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Christianity is the world's most prolific religion, with more than 2.4 billion followers, and churches, cathedrals and chapels on every continent including Antarctica. Many of those are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

While the great majority of religious people in some countries — such as most of Europe, the Americas, Oceania and the Philippines — are at least nominally Christian, Christianity is a minority religion in most of East Asia and the Middle East, while Africa is nearly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. Christianity has influenced the culture of the countries it is or has been dominant in and has been influenced by preexisting local cultures, traditions and religions as well, and many important buildings bear witness to the Christian faith of today and bygone eras.


Christianity is a monotheistic religion, believing in one god. It is an Abrahamic religion, descended from the religion of Abraham who (according to scripture) lived in the second millennium BCE and migrated with his family from Ur of the Chaldees in what is now Iraq to the "Promised Land" of Israel. The other Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Islam, the Baha'i Faith (whose Messiah came in the 19th century) and the now very small Mandaean sect (who believe John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the Messiah).

Skogskyrkogården, southern Stockholm.

Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the "Messiah" promised to the Jewish people by various prophecies. He is often called Jesus Christ, from the Greek word Χριστός (Christós) which literally means "anointed" but is used to indicate more, that He was the Messiah and/or the Son of God.

Christians believe that Jesus was conceived by Mary who was a virgin at the time, that as the Son of God he is the only one who can be considered free from sin in his own right, and that his crucifixion was the sacrifice necessary to cleanse humanity of its sins. According to the Biblical account, Jesus was resurrected after his death on the cross and subsequent burial, and appeared before his disciples. Jesus was then raised to Heaven where he awaits the world's decline into sin and tribulation, after which he will return to Earth and pass the final judgment on humanity. The vast majority of Christians today also believe in some form of Trinity, which is the belief that Jesus, God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit are one God in three Persons.

See #Holy Land below for information on visiting the places where he lived and taught.

Disagreements about various points of doctrine, about church administration and power within it, and about the Church's political entanglements engendered a number of schisms, destructive wars, and the large number of Christian denominations in existence today. The most notable denominations are the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic church and various Protestant churches.

Christianity's principal religious text, the Bible, comes in many different editions. The Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox bibles contain differing numbers of books, and the translations from ancient to modern languages often differ as well. As in other religions, interpretations of scripture can also differ significantly between different Christian denominations.

Early history[edit]

Christianity began as a Messianic sect of Judaism, and the early Christians called their houses of prayer synagogues and continued to observe Jewish law, as Jesus had. Obstacles to non-Jews converting to Christianity included laws about kosher food and circumcision. After considerable debate, the Church adopted the policy that congregations that did not want to follow these Jewish laws did not have to, because the "New Covenant" of eternal life in Jesus Christ superseded the "Old Covenant" that God made with the Hebrews at Mount Sinai (as detailed in the Biblical book of Exodus).

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

An important event was the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. This zealous anti-Christian Jew was on his way to Damascus, where he planned to crush the local Christians and stamp out what he saw as a heresy, when he had a vision of Jesus. He then adopted the name Paul and devoted himself to the spread, rather than the annihilation, of Christianity. Paul became one of the leaders of the movement and devoted much time to writing letters (which can be found in Epistles in the New Testament) inspiring the disparate Christian synagogues and maintaining unity. Communities that he sent epistles to included Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

The Apostles evangelized aggressively and travelled widely. Some have tombs a long way from home; these have churches built over them and have become pilgrimage destinations.

  • Saint Peter (Rome). This church is within the Vatican City and the Pope often presides over ceremonies there or in the adjacent St. Peter's Square. St. Peter's Basilica on Wikipedia
  • Saint Paul (Saint Paul's Outside the Walls) (Rome). This church is just outside the Vatican. Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on Wikipedia
  • Saint James (Spain). See the article on the pilgrimage, the Way of St. James. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral on Wikipedia
  • Saint Thomas (San Tome Church) (India). This tomb and church are in Chennai, formerly known as Madras. It has a museum. Thomas was martyred on nearby Saint Thomas Mount.
    There are still groups in India, mainly Kerala, who call themselves Saint Thomas Christians and claim their roots go back to Thomas. They have interesting churches, some very old. According to their legends, Thomas also sailed on Maritime Silk Road routes to Indonesia and China.
    St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica, Chennai on Wikipedia

The Roman Empire initially considered Christianity just another of numerous Jewish sects, and Judaism (as the religio licita or allowed religion) was exempt from the requirement to worship the emperor. Once the Romans realized the new religion was more than that (partly because they were preaching to non-Jews) they tried hard, and often brutally, to suppress it; many of the early Christian missionaries including St. Peter were martyred in horrific ways that are often depicted in Christian paintings and other artwork. The most famous site associated with this persecution is the Colosseum where, according to legend, many Christians were thrown to the lions or killed in other crowd-pleasing ways.

Finally, in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine I announced that Christianity would be tolerated, and himself converted to Christianity. Under his successor, Emperor Theodosius I, Christianity was made the official state religion of Rome, and became mandatory for all Roman subjects. Pagans were oppressed as brutally as the Christians had previously been oppressed.

Once Rome was officially Christian, a great temporal power was behind the religion, and this was probably the most important single event in the post-Peter-and-Paul history of the religion.

See #Denominations below for some of the later history, in particular for the schisms that led from the single church of Roman times to the many that exist today.


There are many festivals celebrated by Christians, with some even specific to particular sects. However, the two festivals listed below are widely regarded as the most important and hence, celebrated by all Christians, with many otherwise unobservant Christians showing up at church only on these two occasions. That said, as some churches follow the Julian calendar, while others follow the Gregorian calendar, the festivals may be celebrated on different days by different denominations.

  • Easter – Celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death on the cross, celebrated on a Sunday in March or April. The Friday immediately preceding Easter Sunday is known as Good Friday, and is traditionally said to be the day that Jesus was crucified and died.
  • Christmas – Traditionally said to have been the birthday of Jesus (the historical birth date is unknown), celebrated on the 25th of December in the Western Christian tradition and in early January (the same date, but according to the Julian calendar) in many Eastern Christian traditions. Related events are also celebrated, in some traditions as the main festive days. The unrelated festival of Saint Stephanus (the first Christian martyr) on December 26 is often included in Christmas festivities by local tradition.

Some traditions celebrate Advent, several weeks leading up to Christmas, the Twelve Days of Christmas and/or Lent, 40 days leading up to Easter.

Especially in Catholic countries, Carnivale is celebrated as a feast just before the austerity of Lent begins. We have a guide for one instance, though there are many others:

There are also many smaller festivals. In particular, in Catholic countries nearly every town and village will have a fiesta on the day of its patron saint.


Christians have always included many proselytizers, with some of them dedicating their lives to spreading the Gospel, from the Apostles to the present day. Starting in the Roman era they strove to Christianize all of Europe, and by medieval times they had mostly succeeded; the last major holdouts were the Norse people of Scandinavia, who were not fully Christianized until the 12th century. Meanwhile Nestorian Christians were evangelizing much of Asia, reaching Korea by the 7th century.

During the Age of Discovery, the European explorers and colonisers sent missionaries far and wide in order to convert the native peoples, and save for the majority Muslim, Hindu and Sikh areas, were very successful in gaining converts. Along with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the Age of Discovery was one of the most important periods that led to the explosive growth of Christianity, eventually resulting in it becoming the world's most prolific religion, a position it maintains today.

In the course of proselytizing, the Catholic church in particular used combinations of carrots and sticks that might seem surprising to modern observers. While the Spanish Empire gave the needed incentive through military force for Natives of the Americas to convert, missionaries often learned local languages, spreading Nahuatl and Guaraní in particular and adapted some customs and celebrations to local mores. Looking at some festivals purporting to honor some saint or other, it takes little imagination that they might just be a "converted" festival of some pre-Christian deity. Missionaries also had and continue to have widely varying approaches to the non-religious aspects of native cultures, from appreciating them to a degree that they were rebuked by the church in Rome, as happened to some Jesuits in China, to stamping them out and burning even their non-religious texts, as sadly befell the Maya culture which lost all but three codices to religious zealotry. To this day missionaries are also often engaged in social works and help the most underserved communities in part in order to convert them but in part also to do good works for good works' sake. That said, less tactful missionaries continue to do harm in otherwise intact communities and are thus often viewed with great skepticism by host governments or even barred from entry. The 19th century with rapidly expanding capitalism in Europe and North America and the widespread pauperism caused by it gave rise to "inner mission" and Catholic social teaching, which were attempts to lure proletarians away from "godless" communism as well as earnest efforts to follow Jesus' teaching that "what you did to the lowest of my brothers you did to me". To this day, various Christian organizations continue to be active in poor communities in the first world providing aid and social work without any overt proselytizing. However, in modern times, the missionary work of American Evangelical pastors in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean has also led to a massive surge of extreme homophobia.


