The spread of Christianity in the West

One of the striking features of these centuries of disorder in Western Europe is the fashion in which, in spite of the near-anarchy, Christianity continued to spread. While many factors contributed to this expansion, it would not have been except for the inner vitality of the faith.

In Italy, Spain, and Gaul the native pagan cults which survived at the end of the fifth century disappeared and those imported by the invaders, except for Islam, were replaced by Christianity.

More serious than overt paganism were the sag in morals and the increase in superstition of those who bore the Christian name. In Gaul the later Merovingians were a sorry lot, weak and vicious. Under them the quality of living of laity and clergy deteriorated.

A gleam in the growing darkness issued from Ireland. The Irish peregrini who came to the Frankish domains were distressed by the low level of morals which they found among professing Christians and struggled manfully to raise it and to win to the faith such openly avowed heathen as remained. They encouraged the laity to come to them to confess their sins and as a means of discipline worked out penitentials, with penances prescribed for specific sins.

The most famous of the Irish missionaries in the Frankish domains was Colum-ban. He was a contemporary of Gregory the Great, perhaps born in the same year. Handsome, full-blooded, attracted by and attracted to the opposite sex, as a youth, against his mother's tears, he entered the monastic life. From the famous monastic community of Bangor, in what is now County Down, he led a band of twelve across the sea and preached in the Merovingian realms more earnest faith and living. In the Vosges Mountains he founded monasteries which attracted many and to which he gave a more austere rule than that of Benedict. Eventually he aroused the ire of the Merovingian rulers, partly because of his frank speaking against the king's habit of taking concubines, and perhaps because of his unwillingness to submit to the bishops of the Frankish realm on the date for the celebration of Easter. To avoid deportation he left the Frankish domains and resumed his wanderings. These took him to a monastic community in the mountains between Milan and Genoa and there he died, probably in 615. Monasteries which followed his rule multiplied in the lands of the Franks.

The Irish peregrini were not an unalloyed asset to the religious life of the Continent. Unaccustomed to the diocesan form of church organization which they found there, they tended to disregard it. Their bishops wandered about as they pleased, ordaining whom they would. Their monasteries were reluctant or entirely unwilling to accord jurisdiction to the diocesan bishops. Some of the peregrini were accused of holding and teaching erratic and heretical doctrines. Yet in the main the Irish made important contributions through their missionary labours among Christians and non-Christians.

One of the most striking and important territorial gains of Christianity during this period, both in its immediate and its long-term results, was the conversion of the pagan peoples of the island of Great Britain. We have noted that Britain was part of the Roman Empire and that before the end of the fifth century the large majority of the population who had conformed to Latin culture had also accepted the Christian faith. It was in this Christian Britain that Patrick had been reared and from it that he went as a missionary to

Ireland. However, not all the population of the island had adopted the Christian name. North of the Roman limes, in the later Scotland, were areas which had not been won to the faith and perhaps had not even been touched by it. Moreover, and more significantly, Germanic peoples, mainly Angles and Saxons, all of them pagans, had settled in the eastern portions of the island and had been formed into a number of petty kingdoms. The descendants of the Roman provincials, Christians, had moved to the western parts of the island or to Britanny or had been killed off.

In the sixth and seventh centuries within the span of approximately a hundred years the conversion of these Germanic settlers, the English as we had best call them, was accomplished. In it the British Christians in the west of the island had little or no part. Presumably their clergy were not concerned to give the Gospel to these invaders and chronic enemies. The missionaries were from two sources, Ireland and Rome. Both began their labours late in the sixth century. These gain added significance from the fact that in the seventh and eighth centuries English missionaries had a large share in the conversion of Germany and in the improvement of the Christianity of the Carolingian realms and that in recent centuries British Christianity, mainly that of England and Scotland, has been carried to much of the world.

