Vol. 4, Chapter II (Cont’d) – The Pupils of Boniface. Willibald, Gregory of Utrecht, Sturm of Fulda


Boniface left behind him a number of devoted disciples who carried on his work.

Among these we mention St. Willibald, the first bishop of Eichstädt. He was born about a.d. 700 from a noble Anglo-Saxon family and a near relative of Boniface. In his early manhood he made a pilgrimage to Rome and to the Holy Land as far as Damascus, spent several years among the Benedictines in Monte Casino, met Boniface in Rome, joined him in Germany (a.d. 740) and became bishop of Eichstädt in Bavaria in 742. He directed his attention chiefly to the founding of monasteries after the Benedictine rule. He called to his side his brother Wunnebald, his sister Walpurgis, and other helpers from England. He died July 7, 781 or 787. He is considered by some as the author of the biography of Boniface; but it was probably the work of another Willibald, a presbyter of Mainz.

Gregory, Abbot of Utrecht, was related to the royal house of the Merovingians, educated at the court, converted in his fifteenth year by a sermon of Boniface, and accompanied him on his journeys. After the death of Boniface he superintended the mission among the Friesians, but declined the episcopal dignity. In his old age he became lame, and was carried by his pupils to wherever his presence was desired. He died in 781, seventy-three years old.

Sturm, the first Abbot of Fulda (710 to Dec. 17, 779), was of a noble Bavarian family and educated by Boniface. With his approval he passed with two companions through the dense beech forests of Hesse in pursuit of a proper place for a monastery. Singing psalms, he rode on an ass, cutting a way through the thicket inhabited by wild beasts; at night after saying his prayers and making the sign of the cross he slept on the bare ground under the canopy of heaven till sunrise. He met no human being except a troupe of heathen slaves who bathed in the river Fulda, and afterwards a man with a horse who was well acquainted with the country. He found at last a suitable place, and took solemn possession of it in 744, after it was presented to him for a monastery by Karloman at the request of Boniface, who joined him there with a large number of monks, and often resorted to this his favorite monastery. “In a vast solitude,” he wrote to Pope Zacharias in 751, “among the tribes entrusted to my preaching, there is a place where I erected a convent and peopled it with monks who live according to the rule of St. Benedict in strict abstinence, without flesh and wine, without intoxicating drink and slaves, earning their living with their own hands. This spot I have rightfully secured from pious men, especially from Karloman, the late prince of the Franks, and dedicated to the Saviour. There I will occasionally rest my weary limbs, and repose in death, continuing faithful to the Roman Church and to the people to which I was sent.”

Fulda received special privileges from Pope Zacharias and his successors, and became a centre of German Christianity and civilization from which proceeded the clearing of the forests, the cultivation of the soil, and the education of youths. The number of Benedictine monks was increased by large re-enforcements from Monte Casino, after an Italian journey of Sturm in 747. The later years of his life were disturbed by a controversy with Lullus of Mainz about the bones of Boniface after his martyrdom (755) and by calumniations of three monks who brought upon him the displeasure of King Pepin. He was, however, reinstated in his dignity and received the remains of his beloved teacher which repose in Fulda. Charlemagne employed him as missionary among the Saxons. His bones were deposited in the convent church. Pope Innocent II. canonized him, A. D, 1139.


27. The Conversion of the Saxons. Charlemagne and Alcuin. The Heliand, and the Gospel-Harmony

Funk: Die Unterwerfung der Sachsen unter Karl dem Gr. 1833.

A. Schaumann: Geschichte des niedersaechs. Volkes. Goetting. 1839.

Boettger: Die Einfahrung des Christenthums in Sachsen. Hann. 1859.

