Evangelizing the Germanic and Slavic tribal peoples — 400-800 AD

A key period of church history as the gospel moved northward

The culture to be evangelized

In the opening of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul refers to the spiritual need of those peoples who were not a part of the Graeco-Roman cultural sphere. "Barbarians" is the way the King James Version translated the Greek label for those peoples living to the north of the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Other English Bible translators have used words like natives, local people, uncivilized people, non-Greeks, savages, and foreigners to translate that word in Romans 1:14. At any rate, warriors from the north eventually began to invade the crumbling Roman Empire and destroyed it with the fall of the city of Rome itself coming in 476 A.D.

It is fascinating to see that, among those peoples of central and northern Europe, the religion of the people to the south whom they had conquered became — in a relatively short period of time — the religion of the conquerors themselves. One might think that the opposite would have happened, that the Christianity of the Roman Empire would have given way to the gods of the conquering Germanic and Slavic tribes. Why, during the period from approximately 400 A.D. to 800 A.D., would the northern victor adopt the religion of the vanquished south?

Some keys to understanding the evangelization of the Germanic and Slavic peoples, a.k.a. "the barbarians" (which originally meant all non-Greek speaking peoples), can be found in their culture. At least two cultural factors facilitated the acceptance of Christianity by those peoples living to the north of the borders of the sphere of Graeco-Roman culture:

  1. The tribal composition of the barbarian groups
  2. The cultural disintegration that occurred upon the encounter with Greco-Roman world.

The tribal character of the Germanic cultures

The culture of central and northern Europe was tribal in nature. When a tribal chief or key elder embraced Christianity, mass conversions within that tribe often followed. Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette noted that, traditionally, religion among the barbarians "had been a community affair."1 So it was that when a Germanic tribe did become Christian, it often did so en masse. While this may make -- from our Western point of view -- for a certain superficiality of conversion, it does help us understand the dynamics of the conversion of the "non-Greek speakers" (the way "barbarian" was originally understood) in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries.

Cultural disintegration

Latourette asserts that as the barbarians militarily overran most of the Roman Empire, the barbarians' own way of life or cultures, "including their religions,"2 began disintegrating upon impact with what was left of Graeco-Roman civilization. Thus, Christianity did not find itself in head-to-head competition with entrenched religious beliefs tightly bound into a stable culture. Rather, Christianity found itself spilling into a developing vacuum.

The cultural disintegration came about, some anthropologists would say, because of the impact the "higher" culture had on the "lower" one. This is not a pejorative judgment. It is a recognition that the barbarians had not built cities. They didn't have the kind of art — painting and sculpture and ceramic work — that was characteristic of the Greco-Roman world. Reading and writing were almost unknown to the barbarians. As a barbarian culture encountered the Greco-Roman world which had all of the above things, the barbarian culture tended to disintegrate.

In this situation, Christianity may have made the rapid advances it did because it was able to serve as a positive force in spurring cultural advances. Latourette says, "As it won over the barbarian invaders from the north, Christianity became a major stimulus in stirring them to produce an advanced civilization."3 Thus, Christianity may have won relatively quick acceptance because it served as a catalyst in cultural rebuilding. Rather than being a destructive threat, Christianity had become a friend to the barbarians' culture. It was thus something to be embraced rather than fought against.

1 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1975) p. 404.
2 Ibid., p. 270
3 Ibid.,p.

Discussion questions

  1. Why do you think the northern victors adopted the religion of the conquered south during the period from approximately 400 A.D. to 800 A.D.?
  2. How did the tribal composition of the Germanic cultures facilitate the acceptance of Christianity?
  3. What role might cultural disintegration have played in the spread of Christianity among the Germanic and Slavic peoples?
  4. In what ways might it be said that Christianity served as a positive force in spurring cultural advances amongthe northern tribes?
  5. What are some things thata might lend credence to the idea that that the acceptance of Christianity by the barbarian tribes was largely a superficial conversion?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

The Vikings were next!

arrow pointing rightAfter the evangelization of the barbarian tribes, the gospel began moving into Scandinavia. [ more  ]

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