Short Papers on Church History — Chapter 17

The Propagation of Christianity

Ninth Century

It is truly a great relief to the mind, both of writer and reader, to turn away from the dark and polluted regions of Rome, and trace for a little the silver line of God's saving grace in the spread of the gospel and in the devotedness of many of His servants. At the same time we must not expect much of Christ, or of what is called a clear gospel, in the testimony of the missionaries at this period. The state of Europe generally in the ninth century, compared with the nineteenth, must be considered, if our hearts would rise to God in gratitude for that day of small things.

The preference given to human writings above the scriptures was now the habit, at least wherever the influence of Rome prevailed. The Paulicians, probably, and others who were standing apart from the communion of Rome, maintained the authority of the word of God; but the Roman missionaries were instructed and bound to abide by the decisions of the fathers. The canons of councils, and the writings of the great doctors, were constantly appealed to, so that the sacred volume was completely overlooked. Long before this period the word of God had been treated as obscure, perplexed, and unfit for general reading. And so it has been considered by the Catholics from that day until now. Still, God was and is above all, and overrules all for His own glory, the spread of Christianity, and the salvation of sinners. "All that the Father giveth me," says Christ, "shall come to Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out:" on no consideration of country, period, education, or condition, will I cast out or reject. (John 6:37)

The Revival of Education

Although the sanguinary ambition and the dissolute life of Charlemagne forbid our thinking that he was possessed of any true christian principle, yet it is only fair to acknowledge that he was used of God for the advancement of education at home, and for the spread of Christianity abroad. Schools were erected, universities were founded, learned men were sought for in Italy, England, and Ireland, with the view of raising his subjects to a higher level of moral, religious, and intellectual attainments. Towards the close of his long reign he was surrounded in his royal residence at Aixla-Chapelle by literary men from all countries. The scholars, grammarians, and philosophers of the time were welcomed in the great Hall of Audience. But chief amongst these was our countryman, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Alcuin, a native of Northumbria, and tutor to the imperial family.

Alcuin was the most important, both for his learning and for the extent of his labours as a teacher among the Franks. But what is of still more importance, he seems to have had some correct thoughts of Christianity. He often remonstrated with the Emperor against the enforcement of tithes from the newly-converted Saxons, and against the compulsory and indiscriminate administration of baptism. "Instruction," he said, "should first be given on the great heads of christian doctrine and practice, and then the sacrament should follow. Baptism may be forced on men, but faith cannot. Baptism received without faith or understanding by a person capable of reason is but an unprofitable washing of the body."*

{*Robertson, vol. 2, p. 131.}

How refreshing to the spirit, and how truly thankful we are to find such plain, honest, dealing with the great Emperor. It shows us that the Lord had His witnesses at all times and in all places. Let us hope that he may have been used of the Lord for the spread of the truth and the blessing of souls in those higher circles.

The end of the great Charles was drawing nigh. Though he had surrounded himself with literature, music, and everything that could please and gratify his every taste and passion; and though, it is said, his antechambers were filled with the fallen monarchs of conquered territories, waiting to supplicate his favour, or seek restoration to their lawful dominions; he must yield to the stroke which none can turn aside. He died on the 28th of January 814, at the advanced age of seventy-two, and after a long reign of forty-three years. He appointed his son, Louis, as his successor.

Louis The Pious

There can be little doubt that Louis, surnamed the Pious, was a sincere and humble Christian. But there never was a man in such a false position as the meek and gentle Louis when the empire fell into his hands. He lived till the year 840. But his life is one of the most touching, tragical and pitiful, in the annals of kings. There was something like universal rebellion when the principles of his government were known. He was too gentle and scrupulous for his soldiers; much too pious for his clergy. Bishops were prevented from wearing sword and arms, or glittering spurs on their heels. The monks and nuns found in him a second St. Benedict. The license of his father's court speedily disappeared from the sacred precincts of his palace; but he was far too easy in the discipline of his sons. Such true piety, as may easily be imagined, was only turned into ridicule, and could not long be borne with. He was deserted by his soldiers, whose wealth arose from plundered enemies; his sons, Pepin, Louis, and Lothaire, were more than once in arms against him. The clergy, who ought to have surrounded the fallen monarch with their sympathy in the day of adversity, only took occasion to show their power by degrading him to the depths of a cloister; and, to give a fair appearance to their injustice, he was forced by the priests to confess sins of which he was entirely innocent. Siding with his rebellious son, Lothaire, a man of cruelty, yet fearing to sanction his taking the life of his father, they — the son and the priests together — determined to incapacitate the king by civil and ecclesiastical degradation for the exercise of his royal authority. He was compelled to do public penance for alleged crimes; his royal armour and his imperial apparel he was forced to lay on the altar of St. Sebastian, and to put on a dark mourning robe.*