W. Giesebrecht; Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserzeit, Vol. I. (1863), pp. 110 sqq.

Of all the German tribes the fierce and warlike Saxons were the last to accept the Christian religion. They differed in this respect very much from their kinsmen who had invaded and conquered England. But the means employed were also as different: rude force in one case, moral suasion in the other. The Saxons inhabited the districts of modern Hanover, Oldenburg, Brunswick, and Westphalia, which were covered with dense forests. They had driven the Franks beyond the Weser and the Rhine, and they were now driven back in turn by Charles Martel, Pepin, and Charlemagne. They hated the foreign yoke of the Franks, and far-off Rome; they hated the tithe which was imposed upon them for the support of the church. They looked upon Christianity as the enemy of their wild liberty and independence. The first efforts of Ewald, Suidbert, and other missionaries were fruitless. Their conversion was at last brought about by the sword from political as well as religious motives, and was at first merely nominal, but resulted finally in a real change under the silent influence of the moral forces of the Christian religion.

Charlemagne, who became master of the French kingdom in 768, had the noble ambition to unite the German tribes in one great empire and one religion in filial communion with Rome, but he mistook the means. He employed material force, believing that people become Christians by water-baptism, though baptized against their will. He thought that the Saxons, who were the most dangerous enemies of his kingdom, must be either subdued and Christianized, or killed. He pursued the same policy towards them as the squatter sovereigns would have the United States government pursue towards the wild Indians in the Western territories. Treaties were broken, and shocking cruelties were committed on both sides, by the Saxons from revenge and for independence, by Christians for punishment in the name of religion and civilization. Prominent among these atrocities is the massacre of four thousand five hundred captives at Verden in one day. As soon as the French army was gone, the Saxons destroyed the churches and murdered the priests, for which they were in turn put to death.

Their subjugation was a work of thirty-three years, from 772 to 805. Widukind (Wittekind) and Albio (Abbio), the two most powerful Saxon chiefs, seeing the fruitlessness of the resistance, submitted to baptism in 785, with Charlemagne as sponsor.

But the Saxons were not entirely defeated till 804, when 10,000 families were driven from house and home and scattered in other provinces. Bloody laws prohibited the relapse into heathenism. The spirit of national independence was defeated, but not entirely crushed, and broke out seven centuries afterwards in another form against the Babylonian tyranny of Rome under the lead of the Saxon monk, Martin Luther.

The war of Charlemagne against the Saxons was the first ominous example of a bloody crusade for the overthrow of heathenism and the extension of the church. It was a radical departure from the apostolic method, and diametrically opposed to the spirit of the gospel. This was felt even in that age by the more enlightened divines. Alcuin, who represents the English school of missionaries, and who expresses in his letters great respect and admiration for Charlemagne, modestly protested, though without effect, against this wholesale conversion by force, and asked him rather to make peace with the “abominable” people of the Saxons. He properly held that the heathen should first be instructed before they are required to be baptized and to pay tithes; that water-baptism without faith was of no use; that baptism implies three visible things, namely, the priest, the body, and the water, and three invisible things, namely, the Spirit, the soul, and faith; that the Holy Spirit regenerates the soul by faith; that faith is a free act which cannot be enforced; that instruction, persuasion, love and self-denial are the only proper means for converting the heathen.

Charlemagne relaxed somewhat the severity of his laws or capitularies after the year 797. He founded eight bishoprics among the Saxons: Osnabrück, Münster, Minden, Paderborn, Verden, Bremen, Hildesheim, and Halberstadt. From these bishoprics and the parochial churches grouped around them, and from monasteries such as Fulda, proceeded those higher and nobler influences which acted on the mind and heart.

The first monument of real Christianity among the Saxons is the “Heliand” (Heiland, i.e., Healer, Saviour) or a harmony of the Gospels. It is a religious epos strongly resembling the older work of the Anglo-Saxon Caedmon on the Passion and Resurrection. From this it no doubt derived its inspiration. For since Bonifacius there was a lively intercourse between the church of England and the church in Germany, and the language of the two countries was at that time essentially the same. In both works Christ appears as the youthful hero of the human race, the divine conqueror of the world and the devil, and the Christians as his faithful knights and warriors. The Heliand was composed in the ninth century by one or more poets whose language points to Westphalia as their home. The doctrine is free from the worship of saints, the glorification of Peter, and from ascetic excesses, but mixed somewhat with mythological reminiscences. Vilmar calls it the only real Christian epos, and a wonderful creation of the German genius.