See also: Architecture#Religious_buildings

Some main types of Christian buildings and sites are:

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
  • Abbey. A church headed by an abbot/abbess, who is the leader of a community of monks and/or nuns Abbey on Wikipedia
  • Basilica. Either a church built on the rectangular floor plan used in Roman public buildings named basilicas (starting several centuries before Christ), or a church designated as a basilica by the Pope. Basilica on Wikipedia
  • Cathedral. A prominent church, the seat (cathedra) of a bishop Cathedral on Wikipedia
  • Church. A building dedicated to religious services (called mass in Catholicism, service in Protestantism and divine liturgy in Orthodox Christianity), prayer and ceremony. Church on Wikipedia
  • Chapel. A small building, or part of a building, set aside for worship. Many chapels are part of a church, set aside either for private worship or as a home for some sacred relic. Many castles include a chapel. Chapel on Wikipedia
  • Monastery. A place where monks live and worship communally Monastery on Wikipedia
  • Convent. A place where nuns live and worship communally Convent on Wikipedia
  • Cemetery: Can be tied to a Christian congregation or be multi-religious

Many of these are major tourist attractions. Some monasteries and convents offer retreats for interested lay people, some with a strong emphasis on their particular religion but others emphasizing non-denominational quiet and contemplation. See various destination articles and the #Destinations section below for details.

A few Christian denominations use other names for their places of worship; Jehovah's Witnesses have Kingdom Hall, Quakers or Unitarians a Meeting House, Mormons a temple, and so on.


In the first few centuries of Christianity, there were passionate arguments about some key aspects of the faith:

  • What is the nature of Jesus? Is he divine, human, some combination of those, or something that transcends both?
    If he is both divine and human, how are his two natures related?
  • How are Father and Son related? Is the Son a created being or eternal like the Father?
    If created, is He then somehow subordinate to the Father?
  • Which texts should be considered sacred? In particular, which of the many Gospels then available should be accepted?
    There was considerable controversy over whether to include the Book of Revelation.

There were also debates on church structure, in particular the role of women in the church, and various other matters of doctrine and ritual.

Eventually, the church of the Roman Empire mostly settled the question of texts by compiling the New Testament, with only four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — becoming part of the canon, while all the other gospels were declared heretical, with the death penalty being imposed on anyone who possessed them. The book of Revelations was accepted as part of the Roman canon.

The other questions were mostly settled at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Several schisms were to split the church in the years to come, the effects of which can still be felt today in the form of the different denominations of Christianity.


The Gnostics (from Greek γνωστικός, having knowledge) were an influential tendency among both Jews and Christians starting around 100 CE; they emphasized personal knowledge, obtained via meditation and prayer, over scripture and church teachings. They were heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire and the movement mostly died out within a few centuries. However, they did have a considerable influence on the Oriental Orthodox churches, especially the Coptic Church.

The Gnostics had many documents, including several Gospels, which they considered sacred but which the Church refused to include in the Bible. Some of their stories, while not included in the Biblical canon, are in the Qur'an, the holy book for Muslims.

  • Coptic Museum, Cairo, Egypt. Houses the Nag Hammadi Library, the largest collection of re-discovered Gnostic Gospels. They were found in the town of Nag Hammadi (near Luxor) in 1945. Coptic Museum on Wikipedia

To the Gnostics, Mary Magdalene was quite important, and there is a Gospel of Mary among the Gnostic documents. She is sometimes depicted as a repentant prostitute, but that is nonsense (the notion can be traced back to a 6th-century Pope getting her mixed up with another Mary). Modern scholars believe she was a rich widow from Magdala (a port on the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias) who financed much of Jesus' ministry. To the Gnostics, though, she was much more than that, one of Jesus' most important disciples. Some of the Gnostic documents portray her as Jesus' wife and/or as the only disciple who fully understood his teachings.

The Trinity[edit]

The doctrine of the Trinity — the belief that Jesus (the Son), God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit are one God in three Persons — is not stated explicitly anywhere in the Bible, though some theologians have trinitarian interpretations of various passages in both Testaments. In fact the doctrine was not stated in fully-developed form until the 3rd century CE, and not definitively labelled as orthodox teaching until early in the 4th.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE excommunicated the prominent non-trinitarian Arius, declaring his teachings heretical, and agreed on an important document.

  • Nicene Creed. A statement of common beliefs which anyone must accept to be considered a Christian, including the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection and His eventual return to judge humanity. This creed declared an orthodoxy that nearly all bishops could accept, resolving the thorny problems mentioned above. Nicene Creed on Wikipedia

All the major Christian denominations today — Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant — accept the Nicene Creed as a fundamental part of their doctrine, and many recite or sing it as part of their liturgy.

Islam honours Jesus as a prophet and the Messiah, and reveres many Old Testament prophets as well. However, they do not consider Jesus divine. To them, there is one God, indivisible, and the ideas of worshipping Jesus or of the Trinity are completely unacceptable.


Today there are few non-trinitarian Christians, mainly the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unitarians, and Iglesia ni Christo.

Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin, designed by Unitarian Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Unitarians. This group began in Europe in the 16th century and today is moderately widespread in North America and parts of Europe, with a few congregations elsewhere. There are no great Unitarian cathedrals to visit, but many of their meeting houses are lovely and several are fine examples of modern architecture. Unitarianism on Wikipedia
  • Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ). This church was founded in the Philippines in 1914 and today has several thousand congregations and a few million members, nearly all in that country. They claim to be restoring the original church, as Christ taught, and are non-trinitarian. Except for a few larger ones, their churches all look exactly identical. Iglesia ni Cristo on Wikipedia


Nestorius was Archbishop of Constantinople until the other bishops condemned some of his teachings as heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and removed him from his post. He taught that the human and divine aspects of Christ were two distinct natures, not unified. Today Ephesus is a major archaeological site and one of Turkey's major tourist attractions.

Portal to the cave church of Astvatsatsin, part of a monastery in Armenia which was founded in the 4th century and rebuilt in the 13th

He retired to his home monastery near Antioch, and was later exiled to Egypt. At the time, Antioch was one of the main cities of Syria; today it is Antakya in Turkey. His interpretation of Christianity lived on in the Church of the East which never accepted his condemnation by the western bishops. That church was based in Persia and had the support of the Persian Empire, likely mainly for political reasons; the Persians did not want a church with strong ties to either Byzantium or Rome becoming too influential in their territory.

The Church of the East sent missionaries east along the Silk Road, reaching China and Korea hundreds of years ahead of other Christians. Xi'an, China has a Nestorian stele (stone monument) from the 7th century, and outside town the Daqin pagoda, a Nestorian church that was built in 635 and was converted to a Buddhist monastery and shrine after the Nestorians died out locally. Marco Polo mentions a community of Nestorian Christians in Kashgar in the 13th century.

Today the church, now known as the Assyrian Church of the East, still exists but it has not had government support in centuries and is now much smaller than in its heyday. What was once known as Persia is now called Iran and is almost entirely Muslim, through the Assyrian Church of the East has been officially recognised as a minority religion and is guaranteed representation in the country's legislature.

Oriental Orthodox Churches[edit]

See also: Churches in Ethiopia

Some of the earliest Christian churches included the Syriac church, centered in Antioch, which is now in Turkey; the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopia, and the Armenian Orthodox church. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, these churches disagreed with the council and broke off. The church in Georgia joined them briefly, but later returned to the main Orthodox fold.

There are splendid ancient churches and monasteries, some of them still active, in Ethiopia, Armenia and Georgia.

The Great Schism[edit]

The Great Schism separated the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which originally included the Russian, Greek, Georgian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian churches. In 2018, the Ukrainian Church was recognized as a member in its own right, rather than part of the Russian Church, and the Russian Church left in protest.

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

The split was partly a result of the Roman Empire being divided into the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) with its capital in Constantinople; each empire supported a different Church (and the Persians supported the Nestorians).