{*For details, see Milman's Latin Christianity, vol. 2.}

But the pride of his nobles was insulted by this display of ecclesiastical presumption, and the nation wept at the fate of their good and gentle Emperor. A reaction was inevitable. Indignant at his treatment, the people demanded his restoration. He was taken from the monastery, re-robed and restored, but only to experience a deeper humiliation. He was at length rescued by the hand of divine mercy from the unnatural conduct of his sons, and from the pitiless persecution of the clergy, who cared only for the display and the establishment of their own power. With a crucifix pressed to his bosom, his eyes lifted up to heaven, and breathing forgiveness to his son Louis, who was then in arms against him, he departed this life, to be with Christ, which is far better. (Phil. 1:23)

The Conversion of the Northern Nations

The spread of the gospel towards the northern extremities of Europe, during the ninth and tenth centuries has been so fully detailed in the general histories, that we shall do little more than name the principal places, and the chief actors, in connection with the good work. But we rejoice to trace the footsteps of those self-denying missionaries, in the very heart of Satan's kingdom, where for centuries he had reigned undisturbed. We have already seen that the sword of Charlemagne had opened the way to the Frieslanders, Saxons, Huns, and other tribes.

In the early part of the reign of his son Louis, the gospel was introduced among the Danes and Swedes. Disputes, as to the throne of Denmark, between Harold and Godfrid, led Harold to seek protection from Louis. The pious Emperor thought this might be a convenient opportunity for the introduction of Christianity among the Danes. He therefore promised Harold assistance on condition that he would embrace Christianity himself and admit preachers of the gospel into his country. The king accepted the terms, and was baptized at Mentz, A.D. 826, together with his queen and a numerous train of attendants. Louis was sponsor for Harold, the empress for his queen, Lothaire for his son; and sponsors of suitable rank were found for the members of his train. Thus Christianized, as was thought in those days, he returned home, taking two teachers of Christianity with him. And lest Harold might not regain his kingdom, Louis assigned to him an estate in Friesland.

Ansgarius and Auberg, the two French monks that accompanied them, laboured with great zeal and success; but Aubert, a monk of noble birth, died in two years, amidst the toils of the missionary.

The indefatigable Ansgarius, on the death of his fellowlabourer, went over to Sweden. He was equally happy and successful in his work there. In 831 Louis rewarded his great labours by making him archbishop of Hamburg, and of all the north. He had often great opposition to encounter, but he usually disarmed his persecutors by the goodness of his intentions and the uprightness of his conduct. He lived till the year 865, and laboured chiefly among the Danes, the Cimbrians, and the Swedes.

The Sclavonians Receive the Gospel

Some efforts were made about this time for the conversion of the Russians, Hungarians, etc., but the work of the gospel seems to have made little progress in these quarters until the conquest of Bohemia by Otho, in the year 950, or rather until the marriage of Vladimir, prince of the Russians, with Anna, sister of Basil, the Greek Emperor. He embraced the faith of his queen, lived to an extreme old age, and was followed in his faith by his subjects. The conversion of the Duke of Poland is also ascribed to the influence of a Christian queen. In those days the belief of the prince became the rule of his people, both in faith and practice, and the faith of the queen generally speaking, became the rule of the king. Hence the influence of the wife for good or for evil. This we may have noticed, especially from the days of Clotilda and Clovis. "There is a strange uniformity," says Milman, "in the instruments used in the conversion of barbarous subjects. A female of rank and influence, a zealous monk, some fearful national calamity no sooner do these three agencies coincide, than the heathen land opens itself to Christianity."

Bulgaria. The introduction of Christianity among the Bulgarians has been referred to in our notice of the Paulicians. They were a barbarous and savage people. Next to the Huns, the Bulgarians were the most hateful and most terrible to the invaded Europeans. The sister of Bogoris, their king, having been taken captive by the Greeks in her childhood, had been educated at Constantinople in the christian faith. After her redemption and return home, she was greatly affected by the idolatrous habits of her brother and his people. She seems to have been an earnest Christian, but all her appeals in favour of Christianity were little heeded, till a famine and a plague ravaged Bulgaria. The king was at length persuaded to pray to the God of the Christians. The Lord, in great mercy, stayed the plague. Bogoris acknowledged the goodness and power of the Christians' God, and agreed that missionaries should be allowed to preach the gospel to his people.