A little later (about 870) Otfried, a Franconian, educated at Fulda and St. Gall, produced another poetic harmony of the Gospels, which is one of the chief monuments of old high German literature. It is a life of Christ from his birth to the ascension, and ends with a description of the judgment. It consists of fifteen thousand rhymed lines in strophes of four lines.

Thus the victory of Christianity in Germany as well as it, England, was the beginning of poetry and literature, and of true civilization,

The Christianization of North-Eastern Germany, among the Slavonic races, along the Baltic shores in Prussia, Livonia, and Courland, went on in the next period, chiefly through Bishop Otto of Bamberg, the apostle of Pomerania, and the Knights of the Teutonic order, and was completed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


III. The Conversion of Scandinavia

General Literature

I. Scandinavia Before Christianity

The Eddas, edit. Rask (Copenhagen, 1818); A. Munch (Christiania, 1847); Möbius (Leipzig, 1860).

N. M. Petersen: Danmarks Historie i Hedenold. Copenhagen, 1834-37, 3 vols.; Den Nordiske Mythologie, Copenhagen, 1839.

N. F. S. Grundtvig: Nordens Mythologie. Copenhagen, 1839.

Thorpe: Northern Mythology. London, 1852, 3 vols.

Rasmus B. Anderson: Norse Mythology; Myths of the Eddas systematized and interpreted. Chicago, 1875.


II. The Christianization of Scandinavia

Claudius Oernhjalm: Historia Sueonum Gothorumque Ecclesiae. Stockholm, 1689, 4 vols.

E. Pontoppidan: Annales Ecclesiae Danicae. Copenhagen, 1741.

F. Münter: Kirchengeschichte von Daenmark und Norwegen. Copenhagen and Leipzig, 1823-33, 3 vols.

R. Reuterdahl: Svenska kyrkans historia. Lund, 1833, 3 vols., first volume translated into German by E. T. Mayerhof, under the title: Leben Ansgars.

Fred Helweg: Den Danske Kirkes Historie. Copenhagen, 1862.

A. Jorgensen: Den nordiske Kirkes Grundloeggelse. Copenhagen, 1874.

Neander: Geschichte der christlichen Kirche, Vol. IV., pp. 1-150


28. Scandinavian Heathenism

Wheaton: History of the Northmen. London 1831.

Depping: Histoire des expeditions maritimes des Normands. Paris, 1843. 2 vols.

F. Worsaae: Account of the Danes in England, Ireland, and Scotland. London, 1852; The Danish Conquest of England and Normandy. London, 1863. These works are translated from the Danish.

Scandinavia was inhabited by one of the wildest and fiercest, but also one of the strongest and most valiant branches of the Teutonic race, a people of robbers which grew into a people of conquerors. Speaking the same language — that which is still spoken in Iceland — and worshipping the same gods, they were split into a number of small kingdoms covering the present Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Every spring, when the ice broke in the fjords, they launched their boats or skiffs, and swept, each swarm under the leadership of its own king, down upon the coasts of the neighboring countries. By the rivers they penetrated far into the countries, burning and destroying what they could not carry away with them. When autumn came, they returned home, loaded with spoil, and they spent the winter round the open hearth, devouring their prey. But in course of time, the swarms congregated and formed large armies, and the robber-campaigns became organized expeditions for conquest; kingdoms were founded in Russia, England, France, and Sicily. In their new homes, however, the Northern vikings soon forgot both their native language and their old gods, and became the strong bearers of new departures of civilization and the valiant knights of Christianity.

