-by-side, at least for the time being. In 380 AD, a law decreed that every Roman citizen would become a Catholic Christian, and a new church was born.
The most famous decree from the Council of the new church required clergy to observe a life of celibacy. While observed in Spain, this didn’t become widespread until centuries later. The council proclaimed that both the father and the son were eternal, which offended followers of the priest Arius who believed the son was separate from the father. His followers continued the dissent, and Arianism was born.
While everyone was nominally Christian, not everyone worshipped in the same way. Rural people in Galicia were said to continue to worship nature, as they had done for generations before. Old pagan shrines were slowly transformed into Christian ones, and ancient mountains were claimed by building monasteries there.
The end of religious tolerance
This was the beginning of Orthodoxy, in which decent no longer was tolerated. People who chose to believe different interpretations were labelled heretics, and heresy was made a crime by the fourth century. Orthodox churchmen believed Gnosticism were the worst offenders, and went as far as killing those who wouldn’t convert.
One of the most important people of this era was Priscillian, a wealthy nobleman who became bishop of Ávila. Some practices of his followers were denounced by church leaders, and tensions continued to rise. After travelling to Rome to appeal to the Pope but being turned away, Priscillian was eventually charged with sorcery and executed.
He died in 385 AD, but for the next few hundred years, Priscillianism continued especially in his native Galicia. Deep in the hills, people continued to remember.
Nevertheless, by the end of the fourth century, the Roman Catholic church was established as part of the Roman Empire, while Spain built a reputation as a centre of Orthodoxy.