The split was a rather gradual affair with controversy from the 4th century on; it became final in 1050 when each side excommunicated many of the other side's bishops. It became rather messy during the Crusades when large numbers of heavily armed Roman Catholics entered Orthodox territory. At times the two groups co-operated to attack the Muslims, but they also fought each other. Some historians contend that the Crusaders killed more Orthodox and Coptic Christians than they did Muslims.

The main doctrinal dispute was over the role of the Pope. To Roman Catholics he is pontifex maximus (the greatest priest) and the undisputed head of the Church. To Orthodox Christians he is just the Bishop of Rome and has no authority outside his See; in particular he does not rule over other bishops, and at most could be considered primus inter pares (first among equals). Today the Archbishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, remains the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, while the Archbishop of Constantinople (today's Istanbul), also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, remains the symbolic leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The geographic division remains roughly the same as it's been for centuries, though it is not quite a neat one, as there are also some very longstanding Eastern Rite communities which are nevertheless Catholic because they recognize the Pope as their leader, and more recently but in some cases dating back a few hundred years, there have been localized Eastern Orthodox congregations in some mainly Roman Catholic areas of Europe as well. There is for example quite a nice Russian Orthodox church in Dresden complete with icons and Moscow-style church spires; while it was built in the 19th century, it must have made some Soviet soldiers very homesick during the Cold War.


Starting in the 11th century, the Cathars, also known as the "Albigensian Heresy", gained many adherents, especially in Languedoc which is now in the South of France; the department of Aude calls itself "Cathar Country" today. There were also Cathars in Northern Italy. The movement was heavily influenced by the Gnostics.

The Catholic Church considered the Cathars a threat and the King of France backed the Church, apparently mainly as an excuse to add Languedoc to his realm. They ordered the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars and slaughtered tens of thousands of them.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209
  • Toulouse. This city was the capital of the region and a center of Catharisim. A Papal Legate was assassinated in 1208 while returning to Rome after excommunicating the Count of Toulouse for being too gentle with the Cathars, and the Crusade was the Church's response to the assassination. The city changed hands several times during the Crusade.
    Today Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France and a major tourist destination.
    Albigensian_Crusade#Toulouse on Wikipedia
  • Albi. This small town is the capital of the department of Tarn. The crusade was named after it, possibly because it was the seat of a Cathar Bishop. Albi on Wikipedia
  • Béziers. This town was taken in 1209, early in the Crusade, and much of the population massacred. By some accounts, when the Papal Legate in charge was asked how to distinguish Cathars (who should be killed) from Catholics (who should not) he replied "Kill them all; God will know His own." Massacre at Béziers on Wikipedia
  • Carcassonne. This city surrendered shortly after Béziers; many Cathars were driven from the town, naked by some accounts but "in their shifts and breeches" by others. Later the Cathars took the city back and the crusaders re-took it.
    Most of the medieval city, including the city wall, still stands and today it is a popular tourist destination.
    Carcassonne on Wikipedia
  • Montségur. This castle in the mountains of Ariège near the Spanish border was the last Cathar stronghold to fall, in 1243. Afterward over 200 Cathars who refused to recant their faith were burned alive. Siege of Montségur on Wikipedia
  • Museum of Catharism. This museum is in Mazamet where some Cathars took refuge, up in the mountains of Tarn.

The fighting lasted over 30 years; but by 1245 France and the Church had achieved a complete victory in the field. However, it was not until about 1350 that Catharism was entirely wiped out.

The Church created two other institutions, both initially in Toulouse, to help put down the Cathars.

Monastery of Prouille

The Dominican Order of friars were preachers sent out to spread the Gospel and to counter heresy. Like the Cathars — and unlike the corrupt churchmen that the Cathars had heaped scorn on — they lived simply and often preached to the poor.

  • 1 Notre-Dame-de-Prouille Monastery. Saint Dominic was given land in the village of Prouille, just outside Toulouse. The first building was a residence for Cathar women who had recanted; it soon became a convent for Dominican nuns. Later there was also a monastery for the monks. Both were destroyed during the French Revolution, but they were rebuilt and both are still in use today. Notre-Dame-de-Prouille Monastery on Wikipedia

The Inquisition was created to root out heresy, in particular the remaining Cathars. It took about 100 years for the remaining Cathars to be annihilated. Inquisitions — against Jews and Muslims after the 1492 Reconquista of Spain from the Moors, against witches, and later against Protestants — continued until some ways into the 19th century.


Western Christianity was much disrupted during the Protestant Reformation when several groups split off from the Roman Catholic Church. As with the Cathars, a major issue was corruption in the Catholic Church. Today there are dozens of Protestant denominations, most of which can trace their doctrines back to one or both of the great 16th century reformers, the German Martin Luther and the French John Calvin.

One important difference between Catholic or Orthodox churches and many Protestant churches is that while Orthodox Christians and Catholics venerate icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and saints, many Protestant churches are iconoclastic (rejecting the use of icons and in some cases in the past, outright destroying them), with simple churches that are not ornate and feature just a symbolic cross, rather than a crucifix showing the body of Christ. Protestant churches that do use icons to some degree and sometimes elaborate architectural decorations include Anglican and Lutheran churches, though the Anglican church also went through an iconoclastic period, during which they destroyed most English Catholic sculptures and paintings.


The first successful schism in Roman Catholic Europe was the one led by the theologian Jan Hus (1369–1415), rector of University of Prague. The reasons for the split were complicated but Hus is generally described as motivated by a desire to reform and renew the Catholic Church. He was burnt at the stake in Konstanz for alleged heresy. The location of the burning is now marked with a monument, and there is a museum called Hus Haus in the city's old town.

Defenestration monument on right
The tower's top window was used

From Hus' death on, there were a series of Hussite rebellions against their Catholic Habsburg overlords, and five Roman Catholic Crusades which the Hussites resisted successfully.

  • Defenestration of 1618. A group of officials delivered a stern message from the Catholic King to the mainly Hussite Estates. Two were told to leave and the other three, all Catholic hard-liners, were hurled from a window of Prague Castle, 21 meters up. They all survived, some writers claiming by miraculous intervention and others saying because they landed in a dung heap. Defenestrations of Prague on Wikipedia

This defenestration was one of the main incidents precipitating the Thirty Years' War, a very destructive conflict that lasted until 1648 and eventually involved most of Europe.

The Hussite Church still exists, although the present-day population of the Czech Republic is majority Roman Catholic (though largely secular).

Today the Moravian Church is the main religious movement claiming Hussite ancestry; it has over a thousand congregations in many countries, and about 1.1 million members. Moravian churches can be found throughout the Caribbean with their lamb imagery and the words "our lamb has conquered; let us follow him" (Latin: Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur) very recognizable in places like Bluefields, Nicaragua. The German name of the Moravian church is Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine (sic!) after their center in the Saxon town of Herrnhut.


Martin Luther (1483–1546) was the first of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation. As with the Cathars and Hussites, a major issue was corruption in the Catholic Church; in particular Luther objected to the sale of indulgences, putting a price on forgiveness of sin.

Interior of the Marktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen (also called the Marienkirche) in Halle, begun as a late Gothic Catholic cathedral but converted into a Lutheran cathedral even before construction was completed in 1554

There were also disagreements regarding the interpretation of scripture, such as whether only faith in Jesus Christ is needed for a place in Heaven after death (Luther) or good works are also required (Catholicism) and whether it is necessary to obey the Pope and Catholic Church hierarchy or more important for each Christian to read and understand the Bible individually. Luther translated the Bible into German to let more people read it, and his translation is still used.

  • Ninety-five Theses. Luther's declaration of rebellion was mailing this document to the local Archbishop. Some accounts have him also nailing it to a church door in Wittenberg where he was a professor of theology; certainly it was reprinted and widely circulated. It dealt mainly with forgiveness of sin, with Luther holding that only sincere repentance was required, the Church's tradition of confession was not essential, and sale of indulgences was nonsense. The town has Luther memorials which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ninety-five Theses on Wikipedia
  • Diet of Worms. This was a conference called by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521 in the city of Worms (pronounced approximately verms) at which Luther gave a famous speech refusing to recant. After it, the Emperor promulgated the Edict of Worms declaring him a heretic. The town has a monument to Luther. Diet of Worms on Wikipedia

Luther's followers were known as the Lutherans, and many modern Protestant denominations can trace their roots to this movement. Luther was a well-known and beloved lutenist and composer who appreciated artistic beauty and decoration, and Lutheranism is not an iconoclastic sect, so while Lutheran churches may not be as ornately adorned as Catholic ones, there are often decorations on and in the buildings.