In the Scandinavian mythology, there were not a few ideas which the Christian missionary could use as connecting links. It was not absolutely necessary for him to begin with a mere negation; here, too, there was an “unknown God” and many traits indicate that, during the eighth and ninth centuries, people throughout Scandinavia became more and more anxious to hear something about him. When a man died, he went to Walhall, if he had been brave, and to Niflheim, if he had been a coward. In Walhall he lived together with the gods, in great brightness and joy, fighting all the day, feasting all the night. In Niflheim he sat alone, a shadow, surrounded with everything disgusting and degrading. But Walhall and Niflheim were not to last forever. A deep darkness, Ragnarokr, shall fall over the universe; Walhall and Niflheim shall be destroyed by fire; the gods, the heroes, the shadows, shall perish. Then a new heaven and a new earth shall be created by the All-Father, and he shall judge men not according as they have been brave or cowardly, but according as they have been good or bad. From the Eddas themselves, it appears that, throughout Scandinavian heathendom, there now and then arose characters who, though they would not cease to be brave, longed to be good. The representative of this goodness, this dim fore-shadowing of the Christian idea of holiness, was Baldur, the young god standing on the rainbow and watching the worlds, and he was also the link which held together the whole chain of the Walhall gods; when he died, Ragnarokr came.

A transition from the myth of Baldur to the gospel of Christ cannot have been very difficult to the Scandinavian imagination; and, indeed, it is apparent that the first ideas which the Scandinavian heathens formed of the “White Christ” were influenced by their ideas of Baldur. It is a question, however, not yet settled, whether certain parts of the Scandinavian mythology, as, for instance, the above myths of Ragnarokr and Baldur, are not a reflex of Christian ideas; and it is quite probable that when the Scandinavians in the ninth century began to look at Christ under the image of Baldur, they had long before unconsciously remodeled their idea of Baldur after the image of Christ.

Another point, of considerable importance to the Christian missionary, was that, in Scandinavian heathendom, he had no priesthood to encounter. Scandinavian paganism never became an institution. There were temples, or at least altars, at Leire, near Roeskilde, in Denmark; at Sigtuna, near Upsall, in Sweden, and at Moere, near Drontheim, in Norway; and huge sacrifices of ninety-nine horses, ninety-nine cocks, and ninety-nine slaves were offered up there every Juul-time. But every man was his own priest. At the time when Christianity first appeared in Scandinavia, the old religion was evidently losing its hold on the individuals and for the very reason, that it had never succeeded in laying hold on the nation. People continued to swear by the gods, and drink in their honor; but they ceased to pray to them. They continued to sacrifice before taking the field or after the victory, and to make the sign of the cross, meaning Thor’s hammer, over a child when it was named; but there was really nothing in their life, national or individual, public or private, which demanded religious consecration. As, on the one side, characters developed which actually went beyond the established religion, longing for something higher and deeper, it was, on the other side, still more frequent to meet with characters which passed by the established religion with utter indifference, believing in nothing but their own strength.

The principal obstacle which Christianity had to encounter in Scandinavia was moral rather than religious. In his passions, the old Scandinavian was sometimes worse than a beast. Gluttony and drunkenness he considered as accomplishments. But he was chaste. A dishonored woman was very seldom heard of, adultery never. In his energy, he was sometimes fiercer than a demon. He destroyed for the sake of destruction, and there were no indignities or cruelties which he would not inflict upon a vanquished enemy. But for his friend, his king, his wife, his child, he would sacrifice everything, even life itself; and he would do it without a doubt, without a pang, in pure and noble enthusiasm. Such, however, as his morals were, they, had absolute sway over him. The gods he could forget, but not his duties. The evil one, among gods and men, was he who saw the duty, but stole away from it. The highest spiritual power among the old Scandinavians, their only enthusiasm, was their feeling of duty; but the direction which had been given to this feeling was so absolutely opposed to that pointed out by the Christian morality, that no reconciliation was possible. Revenge was the noblest sentiment and passion of man; forgiveness was a sin. The battle-field reeking with blood and fire was the highest beauty the earth could show; patient and peaceful labor was an abomination. It was quite natural, therefore, that the actual conflict between Christianity and Scandinavian paganism should take place in the field of morals. The pagans slew the missionaries, and burnt their schools and churches, not because they preached new gods, but because they “corrupted the morals of the people” (by averting them from their warlike pursuits), and when, after a contest of more than a century, it became apparent that Christianity would be victorious, the pagan heroes left the country in great swarms, as if they were flying from some awful plague. The first and hardest work which Christianity had to do in Scandinavia was generally humanitarian rather than specifically religious.