The Irish missionaries to the English were largely associated with the names of Columba (also known as Columcille) and Iona. Columba was born in Ireland, of royal blood, probably in 521, and so was an older contemporary of Gregory and Columban. He seems early to have dedicated himself to the monastic life and in due time was ordained deacon and priest. He was never a bishop. In 562 or 563, when in the full vigour of middle life, moved, so his friend and biographer says, by "the love of Christ," he left Ireland with twelve companions and established his headquarters on Iona, a rocky island about three miles long and about a mile and a half wide off the west coast of Scotland. He was a man of striking personality, a born leader, forceful, with quick wrath for injustice to the weak, with tenderness for the poor and for the brute creation, and with a simple and deep faith in God. He is said always to have been occupied — with study, prayer, writing, fasting, and watching. Iona was his centre and there he was head of the monastic community which he founded. From Iona he made frequent journeys, some to Ireland, but more in what is now the mainland of Scotland. In Scotland there were immigrant Scots from Ireland, Celtic and probably largely Christian. There, too, were other Celtic folk, Picts, many of them pagans. The Christian faith had already been planted among these Celts, partly by Ninian, a younger contemporary and warm admirer of Martin of Tours, in the fore part of the fifth century. Kentigern, probably the same as Mungo, a shadowy figure about whom little certain information has survived and whose headquarters are said to have been at Glasgow, had been active as a missionary in the north of Great Britain in the sixth century. Columba also won some of the Celtic folk of Scotland. His disciples told of miracles performed through him which had much to do with gaining respect for his teaching.

Long after Columba, the community at Iona carried on his tradition. It was from Iona, a generation or so after the death of the founder, that a notable contribution was begun cowards the conversion of some of the English. In a struggle for power in Northum-bria, one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the north of England, two princes of the blood royal took refuge on Iona and there were baptized. When one of them, Oswald, came into control in Northumbria, he asked Iona for a missionary for his people. Christianity had already been introduced into the kingdom by the Roman mission of which we are soon to speak, but it was to Iona that Oswald turned for a bishop. The first to be sent proved poorly adapted to the assignment, but the second, Aidan, was remarkably successful. To him Oswald gave headquarters on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast, larger than Iona but, like the latter, a convenient centre. Aidan travelled through the little kingdom mainly on foot, winning pagans, confirming believers, caring for the poor, ransoming slaves, and educating and ordaining priests. Aidan's successor, Finan, also from Iona, baptized the king and royal entourage of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the heart of England, and aided in the conversion of the East Saxons. Cuthbert, later Bishop of Lindisfarne, famous as a saint, had much to do with extending the work of conversion in the North. It was the English Bishop Wilfrid, educated on Lindisfarne, who was instrumental in bringing the South Saxons to the baptismal font and who directed the conversion of the Isle of Wight, said to have been the last of the "provinces" of Britain to be brought to the faith.

Quite apart from the stream which issued from Iona, there were other Irish who aided in the conversion of the English. To the monasteries of Ireland, too, went many English boys for education and training in the ascetic life.

The inauguration and initial direction of the Roman mission to the English were part of the enormous labours of Pope Gregory the Great. The members of this mission did not effect the conversion of as many of the English as did the Irish, but they brought the English Church into close fellowship with Rome and were the means of organizing it into the pattern of territorial dioceses and parishes which prevailed on the Continent.

How Gregory first became interested in the English we do not know. Oral tradition declares that before he became Pope he saw some lads in the slave market in Rome who attracted him by their fair bodies, fine hair, and winsome features. On inquiring, he was told that they came from Britain, that the population was pagan, and that the boys were Angles. "Right," he said, "for they have an angelic face and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven." When he learned that they were from the province of Deiri, he exclaimed, "Truly are they De ira, withdrawn from wrath and called to the mercy of Christ." When told that their king's name was ^lla he exclaimed, "hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts." The tradition went on to declare that Gregory offered himself to the Pope as a missionary to Britain, but that the Roman populace would not let him go.

Whether or not this story is true, Britain was traditionally within the patriarchate over which Gregory presided and, as we have seen, he sought to fulfil what he deemed his responsibility in various parts of that vast area. It is not strange that with his devotion and wide-ranging vision, as Pope he endeavoured to win its pagans to the faith and to give the church there an ecclesiastical organization. He seems to have redeemed some English slaves with the funds of the Church and he expressed himself as grieved that the British bishops were doing nothing for the conversion of their pagan neighbours.