Methodius and Cyril, two Greek monks, distinguished for their zeal and learning, instructed the Bulgarians in the truths and blessings of the gospel of Christ. The king was baptized, and his people gradually followed his example. One hundred and six questions it is said, were sent by the king to the pope, Nicholas I. embracing every point of ecclesiastical discipline, of ceremonial observance, and of manners. The answers are said to have been wise and discreet, and fitted to mitigate the ferocity of a savage nation.

From Bulgaria the zealous missionaries visited many of the Sclavonian tribes, and penetrated into regions of unmingled barbarism. Their dialects were as yet unwritten. But these devoted men mastered the language of the country, and preached the gospel to the people in their native tongue. This was quite a new thing in those days, but heavenly Christianity brings in her train many precious gifts. The ordinary practice of the time was to preach and teach in the ecclesiastical languages — Greek and Latin; indeed complaints were made to the pope of the novelty of worshipping in a barbarous tongue, but the scruples of the pontiff were overcome with the reasons assigned by the missionaries, nevertheless the controversy was renewed in after ages, as some foolishly thought that it was a desecration of the church services to be celebrated in a barbarous tongue. Cyril is said to have invented an alphabet, taught the rude people the use of letters, translated the liturgy and certain books of the Bible into the dialect of the Moravians. Who can tell what the effect of Cyril's work may have been down to the present day? The king of Moravia was baptized, and, as usual in those times, his subjects followed his example. The province of Dalmatia, and many others, hitherto in gross darkness, received the gospel during the ninth and tenth centuries!

The Flowing Stream of Life

How good of the Lord, the great Head of the church, to send forth into many and distant lands the living waters of the sanctuary, when Rome, the centre of Christendom, was stagnant and corrupt. At that very time, Baronius, the famous annalist of the Roman church, and whose partiality to the See of Rome is notorious, cries out, "How deformed, how frightful, was the face of the church of Rome! The holy See was fallen under the tyranny of two loose and disorderly women, who placed and displaced bishops as their humour led them, and (what I tremble to think and speak of) they placed their gallants on St. Peter's chair," etc. Referring to the same period, Arnold, bishop of Orleans, exclaims, "O miserable Rome! thou that didst formerly hold out so many great and glorious luminaries to our ancestors, into what prodigious darkness art thou now fallen, which will render thee infamous to all succeeding ages."*

{*As given by Du Pin, vol. 2, p. 156.}

While such was the state of Rome, the capital of the corruptress, Jezebel, the vital stream of eternal life from the exalted Saviour, was flowing freely in the extremities of the empire. Many nations and tribes and tongues had received the gospel with the many blessings it brought to them. Doubtless it was encumbered with many superstitions; but the word of God so far, and the name of Jesus, had been introduced among them; and the Spirit of God can work wonders with that most blessed name, and that most precious word. The Saviour was preached; the love of God and the work of Christ seem to have been taught with a divine unction which carried conviction to the rude barbarians. It was God's own work, and the accomplishment of His own purposes. In such a case would not Paul have said, "I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice?" (Phil. 1:18)

England, Scotland, and Ireland

Before closing our brief notice of the doings of the Lord at this time, we will notice a few names which indicate the state of things in our own country.

Of the glory of Alfred's reign it is needless to say much. With some historians he comes up to the conception of a perfect sovereign. At any rate, we may say, he was a true christian king, and was made a blessing both to the church and the world. His successful war with the Danes; his rescuing England from a return to barbarism; his encouragement of learning and learned men; his own abundant labours; his christian faith and devotedness, are well known to all who are acquainted with English history. He succeeded his father in 871 at the age of twenty-two, and reigned thirty years. Thus the ninth century, which opened with the great days of Charlemagne, closed with the far more glorious days of Alfred, probably the most honoured name in mediaeval history.

Clement, a pious ecclesiastic of the Scotch church, appeared in the centre of Europe about the middle of the eighth century, as a preacher of evangelical doctrines. History speaks of him as a bold and fearless defender of the authority of the word of God, in opposition to Boniface, the champion of tradition and the decisions of councils. It may throw light on the condition of Christendom, and the history of the church, to view these two missionaries as the representatives of two systems; namely, the great human organization of Rome, and the remaining scriptural Christianity of Scotland.

