Concise Lexicon of Christianity

Ken Collins’ Website

Teachings, worship, rites, sermons, and terminology

The First Christian Nation

A lot of countries claim to be the first Christian country, but out of this list, which one was the first to adopt Christianity as its official state religion?


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 not the first 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.

Armenia, 301—The First Christian Nation in This List

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.

Armenian bishops did not attend the Council of Chalcedon, and 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 met the criteria, but which country was actually first? Are the Armenians right?

Since the apostles spread out at the same time, there were dozens of churches that were founded more or less simultaneously. The word church in common usage can mean the building dedicated to Christian worship, the congregation that meets in it, the group of congregations that answer to the same bishop, the bishops and their congregations that are located within the same secular political unit, the bishops and their churches that are the official religion of their country—or the Universal Church that includes them all. If we open up the question to all possibilities, there are an infinite number of possible answers.

Imagine two countries, the Duchy of Outer Petunia and the Kingdom of Azalea. The apostles got to Petunia first, so the Petunian church was founded first. Then there was a period of world-wide persecution. When it was over, King of Azalea made the Azalean church its official state church, so the Azalean church was the first official state church. Which was the first church, the Church of Petunia or the Church of Azalea? You can get a headache figuring out who was first in real life.