To inaugurate the mission, Gregory chose men from the monastery which he had founded in his paternal mansion in Rome. It was a small company. Headed by Augustine, not lo be confused with the famous Bishop of Hippo, it set out from Rome in 596, a century after the baptism of Clovis and thirty-nine years before A-lo-pen brought the faith to China, at the other extreme of Eurasia. Here was to be a new kind of conquest of Britain from Rome. The contrast with that earlier one was striking. Across a valley from the monastery rose the Palatine Hill, with the remains of the palaces of the Cssars from which Britain had once been ruled. As a physical power Rome was now feeble. Yet this little band, unsupported by arms, was to inaugurate a conquest which was to continue centuries longer and have more enduring effects than had that which had been achieved and maintained by the legions. When the group reached Gaul they became terrified by the dangers in the way and Augustine returned to Rome to ask permission to discontinue the enterprise. Gregory sent him back with a kind but firm letter ordering them on.

Augustine and his band landed on the coast of the Kingdom of Kent, just across the English channel from the Continent. The King of Kent had a Christian wife, a Frank-ish princess, and with her was a Frankish bishop. After a little hesitation, the king gave the mission his consent to establish themselves in his capital, Canterbury, and turned over to them an existing church building, named for Martin of Tours. Before long he was baptized and thousands of his subjects followed him to the baptismal font. Augustine went to Aries, in the south of Gaul, for consecration as archbishop, and thus became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. At Canterbury Augustine began a monastery, using a pagan temple which had been given him by the King. Following the Benedictine rule, it became the prototype of many Benedictine houses in England.

Gregory kept in touch with the mission, sent it reinforcements, and counselled it through letters. He authorized Augustine to appoint twelve diocesan bishops and to place a bishop at York who, as the Christians increased in that region, should also become an archbishop and ordain twelve bishops. Thus was extended to England the diocesan system which had been developed on the Continent after the pattern of the Roman Empire. To this day Canterbury and York have remained the seats of the two metropolitans of the Church of England. Gregory advised the adaptation of ritual to local circumstances and counselled that pagan temples be transformed into churches rather than destroyed. With occasional reverses, the Roman mission was carried into portions of the case and north of England. While, as we have said, it did not win as many converts as did the Irish, it effectively forged a connexion between the Church in England with the Papacy which was not to be severed until the sixteenth century and then not completely.

Not at first did all the Christians in Great Britain submit to the hierarchy connected with Rome. Through tactlessness or ignorance Augustine antagonized the British bishops in the west of the island, sensitive as they already were because of the gulf between the Britons and the English and their long isolation from Rome. Differences in customs between those who received their faith through the Roman mission and those who obtained it through Ireland and Iona also caused divisions. Only gradually were these healed.

The English Church owed a great debt to Theodore of Tarsus. As his name indicates, he was from Asia Minor. He was in Rome when the death of an Englishman who had been sent there by the Kings of Kent and Northumbria for consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury left that post in urgent need of an occupant. Although then sixty-six years of age, he accepted the appointment (668), went to England and put the church in order. He was well educated in Greek and Latin and in secular and ecclesiastical literature. He found the church in a bad way, for a recent pestilence had carried off many of the clergy and populace and only three bishops were left. He travelled widely,

"the first bishop whom all the English Church consented to obey," created new dioceses, consecrated bishops, established a parish system, held synods which brought increasing conformity with Rome, spread the church music of Rome, trained men in Greek, Latin, the Bible, astronomy, and mathematics, and brought in stricter moral discipline. He lived until 690, or to the great age of eighty-eight. In his later years the Celts made a determined effort to regain control, for a time with some success, but his work had been well done and he is remembered as the real organizer of the Church in England.

