As American Protestants, our spiritual heritage is dependent upon more historical movements and personages than we realize -- and more than we would like to admit. We contend that we get our religion directly from the Bible without mediation, but such a thing is impossible and, even if possible, quite untrue. We are influenced by every single one of the occurrences we have been studying. In particular, for those of us who are Northern Europeans, the introduction of Christianity into our normally Gentile family history has been dependent upon two major historical movements: the Christianization of the barbarian tribes in the early Middle Ages, and the Protestant Reformation just a few hundred years later. Today we give a quick overview of the Christianization (not necessarily conversion) of those Northern European tribes.

  1. Two Kinds of Evangelism
    1. During our period we must distinguish two kinds of evangelism. The older kind -- the kind that depended on individual conversion and therefore was totally dependent on preaching and teaching -- was going out of style as a way of evangelism, but was still alive in the individual's quest for God. Monks particularly were anxious to have a life close to Christ.
    2. The newer kind, but the primary kind in the Middle Ages, depended on the conversion of entire societies, often by starting with the king. Remember that kings at this time were often little more than local chieftains, so there were lots of kings to convert. In most cases, when we talk about the "conversion" of a barbarian tribe in the year so-and-so, we are referring to the baptism of its king and the invitation for a bishop to live among that society and teach its people.
    3. Nevertheless, these "conversions" set the stage for the actual life of Christ to be known among those peoples, even in the debased and distorted forms of (for instance) monasticism. We still believe that God's Spirit did not leave himself without a remnant, and possibly a large one.
  2. During the Roman Empire
    1. The barbarians from the north, at first held at bay, then invited to settle vacant lands and serve in the army, then finally pouring across the borders in what was as much an immigration as an invasion, were an uncouth, violent people who nevertheless had a system of virtue that even Romans admired. They were free from the vices that "civilized" Romans had long ago picked up. But they also were pagans, and Rome was now Christian, at least officially.
    2. The first converts among the barbarians outside the borders of the Empire were converted to Arianism. In the late 300's the Arian Ulfilas (Dowley 188) worked for 40 years among the Gothic tribes across the Danube. Arianism was a better missionary religion than orthodox Christianity, because the half-God Jesus of the Arians was a warlord-like figure that reminded the German tribes of their heroes and their gods. Also, Arianism had no messy connections to Rome that would have complicated matters.
    3. Christianity spread outside the Roman empire, it is conjectured, through trade routes, and also through the captivity of Christian prisoners that were taken in barbarian raids. These prisoners would tell their captors about Christ. Ulfilas himself was a descendant of such prisoners.
  3. Patrick to Ireland - Dowley 219
    1. Patrick (mid or late 5th century) was born in Roman Britain. We know little about his life other than what is revealed in his Confession, his Letter (can't find a copy of the Letter on the Internet), and the Breastplate of St. Patrick which may have been written by him. All other knowledge is just legends.
    2. His evangelism of the Irish
  4. Clovis and the Franks - Dowley 229
    1. Clovis (d. 511) was the first barbarian king to accept Catholic rather than Arian baptism. Legend says that it was after a battle in which God gave him victory. We know that he had a Catholic wife before the baptism.
    2. The Franks became the loyal sons of the Pope. Their kings had a special relationship to Rome which lasted hundreds of years. (Charlemagne being the leading example.) However, this did not prevent the Frankish kings from exerting all possible authority over the church.
  5. The Irish to England and Europe
    1. "Two passions had grown strong in [the Irish]. One was for the learning to be found in Christian books. They could see and touch and even in some cases read these books, to them the thrilling embodiment of the world beyond their shores. The other Celtic passion was for 'pilgrimage for the love of God.' By this they meant the heroic self-discipline of one who exiled himself from the land of his birth and his heart. . . ." (Edwards 54)
    2. The Irish monks used to leave Ireland to go on their missions with twelve other monks, in imitation, Schaff says, of Jesus and twelve apostles. They would found monasteries and begin to teach the people wherever they settled. The genius of the Irish was teaching and learning, but not administration. The Roman Catholics quite exceeded them in this discipline, with the result that eventually Roman rule was extended everywhere in western Europe.
    3. Columba - Dowley 202, Edwards 54. Columba (521-597), exiled or self-exiled from Ireland, founded the monastery of Iona on the coast of Scotland, in 563. From here the Celtic church was created in Scotland. When Oswald, a prince of Northumbria, spent time there and later sent for a missionary from Iona, a new chapter in English history began.
    4. Aidan (d. 651), the missionary who came, established the monastery of Lindisfarne in 635. From here Northumbria was evangelized and converted to Celtic-style Catholicism. From here many Anglo-Saxons learned the Gospel, even as Augustine and his Rome-based mission were spreading churches from the South.
    5. Columban (c. 543 - 615) -- Dowley 237 - was active in Gaul and Italy. He is not to be confused with Columba. He began the Irish mission work to the Continent. Among his twelve companions was St. Gall (next item). He at times conflicted with the Roman Christian establishment where he found it.
    6. Gall (c. 550 - c. 645) - Dowley 237 - founded and headed the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. This became "one of the most celebrated schools of learning in Switzerland and Germany, where Irish and other missionaries learned German and prepared themselves for evangelistic work in Switzerland and Southern Germany" (Schaff 4-89).
  6. Augustine to England, 597 - Dowley 231-232, Edwards 45ff
    1. Gregory the Great
      1. Angles/Angels
      2. buying English slaves in northern Europe to train in monasteries
      3. Letters to Bede
      4. ten thousand baptized on Christmas Day 597, a people 'placed in a corner of the world and until this time worshiping sticks and stones' (Edwards 49).
    2. Rome vs. Celtic Catholicism
    3. Lindisfarne and the Anglo Saxons
    4. Synod of Whitby (664) - Edwards 57 - caused the Northern Irish and those in the North of England to accept the Roman method of dating Easter, and began the final assimilation of the Celtic Church. It is said that the Anglo-Saxon king who was present was smiling as he reminded the Celtic bishops that it was Peter whom everyone would meet at the gate of heaven, and it would be good to obey Peter's Church!
  7. St. Boniface to Germany - Dowley 238-239
    1. Rome vs. previously planted Christianity
    2. Boniface (675-754) was an Englishman, Wynfrid his given name, often called the Apostle to Germany. He was inspired by the mission to the northern barbarians who had never migrated to England. He went to Rome twice, and always in his missions was a loyal son of the Roman church.
    3. His most famous act was chopping down the tree sacred to Thor while many awestruck Saxons watched him.
  8. Charlemagne's "conversions" of the barbarians
    1. A third kind of evangelism?
    2. Charlemagne began (or popularized) the practice of converting by the sword. For instance, he forcibly baptized a Saxon army. This brought medieval evangelism to a new low. He was reprimanded by his Anglo-Saxon advisor, Alcuin, who said that Christianity must be spread as an appeal, not as a conquest.
    3. Though Charlemagne's reign is justly termed a "rennaisance," this policy of conversion by the sword stands as a grim forerunner of the rest of the medieval period, including the Reformation.
  9. Conversion of the Slavic tribes
    1. Cyril and Methodius
    2. Orthodox conversion of Vladimir, 988
  10. Results of the Christianization of Europe

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.