Subsequently, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509–1564) led a truly iconoclastic and severe branch of the Reformation that inspired the Dutch Reformed Church, the French Protestants (Huguenots), English Puritans, the Congregationalists, and the Presbyterians.

Dutch Reformed Church in Winburg, Free State Province, South Africa

Calvinist churches are generally quite plain, emphasizing symmetry and clarity of form and eschewing all but the simplest ornaments.

Many of the early colonies in what is now the United States, especially in New England, were founded by Puritans (English Calvinists) fleeing persecution in Britain. See Early_United_States_history#Timeline for some of the details. Other Calvinist groups also spread to the colonies; the Congregationalists began in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland, but both exist today in all the countries where British colonists settled. The Dutch Reformed Church is strong in South Africa.

While the French Huguenots began as a powerful group, they were defeated after decades of on-and-off wars, and many of them were faced with an ultimatum: Convert, die or emigrate. Many chose the latter and many German princes, especially the House of Hohenzollern that ruled Brandenburg and parts of Franconia accepted the refugees and even built entire neighborhoods for them, which is still very evident in cities like Erlangen. Others found refuge throughout Protestant-majority parts of Europe and some even went as far as the Americas (for example, a neighborhood of Staten Island, New York is named Huguenot) and Franschhoek ("French Corner") in South Africa. Some went to Brazil to found a "France Antarctique" colony in Rio de Janeiro, Some were able to stay in France and represent a significant minority in parts of Provence today. The French state has since apologized and officially extended an invitation towards all descendants of Huguenot refugees to return to France, similar to what Spain and Portugal did for the descendants of expelled Sephardic Jews.

Evangelical Christianity[edit]

Evangelical Christianity is a fundamentalist Protestant movement, most prominent in the United States, that emphasizes strict Biblical literalism, aggressive proselytizing and the centrality of the "born-again" religious conversion experience. It is hugely influential in American politics, with right-wing politicians often citing the Bible in order to justify their policy positions. Since the advent of television in the mid 20th century, televangelism has become a big money industry in the United States with numerous celebrity pastors, and a large number of Evangelical television channels and radio stations to serve its large Christian population.

Depending on which church you go to, some theological concepts you may encounter in an Evangelical church include the prosperity gospel, which teaches that financial wealth is God's reward for one's devotion and financial contributions to the church, and faith healing, in which medical interventions are eschewed in favor of prayer. Many Evangelical churches also practice speaking in tongues during their services, which often sounds like gibberish to outside observers, but is said by believers to be a secret language that only God can understand. Many Evangelical churches also belong to the charismatic movement, with congregation sizes numbering in the thousands, and services that resemble rock and pop concerts, thus leading a popular resurgence of Christianity among many youths.

Evangelical Christians also believe that it is their sacred duty to bring about the apocalypse by fulfilling the prophecies in the book of Revelation, and since an ingathering of Jewish exiles into the Land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem are among the central prophecies, many Evangelicals are among the world's staunchest Zionists.

This form of Christianity has been very successfully exported to much of Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as numerous parts of Asia such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, and is also quite influential in other English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, particularly among immigrant communities. The influence of American-inspired Evangelical megachurches is particularly evident in historically Buddhist South Korea, which boasts 11 of the world's 12 largest Christian congregations, and sends more Evangelical Christian missionaries abroad than any other country except the United States.

The main non-Anglophone European Evangelical Lutheran churches are very different from these movements.

Amish and Mennonites[edit]

These are evangelical Protestant movements that originated in German-speaking parts of Europe and today are found mainly in the U.S.

Church of England[edit]

The Anglican Church (known in the U.S. as the Episcopal Church to avoid references to the British monarchy) was formed when the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, due to King Henry VIII wanting to get a divorce, which is not allowed under Roman Catholic doctrine.

Westminster Abbey, England

Although considered by many to be a Protestant denomination, it does not share the same Lutheran or Calvinist origins as other Protestant churches, and is in many ways closer to the Catholic and Orthodox churches than to other Protestant churches in doctrine and structure. It is therefore considered by some people to be a completely separate branch from Protestantism. The Anglican Church, like the Catholic, Orthodox and to some extent Lutheran churches, uses icons, and many of its rites continue to be similar to Catholic and Orthodox rites.

There is a large range of variation between Anglican congregations; some are "high church", quite close to Catholic in style, while others are "low church", almost Calvinist. This variation is tolerated, sometimes even encouraged, by the church hierarchy.

The head of this Church is nominally the British monarch, but the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leading churchman.

In the 18th century, John Wesley led a reform movement within the Church of England, influenced by Moravian (Hussite) doctrines. After his death, this evolved into a separate Methodist church.

New American churches[edit]

The United States is mostly Protestant, including many Evangelicals, with substantial contingents of Roman Catholics and Episcopalians (known as Anglicans elsewhere), and some Orthodox Christians.

It has also been a breeding ground for new Christian movements whose teachings deviate significantly from mainstream Christianity. Those listed below remain popular to this day. Others, such as the Shakers, have virtually died out (but see Touring Shaker country) and some, such as the Christian Scientists, have been greatly reduced in size. Some of these churches add a third testament — a post-New Testament holy book — and are therefore sometimes considered post-Christian or non-Christian by others.

  • Mormons (LDS Church). The Mormons or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus incarnated in North America and preached to the Indians after he was done in Palestine. They have a third testament, the Book of Mormon, and are non-trinitarian. You can often see a statue of a person blowing a trumpet on top of the highest spire of Mormon temples, which is meant to represent the angel Moroni, who is said to have guarded the golden plates that were the source material for the Book of Mormon before presenting them to the church founder, Joseph Smith. They are forbidden from consuming alcohol, coffee or tea. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Wikipedia
  • Seventh-day Adventists. This group believe the Apocalypse, and the Advent or Second Coming of Jesus, will come soon. Much of their doctrine is similar to that of the Evangelicals or other Protestants. However, unlike most Christians, their sabbath is Saturday (the 7th day, the same day as the Jewish Sabbath) and they follow a version of the Jewish kashrut dietary laws. They are also strongly pacifist, and forbidden from carrying weapons. Seventh-day Adventist Church on Wikipedia
  • Jehovah's Witnesses. This is a non-trinitarian sect who believe the apocalypse is coming soon. They evangelize a lot, often handing out literature on the street or going door-to-door. They do not accept blood transfusions, as they consider this to be in violation of the Biblical prohibition against drinking blood. They also do not vote, work for the government, sing national anthems or salute national flags, as they believe that their allegiance should lie with God and God alone. Jehovah's Witnesses on Wikipedia

These churches have been heavily involved in missionary activity. For example, all three mentioned above now have many congregations in the Philippines.

Taiping Heavenly Kingdom[edit]

Possibly the strangest offshoot of Christianity was the Taiping movement in 19th-century China. Their founder Hong Xiuquan claimed to be Jesus' younger brother and to regularly visit Heaven for chats with the family.

Their rebellion against the Qing Dynasty was the bloodiest civil war in history, killing far more than the American Civil War which was fought at about the same time with better weapons. They controlled about a third of China for over a decade. There is a good museum in Nanjing, which was their capital. The rebellion was eventually crushed by the Qing Dynasty, with some help from Western powers and a lot from foreign mercenaries.

The Qing then proceeded to assist the Cantonese people in a genocide of the Hakka people in the Punti–Hakka Clan Wars, partly due to the fact that Hong Xiuquan was a Hakka. This would in turn lead to a mass emigration of Hakka people overseas, in particular to India and Southeast Asia.


See also: Christmas and New Year travel, Easter travel
Map of Christianity

Holy Land[edit]

The Holy Land today is divided between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

  • 1 Jerusalem, Israel. Site of Jesus' crucifixion and also a holy city for Judaism and Islam.
  • 2 Bethlehem, West Bank. The birthplace of Jesus according to the New Testament
  • 3 Nazareth, Israel. The hometown of Jesus' family, and believed by many historians to be his actual historical birthplace; he was sometimes called "Jesus of Nazareth". Today one of the centers of the Arab Christian minority in Israel, that - unlike many other Christian minorities in the Middle East - continues to grow and thrive.
  • 4 Al-Maghtas, Jordan. The site where Jesus was said to have been baptised by John the Baptist.

