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, ...

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