Within less than a century after the arrival of Augustine, missionaries from the recently converted English were going to the Continent. There for several generations they led in the conversion of much of what are now Holland and Germany. They organized the Church there and tied it up solidly with Rome. Thus they justified the efforts which Rome had put forth on behalf of England. Two names stand out in the story, Willibrord and Winfrith or, as he is better known, Boniface.

Willibrord laboured in what is now Holland with his headquarters at Utrecht. He was by no means the first missionary in the later Belgium and Holland. Part of what is now Belgium had been in the Roman Empire and had been reached by missionaries before the fifth century, Irish peregrini and missionaries from the Frankish domains had been there and with much success. The English Bishop Wilfrid had preached among the Frisians while on one of his trips to Rome and had baptized many. Willibrord came from a devout English family and had his early training in a monastery at Ripon of which Wilfrid was the founder. When about twenty years of age he went to Ireland. In 600, then in his thirty-third year, he embarked for Frisia, after the Irish fashion with eleven companions, and established himself at Utrecht, by which the Rhine then flowed. He sought the aid of Pepin of Heristal and the latter, eager to extend Frankish power in that region, gave it to him. He also asked Papal support and in 695 or 696 was given archiepiscopal consecration in Rome, almost exactly a hundred years after Augustine had set out from the Eternal City on his hesitant mission to England. Quire understandably the Frisians connected Willibrord with Frankish imperialism and associated baptism with submission to Frankish rule. Baptisms decreased or increased with the ebb and flow of Frankish power. Yet until he was eighty-one Willibrord continued at his difficult task. He was aided by other missionaries from England, and while success was slow, by the time of his death he saw Christianity well established in the southern part of what is now the Netherlands.

Winfrith first came to the Continent to aid Willibrord. The precise year and place of his birth are not known, but the date was possibly 672 or 675 and the place not far from Exeter. In early childhood he expressed a wish to enter the monastic life, but only tardily won his father's consent. He received his training in monasteries near Exeter and Winchester and there displayed qualities of scholarship, Christian character, teaching ability, sound Judgement, and administrative skill which marked him out for distinction. In 716 he went as a missionary to the Frisians and for a time was at Utrecht. Because of unfavourable political conditions the door seemed closed and for a year and a half he was back in England. In 718 he once more left for the Continent and was never again to see his native land. He went first to Rome to obtain Papal approval for his mission. Winning it and now with the Latin name of Boniface, in 719 he went north, first to Germany and then, because of a change for the better for missions in Frisia, for three years he served under Willibrord, destroying pagan temples and building churches. Willibrord wished him for his successor, but Boniface declined, pleading as a reason his commission from the Pope and his conviction that only the Pope could appoint to the episcopate. He then went back to Germany. There he organized and purified the existing Christian communities and also won pagans to the faith. In Hesse he had the most spectacular success of his career. At Geismar, in the presence of a large number of hostile pagans, he began cutting down an ancient oak which was sacred to the god Thor. Before he had quite felled the tree a powerful blast of wind completed the demolition and the hoary giant, crashing, broke into four fragments. The pagan bystanders were convinced of the power of the new faith and from the timber Boniface erected an oratory to St. Peter.

Boniface commanded the confidence of successive Popes and by them was made bishop and then archbishop. By accepting appointment as bishop and archbishop from Rome and swearing allegiance to the Pope he strengthened the authority of the Papal see in the North. As archbishop Boniface was authorized by the Pope to found new episcopal sees. Through him these could also be tied to Rome.

The Carolingians committed to Boniface the task of reforming the Church in the Frankish domains. He kept in touch by letter with his friends in England and from that land and on the Continent recruited many helpers. He made much use of women. He was an indefatigable traveller, teaching, organizing, founding monasteries. Chief of his monastic foundations was Fulda, in the initiation of which he was aided by his disciple, Sturm. It followed the rule of Benedict and became the main centre of learning and theological education for much of Germany. Boniface was appointed Archbishop of Mainz. Under his leadership synods were held in the Frankish domains which sought to enforce the celibacy of the priests, to reduce the worldliness of the clergy, and to exalt the authority of diocesan bishops and reduce that of wandering bishops. Working under the authority of the Popes, Boniface did much to extend the Papal power in the Frankish domains. He reformed not only the Frankish Church but also the Church in Bavaria and in Thurin-gia. Boniface longed to go as a missionary to the Saxons who remained on the Continent.