Alarmed at the boldness of Clement, Boniface, then archbishop of the German churches, undertook to oppose him. He confronted the Scotchman with the laws of the Roman church, the decisions of various councils, and the writings of the most illustrious fathers of the Latin church. Clement replied that no laws of the church, no decisions of councils, or writings of the fathers, that were contrary to the Holy Scriptures, had any authority over Christians. Boniface then appealed to the invincible unity of the Catholic church with its pope, bishops, priests, etc., but his opponent maintained that there only, where the Holy Spirit dwells, can be found the spouse of Jesus Christ.

Boniface was confounded. Fair means had failed; foul must be used. Clement was condemned as a heretic by a council met at Soissons in March, 744. He was afterwards ordered to be sent to Rome under a sure guard. The further history of Clement is unknown, but it is easy to conjecture what must have been his fate.

It is said by some that Clement held strange notions as to our Lord's descent into hades, on the subject of marriage, and predestination, but little reliance is to be placed on the statements of his enemies. Boniface appeared in court as his adversary, accuser, and judge. Rather let us hope that he was a true representative of the ancient faith of his country. But we must not suppose that Clement was the only one who appears in contest with the Roman missionaries at this period of our history. From time to time we find such witnesses for the truth openly testifying against the pretensions of Rome. Certain Scotchmen, who called themselves bishops, were condemned in a council at Chalons, in the year 813. But clerical forms having taken the place of the word of God, enlightened and faithful men were condemned as heretics.

John Scot Erigena, a native of Ireland, who resided chiefly in France, and at the court of Charles the Bald, is said by Hallam to have been, in a literary and philosophical sense, the most remarkable man in the dark ages. But he was more of a philosopher than a theologian, though he wrote largely on religious subjects, and appears to have belonged to some order of the clergy. He had studied the early fathers and the Platonic philosophy, and was too much inclined to favour human reason, even in the reception of divine truth. But, according to D'Aubigné, there appears to have been real piety in his heart. "O Lord Jesus," he exclaimed, "I ask no other happiness of Thee, but to understand, unmixed with deceitful theories, the word that Thou hast inspired by Thy Holy Spirit! Show Thyself to those who seek for Thee alone." He is supposed to have died about the year 852.

The Irish divines in the eighth century held so high a character for learning, that the literary men invited by Charlemagne to his court were chiefly from Ireland. Until the time of Henry II., king of England, the church of Ireland continued to assert its independence of Rome, and to maintain its position as an active, living, branch of the church of Christ, and owning no earthly head. But from this period the original Irish church, with its high reputation, completely disappears.

The Northmen

Were it not that we believe these powerful enemies of Christianity — the Northmen, or pirates from the regions of the North — were instruments in God's hands for the punishment of the apostate church of Rome, it would not be in our way to have introduced them. But as they appear to be nothing short of the judgment of God against the overgrown worldliness of every order of the Catholic priesthood, we may give them a brief notice.

Originally they came from the shores of the Baltic, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Probably they were a mixture of Goths, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Frisians. But though composed of so many different tribes, they were ali agreed as to their main object — plunder and slaughter. Their petty kings and chieftains were practised pirates, and the most daring that ever infested the seas or the shores of Western Christendom. They pushed their light boats up the rivers as far as they could go, burning, slaying, and plundering wherever they went.

"From the shores of the Baltic," says Milman, "from the Scandinavian islands, from the gulfs and lakes, their fleets sailed on, wherever the tide or the tempest might drive them. They seemed to defy, in their ill-formed barks, the wildest weather; to be able to land on the most inaccessible shores, to find their way up the narrowest creeks and shallowest rivers; nothing was secure, not even in the heart of the country, from the sudden appearance of these relentless savages." They have been called "the Arabs of the sea," but, unlike the Mahometans, they did not wage a religious war. They were ferocious heathens, and their gods, like themselves, were warriors and pirates. Plunder, not the propagation of a faith, was their object. The castle or the monastery the noble lord, the bishop, or the monk, were alike in their eyes, provided a rich booty could be obtained. The religious estates, especially in France, suffered the most. The wealth and the defenceless position of the monasteries, pointed these out as the chief objects of their attack.

