Christian missions history

Conversion of the Vikings, 800-1200 AD

Church history: An emerging pattern

    The 700's saw the emergence of fierce Viking raiding parties that pillaged and plundered much of western Europe. Not long after that, Christian missionaries began arriving in Scandinavia. Then, within about 400 years, Christianity had become the dominant religion in Viking lands.
     How was this possible? Through what means or patterns of evangelism were savage pirates transformed into Christians?
     Three main factors form what might be seen as the strategy employed to evangelize the Viking peoples. This strategy (or perhaps more correctly, "pattern") is similar in some aspects to what happened in the earlier evangelization of the Germanic peoples. [ read more ]
     1. The first aspect of the pattern is that in almost all of the Viking lands, "conversion was accomplished as a community affair by a kind of mass movement."1 Mass conversion that had been common in the Germanic or barbarian cultures happened here as well in part because of the tribal makeup -- and group decision-making process -- of Viking cultures.
     2. The second feature of the pattern in which the Vikings were won to faith in Jesus Christ was that in almost all areas "the eventual triumph of Christianity (came) through royal initiative."2 In these cases Christianity was not a grass-roots, popular movement which in the end captured the tribal leadership. Rather "people (were) brought to the faith en masse as the monarch's subjects rather than as individually responsible persons."3 It looks like Viking kings sought to ride the crest of the wave. Certainly, accepting Christianity helped these rulers solidify their political authority. After becoming Christians, almost all of them got the church to create archbishoprics over which the kings themselves exerted some control.
     3. The third feature of efforts to evangelize the Vikings was that instruction, baptism, and discipleship training were carried on largely by missionaries from England. The Vikings' repeated invasions of England brought them into close contact with already Christianized people. "Since the English were a subject people, the Scandinavians did not fear them militarily or politically."4 As a result, English missionaries were allowed to move about fairly freely in Scandinavian countries without being looked on with suspicion. As had been true with the barbarians, the religion of the conquered became that of the conqueror. The victor was preached to and baptized by the vanquished.
     This third feature of the Viking evangelism pattern is particularly interesting as one looks at what went on in the later Vasco de Gama period. The opposite thing happened then. During the Western colonial period, the dominant colonial powers furnished the Christian missionaries for subject peoples. The lack of suspicion which the early English missionaries encountered in Viking lands stands in contrast to the political opposition that Western missionaries have often encountered in third-and even second-world countries.
     For instance, my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, had two American missionaries imprisoned for a time in Mozambique when a Marxist government came to power when that country gained its independence from Portugal. One wonders if these missionaries would have been imprisoned if their sending base had been a country seen as politically less-threatening. A study of the evangelization of the Vikings (and of the Germanic peoples too) should give missionary sending agencies further encouragement to embrace the trend of developing a strong missionary force from third-world countries.
     I think of my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene. More than half of our world membership lives in countries other than the U.S., Canada and the British Isles. Yet, the overwhelming bulk of our missionary force carries passports from those three countries. Fortunately, there is interest in the top leadership for increasing this percentage.5
     May the Lord continue to guide us as we learn lessons from the entire history of the expansion of Christianity.


1 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 386.
2 Ibid.
3 William Richey Hogg, "The Rise of Protestant Missionary Concerns," The Theology of the Christian Mission, Gerald H. Anderson, ed. (New York:McGraw-Hill, 1961), p. 97
4 Latourette, op. cit.
5 Jerald Johnson, "Report of Department of World Missions" in Journal of the Nineteenth General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene (Meeting held in Dallas, Texas, June 20-25, 1976, no publisher given, p.474

The monks were missionaries!

NextContrary to what we often think, many Western Church (now Roman Catholic) monasteries were started as missionary training centers. [ read more ]

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