History of Christianity

Part of the series on
History of Christianity

Christian theology
The Trinity:
God the Father
Christ the Son
The Holy Spirit

The Bible:
Old Testament
New Testament
The Gospels
Ten Commandments

Christian Church:
Orthodox Christianity

Christian denominations
Christian movements

Christian worship

Related faiths:
Abrahamic religions

This article outlines the history of Christianity and provides links to relevant topics.


Roots of Christianity

The Jewish background

Christianity emerged as one of the many sects of Judaism that existed in the first century AD. Christianity brought from Judaism its scriptures (the Old Testament), its way of thinking and fundamental doctrines such as monotheism, and the belief in a moshiach (Hebrew term usually rendered messiah in English); this term is more commonly known as Christ (Christos in Greek). However, the Christian claim of exclusivity, that only its understanding of "Jewish" teaching is valid, led to an early rift between Christianity and the temple priesthood, and later rabbinic Judaism.

The common Jewish picture of the messiah, both ancient and modern, is a national one—the deliverer of Israel—and differs significantly from the Christian understanding of the term. Christianity believes in a different kind of messiah, in which God himself came into history in the flesh as Jesus (the Incarnation), and became the deliverer of both Israel and of all mankind. Christians and Jews have disagreed about the nature of the messiah from the time Christianity was born until now, often relying on different interpretations of various passages from the Old Testament (or Tanakh).

Christianity also continued many of the patterns found in Judaism at that time, such as adapting the form of synagogue worship to church parishes, prayer, use of sacred scriptures, a priesthood, a religious calendar in which certain events and/or beliefs are specifically commemorated on certain days each year, use of music in hymns and prayer, and ascetic disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving. Christians initially adopted the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures (the Septuagint) as their own Bible, and later also canonized the books of the New Testament.

The life of Jesus of Nazareth

The earliest emergence of Christianity

By the third century AD, Christianity had grown from the personal practice of a small number (Acts 1:15 says about 120) of Jews and Proselytes to the dominant religion of the northern Mediterranean world. It also gained important extensions to the east and south of the Mediterranean. The core History of the Roman Catholic Church is said to extend in an unbroken timeline from this period. This section will examine those first 300 years.

The Earliest Church

According to the Biblical book of Acts of the Apostles, the early church was heavily centralized about the original chapter in Jerusalem, which had founded significant branches in the politically significant cities of Antioch, Alexandria, and perhaps Rome. The head of the Jerusalem branch, and hence of the whole church, was James the Just, referred to as the "brother of the Lord". Membership was initially confined to Jews and Samaritans and Proselytes. In Acts 6:1ff a group of Evangelists was appointed to proselytize the Hellenistic Jews. In Acts 10:44ff Peter baptized Cornelius (traditionally held to be the first Gentile convert) and some other Gentiles. In Acts 15:19ff at the Council of Jerusalem James judged that new Gentile converts should not be bothered about circumcision but should be taught to follow what would later be called the Noahide Laws subset of the Law of Moses. The Didache found in the Apostolic Fathers collection further documents early church practice.

House Churches

  • Dura-Europos, Syria is the site of the earliest discovered identifiable Christian house church.

The martyrs

The Apostolic Fathers

The Apologists

  • Justin Martyr, convert from Greek philosophy
  • Irenaeus of Lyons, bishop of Lyons, categorized heresies in order to refute them
  • Clement of Rome, 3rd/4th bishop of Rome, whose homilies and writings were sometimes considered canon

The writings of the New Testament apocrypha

The early Christians produced many historically significant canons and other literature described church organization. One of the earliest of these is the Didache, which is usually dated to the late first or early second century.

Early controversies

Disputes of doctrine began early on. The newly-organised church organised councils to sort matters out. Councils representing the entire church were called ecumenical councils. Some groups were rejected as heretics.

Although most writings of Arius were destoyed by the early Catholic Church and Roman Emperor Constantine, we can infer from Athanasius' arguments against Arius some idea of the movement. Basically Arius was a leader of Christians that took opposition to the early trinitarianism movement, reflecting the divine nature of Christ. Arius' hypothesis, to our knowledge, was that Jesus was created by God, and hence, was secondary to God. Athanasius/ the early Catholic Churches position was that Jesus was and always had been divine, and had a trinary nature along with God and the Holy Spirit.