Wikivoyage has links to some of the most important places of Jesus' life at Christian Holy Land and an itinerary for visiting many of them at The Jesus Trail.


Some places are of interest because they are the main centers of various Christian groups:

St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
  • 5 Vatican City. An independent state within Rome, center of the Catholic Church and home to St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel; Rome outside the Vatican is also full of churches, including San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope's cathedral in his role as Bishop of Rome.
  • 6 Istanbul, Turkey. Formerly Constantinople and home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, with his church being the Church of St George in the Fener district. Scattered over a wider area in the old city, the former cathedral churches include Hagia Irene, Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Apostles, and Pammakaristos Church, all of which serve as mosques or museums today (except the Holy Apostles, which was replaced by the Fatih Mosque on the same site), and contain a variety of Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) art.
    Palais des Papes
  • 7 Avignon A series of Popes ruled here 1309–1376, and from 1378 to 1417 there were two men claiming to be Pope, one in Rome and another in Avignon. All of the Avignon Popes were Frenchmen and under the influence of the French kings. Today Avignon is a popular tourist destination and the medieval town center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The imposing Palais des Papes and the nearby cathedral are among the main sights.
One of the wines of the Rhone Valley (the region around Avignon) is Chateau Neuf du Pape, which translates to "the Pope's new house". This is one of the great wines of France, definitely worth trying if you like wine and are in the area.
  • 8 Moscow, Russia. The Danilov Monastery, on the right bank of the Moskva River, is the spiritual and administrative center of the Russian Orthodox church.
  • 9 Cairo, Egypt. Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassia is the current seat of the Coptic Pope, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the symbolic spiritual leader of the Oriental Orthodox communion. The Church and Monastery of St. George in the Coptic Cairo neighbourhood is the current seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.
  • 10 Alexandria, Egypt. Home to Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the historical seat of the Coptic Pope.
  • 11 Erbil, Iraq. Home to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the seat of the Catholicos-Patriarch, the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East.
  • 12 Canterbury, United Kingdom. Home to the Canterbury Cathedral, the church of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church.
  • 13 Salt Lake City, Utah, United States. Center of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) movement. Mormons are Nontrinitarians (do not believe in The Holy Trinity) and have added Book of Mormon as an additional Testament. Notable Mormon sites include the Salt Lake City temple at Temple Square, as well as the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Non-Mormons are not permitted to enter the temples, and even Mormons may have to prove that they are members in good standing before entering. However, travellers are welcome to look around the outside.
  • 14 Silver Spring, Maryland, United States. Home to the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist church.


There are various places of pilgrimage around the world that Christians traditionally visit. The age-old way to perform a pilgrimage was on foot or on the back of a horse or donkey. Among the traditional pilgrimages, the following are probably the most famous to do in the traditional way:

The Sanctuary of Fátima in Portugal
  • The pilgrimage on foot to 15 Fátima, Portugal, in Portugal, ending at the Chapel of the Apparitions. This commemorates the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary reported by three little shepherds – Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta – in 1917.
  • The Way of Saint James, ending at the splendid Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, has been an important Catholic pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages.
  • 16 Lourdes, France. The world's best-known center of Marian pilgrimage
  • The walk along the Via Dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem on which Jesus is said to have carried his cross, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
  • Saint Olaf's Way to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, where St. Olaf is buried
  • The Jesus Trail is a 65-km (40 mile) walk through Galilee that visits many places where Jesus also walked.

However, there are many other places of pilgrimage, and most of them are usually no longer approached by taking a long trek. For example, most long-distance travellers to The Vatican arrive by plane to Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport.

Several lesser known places also venerate the apparition of Mary or the supposed remains of some saint, especially in Orthodox and Catholic countries. As Melanchton, a 16th century ally of Martin Luther, famously quipped "Fourteen of our twelve apostles are buried in Germany". Oftentimes those religious sites and objects have been a major draw for travellers for centuries and thus (former) "tourism infrastructure" may be an attraction all by itself.

Catholic orders[edit]

The Roman Catholic church has a number of religious orders, groups of people who are part of a community of consecrated life, and are often heavily involved in missionary work and charitable causes. Orthodox and Anglican churches have similar orders and some Protestant denominations have missionary societies where people dedicate their lives to spreading the gospel and other good works.

Many of these orders have impressive churches, monasteries and convents that tourists might want to visit. Some of these groups have also founded various schools and universities around the world, some of which are still very prestigious and known for providing high-quality education. These schools and universities often have impressive historical buildings on their campuses, which can sometimes be visited by tourists, though you may be required to join a guided tour to do so.

  • Augustinians (Order of Saint Augustine). Founded in 1244 by bringing together several groups of hermits following the Rule of Saint Augustine in the Tuscany region of Italy. This set of rules was written by St. Augustine of Hippo in 5th century, and emphasised chastity, poverty, obedience, charity and detachment from the world, among others. The Augustinians have been very active in promoting education over the years, having founded numerous schools worldwide. They are perhaps most famous for the monk Gregor Mendel, who was the abbot of the St Thomas's Abbey in Brno, Czech Republic, and whose experiments on peas formed the basis of modern genetics. Their mother church is the Basilica of St. Augustine in Rome, Italy. Order of Saint Augustine on Wikipedia
  • Benedictines (Order of Saint Benedict). A monastic order founded by St. Benedict of Nursia at the Abbey of Saint Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy in A.D. 529. The are often called the "black monks" because of their practice of dressing in black, and are expected to adhere to a strict communal timetable. They are also known for having played a key role in the development and promotions of spas. Their mother church is the Sant'Anselmo all'Aventino in Rome, Italy. Benedictines on Wikipedia
  • Dominicans (Order of Preachers). Founded in 1216, originally as an order of nuns, by St. Dominic of Caleruega in the Notre-Dame-de-Prouille Monastery in Prouille (just outside Toulouse), France as a counter-movement to the Cathars. The Dominicans live a frugal lifestyle and place a strong emphasis on education and charity. Their mother church is the Basilica of Saint Sabina in Rome, Italy. Dominican Order on Wikipedia
  • Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor). Founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209, with an emphasis of living a life of austerity. Its mother church is the Porziuncola in Assisi, Italy, while its founder is entombed in the impressive Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi in the same city. A related order is the Order of St. Clare, also known as the Poor Clares, an order of nuns founded by St. Clare of Assisi, one of St. Francis' followers. St. Clare is entombed in the Basilica di Santa Chiara in Assisi. Order of Friars Minor on Wikipedia
  • Hieronymites (Order of Saint Jerome). A cloistered order founded in Toledo, Spain in the late 14th century with the aim of emulating the life of the 5th-century Biblical scholar, St. Jerome. Its headquarters today are in the Monastery of Santa María del Parral in Segovia, Spain. Another famous Hieronymite monastery is the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, in which the pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) was invented by its monks, and the most famous bakery selling this pastry is the nearby Pastéis de Belém. Hieronymites on Wikipedia
  • Jesuits (Society of Jesus). An order famous for its charitable work, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola and six other companions, including the famed St. Francis Xavier, in the crypt of the Saint-Pierre de Montmartre in Paris, France in 1540. As part of their charitable ventures, the Jesuits founded numerous schools around the world, and for much of their history have played a major role in providing education to the poor. Their mother church today is the Church of the Gesù in Rome, Italy, in which St. Ignatius is entombed. Another important church is the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India, in which St. Francis Xavier is entombed. Society of Jesus on Wikipedia

Other sites[edit]