A day of retribution had come. God's hand was sore upon those who called themselves His people. His wrath seemed to burn. The church had now to pay dearly for her worldly greatness and glory. It had been her ambition for centuries and Charlemagne had raised the clergy to great wealth and worldly honour. But, scarcely had they been seated in their palaces, when the tide of barbaric invasion began to desolate the empire, and lay waste the religious edifices. The richer the abbey, the more tempting the prey, and the more remorseless the sword of the barbarian. Ignorant of the different orders of clergy, they massacred indiscriminately. Fire and sword were their weapons throughout their whole career. "France was covered with bishops and monks, flying from their ruined cloisters, their burning monasteries, their desolate churches, bearing with them the precious relics of their saints, and so deepening the universal panic, and preaching despair wherever they went."

To purchase repose from the warlike Nommans, who forced their way up the Seine, and for two years besieged the city of Paris, Charles the Simple, of France, ceded the duchy of Normandy to their leader Rollo in 905. Thus the pirate of the Baltic assumed the Christian religion, became first Duke of Normandy, and one of the twelve peers of France. William, conqueror of England in 1066, was the seventh Duke of Normandy.

England, like France, was greatly harassed and desolated by the Northmen. The first descent, which was severely felt, was about the year 830. From that time these invasions were incessant. And here, as in France, they found the richest booty in the defenceless monastery. The sanctuaries were wasted with fire and sword. At length, after the victory gained by Alfred over Guthrum in 878, a large territory was ceded to the Danes in the East of England, on condition of their embracing Christianity, and living under equal laws with the native inhabitants. But the peace thus obtained was only for a time.*

{*Robertson, vol. 2, p. 360.}

The Supposed End of the World

No period in church history, or perhaps in any history, or in any country, presents a darker picture than christian Europe at the close of the tenth century. The degradation of the papacy, the corrupt state of the church within, and the number and power of her enemies without, threatened her complete overthrow. Besides the unbelieving Mahometans in the East, and the pagan Northmen in the West, a new enemy the Hungarians — burst unexpectedly upon Christendom. In the strong language of history, they seemed as hordes of savages, or wild beasts, let loose upon mankind. Their source was unknown, but their numbers appeared inexhaustible. Indiscriminate massacre seemed their only war law: civilization and Christianity withered before their desolating march, and all mankind were panic-stricken.

In addition to these appalling calamities, famines prevailed and brought plague and pestilence in their train. The most alarming signs were supposed to be seen in the sun and the moon. The prediction of our Lord seemed to be accomplished: "And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken." But, though these words fitly describe the state of things then, the prophecy was far from being fulfilled; as our Lord immediately adds, "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." (Luke 21:25-27)

But if ever man might be forgiven the dream of believing that the end of the world was come, it was then. The clergy preached it, and people believed it, and it rapidly spread over all Europe. It was boldly promulgated that the world would come to an end when a thousand years from the Saviour's birth were expired. From about the year 960 the panic increased, but the year 999 was looked upon as the last which any one would ever see. This general delusion, through the power of Satan, was founded on a total misunderstanding and false interpretation of the prophecy concerning the millennial reign of the saints with Christ for a thousand years. "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years." (Rev. 20:1-7)

The Year Of Terror

The ordinary cares and employments of this life were given up. The land was left untilled; for why plough, why sow, when no one would be left to reap? Houses were allowed to fall into decay; for why build, why repair, why trouble about property, when a few months will put an end to all terrestrial things? History was neglected; for why chronicle events, when no posterity was expected to read the records? The rich, the noble, the princes, and bishops, abandoned their friends and families, and hastened to the shores of Palestine, in the persuasion that Mount Zion would be the throne of Christ when He descended to judge the world. Large sums of money were given to churches and monasteries, as if to secure a more favourable sentence from the supreme Judge. Kings and emperors begged at monastery doors, to be admitted as brethren of the holy order; crowds of the common people slept in the porches of the holy buildings, or at least under their shadow.

But in the meantime the multitudes must be fed. The last day of the thousand years had not yet arrived. But food there was none, corn and cattle were exhausted, and no provision had been made for the future. The most frightful extremities were endured, far too revolting to be repeated here. But the day of doom drew nearer and nearer. The last evening of the thousand years arrived: a sleepless night for all Europe! Imagination must fill up the doleful picture. But in place of some extraordinary convulsion, which all were tremblingly waiting for, the night passed away as other nights had done, and in the morning the sun shed forth his beams as peacefully as ever. The amazed but now relieved multitudes began to return to their homes, repair their buildings, plough, sow, and resume their former occupations.

Thus closed the first thousand years of the church's history; the darkest day in the reign of Jezebel, and in the annals of Christendom.