A Greek philosophical/religious movement known as Gnosticism had developed at roughly the same time as Christianity. Many followers of this movement (Valentinius being one of the most well-known) were also Christians, and taught a synthesis of the two belief systems. This produced a major controversy in the early church.

Gnostic interpretations differed from Mainstream Christianity because orthodox Christians took the literal interpretation of the Gospels as the correct one, whereas Gnostics tended to read them as allegory; thus the orthodox branch attracted greater numbers of adherents. This was observed quite early, for example, the second century Celsus (whose words are preserved in Origen's Contra Celsum, a text designed against Celsus) states that Christianity

continues to spread amongst the vulgar, nay one can even say it spreads because of its vulgarity, and the illiteracy of its adherents. And while there are a few moderate, reasonable, and intelligent people who are inclined to interpret its beliefs allegorically, yet it thrives in its purer form amongst the ignorant

Many gnostics followed old vegetative/fertility religions, which had similar outward manifestations to one another, and also to Christianity. At the core of many of these religions was the idea of a god born from a human mother but with a god as father, so as to represent both the earthly part of mankind and the spiritual part of a divinity merged. The subject goes on to die, generally as a representative of the seasonal vegetative cycle, and then enters the underworld, and is finally restored to life.

Competing religions

Christianity was not the only religion seeking and finding converts in the 1st century. Modern historians of the Roman world often discern interest in what they tend to call mystery religions or mystery cults beginning in the last century of the Roman Republic and increasing during the centuries of the Roman Empire. Roman authors themselves, such as Livy, tell of the importation of "foreign gods" during times of stress in the Roman state. Judaism, too, was receiving converts and in some cases actively evangelising. The New Testament reflects a class of people referred to as 'believers in God' who are thought to be Gentile converts, perhaps those who had not submitted to circumcision; Philo of Alexandria makes explicit the duty of Jews to welcome converts.


Worship of Mithras (known as Mithraism) developed in the Roman army during the first century BC, though it is currently unknown how this particular mystery religion originated, as it appears to have little to do with the Zoroastrian Mithra. Since it developed amongst a group of highly mobile people (professional soldiers), it quickly spread to the outer regions of the empire. It soon proved to be amongst the most popular of the mystery religions, and at Rome, by the start of the third century emperors were openly encouraging it, as the religion favoured their rule.

The Mithras religion is sometimes thought to have its ultimate origin in the cult of Mithra, a deity connected to popular forms of Zoroastrianism (though it is important to note that strictly, early Zoroastrianism is dualist, and modern Zoroastrianism is monotheist, and neither includes Mithra).

One of the ancient gods associated with Mithra was Ea, the moon god, and god of the waters. Ea was referred to as Oannes (or sometimes considered as Oannes' father), which resembles the Greek word Ioannes (i.e. John). According to the myths, Oannes spent the days teaching mankind wisdom. Consequently Ea was thought by mythologist Joseph Campbell to be the origin of the story of John the Baptist.

If the tradition that Jesus was born on the winter solstice (when the sun starts to reappear) is accepted, then John was born on the summer solstice (when the sun starts to disappear), six months earlier; John baptises with water (the symbol of Ea) and Jesus with fire (the symbol of the sun); and Jesus is born to a young virgin whereas John is born to an old married woman. These comparisons, together with the biblical passage where John says to Jesus "as you become more, I must become less", led Campbell to think that John is used in the story as a representation of the moon, and Jesus as the sun.

By the end of the 3rd century, the popular cults of Apollo and Mithras had started to merge into the syncretism known as Mithras Sol Invictus or simply Sol Invictus (the unconquerable sun—a term also used by other cults), and in 274 the emperor Aurelian made worship of this form official.

After the decree of Theodosius in 391, and subsequent suppression, many Mithraeums were converted into Christian churches (such as Notre-Dame du Taur, and the Church of San Clemente); these were often dedicated to the archangel Michael.


The Mandaeans were a Gnostic religion which revered John the Baptist instead of Jesus. According to legend, Mani was a Mandaean. Mandaeanism still exists.


Manichaeism was one of the major ancient religions. Though its organized form is mostly extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manichaeism. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Some scholars and anti-Roman Catholic polemicists argue that its influence subtly continues in Christian thought via Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manichaeism and whose writing continues to be enormously influential among Catholic theologians.