See also: Churches in Ethiopia
  • 17 Antioch, today Antakya in Turkey, was a major center of early Christianity, and as of about 400 AD the third largest city in the Roman Empire.
  • Antioch plus 18 Tarsus, 19 Ephesus and 20 Alexandria Troas (close to Geyikli-Dalyan) in Turkey, 21 Athens, 22 Corinth, 23 Thessaloniki and 24 Samothrace in Greece, 25 Caesarea in Israel, were cities where St. Paul is supposed to have preached
  • Seven Churches of Asia, Turkey, are seven major early Christian communities mentioned in the New Testament.
  • 26 Cappadocia, Turkey. A refuge for the early Christians where they escaped persecution in numerous underground cities and colorful churches dug into the volcanic rocks of the area.
  • 27 İznik, Turkey. As ancient Nicaea, the town was the site of the First and the Second Councils of Nicaea (or the First and the Seventh Ecumenical Councils), convened in 325 and 787 respectively, inside the former basilica of Hagia Sophia that still stands at the town square, converted into a mosque.
  • 28 Mount Athos, Greece. A peninsula with many Orthodox monasteries, where women are not allowed at all
  • 29 Patmos, Greece. A small Greek island which the Roman Empire used as a place of exile for inconvenient people. An exile named John wrote the Book of Revelation while living there, around 90 CE. Today it gets many pilgrims and parts of it are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the pilgrims, and the Monastery of Saint John, are Greek Orthodox.
  • 30 Aparecida, Brazil. Home to the sanctuary of Brazil's patroness, the Holy Virgin Mary of Aparecida
  • Several places in Germany are important in the history of Lutheranism: The Wartburg, near Eisenach, where Luther translated the bible into German (one of the first and most notable modern vernacular versions of the bible), Lutherstadt Wittenberg where the 95 Theses were written and where Luther began to preach against the Pope and other, smaller places, mostly in Thuringia.
  • Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (568–774 A.D.), 7 religious buildings in Italy built during the Early Middle Ages and listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
  • Wooden tserkvas of the Carpathian region — 16 log churches in Poland and Ukraine, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
  • 31 Walls of Jerusalem National Park (Tasmania, Australia). Has little historical aspects, however, everything in the park is named after Bible references as the geological features of the park which resemble the walls of the city of Jerusalem very closely. Listed a World Heritage Site for its natural beauty. Walls of Jerusalem National Park (Q385655) on Wikidata Walls of Jerusalem National Park on Wikipedia


Churches tend to use the language of the country they are located in, though this is by no means true in all cases. There are also many expatriate churches in many places using the language of a community's homeland. The most common English-language Bible is the King James Version that was translated from the original Greek and Hebrew by contemporaries of Shakespeare. However, many Evangelical megachurches use newer translations of the Bible that are written in modern vernacular to make their Bibles more accessible to youths, and many Lutheran churches in addition base the translation on the latest research.

The Roman Catholic church used to employ the Latin language widely, although this has changed since the 1960s so that services are typically given in the language of the community. The Vatican is a place where Latin may still be observed in active use. Latin Masses are still offered in many other places around the world as well, and some people find the experience to be superior to a mass in the vernacular. The Roman Catholic church in the diaspora (in places outside the historical Catholic sphere) may also offer masses in the languages of Catholic migrants.

There is no unifying language among the Eastern Orthodox churches, though the Greek Orthodox Church, the head church of the Eastern Orthodox churches, uses Koine Greek as its main liturgical language. The Slavic-speaking Eastern Orthodox churches, such as the Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox churches use Church Slavonic as their liturgical language. In Egypt, Coptic, a language descended from the ancient Egyptian language, is commonly used in the Coptic Orthodox Church within the Oriental Orthodox communion. Egyptian Christians have also attempted to revive the Coptic language as a spoken language outside religious uses with varying degrees of success.

The original languages of the Old Testament are the Jewish holy languages of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, while the original language of the New Testament was Koine Greek. Jesus is widely believed by historians to have been a native speaker of Aramaic. The earliest Christians, especially the educated among them, were usually fluent in Greek and the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament, was more commonly known among early Christians than the Hebrew Torah, which explains some readings of prophecies that make little sense with the Hebrew text in mind, like making a word that in Hebrew means "young woman" into the Greek word for "virgin" in a prophecy interpreted by most Christians to refer to the birth of the messiah.

Some theological disputes are better understood with the intricacies of languages like Ancient Greek or Latin in mind. For example, the phrase "not one iota less" is in part based on a debate whether God-father and Jesus were "homoousios" (of one nature) or "homoiousios" (of a similar nature). As can be seen by this when Greek proficiency in the West and Latin proficiency in the East declined, the churches naturally started drifting apart and ultimately split over disagreements that they may have been able to resolve had the language barrier not stood between them.


Different Christian groups use different names for activities and events. For example, the word mass is commonly used in Catholicism, Anglicanism and some Protestant churches but practically never used in Evangelical or Orthodox churches, which use the term service and divine liturgy respectively instead. Also, while the term saint in Catholicism, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy refers to only a select group of individuals, in most Protestant churches the term saint refers to any born-again Christian. Also, Evangelical churches do not use the term saint in front of names, so when the Catholic church would say "Saint John" for the apostle, Evangelicals would just say "John".


An illumination of Christ in Majesty from the Godescalc Evangelistary, written for Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later the first Holy Roman Emperor, from 781 to 783. This manuscript is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


Many Christian houses of worship, particularly many Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican ones, are spectacular buildings. On their exteriors, many churches have stone carving, for example in their tympana and niches. In their interiors, many have priceless works of art, in the form of frescoes, framed paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics, and woodworking. They may also have relics - the remains of body parts or objects associated with saints or other figures holy to Christians - that inspired the original construction of a cathedral, or famous icons of the Virgin Mary, which are primarily responsible for making the building a place of pilgrimage.

In addition, cathedrals and other large churches may have lovely bell towers or baptisteries with separate entrances that are well worth visiting, and particularly old churches may have a crypt that includes artifacts from previous houses of worship the current building was built on top of, and associated museums that house works of art formerly displayed in the church.

Protestant churches that are largely unadorned for doctrinal reasons can have a kind of serene, simple beauty all their own. In some old churches, what little was left from the Medieval – Roman Catholic – period has been restored.

In some places former mosques have been turned into churches (or vice versa) and more than one church has changed denomination due to the once common principle cuius regio eius religio (Latin that roughly translates as: Who owns the land decides the faith). This sometimes shows in architecture as well as adornments or the lack thereof.

Christian art[edit]

Michelangelo's David is one of countless Biblical works of art.

Aside from the art you can see in churches, there is much sacred Christian art, especially framed paintings and sculptures, in art museums around the world, and there are also many beautifully decorated books of sacred Christian writing, including complete Bibles, separate Old and New Testaments, sets of Gospel readings for a year of masses, books of prayers with music notation for chanting or polyphonic singing (in which several different vocal lines intertwine in different ways) and books of devotional poetry.

In the Renaissance, Biblical art was the highest of genres in European art. At least up to the Thirty Years War, the Catholic Church was by far the most generous sponsor of artists.

One particularly notable style is that of the illuminated manuscript, in which a book is handwritten in calligraphy along with decorative and informative illustrations. Illuminated manuscripts are generally found in libraries — either public libraries, university libraries or indeed church libraries.


Visiting a church[edit]

In many Christian churches, a man should remove his hat, and in some, a woman is expected to cover her head. Depending on the church and what is going on at the time, voices should be kept down, and mobile phones and similar devices should be set to silent.

In addition to their architectural, historic and cultural values, churches are places for:

  • Personal meditation, contemplation and prayer between masses/services
  • Worship services, which vary widely in style between different churches
  • Confession of sins or/and counseling
  • Religious education and spiritual direction
  • Various sacraments, such as baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals
  • Communal activities, such as shared meals or snacks
  • Charitable giving and receiving

Many churches run concert series or other performances, some of which are world-famous. Some churches are known for having a great organist, chorus, or solo singers and instrumentalists. See Christian music below

Churches generally have pamphlets in plain sight of visitors, describing their spiritual mission, schedule of services, communal and charitable activities, what charitable and maintenance/restoration work needs contributions, who to contact to find out more information about all of the above, and often the history of the building and its artworks.

While most churches belong to a single congregation, which is responsible for all activities, some are shared, perhaps also with worldly authorities involved. In these cases information in one schedule or at one website may not be complete, but activities may be more varied.

The main services are usually held Sunday morning and on special occasions, but there may be morning or evening prayers and services of other kinds. If the church has services in more than one language, perhaps because of immigrant communities, some of these may be later in the day or at other times. There may also be Bible study, communal activities, concerts etc. Some of these activities may be in a community center instead of in the church.

If you are visiting the church to look at the architecture and art, it is better to choose a time when there is no service or other special activity. People may still sit meditating or praying, lighting a candle or otherwise use the church as church. Avoid disturbing them.

Some events may be more or less private even if doors are unlocked. If you want to attend a service – to worship or out of curiosity – going to one that is announced to the public should generally be safe. In touristic places there is sometimes an information desk where you could ask, otherwise you might find a church official with some spare time.

