THE CHURCH MOVES WEST 

One factor  adding to the Roman bishop's power was westward expansion. During and immediately after Constantine's reign, most Christians lived in the east. Four of Christianity's five major centers were located there: Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople. From the sixth century on, however, Christianity moved west.

Let's survey western Europe and look at church growth. Through the early Middle Ages three inter-related factors contribute to Christianity's growth. I want to present those three factors to you on this page, looking at representative individuals. Before I begin, let me emphasize that each of these three factors are mutually inclusive.

I. Missionary Endeavors

During the early Middle Ages, most active missionary work originated in Ireland. The Irish church grew from the work of a British missionary known as St. Patrick. No one knows exactly when Christianity came to Britain, but archaeologists discovered one of the earliest known church buildings there. The first really solid indication of British churches "relates to the presence of three bishops from London, York, and Lincoln who attended the Council of Arles in southern France in 314."

Irish raiders captured Patrick as a youth enslaving him for six years. He escaped and wandered for several years in Italy and Gaul. Throughout his enslavement, Patrick experienced various dreams. He interpreted one of these dreams as a "Macedonian Call" to return to Ireland with the Gospel. Returning to Ireland about 432, he labored there until his death in 461. By 442 he had centered his work in Armagh. Speaking of Patrick's work, Stephen Neill said:

Ireland at that time was almost wholly, if not entirely, a heathen country; Patrick writes of his journeys to regions 'where never any one had come to baptize, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people.' He encountered much opposition--from the representatives of the old religion, from the kings whom he tried to convert, from British raiders who disrupted his work and massacred his converts. But he outlived his enemies and wore down the opposition; at the time of his death Ireland was largely a Christian country.

Ireland itself became a mission sending country. Columba stands out as one of the more important Irish missionaries. A man of royal birth from Donegal, he first spent half of his life preaching in Ireland. At age 42 he crossed to the British Isle where he established a monastery on the island of Iona just off the Scottish coast. The monastery on Iona became one of Europe's most famous missionary centers. From here Columba successfully evangelized most of Scotland. Even after his death at age 96 the monastery continued sending out missionaries for 200 years.

A year before Columba's death in 596, Gregory the Great sent Augustine and a party of 40 monks to Britain to evangelize the anglo-saxons. Knowing the British were fierce, Augustine and his party turned back while still in Gaul. Gregory ordered them on and they obeyed. Augustine successfully re-established Christianity in the Islands and Romanized the version already there.

British and Irish monks then took Christianity to Germany from Britain. Boniface (680-754), the greatest missionary of the period, was an English noble and a Benedictine monk. With difficulty he established Christianity among the northern Germans. Northern Germanic tribes worshiped Thor and Odin as a symbol of their independence from Christian rulers all around them. A turning point occurred when Boniface, in a dramatic gesture, cut down Thor's sacred oak at Geismar in Hesse. Germans believed Thor struck down anyone bold enough to approach the oak improperly. Neill said,

The oak was felled; nothing happened. The watchers were at once convinced that Boniface was right. . .the God he proclaimed was really stronger than the gods of their fathers.

What you see here is a genuine power encounter. In the German mind, Boniface's God proved more powerful that Thor.

II. People Movements

Strong active missionary enterprises from Ireland and Italy took the Gospel throughout Europe. Social and cultural factors provided a shortcut for Christianity. Without the shortcut, it could've taken years to establish Christianity there. I refer here to what church growth experts call "people movements." A people movement occurs when the people follow their rulers into Christianity. Northern Europeans were tribal cultures who followed their leadership. Barbarian chieftains or kings held the key to converting an area. These chieftains were war leaders. Each leader's right to rule came from an ancestry descended from the gods. Therefore, the king symbolically represented the people. Every tribal member held a kinship relationship to the king. Thus, the king or chieftain was not only their ruler but their high priest. When a king converted, the whole area opened up to conversion.