The religion was founded by Mani, who reportedly was born in western Persia and lived approximately 210-275 AD. The name Mani is mainly a title and term of respect rather than a personal name. This title was assumed by the founder himself and so completely replaced his personal name that the precise form of the latter is not known. Mani was likely influenced by Mandaeanism and began preaching at an early age. He claimed to be the Paraclete, as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets that finalized a succession of men guided by God and included figures such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and Jesus.

The Manichees made every effort to include all known religious traditions in their faith. As a result, they preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that otherwise would have been lost. Mani was eager to describe himself as a "disciple of Jesus Christ", but the orthodox church rejected him as a heretic.

Second and third centuries

In the second century conventionally educated converts began to produce two kinds of writings that help us understand the developing shapes of Christianity - works aimed at a broad audience of educated non-Christians and works aimed at those who considered themselves inside the Church. The writing for non-Christians is usually called apologetic in the same sense that the speech given by Socrates in his defense before the Athenian assembly is called his Apology - the word in Greek meant "speech for the defense" rather than the modern more limited denotation of "statement expressing regret". The Apologists, as these authors are sometimes known, made a presentation for the educated classes of the beliefs of Christians, often coupled with an attack on the beliefs and practices of the pagans. Other writings had the purpose of instructing and admonishing fellow Christians. Many writings of this period, however, succumbed to destruction from the Early Catholic Church as heretical, or in disagreement with their message. Thus, today we are surprised by such findings as the Gospel of Thomas in 1945.

  • Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons and saint)
  • Tertullian (became a schismatic in about 207 and became a Montanist)
  • Marcion (considered by the Roman Catholic church to have been the most dangerous enemy they have ever had)
  • Clement of Alexandria (bishop of Alexandria and saint)
  • Origen (catechist and scholar, but some of his teachings were condemned in 588)
  • The pagan revival of the third century

During this period church government began to take on a hierarchial form that matched the Roman government.

Fourth century

Development of the canon of scripture

Christianity legalized in the Roman Empire

Constantine I

The Emperor Constantine I was, like emperors before him, high priest of the Mithraic religion. However, he was also interested in creating unity for the sake of ease of governance, and to this end involved himself in a dispute between Christian groups over Arianism, summoning the First Council of Nicaea; this Council produced the Nicene Creed.

Constantine mitigated some differences between orthodox Christianity and its main competitor, the official religion of Sol Invictus. For example, he moved the date of celebration of Jesus' birth to December 25th (since this was the celebration date for the birth of Mithras and Bacchus, and also the date of other winter solstice festivals such as Saturnalia). In addition, Constantine instituted use of the Chi-Rho symbol, representative of Christianity, also alleged by some scholars to have had use as an obeloi for "auspicious" thus serving both Christian and non-Christian purpose simultaneously.

Popular legend holds that Constantine I was Christian; however, he never publicly recanted his position as high priest of Mithras Sol Invictus, and the only alleged occurrence of Constantine I converting was on his deathbed (as reported by later Church Fathers), which is impossible to verify. However, it was not that unusual for people in the fourth century to avoid fully converting to Christianity until quite late in life, because of the strong warnings against continuing in sin after having converted and the spiritual consequences thereof.

Constantinian shift

Critics of the merger of church and state point to this shift of the beginning of the era of Constantinianism when Christianity and the will of God gradually came to be identified with the will of the ruling elite; and in some cases was little more than a religious justification for the exercise of power.


Nicene Creed


Fourth-century pagan revival by Rome

Shocked by these developments, the emperor Julian (later denoted "the Apostate" because of his departure from Christianity) attempted to restore the previous religion by suppressing and persecuting Christianity, while encouraging both Judaism and a sort of neo-paganism.

Orthodox Christianity opposed by Byzantine emperors

Christianity becomes a state religion

Julian's opposition was short lived, as emperors such as Constantine II repealed Julian's actions and encouraged the growth of Christianity. This state of affairs was finally enforced by a series of decrees by the Nicene Christian emperor Theodosius, beginning in February of 381, and continuing throughout his reign.

Other material from this era

The Christological controversies

The Christological controversies include examinations of questions like the following. Was Christ divine, human, a created angelic being, or beyond simple classification into one category? Did Christ's miracles actually change physical reality or were they merely symbolic? Did Christ's body actually arise from the dead or was the resurrected Christ a supernatural being not limited to a physical frame?

Fifth century

The conversion of the Mediterranean world

Developing Christianity outside the Mediterranean world

Christianity was not restricted to the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands; at the time of Jesus a large proportion of the Jewish population lived in Mesopotamia outside the Roman Empire, especially in the city of Babylon, where much of the Talmud was developed.