29. The Christianization of Denmark. St. Ansgar

Ansgarius: Pigmenta, ed. Lappenberg. Hamburg, 1844. Vita Wilehadi, in Pertz: Monumenta II.; and in Migne: Patrol. Tom. 118, pp. 1014-1051.

Rimbertus: Vita Ansgarii, in Pertz: Monumenta II., and in Migne, l.c. pp. 961-1011.

Adamus Bremensis (d. 1076): Gesta Hamenburgensis Eccl. pontificum (embracing the history of the archbishopric of Hamburg, of Scandinavia, Denmark, and Northwestern Germany, from 788-1072); reprinted in Pertz: Monumenta, VII.; separate edition by Lappenberg. Hanover, 1846.

Laurent: Leben der Erzb. Ansgar und Rimbert. 1856.

A. Tappehorn: Leben d. h. Ansgar. 1863.

G. Dehio: Geschichte d. Erzb. Hamburg-Bremen. 1877.

H. N. A. Jensen: Schleswig-Holsteinische Kirchengeschichte, edit. A. L. J. Michelsen (1879).

During the sixth and seventh centuries the Danes first came in contact with Christianity, partly through their commercial intercourse with Duerstede in Holland, partly through their perpetual raids on Ireland; and tales of the “White Christ” were frequently told among them, though probably with no other effect than that of wonder. The first Christian missionary who visited them and worked among them was Willebrord. Born in Northumbria and educated within the pale of the Keltic Kirk he went out, in 690, as a missionary to the Frises. Expelled by them he came, about 700, to Denmark, was well received by king Yngrin (Ogendus), formed a congregation and bought thirty Danish boys, whom he educated in the Christian religion, and of whom one, Sigwald, is still remembered as the patron saint of Nuremberg, St. Sebaldus. But his work seems to have been of merely temporary effect.

Soon, however, the tremendous activity which Charlemagne developed as a political organizer, was felt even on the Danish frontier. His realm touched the Eyder. Political relations sprang up between the Roman empire and Denmark, and they opened a freer and broader entrance to the Christian missionaries. In Essehoe, in Holstein, Charlemagne built a chapel for the use of the garrison; in Hamburg he settled Heridock as the head of a Christian congregation; and from a passage in one of Alcuin’s letters it appears that a conversion of the Danes did not lie altogether outside of his plans. Under his successor, Lewis the Pious, Harald Klak, one of the many petty kings among whom Denmark was then divided, sought the emperor’s support and decision in a family feud, and Lewis sent archbishop Ebo of Rheims, celebrated both as a political negotiator and as a zealous missionary, to Denmark. In 822 Ebo crossed the Eyder, accompanied by bishop Halitgar of Cambray. In the following years he made several journeys to Denmark, preached, baptized, and established a station of the Danish mission at Cella Wellana, the present Welnau, near Essehoe. But he was too much occupied with the internal affairs of the empire and the opportunity which now opened for the Danish mission, demanded the whole and undivided energy of a great man. In 826 Harald Klak was expelled and sought refuge with the emperor, Ebo acting as a mediator. At Ingelheim, near Mentz, the king, the queen, their son and their whole retinue, were solemnly baptized, and when Harald shortly after returned to Denmark with support from the emperor, he was accompanied by that man who was destined to become the Apostle of the North, Ansgar.

