The title of the gospel song “Give Me That Old Time Religion” takes on new meaning in the hands of Georgia Frank, Charles A. Dana Professor of religion and chair of the Department of Religion.
Frank’s new book, Unfinished Christians: Ritual Objects and Silent Subjects in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press, April 2023), investigates how ordinary Christians practiced rituals during an exciting period in the life of the church — from the late fourth century, after Christianity was legalized, through the sixth century.
“Christians are now more able go public in their rituals. They have a new relationship with the world. The emperor of Rome himself is Christian, and there’s a sudden period of creativity, experimentation, and openness,” says Frank.
By 400 AD, Christianity had spread quickly throughout the Roman empire — and was even expanding into Persia and China — but only a small minority of its subjects practiced the faith.
Instead of focusing on scripture, theologians’ debates, or church leaders, Frank explores “lived religion.”
“It’s a huge challenge,” says Frank. “Ordinary people didn’t leave much in the way of writings. They haven’t survived. Historians of religion know a lot more about what others said about them, which wasn’t always flattering.”
By analyzing sermons of church leaders and other historical records, she puzzles out the daily habits and behaviors of churchgoers — the sermons they heard, the hymns they sang, how they were baptized, their night vigils, and their street processions.
“Ordinary Christians lived fuller and more complex lives than some of their leaders could imagine. They kept company in joy and sorrow, in fear and jubilation, and in horror and compassion,” writes Frank, who teaches the core course Legacies of the Ancient World, which covers ancient epics, Plato, the Bible, and the Qur’an.
Modern churchgoers would find many similarities in ancient services. The liturgy included readings from the Old and New testaments and singing of psalms. Hymn singing played a vital role. Though the words of many hymns continue to be sung in Eastern Orthodox churches, the music has been lost. No one knows what instruments, if any, accompanied the lyrics.
“That’s what I would love to know — how ritual gatherings sounded,” says Frank, who is also the author of Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity. “I like to think their hymns could sometimes be joyful, noisy, even raucous.”
Sermons had a central place in worship. “It was really powerful, immersive storytelling that took churchgoers on an emotional rollercoaster, making them feel they are in the story and not just watching it,” says Frank. She compares those homilies to the consuming force of gospel music in the Black church.
Frank describes how the acclaimed late fourth century Cappacodian preacher Gregory of Nyssa halted his account of Jesus’ joyous nativity with “gruesome” descriptions of Herod’s massacre of male infants. His goal? To temper the joy of Christ’s birth and to connect it with anticipation of what was to come — his crucifixion.
“The preacher set up a relay race of emotions, in which he slapped a bloodied baton of emotions in the congregation’s outstretched hands as they ran the next lap in their imaginations,” Frank writes.
With thousands of new converts flocking to the new faith, the process of baptism came as the capstone of months or even years of preparation that included learning about the church’s history and scripture. New members were taught how to pray, fast, confess, and even underwent some type of exorcism. “Just getting the unseen demonic forces out of you to be prepared to enter into this new life,” says Frank.
Baptisms were “multisensory indoor events,” says Frank. In the eastern part of the empire, these secret ceremonies were typically held on feast days, notably Easter. They often happened in baptistries, rooms adjoining churches, containing pools of water and vestibules for undressing. Attendance was limited to church members.
Candidates turned to the west to renounce Satan and then faced the east to vow to follow Christ. After being anointed with perfumed oils, they disrobed and would be led into a knee- or waist-deep pool where water would be poured over them or they would be immersed.
“Shapeless and cleansing, water often achieves total and instant transformation. It dissolves, purifies, and absorbs the old; and from waters new life emerges. Water suits a rite that evokes forces of creation, destruction, and re-creation,” writes Frank.
The image of the soul as an object being crafted dominated the church’s thinking regarding baptism. Like objects in a nearby workshop, candidates were refined, reshaped, woven into purer vessels.
Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century bishop of Constantinople, advised his congregations: “Go back into yourself and look; and if you do not yet see yourself beautiful, then, just as someone making a statue which has to be beautiful cuts away here and polishes there and makes one part smooth and clears another till he has given his statue a beautiful face, so you too must cut away excess and straighten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright, and never stop ‘working on your statue.’ ”
In the Mediterranean world, the life of all religions often took place outside, notably in street processions. Some parades for the goddess Isis featured men dressed as women, animals costumed as people or gods, and involved ritual slaughter of animals. Christian processions had no sacrificial element. Church members carried candles, lamps, Bibles, chests of relics of martyrs, and even shovels, if they were celebrating the construction of a new church.
“It was a way of announcing that we’ve arrived, a way of sharing with one another and being part of civic life,” says Frank.
Nighttime parading and worship was commonplace. “Lamps packed tightly together” looked like “a fiery river” to John Chrysostom, a late fourth century bishop of Constantinople, who taught that God is “more moved by prayers in the night.”
Evening vigils were encouraged, especially to honor important dates in the life of the church. These involved singing hymns, prayer, and reading Bible stories. Flickering lights shimmering on mosaic tiles and tapestries provided a glowing hope in what might have been spiritually dark times. “Night was a time for beholding the intersection of deep past, recent past, and cosmic future,” writes Frank.
The experiences of women and enslaved people in the early church, according to her, remain relatively unknown. “We know so little,” she says. “This book is my attempt to begin to know what we need to do to imagine things when the sources are scant or not there.”
She hopes readers come away with an appreciation of different ways in which people can practice their faith. “You don’t have to be a saint. You don’t have to be a perfect person or clergy to speak for a tradition,” she says. “I want to cultivate an awareness for the diversity of voices that imbue religious traditions, now as in the past.”