Development of the Papacy

The rise of Islam


Spread of Christianity to central and eastern Europe

Church and state in the Medieval west

Schisms between East and West

  • Great Schism
    • This was a long time in developing; key issues were the role of the Pope in Rome, and the filioque clause
    • The "official" schism in 1054 was the excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, followed by his excommunication of the pope's representative.
    • The personal excommunications were mutually rescinded by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 1960s, although the schism is not at all healed.

The Great Schism was between "Roman Catholicism" and "Eastern Orthodoxy". Both place great weight on apostolic succession, and historically both are descended from the early church. Each contends that it more correctly maintains the tradition of the early church and that the other has deviated. Roman Catholic Christians often prefer to refer to themselves simply as "catholic" which means "universal", and maintain that they are also orthodox. Eastern Orthodox Christians often prefer to refer to themselves simply as "orthodox", which means "right worship", and also call themselves catholic. Initially, the schism was primarily between East and West, but today both have congregations all over the world. They are still often referred to in those terms for historical reasons.

The later Middle Ages

Early America

  • Conquistadors
  • [[Santer´┐Ż], a fusion of Catholicism with traditional west African religious traditions originally among slaves

The Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reformation

Protestantism and the Rise of Denominationalism

Discusses the rise of the major denominations after the Reformation, and the challenges faced by Catholicism.
Lots missing here.

19th century

  • Catholic Resurgence in Romantic Europe
  • Anglo-Catholic or Oxford Movement in the Church of England
  • Missionaries and Colonialism

The Second Great Awakening and Restorationism

Anti-clericalism and atheistic communism

In many revolutionary movements the church was associated with the established repressive regimes. Thus, for example, after the French Revolution and the Mexican Revolution there was a distinct anti-clerical tone in those countries that exists to this day. On a more extreme level, Karl Marx condemned religion as the "opium of the people" [1] (http://www.baylor.edu/~Scott_Moore/texts/Marx_Opium.html) and the Marxist-Leninist governments of the twentieth century were generally atheistic; of these, only Albania officially declared itself to be an atheistic state. All of these Marxist governments repressed the exercise of religion in varying degrees.

20th Century and beyond

Christianity in the 20th century was characterised by accelerating fragmentation. The century saw the rise of both liberal and conservative splinter groups, as well as a general secularisation of Western society. The Roman Catholic Church instituted many reforms in order to modernise. Missionaries also made inroads in the Far East, establishing further followings in China, Taiwan, and Japan. At the same time, persecution in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union brought many Eastern Orthodox Christians to Western Europe and the United States, leading to greatly increased contact between Western and Eastern Christianity.

The 1950's saw a boom in the Evangelical church in America. The post World War II prosperity experienced in the U.S. also had its effects on the church. Although simplistically referred to as "morphological fundamentalism", the phrase nonetheless does accurately describe the physical developments experienced. Church buildings were built in large numbers, and the Evangelical church's activities grew along with this expansive physical growth.

Another noteworthy development in 20th century Christianity was the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement. Although its roots pre-date the year 1900, its actual birth is commonly attributed to the 20th century. Sprung from Methodist and Wesleyan roots, it arose out of the meetings at an urban mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. From there it spread around the world, carried by those who experienced what they believed to be miraculous moves of God there. These so-called miraculous, Pentecost-like manifestations have steadily been in evidence throughout the history of Christianity- such as seen in the two Great Awakenings that started in the United States, et al. However, Azusa Street is widely accepted as the fount of "the modern Pentecostal movement." Pentecostalism, which in turn birthed the Charismatic movement within already established denominations, continues to be an important force in western Christianity.


  • Creationist backlash to Darwinism, reaction to the critical method of Biblical interpretation..


The Rise of Evangelicalism

  • In the United States, there has been a marked rise in evangelical churches and a corresponding decline of mainstream Protestant denominations. In the post- World War II era, for a time Liberalism had been the fasting growing sector of the American church. Liberal wings of denominations were on the rise, and a considerable number of seminaries held and taught from a liberal perspective as well. As of late, the trend has swung back towards the conservative camp in America's seminaries and church structures. Those entering seminaries and other post-graduate theologically related programs have become predominantly conservative.