Ansgar was born about 800 (according to general acceptation Sept. 9, 801) in the diocese of Amiens, of Frankish parents, and educated in the abbey of Corbie, under the guidance of Adalhard. Paschasius Radbertus was among his teachers. In 822 a missionary colony was planted by Corbie in Westphalia, and the German monastery of Corwey or New Corwey was founded. Hither Ansgar was removed, as teacher in the new school, and he soon acquired great fame both on account of his powers as a preacher and on account of his ardent piety. When still a boy he had holy visions, and was deeply impressed with the vanity of all earthly greatness. The crown of the martyr seemed to him the highest grace which human life could attain, and he ardently prayed that it might be given to him. The proposition to follow king Harald as a missionary, among the heathen Danes he immediately accepted, in spite of the remonstrances of his friends, and accompanied by Autbert he repaired, in 827, to Denmark, where he immediately established a missionary station at Hedeby, in the province of Schleswig. The task was difficult, but the beginning was not without success. Twelve young boys were bought to be educated as teachers, and not a few people were converted and baptized. His kindness to the poor, the sick, to all who were in distress, attracted attention; his fervor as a preacher and teacher produced sympathy without, as yet, provoking resistance. But in 829 king Harald was again expelled and retired to Riustri, a possession on the mouth of the Weser, which the emperor had given to him as a fief. Ansgar was compelled to follow him and the prospects of the Danish mission became very dark, the more so as Autbert had to give up any further participation in the work on account of ill health, and return to New Corwey. At this time an invitation from the Swedish king, Björn, gave Ansgar an opportunity to visit Sweden, and he stayed there till 831, when the establishment of an episcopal see at Hamburg, determined upon by the diet of Aix-le-chapelle in 831, promised to give the Danish mission a new impulse. All Scandinavia was laid under the new see, and Ansgar was consecrated its first bishop by bishop Drago of Metz, a brother of the emperor, with the solemn assistance of three archbishops, Ebo of Rheims, Hetti of Treves and Obgar of Mentz. A bull of Gregory IV. confirmed the whole arrangement, and Ansgar received personally the pallium from the hands of the Pope. In 834 the emperor endowed the see with the rich monastery of Thorout, in West Flanders, south of Bruges, and the work of the Danish mission could now be pushed with vigor. Enabled to treat with the petty kings of Denmark on terms of equality, and possessed of means to impress them with the importance of the cause, Ansgar made rapid progress, but, as was to be expected, the progress soon awakened opposition. In 834 a swarm of heathen Danes penetrated with a fleet of six hundred small vessels into the Elb under the command of king Horich I., and laid siege to Hamburg. The city was taken, sacked and burnt; the church which Ansgar had built, the monastery in which he lived, his library containing a copy of the Bible which the emperor had presented to him, etc., were destroyed and the Christians were driven away from the place. For many days Ansgar fled from hiding-place to hiding-place in imminent danger of his life. He sought refuge with the bishop of Bremen, but the bishop of Bremen was jealous, because Scandinavia had not been laid under his see, and refused to give any assistance. The revenues of Thorout he lost, as the emperor, Charles the Bald, gave the fief to one of his favorites. Even his own pupils deserted him.

In this great emergency his character shone forth in all its strength and splendor; he bore what God laid upon him in silence and made no complaint. Meanwhile Lewis the German came to his support. In 846 the see of Bremen became vacant. The see of Hamburg was then united to that of Bremen, and to this new see, which Ansgar was called to fill, a papal bull of May 31, 864, gave archiepiscopal rank. Installed in Bremen, Ansgar immediately took up again the Danish mission and again with success. He won even king Horich himself for the Christian cause, and obtained permission from him to build a church in Hedeby, the first Christian church in Denmark, dedicated to Our Lady. Under king Horich’s son this church was allowed to have bells, a particular horror to the heathens, and a new and larger church was commenced in Ribe. By Ansgar’s activity Christianity became an established and acknowledged institution in Denmark, and not only in Denmark but also in Sweden, which he visited once more, 848-850.