Most churches welcome non-Christians to join their services and ceremonies. When attending, it is appropriate to dress conservatively and show respect; details vary by place. It is a very good idea to learn a bit about the local rules before visiting a place of worship. There is a vast difference between any expected behavior during a service; in some there is a serene atmosphere, where even off-topic whispers are avoided, not to mention taking photographs, eating or checking a mobile phone. The Roman Catholics have an eucharistic fast, not eating for an hour before the communion. On the other hand many churches are more like a modern concert in style, where eating, chatting etc. are welcome. Some even have the eating and drinking as the basis of the service sitting around in a 'Café Style'. Similarly, while some styles of worship involve the congregation quietly listening to a professional choir sing hymns, in others most pieces are sung by all the congregation, and at many churches of people of African heritage in the Americas, the congregation is expected not only to join the choir in singing, but also to clap, even dance. You should avoid leaving the church while the service is in progress unless necessary, again depending on the type and style of service. After some services, most or all of the participants may stay (or walk somewhere) for a cup of coffee or other refreshments, to socialize with the rest of the congregation, and at small churches you may well be personally welcomed and asked about what brought you here.

Services often include communion (Eucharist): to commemorate Jesus saying to his disciples before the matzoh and wine of the Last Supper "This is my body, this is my blood," Christians may drink some wine or grape juice and eat a sanctified wafer. Depending on their denomination, they may consider that these items mysteriously actually become Christ's body and blood or that they symbolize his body and blood. Non-Christians should abstain, although in some churches you can ask to be blessed instead (often by crossing your arms over your chest or by some similar gesture). Whether Christians of other denominations are allowed to take communion differs. Roman Catholic churches only allow Roman Catholics to take communion, while conversely, many Evangelical churches forbid Roman Catholics from taking communion. On the other hand, Anglican churches usually welcome all Christians to take communion regardless of denomination. If you are Christian and planning to attend services abroad, you might check with your priest with what churches at the destination yours "shares communion". Depending on your faith, this, not whether you are allowed by the church in question, may be important. Big groups that share communion among member churches include the Roman Catholic church, most Eastern Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches, and most of the Lutheran, Anglican and Episcopalian churches of Europe.

While the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches have a wealth of classical music heritage, actual orchestral church services in these denominations are rare in modern times, and much of this music is more commonly performed in a symphonic concert setting rather than the liturgical context they were originally intended for. Should you be lucky enough to attend a liturgical orchestral performance of such music, be aware that unlike at a concert, you should not applaud the performance unless the priest asks the congregation to give the musicians a round of applause, as applause is otherwise considered to be inappropriate in the context of the solemnity of a church service. Sometimes this practice is at least partly extended to any concerts in the church.

If you are attending because of a ceremony for a friend, such as a wedding, and aren't sure what to expect, ask your host about suitable dress, what the ceremony will be like and whether you will be expected to do anything other than sit quietly.

Christian music[edit]

Music has always been a key part of Christian worship, and composers throughout the ages have set many hymns and prayers to music. The earliest surviving form of notated Christian music is the Gregorian chant, actually a set of Frankish chants recorded by scribes at the command of the Frankish King and first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, around the turn of the 9th century, and then blessed by the Pope. There were originally several styles of church chant, all of which are collectively known as plain chant, meaning that only the melody was chanted, without any countermelodies or harmony, but because of the Pope's imprimatur, Gregorian chant gradually supplanted the other styles to become the single official Roman Catholic chant style. Gregorian chant continues to be regularly performed at Masses in the Vatican City and in various monasteries and convents throughout the world.

Gregorian chant later developed into polyphonic chanting during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, though the monophonic chant tradition continued alongside the new styles. Polyphonic treatments of plain chant differ from monophonic Gregorian chants in that different segments of the choir often sing different melodies which are supposed to blend together in harmony (as in the organum of the 12th/13th-century French composer, Perotinus, probably the first man to compose music for performance in the Gothic church of Notre Dame in Paris) or the same or a similar melody, sung in overlapping imitation (typical of Renaissance practice starting no later than the time of the Guillaume Dufay [c. 1397–1474], from a town near Brussels). Perhaps the most famous Renaissance-era composers of polyphonic chants and other polyphonic church music are Josquin des Prez (c. 1440–1521), a very highly celebrated Burgundian composer who worked for the courts of Milan, Rome (in the Papal Choir) and Ferrara and as Provost of the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, 50 km from Lille, which was then part of Burgundy; and the Italian, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), who worked for the Pope in various capacities, including as maestro di capella (Music Director) of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.

A special effect was attained by Andrea Gabrieli (1532 or 1533 to 1585) and his nephew, Giovanni (mid 1550s–1612): They placed different choirs in separate choir lofts on either side of the second level of the cathedral of San Marco in Venice, in order to produce an impressive stereophonic effect, also called antiphonal. Both Gabrielis also mixed instruments into the choirs; Giovanni composed some purely instrumental antiphonal music as well, including the Sonata Pian'e Forte, the first piece of European music to explicitly call for soft (piano) and loud (forte) playing. The instrumental music was also at least as religious as it was secular, as all of the Gabrielis' antiphonal music for San Marco represented a unity between one chorus that represented the Doge (the temporal ruler) and the other, which represented the Archbishop.

Music with instrumental accompaniment has been a key part of Western Christian traditions since at least the Baroque period. Many famous composers including those of the First Vienna school — Joseph Haydn (1732–1809, from the village of Rohrau, Lower Austria), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791, from Salzburg), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827, from Bonn) and Franz Schubert (1797–1828, a native of the Vienna area) — and the aforementioned Dufay, Josquin and Palestrina were Roman Catholic, and set the Ordinary of the Mass to music — the "Ordinary" consisting of a series of prayers typically chanted by a choir (that is, not just by the priest) during Mass. These days, their settings of the Mass are more frequently performed as concert pieces than as part of the liturgy, but there are exceptions among both Roman Catholic and what are called "High Church Anglican" churches. A special type of Mass that is typically performed at funerals and memorial services is the Requiem Mass, the most famous settings of which were composed by Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901, a famous opera composer who was born in Le Roncole, Province of Parma and wrote mostly for La Fenice in Venice) and Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924, from Pamiers, a small town in Ariège Department, who had a long career in Paris).

In addition to the Mass, other Christian religious genres of work include the Vespers, Psalms, motets, sacred cantatas, oratorios and passions. The best known setting of the Vespers is probably that by the Mannerist (late Renaissance/early Baroque) composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643, from Cremona, who worked at the Gonzaga court in Mantua and then as Music Director of San Marco in Venice). Perhaps the most famous composer of the sacred cantata is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750, from Eisenach, who worked for the Ducal court of Weimar, then for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, and then as Music Director of the Thomasschule in Leipzig), a Lutheran whose sacred cantatas include Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (featuring a famous movement known as "Jesus bleibet meine Freude"), and is also well known for his huge repertoire of liturgical works including Passions that retell the last days of Christ according to the Gospel accounts of St. Matthew and St. John. An example of a well-known motet is Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, though these days it is very rarely performed in liturgy, but instead often serves as a concert showpiece for the world's leading operatic sopranos.

Another important form of Christian music is the oratorio. Oratorios are in essence similar to operas in structure, the main differences being that oratorios are usually on a sacred subject in contrast to the usually secular subject of operas, and that oratorios are rarely staged, whereas operas usually are. Many musicologists believe the word oratorio dates back to the time when Giacomo Carissimi (1605–1674) composed sacred music in a style very similar to the then new operatic style of Monteverdi, et al., for sacred concerts he directed at the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso in Rome. Oratorios are typically composed to educate the public about stories in the Bible. The most famous oratorios include Messiah (which features the famed "Hallelujah Chorus") and Solomon (which features a famous instrumental passage known as "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba") by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759, who was born in Halle and attained great fame as Court Composer in London); Haydn's Die Schöpfung ("The Creation"); Juditha Triumphans by the Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741); Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847, from Hamburg); L'enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869, from La Côte-Saint-André, Isère) and Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Easter Oratorio.

A form of music unique to the Anglican tradition is the anthem, the most famous composers of which are Henry Purcell (1659–1695, from London) and Handel. A famous example of an Anglican anthem is Handel's Zadok the Priest, which was originally composed for the coronation service of King George II in Westminster Abbey, and continues to be performed at British coronation services to this day. It has also served in a secular context as the inspiration for the anthem of the UEFA Champions' League, the world's most prestigious tournament in club football (soccer).

In Eastern Christian traditions, religious music is required to be sung a capella (that is, without instrumental accompaniment). Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a setting of a divine liturgy is the version of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by the Russian Romantic, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). There are also very beautiful traditions of sacred choral singing in Russia and Georgia.

