Evangelizing the Vikings, 800-1200 AD

Important periods in Christian missions history

Church history: An emerging pattern

The 700s 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 people viewed as 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 the process of instruction, baptism, and discipleship training was 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 Christian missionaries for subject peoples. The lack of suspicion that 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. About 75% of our world membership lives in countries other than the U.S., Canada, and the British Isles. Yet, a large part of our missionary force carries passports from those three countries. Fortunately, there is interest in the top leadership to increase the percentage of Nazarene missionaries from other countries.5 [Note: By 2021, we arrived at the point where Nazarene missionaries were being sent out from about 60 different countries. ]

May the Lord continue to guide us as we learn lessons from the entire history of the expansion of Christianity.

Discussion questions

  1. Do you think the tribal nature of Viking cultures contributed to their conversion en masse to Christianity?
  2. In what ways did royal initiative play a role in the eventual triumph of Christianity in Viking lands?
  3. How did the repeated invasions of England by Vikings contribute to the spread of Christianity in Scandinavia?
  4. How does the Viking evangelism pattern differ from the pattern of evangelism during the Western colonial period?
  5. What lessons can modern-day missionary sending agencies learn from the history of Christian missions to the Vikings and Germanic peoples?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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

Afterword: An Overview

The Christian evangelization of the Vikings between 800 to 1200 AD was a multifaceted and complex process marked by both coercion and cultural exchange. Initially, Vikings encountered Christianity through raids on monasteries, where they plundered wealth and encountered Christian texts and artifacts. However, as Viking communities settled in areas like England, Ireland, and Francia (an area of modern-day France), they were gradually exposed to Christian teachings through interactions with local populations and through the efforts of missionaries sent by rulers like Charlemagne and Alfred the Great.

These missionaries often faced significant challenges, as the Vikings adhered staunchly to their pagan beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, by the 11th century, conversion efforts gained traction, facilitated by alliances between Viking leaders and Christian rulers, such as the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. The establishment of Christian kingdoms in Scandinavia, like Norway under Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf II, signaled a significant shift towards Christianity among the Vikings. Moreover, the conversion of Viking leaders and the integration of Christian elements into Viking culture contributed to the gradual acceptance of Christianity among the broader Viking populace, ultimately leading to the Christianization of Scandinavia by the end of the 12th century.

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