The principal feature of his spiritual character was ascetic severity; he wore a coarse hair-shirt close to the skin, fasted much and spent most of his time in prayer. But with this asceticism he connected a great deal of practical energy; he rebuked the idleness of the monks, demanded of his pupils that they should have some actual work at hand, and was often occupied in knitting, while praying. His enthusiasm and holy raptures were also singularly well-tempered by good common sense. To those who wished to extol his greatness and goodness by ascribing miracles to him, he said that the greatest miracle in his life would be, if God ever made a thoroughly pious man out of him. Most prominent, however, among the spiritual features of his character shines forth his unwavering faith in the final success of his cause and the never-failing patience with which this faith fortified his soul. In spite of apparent failure he never gave up his work; overwhelmed with disaster, he still continued it. From his death-bed he wrote a letter to king Lewis to recommend to him the Scandinavian mission. Other missionaries may have excelled him in sagacity and organizing talent, but none in heroic patience and humility. He died at Bremen, Feb. 3, 865, and lies buried there in the church dedicated to him. He was canonized by Nicholas I.

Ansgar’s successor in the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen was his friend and biographer, Rimbert, 865-888. In his time all the petty kingdoms into which Denmark was divided, were gathered together under one sceptre by King Gorm the Old; but this event, in one respect very favorable to the rapid spread of Christianity, was in other respects a real obstacle to the Christian cause as it placed Denmark, politically, in opposition to Germany, which was the basis and only support of the Christian mission to Denmark. King Gorm himself was a grim heathen; but his queen, Thyra Danabod, had embraced Christianity, and both under Rimbert and his successor, Adalgar, 888-909, the Christian missionaries were allowed to work undisturbed. A new church, the third in Denmark, was built at Aarhus. But under Adalgar’s successor, Unni, 909-936, King Gorm’s fury, half political and half religious, suddenly burst forth. The churches were burnt, the missionaries were killed or expelled, and nothing but the decisive victory of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany, over the Danish king saved the Christians in Denmark from complete extermination. By the peace it was agreed that King Gorm should allow the preaching of Christianity in his realm, and Unni took up the cause again with great energy. Between Unni’s successor, Adaldag, 936-988, and King Harald Blue Tooth, a son of Gorm the Old, there grew up a relation which almost might be called a co-operation. Around the three churches in Jutland: Schleswig, Ribe and Aarhus, and a fourth in Fünen: Odense, bishoprics were formed, and Adaldag consecrated four native bishops. The church obtained right to accept and hold donations, and instances of very large endowments occurred.

The war between King Harald and the German king, Otto II., arose from merely political causes, but led to the baptism of the former, and soon after the royal residence was moved from Leire, one of the chief centres of Scandinavian heathendom, to Roeskilde, where a Christian church was built. Among the Danes, however, there was a large party which was very ill-pleased at this turn of affairs. They were heathens because heathenism was the only religion which suited their passions. They clung to Thor, not from conviction, but from pride. They looked down with indignation and dismay upon the transformation which Christianity everywhere effected both of the character and the life of the people. Finally they left the country and settled under the leadership of Palnatoke, at the mouth of the Oder, where they founded a kind of republic, Jomsborg.

From this place they waged a continuous war upon Christianity in Denmark for more than a decade, and with dreadful effect. The names of the martyrs would fill a whole volume, says Adam of Bremen. The church in Roeskilde was burnt. The bishopric of Fünen was abolished. The king’s own son, Swen, was one of the leaders, and the king himself was finally shot by Palnatoke, 991. Swen, however, soon fell out with the Joms vikings, and his invasion of England gave the warlike passions of the nation another direction.