In the United States, there is also a famous repertoire of African-American church music, such as spirituals and Gospel singing, which fuse European and African traditions. Gospel services also characteristically include a sing-song style of preaching by the minister during the sermon, which is punctuated by spontaneous cries of "Amen", "Hallelujah" and other comments by members of the congregation in response to the minister's words, and the congregation breaks out in song and dance during the praise and worship phase of the service. Not all primarily African-American churches conduct this type of service, which is especially associated with Baptist and Pentacostal churches; conversely, quite a few primarily white and Asian churches have Gospel services that resemble those in African-American churches to a greater or lesser degree. This style of music has also spread to parts of Africa, which often results in the music incorporating more African elements than the original African-American versions, with one famous example of a group that performs such music being South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir. Many churches in the Caribbean and Brazil also have services that feature African-influenced singing and dancing.

Many Evangelical megachurches also compose their own music, usually in very modern styles, and services as these churches typically resemble rock and pop concerts more than traditional church services, though of course, the subject of the music is sacred rather than secular. A church whose music is well known among charismatic churches worldwide is Hillsong Church in Sydney, with their music being regularly performed in charismatic churches throughout the world. Due to the use of modern musical styles, Evangelical megachurches tend to be the most popular churches among youths in many countries, and have also attracted more youths to convert to Christianity than any other churches. Its large Evangelical population also means that the United States is home to a thriving Christian pop music industry, with radio stations, charts and record companies dedicated specifically to Christian pop music.

Depending on the definition of "Christian", the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is also a household name in U.S. Christian music. They are perhaps most famous for their rendition of the religious / patriotic "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that originated during the Civil War as new lyrics to a song about anti-slavery radical John Brown. Famously the Mormon version was the first to replace "die" with "live" in a critical section, a tradition since mostly followed by other renditions.

The organ[edit]

The splendid 1775 organ of the Altenburg Abbey Church in Lower Austria

Pianos are often used in services, especially in African-American churches, but it is above all the organ that has a long history of connection with the church and church music. The ancestor of the organ, the hydraulis, was used as a secular instrument in Roman times but died out in Western Europe, while continuing to exist and be developed in the Hellenistic "East". However, after a hiatus of a few hundred years, the hydraulis was reintroduced to Western Europe when Pepin (c. 714–768), King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, was gifted one by Emperor Constantine V of Byzantium. The hydraulis and then organ have been used widely in churches ever since this period. It is even theorized that the word organum, a genre that existed starting no later than the 9th century as a simple form of note-against note polyphony and then developed by the 12th century into one in which one voice holds out plain chant notes while one or more higher voices sing much faster counterpoints to that melody, may owe itself to the organ being used to hold the long notes, though this is uncertain.

What is certain is that a very large number of churches have impressive, beautiful organs whose appearance and sound are major draws for visitors and congregants. Many churches also feature their regular organist and/or other organists performing recitals on their organ.

Gulangyu is an island in Xiamen, China that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, mainly for fine architecture from a period of European occupation 1840s-1930s. It has both a piano museum and an organ museum.


If you feel so inclined, in many churches, you can leave a donation in exchange for a votive candle like one of these

Some churches have a money box where visitors can pay for candles and booklets or give to the church or its various missions and charities. Others have cafes or gift shops. Some do not want you to give money unless you attend regularly, as their spiritual mission is to welcome all comers, but it is a rare church that wouldn't welcome a sincere donation.

Many Protestant churches require their members to contribute 10% of their monthly income to the church. This is known as a tithe. In addition, churches also collect monetary donations from worshipers at services, which is optional and on top of the tithe. This is known as an offering. In some places (e.g. Germany or Austria) the tithe is collected by the state on behalf of the churches, meaning it is rather common (and perfectly legal) for an employer to ask for your religion.

The aforementioned religious music is of course often available for purchase as are (replicas of) religious artworks. In the past there was also a vibrant trade in (real or fake) reliquiae and indulgences – so vibrant in fact that it kicked off the Protestant Reformation – but most major denominations have since left this market.

The welcoming all comers may extend to concerts, so that they too are free. You can often show appreciation by buying a record or a program sheet, and may sometimes be expected to do the latter.


While Roman Catholics, according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, abstain from meat (other than "fish", which historically could include anything from beavers to turtles) on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities, there is not really an equivalent to Muslim halal or Jewish kashrut in mainstream Christianity.

The Roman Catholic church has since 1983 practiced abstinence during Lent (40 days), which is a personal choice with few prescriptions. Fasting (dietary abstinence) is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which means one meal a day (solid food, no restrictions on beverages), or two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. The individual Catholic may choose a way of abstinence during the Lent period, which could very well include dietary abstinence. Children, the sick, retired people and pregnant women are not expected to observe Lent.

Many of the newer American branches of Christianity, though, have some stricter dietary laws that are not followed by more traditional Christian denominations. For instance, some evangelical megachurches, as well as the Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons, prohibit consumption of alcohol. Seventh Day Adventists are also encouraged to be vegan and absolutely prohibited from eating pork. Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden from consuming blood and blood products (which includes receiving blood transfusions), so any meat they eat has to be properly drained of blood before consumption.

Some denominations celebrate communion in a matter more akin to an actual meal than the mostly symbolic Host eaten in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican mass. Christian charities and missionaries are also active (almost) worldwide in providing food for the needy.


Some churches offer wine (with alcohol) as part of a communion service. Others will offer a non-alcoholic replacement such as grape juice. The distinction between grape juice and wine postdates Jesus by centuries as only modern pasteurization and refrigeration make it possible to ship or store grape juice without it fermenting.

Some denominations of Christianity prohibit or restrict alcohol consumption, while others celebrate it. So whereas a social event organized by a Baptist church in the United States may be strictly alcohol-free (in other words, coffee, apple juice and soda), a Catholic church in Germany is likely to invite all members of the congregation to join the celebrants at a beer hall after a high mass. The beer hall may even be next to the church, and the beer they serve may be brewed by monks. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, as well as some Baptist churches prohibit the consumption of tea and coffee.


Some monasteries and convents offer accommodation to travellers. Churches and religious community centers are also often used as a place for youth groups of the same or a similar denomination to spend the night, such as Christian Scout groups during Hajk, or anybody at the YMCA accommodations.


When visiting a place of worship, the expectation of conservative dress and respectful behavior varies greatly between individual churches, although generally speaking churches will welcome all strangers from all faiths without pre-condition. The main exception is Mormon temples, which bar entry to all non-Mormons.

Many architecturally interesting churches belong to styles of Christianity that expect people – especially women – to dress conservatively. Often (especially in the heavily visited cases) this will be spelled out in so many words, but exceptions exist, where you might commit a social faux pas or even get thrown out of the church, without even knowing. When in doubt, ask a local before heading out. Russian churches in particular require women to cover their hair with a shawl before entering.

According to the Bible, God created the world in six days, and then rested the seventh, which among Christians is the Sunday (cf the Sabbath). Resting on that seventh day is one of the Ten Commandments, and churchgoing has been the main activity on that day; in many traditionally Christian countries most venues have been closed on Sundays, although the interpretation of the commandment has got much more liberal.

Different branches of Christianity have different attitudes about activities on a Sunday. In some areas, customs or even secular laws may demand that shops and places of entertainment shut on a Sunday. In some places, notably certain states of Germany, discos and similar venues and activities of entertainment have to be closed on "silent" holidays like Good Friday or All Saints' Day. In other places, all Christian holidays – even more somber ones like Good Friday – are celebrated with music, parades in the streets, drink, merriment and traditions that sometimes predate the local introduction of Christianity.

Many churches are conservative on questions such as gender roles and sexuality. Women as priests, homosexuality, contraceptives and abortion are hot-button issues in many churches. Also the view of the Bible differs: dictated by God word by word or also a work written in a historic context? Some churches embrace all of these, while mentioning any of them could get you into trouble in some others.

Old and important churches are often "national shrines" of sorts and important figures – both religious and secular – may be buried in or underneath the church. Keep in mind that even if you come to pay respects to Rubén Darío, his final resting place remains the most important Catholic church in Nicaragua. You should thus approach with respect both towards the people buried there and their literary or philosophical accomplishments, and the faith people express here, and maybe wait with expressing your opinion on whether or not building this cathedral was a wise use of scarce funds by the Spanish colonial administration until you have left the church again.

See also[edit]

Christian themes[edit]


History and architecture[edit]

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