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Christian History Home > 1999 > Issue 63 > Conversion of the Vikings: Christian History Interview - Converting By the Sword

Conversion of the Vikings: Christian History Interview - Converting By the Sword
Why Christians used it, why it worked, and why it died.
interview with Richard Fletcher | posted 7/01/1999 12:00AM

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This issue, more than any other we've published, raises the awkward matter of forced conversions—"Be Christian or die." There's no sense in pretending this was an exceptional missionary tactic; for many centuries, it was the method of choice among Christian rulers and missionaries. The conversion of much of Europe and of Latin America is unimaginable without the sword.

It is not a pleasant aspect of our heritage, but one that nonetheless teaches us a great deal about human nature and what, in fact, solidifies Christian faith.

To explore this topic, Christian History spoke with Richard Fletcher, history professor at the University of York, England. Professor Fletcher has spent a lot of time researching medieval Europe, the era when forced conversions were the rule, and his The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Henry Holt, 1997) is one of the splendid results.

When did Christians first begin to use force to convert people?

Soon after the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine, though the first use of force was not designed to convert pagans but to correct dissident Christians. Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth century, was faced with a dissident sect, the Donatists. Augustine wanted to bring them back in the orthodox fold, and he agonized about whether it was permissible to use coercion to do so.

Eventually he decided it was, and one biblical text that persuaded him was the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24). A rich man gives a feast, and when no one he invites shows up, he tells his servants to go out and "Compel people to come in."

It isn't until the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne in the eighth century that we see force used to coerce conversions, specifically in the campaign against the Saxons.

Why did Charlemagne move in this direction?

First, the concept of Christian kingship had developed the previous century, and the duty of expanding Christendom, if necessary by force, became part of a king's duty. It's partly based on an Old Testament model of kingship.

Second, an adviser at the highest levels of Charlemagne's government pushed this particular policy. Scholars think the real hard-liner was a man named Lull, who was of Anglo-Saxon origin, had traveled with Boniface, and had succeeded Boniface as archbishop of Mainz. He'd given his life to the conversion of the Saxons, and nothing had worked. In essence he said to Charlemagne, "These stubborn people will never convert on their own. We've got to force them to submit."

This policy of using violence to motivate conversion in Saxony was not supported by all the king's advisers. Another Englishman at Charlemagne's court, Alcuin, had grave doubts. In the 790s, when the Franks conquered the Avars on the eastern frontier (in modern Hungary), Alcuin wrote letters to Charlemagne, saying essentially, "Don't make the same mistakes you made with the Saxons. You can't force Christianity upon people." There are some signs that Alcuin's advice was heeded; the proposals to convert the Avars by force were slightly toned down.

But by the 1300s, no one objects anymore. The chronicles of the Viking kings, for example, laud them for using the sword to convert pagans. What happened in medieval Europe to solidify this view?

Robert Moore, author of The Rise of the Persecuting Society, argues that from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, European Christian society became much less tolerant. This is the era when we see persecution of Jews and heretics, crusades against Muslims, and the increasing acceptance of forcible conversion—especially in the only area of Europe that remained unconverted: Scandinavia and the Baltic region. I don't agree with Moore's argument in all respects, but more people were being persecuted in Europe in 1250 than were in the Europe of 1050. That's a fact. One can't get away from it.

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