The neo-Evangelical push of the 1950's, though maligned by some, has made great strides. In the South, traditionally with more fundamentalist leanings, the more moderate neo-Evangelicals have experienced a notable surge. What has been historically thought of as being pulpit pounding fundamentalism of the South has moved more towards the moderate neo-Evangelical. The stereotypes have been modified somewhat. One example, Jerry Falwell, would be seen today as much more of a moderate Evangelical than his prior strongly-to-the-right postion was.

Evangelicalism as a whole is not a single, monolithic entity. Contrary to popular belief, it is difficult to pigeon-hole or stereotype the Evangelical church and its adherents. There is a broader spectrum than in existence today than there was previously. Most are not Fundamentalist, though many still refer to themselves as such. Those who call themselves "moderate evangleicals"(although considered conservative in relation to society as a whole) still hold fast to the fundamentals of the historic Christian faith. "Liberal" Evangelicals, who are really anything but liberal in relation to society at large, have their presence as well.

There is some debate as to whether Pentecostals are considered to be Evangelical or not. Their roots certainly are, but some of their doctrinal distinctives differ from the more traditional Evangelicals. As a result depending upon with whom one speaks, these Pentecostals may or may not be included in the Evangelical camp.

Evangelicals are as diverse as the names that appear- Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, J. Vernon McGee, Benny Hinn, J.I. Packer, John R.W. Stott, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Carter, etc.- or even Evangelical institutions such as Dallas Theological Seminary(dispensationalist), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary(Calvinist, Boston), Trinity Divinity School(Chicago), Wheaton College(Illinois), the Christian Coalition, The Christian Embassy(Jerusalem), etc. Although there exists a diversity in the Evangelical community worldwide, the ties that bind all Evangelicals are still apparent. A "high view" of Scripture, belief in the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, the bodily ressurection of Christ, to mention a few.

There has also been a polarization of the Anglican Communion worldwide chiefly because of actions taken by some Anglicans and Episcopalians in the U.S. and Canada.

Evangelism in the 10/40 Window
  • Evangelicals defined and prioritized efforts to reach the "unreached" in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to focus on countries roughly between 10 north and 40 degrees south latitude. This area is mostly dominated by Muslim nations, many who do not allow missionaries of other religions to enter their countries.

The spread of secularism

In Europe there has been a general move away from religious observance and belief in Christian teachings and a move towards secularism. The "secularization of society", attributed to the time of the Renaissance and its following years, is largely responsible for the spread of secularism. For example the Gallup International Millennium Survey[2] (http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm) showed that only about one sixth of Europeans attend regular religious services, less than half gave God "high importance", and only about 40% believe in a "personal God". Nevertheless the large majority considered that they "belong" to a religious denomination. Numbers show that the "de-Christianisation" of Europe has slowly begun to swing in the opposite direction. Renewal in certain quarters of the Anglican church, as well as in pockets of Protestantism on the continent attest to this initial reversal of the secularisation of Europe, the continent in which Christianity originally took its strongest roots and world expansion.

In North America, South America and Australia, the other three continents where Christianity is the dominant professed religion, religious observance is much higher than in Europe. America declares herself a "Christian" nation. This may give the appearance to those abroad, as well as those within the U.S., that America far from Christian. At the same time, America is seen by many nations as being uptight and "Victorian", in her social mores. In general, America does lean towards the conservative in comparison to many western nations in its general culture, largely due to the Christian element found primarily in its midwestern and southern states.

South America, historically Catholic, has experienced a large Evangelical and Pentecostal infusion over the past ca. 80 years due to the influx of Christian missionaries from abroad. For example: Brazil, South America's largest country, is the largest Catholic country in the world, and at the same time is the largest Evangelical country in the world(based on population). Some of the largest Christian congregations in the world are found in Brazil.

Australia has seen renewal in different parts of her Anglican Church, as well as a growing presence of an Evangelical community. Although more "tradional" in its Anglical roots, this nation-continent has seen growth in its religious sector. Some of its religious programming is even exported via satellite.

See also

A History of Christianity, (2 vols.) by Kenneth Scott Latorette- a very good scholarly, detailed, unbiased treatment of the subject by a formally trained and respected historian

Print resources

  • Gonzales, Justo. The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper, 1984. ISBN 0060633158
  • Gonzales, Justo. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: Harper, 1985. ISBN 0060633166

External links

The following links give an overview of the history of Christianity:

The following link provides quantitative data related to Christianity and other major religions, including rates of adherence at different points in time:


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