Finally, in his old age, and by his own wish, Boniface returned to the Frisians, among whom he had spent his first missionary years, and there baptized thousands, destroyed temples, and erected churches. The end came, probably in June, 754, and as he would have wished. He had set a day for the confirmation of neophytes and had summoned them from far and wide to meet him on the banks of a river. There a band of pagans, apparently intent on plunder, fell upon him and his companions. Enjoining nonresistance on those about him, he was killed by the attackers. Humble, a man of prayer, self-sacrificing, courageous, steeped in the Scriptures, a born leader of men, affectionate, a superb organizer and administrator, he was at once a great Christian, a great missionary, and a great bishop. The Church in Germany owed him an incalculable debt. By the end of the eighth century the remainder of the pagan Frisians, for whom Boniface had given his life, had accepted Christian baptism.

Except the Scandinavians, the last of the Germanic peoples to be drawn into the Christian fold were the Saxons who had remained on the Continent after so many of their number had migrated to Great Britain. This was not strange. Their lands lay north of the Frisians and the Hessians and it was late when the Frankish boundaries were extended to include them. They long resisted conversion, fur they associated it with Carolingian imperialism. Several English missionaries laboured among them, and Boniface, armed with

Papal authority to proclaim the Gospel to them, pled for helpers from England. Due largely to English efforts, by the last quarter of the eighth century a small minority among the Saxons had been won.

The conversion of the bulk of the Saxons was through the vigorous use of armed force by Charlemagne. Charlemagne was determined to bring the Saxons into his realm and in 772 reduced much of the region to ostensible submission. As part of the process of integration under his rule he insisted upon baptism. He could not always be in the Saxon territories and during his absences repeated revolts broke out. As often as they occurred he returned with fire and sword. He did not depend entirely upon armed force. Many of the recalcitrant he moved into the Rhineland among a professedly Christian population, thus to facilitate their assimilation. He encouraged missionaries, many of them Anglo-Saxons, to come to these kinsfolk of theirs and baptize and instruct them. He divided the land into dioceses and had bishops set over them, thus giving the area a comprehensive ecclesiastical organization.

Here was the most naked use of armed force for the spread of the faith which Christianity had yet seen. It is pleasant to record that it did not go un-protested and that the boldest critic of whom we know was Alcuin, the English scholar who had been brought to court by Charlemagne to aid in the revival of learning of which we are to hear in a moment. He spoke out quite fearlessly and pled that adults be not baptized until they had been properly instructed and that tithes be not exacted of the newly converted.

Whether by force or by quiet instruction by missionaries, the Saxons became staunch adherents of their Christian profession. In the next period they were to become bulwarks of the faith.

Before the year 950 beginnings had been made in the conversion of the Scandinavians, that last wave of pagan invasion which was to scourge Western Europe. Willibrord made an effort to plant the faith in Denmark, but without success. The most notable pioneer among the Scandinavians was Anskar (or Ansgar; 801-865), who was a native of Flanders and is said to have been of Saxon stock. Anskar began his mission at the instance of the son and successor of Charlemagne, Louis, whose usual designation, the Pious, is evidence of his deep interest in Christianity. Like his father before him, but without his exuberant energy, Louis wished to extend the Frankish domains and to do so in close association with the spread of Christianity. To further his purpose, he had an archiepiscopal see created with Hamburg as its centre, later associated with Bremen, and had Anskar appointed to it and given Papal confirmation and the title of Papal legate for the North. Anskar was courageous, travelled widely, had some missionaries as helpers, and won a few converts. However, the majority of the Scandinavians were not as yet minded to become Christians. Independent, they especially spurned the suggestion of accepting the faith from agents of the Carolingians, for that would imply and might actually entail submission to rulers whose realms they were raiding. When, late in the tenth and in succeeding centuries, Scandinavia received baptism, it was under the leadership of its own princes and through missionaries from subject England from which nothing was to be feared politically.