When Augustine, the missionary, reached Britain King Ethelbert welcomed him. Ethelbert had married Bertha, a Frankish Christian bride, and was somewhat unconvinced that Christianity was true. Still, he listened politely to the missionary. Because of his wife's persuasion, Ethelbert accepted Christianity within a year. Soon afterwards, his parliament also accepted Christianity and on a single day 10,000 were baptized.

An even more important conversion took place on the Continent in 493. The Franks originally settled along the Roman Empire's northern border during the middle of the fourth century. Of all the Germanic peoples pushing in upon the Empire, the Franks were the most crude and violent of the lot. They rejected Christianity; even Arian missionaries refused to work among them. Clovis, who came to the Frankish throne in 481, was the most important Frankish king of the period. In 493 Clovis married Clotilda of Burgundy, a Catholic Christian. Clotilda worked hard to convert him. At first her efforts met only limited success. When their first child died, Clovis remarked, "My gods would have saved him; yours has let him die." Not long after that incident, he heard the Gospel and when he heard the crucifixion narrative he drew his sword and remarked that Jesus would not have died had he and his soldiers been present. A turning point came for Clovis when he faced defeat on the battlefield. Like many, he pledged to become one of God's servants if he won. He did win and true to his vow, Clovis was baptized on Christmas Day, 496 along with 3,000 soldiers. His people soon followed him by the thousands.

Clovis's conversion is significant in two ways. First, Clovis became an orthodox Catholic Christian when most Germanic people adopted Arianism. The Franks successfully turned the Arian tide in northern Europe. Second, these Franks were not simple unlearned folk. They were, however, fierce and intemperate people who tended to be brutal to excess.

III. Enforced Conversion.

Successful missionary enterprises and people movements brought thousands into the faith. We must also mention the fact that where evangelism and persuasion failed, the sword succeeded. Thousands became Christians on threat of death.

After Clovis, the Frankish rulers were a weak lot. Weak Frankish leaders divided up the territory and leadership passed from kings to petty monarchs and feudal barons. By 687 the Frankish monarchy rested in caretaker hands. Finally, three rulers, known as "Mayors of the Palace," reversed feudal disunity among the Franks and ultimately grabbed power from Clovis's weak descendants. Pepin of Herstal is the first of these rulers. Charles Martel, who stopped the Muslim advance at Tours, is second. The third is Pepin the Short who ruled the whole Frankish kingdom by 747. Carloman succeeds Pepin but he died of natural causes and was followed by Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.

Charlemagne, who was born about 742, is a remarkable man. He never learned to write but he spoke several languages. When he became king at age 29, he set out to add territory to his kingdom. In a series of campaigns he defeated the Saxons, the Wends, the Avars and others living to the east of his territory. In January, 775 Charlemagne prepared his army for an invasion of Saxon territory. He took with him an army of monks as missionaries. According to Frank Littell:

Charlemagne conducted 18 campaigns against the Saxons (770-84): they and other tribes he defeated were baptized at the point of a sword.

After forcing conversions, Charlemagne brought Saxony under direct Frankish rule. Charlemagne ruled harshly because he believed the Saxons were rebellious and independent. He destroyed heathen religion and roughly imposed Christianity on them. Speaking of Charlemagne's actions, Friedrich Heer wrote:

The point of these measures is revealed by the imposition of the death penalty for refusing baptism; Christianity was to be imposed wholesale and by force, which involved destroying the whole apparatus of the pagan cult. Pagan priests were expropriated in favour of the church; their holdings went to their Christian successors, whose income was supplemented by a tithe of all produce.

Heer then remarked:

One effect of the harsh penalties intended to protect the church was to make Christianity appear even more bloodthirsty than the old pagan rites, which only rarely demanded men's lives.

I imagine most of us would object to the latter two methods. Conversion by sword usually produces nominal believers. Conversion without genuine personal belief results in compromise and a weakening of the faith.

We are back at one of our earliest problems. Is the church for the many or for the few? One thing I need to emphasize here is the fact that no matter how these people were brought into the church, the church did its best to nourish them and teach them the truth. This poses another question: Can peopled be "edified" to the point of genuine conversion, or should genuine conversion precede "edification?"

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