The Early Evolution of Christian Philanthropy – Daniel Caner

Daniel Caner, associate professor in the departments of history and literatures, cultures, and languages. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Daniel Caner, associate professor in the departments of history and literatures, cultures, and languages

During a 300-year period that saw the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the first truly complex Christian society emerged in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, that claimed much of Southeastern Europe, the Near East, and the northern coast of Africa, according to Associate Professor of History and Literatures, Cultures, and Languages Daniel Caner.

“This was first time that the state became so intertwined with a totalizing religion like Christianity,” says Caner, whose work specializes in the social and cultural history of Late Antiquity. “Starting in the 4th century, you see the state starting to fund churches and monasteries and encouraging laypeople to give to these institutions as a way to salvation.”

This new use of religious gifts by the state to promote social order, though very different from today’s secular concept of philanthropy, laid the foundation for many modern charitable practices. But while Caner says that early Christian philanthropy was part of an earnest attempt to produce a utopian society, he also emphasizes that it raises complex ethical questions that people still grapple with about wealth scarcity, acquisition, and distribution.

“The post-classical period is a fascinating study of how wealth is held onto by few people,” says Caner. “In the previous era, wealth was controlled by Roman senators and aristocracy; here you see the system challenged, broken up [with the fall of the Western Roman Empire], and reformed with another set of elites.”