Before 950 some of the Scandinavians who settled within "Christendom" accepted baptism. This was the case in England. It was also true in what came to be known as Normandy. Here the first Duke, known variously as Rollo, Hrolf, and Hrolfr, con cluded a treaty with the Carolingian king in 911 by which his holdings were given legal status and in return he and some of his followers agreed to be baptized. It was not until after 950, however, that the conversion of most of the Scandinavians was accomplished.

From the preceding summary, all too brief, of the conversion of the peoples of Western Europe, it will be seen how largely it was by mass movements of entire tribes or peoples, led by the chieftains or kings. As the numerical triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire had been completed by mass conversion encouraged and latterly enforced by the Emperors, so in these much smaller units which made up Western Europe in this period, that faith was adopted as the religion of the community, usually at the command or at least with the energetic assistance of the prince.

Here we must note the contrast between the theology officially held in the Church in the West and the practice, a contrast which was to continue down to our own day, not only in the Catholic Church of the West, but also in large wings of its major offshoot, Protestantism. The theology was Augustinian and in theory held that only through God's grace could any one be saved, that the recipients of grace were predestined and that presumably, as Augustine had held, their number was infallibly fixed. As a corollary of predestination all chosen by God would be saved through irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Those not chosen would not be saved, regardless of what they or others, such as missionaries, might attempt to do. In apparent contradiction of that conviction, whole tribes and peoples were baptized and given Christian instruction and the other ministries of the Church.

There seems to be no evidence that any of the missionaries were troubled by the paradox. If they were, they might have taken refuge in the findings of the Synod of Orange in 529, findings which had Papal approval and which held that by the grace transmitted through baptism all who had received that rite can, if they labour faithfully, do those things which "belong to the salvation of the soul." Since through mass conversions baptism was practically universal and was given in infancy to successive generations, it followed that all might be saved if they worked together with God, performing those things which were held to be commanded by Him through the Church.

That the Catholic Church acted on the assumption that this could be accomplished was evidence of a basic optimism which we are to see persisting in the West, both in that Church and in Protestantism. It was also in the Eastern Churches and particularly in the Greek wing of the Catholic Church. But here it was not so marked. That it was no stronger in the East may have been due to the greater obstacles which the churches there faced, nearer as they were to the heartland of Eurasia and to the vast populations of Asia. Especially did the prospect seem hopeless for those Christians who were confronted by Islam.

How far in these conversions in the West was the Gospel understood and really accepted? Could the professedly Christian communities be knit together into an inclusive fellowship exemplifying the basic Christian tie of love? Much of the alleged Christianity was obviously very superficial and quite without comprehension of the real import of the Gospel, However, most of the missionaries through whom the instruction was given were monks. That meant that they were in principle fully committed to the Christian faith and to carrying out thoroughly its precepts in their own lives. It is significant, moreover, that often second and even first generation converts became noted exemplars of the faith and that the nominal winning of the Anglo-Saxons had scarcely been completed before missionaries from England were going to the Continent. We find such characters as Willibrord and Boniface and scores of others whom we have not the space so much as to name who bear unmistakably the distinctive marks of Christian character and who as such were revered by many of their contemporaries, even though but few sought to emulate them.

These many tribal, embryonic national Christian communities possessed a common tie in the Church of Rome. The Popes were increasingly acknowledged as the visible head of the Church and to a greater or less extent exercised supervision. Rome was a centre of pilgrimage. From all over Western Europe the devout flocked to its churches and shrines. It was sadly shrunken from the days of its imperial splendour, but now was a period when nowhere in Western Europe were there cities of any size. Rome was impressive even in its ruins and it still possessed imposing churches and shrines sacred to the memories of the two greatest of the apostles, Peter and Paul. Here also were to be had miracle-working relics of saints and martyrs, to be carried back to the monasteries and churches of the several lands of Western Europe.

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