The oldest known purpose-built Christian Church in the world can be found in Aqaba in Jordan. Built between 293 and 303, the now-ruined structure predates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Churches provide Christians with a meeting place to conduct religious activity. More widely, many churches, basilicas and minsters have grown into major cultural sites which have borne witness to some of the most cataclysmic moments in history.
The construction, vandalism and destruction of churches have altered the course of world history numerous times. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, for example, saw some 800 of Britain’s monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries destroyed between 1536-1541.
But why were churches built, and what can they tell us about the history of humanity?
The word ‘church’ doesn’t necessarily just refer to the building
Nowhere in the Bible does it state that Christians should build specific buildings as places of worship, only that they must gather to discuss and spread the word of God.
Protestant Reformation figure William Tyndale translated the bible into English. In it, he used the word ‘congregacion’ from the Greek ‘ekklesia’, which translates to ‘assembly’. At this time, the word was used to denote both a physical church building and the gathering of churchgoers in general. This meaning was also maintained in Latin and its derivative languages as well as the Celtic languages.
The later King James Bible chose to substitute the word ‘church’ to refer to the building alone, rather than people. A ‘church’ as a physical meeting place for Christians remains the primary definition today.
Early Christians did not build churches
The New Testament states that the earliest Christians did not construct purpose-built churches, instead opting to gather in public spaces, houses or in Jewish places of worship like synagogues. Indeed, the early Christian church was largely dependent on members or supporters who owned larger houses or warehouses and could provide a meeting place.
Even when there were several meeting sites in one city, early Christian populations are recorded as feeling they belonged to a single church group. From the 2nd century AD, bishops in cities began to become the centre of unity for other Christians in the area, while symbolic gestures such as the eucharistic bread being sent from one place to various assemblies encouraged a feeling of togetherness.
Houses were converted into churches
The earliest identified Christian church is a house church called Dura-Europos which dates from 233-256 AD. It was only in the first half of the 3rd century AD that the first purpose-built halls for Christian worship began to be constructed, though many were destroyed under Emperor Diocletian in the next century as part of the greatest persecution of Christians in ancient Roman history.
Roman Emperor Constantine recognised Christianity as a legal religion in 313 AD. The first property owned by the church in Rome was probably the city catacombs, which were used as a place of Christian burial.
Churches appeared everywhere in medieval Western Europe
From the 11th to the 14th centuries, cathedral-building and the construction of smaller parish churches dramatically increased across Western Europe. In addition to serving as a place of worship, the cathedral or parish church was used as a general gathering place for local communities, hosting events such as guild meetings, banquets, mystery plays and fairs. Church buildings were also used for the threshing and storage of grain.
At this time, religious architecture and art also witnessed a boom in investment as a form of encouraging deference to both the church and state and as a form of fiscal policy. More specifically, churches and their associated spending were a reliable way of rewarding political allies and sequestering wealth: luxurious materials such as marble that were used to build churches were expensive to produce and difficult to plunder.
Moreover, medieval citizens were keen to help build beautiful churches because this practice was seen as a signal of high and godly status and often put the individual in the crown’s favour.
Religious architectural styles developed later
Romanesque styles became popular across Europe between 1000 and 1200. Known for its towering round arches, massive stones and brickwork, small windows and thick walls, Romanesque architecture can still be seen in many cathedrals, churches and other religious buildings across Europe.
In around 1140, the Gothic style emerged in the Paris area and quickly took hold across Europe. The style was bigger, wider, higher and more detailed and featured pointed arches, large stained glass windows and gargoyles. The Gothic style also allowed church architects to push the limits of structural possibility. However, the style fell out of fashion in the late 15th century.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Renaissance and Reformation changed societal ethics and therefore the building of churches. The common style was similar to Gothic, but more simplified. In Protestant churches, the eye was increasingly drawn to the pulpit.
Baroque architecture emerged from Italy in around 1575 and then to Europe and the European colonies. The building industry increased hugely at this time, with churches being used as indicators of wealth, authority and influence. Fresco paintings replaced stucco statues, while sprawling floral ornamentation and mythological scenes were popular.
Today, a staggering 37 million churches of all sizes and styles cater to around 41,000 Christian denominations. Though more people than ever claim to be agnostic or atheist, church buildings remain invaluable to local communities around the globe.