From the conquest of that country and its union with Denmark, the Danish mission received a vigorous impulse. King Swen himself was converted, and showed great zeal for Christianity. He rebuilt the church in Roeskilde, erected a new church at Lund, in Skaane, placed the sign of the cross on his coins, and exhorted, on his death-bed, his son Canute to work for the Christianization of Denmark. The ardor of the Hamburg-Bremen archbishops for the Danish mission seemed at this time to have cooled, or perhaps the growing difference between the language spoken to the north of the Eyder and that spoken to the south of that river made missionary work in Denmark very difficult for a German preacher. Ansgar had not felt this difference; but two centuries later it had probably become necessary for the German missionary to learn a foreign language before entering on his work in Denmark.

Between England and Denmark there existed no such difference of language. King Canute the Great, during whose reign (1019-1035) the conversion of Denmark was completed, could employ English priests and monks in Denmark without the least embarrassment. He re-established the bishopric of Fünen, and founded two new bishoprics in Sealand and Skaane; and these three sees were filled with Englishmen consecrated by the archbishop of Canterbury. He invited a number of English monks to Denmark, and settled them partly as ecclesiastics at the churches, partly in small missionary stations, scattered all around in the country; and everywhere, in the style of the church-building and in the character of the service the English influence was predominating. This circumstance, however, did in no way affect the ecclesiastical relation between Denmark and the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen. The authority of the archbishop, though not altogether unassailed, was nevertheless generally submitted to with good grace, and until in the twelfth century an independent Scandinavian archbishopric was established at Lund, with the exception of the above cases, he always appointed and consecrated the Danish bishops. Also the relation to the Pope was very cordial. Canute made a pilgrimage to Rome, and founded several Hospitia Danorum there. He refused, however, to permit the introduction of the Peter’s pence in Denmark, and the tribute which, up to the fourteenth century, was annually sent from that country to Rome, was considered a voluntary gift.

The last part of Denmark which was converted was the island of Bornholm. It was christianized in 1060 by Bishop Egius of Lund. It is noticeable, however, that in Denmark Christianity was not made a part of the law of the land, such as was the case in England and in Norway.


30. The Christianization of Sweden

Rimbertus: Vita Ansgarii, in Pertz: Monumenta II.

Adamus Bremensis: Gesta Ham. Eccl. Pont., in Pertz: Monumenta VII; separate edition by Lappenberg. Hanover, 1846.

Historia S. Sigfridi, in Scriptt. Rer. Suec. Medii-aevi, T. II.

Just when the expulsion of Harald Klak compelled Ansgar to give up the Danish mission, at least for the time being, an embassy was sent by the Swedish king, Björn, to the emperor, Lewis the Pious, asking him to send Christian missionaries to Sweden. Like the Danes, the Swedes had become acquainted with Christianity through their wars and commercial connections with foreign countries, and with many this acquaintance appears to have awakened an actual desire to become Christians. Accordingly Ansgar went to Sweden in 829, accompanied by Witmar. While crossing the Baltic, the vessel was overtaken and plundered by pirates, and he arrived empty handed, not to say destitute, at Björkoe or Birka, the residence of King Björn, situated on an island in the Maelarn. Although poverty, and misery were very poor introduction to a heathen king in ancient Scandinavia, he was well received by the king; and in Hergeir, one of the most prominent men at the court of Birka, he found a warm and reliable friend. Hergeir built the first Christian chapel in Sweden, and during his whole life he proved an unfailing and powerful support of the Christian cause. After two years’ successful labor, Ansgar returned to Germany; but he did not forget the work begun. As soon as he was well established as bishop in Hamburg, he sent, in 834, Gautbert, a nephew of Ebo, to Sweden, accompanied by Nithard and a number of other Christian priests, and well provided with everything necessary for the work. Gautbert labored with great success. In Birka he built a church, and thus it became possible for the Christians, scattered all over Sweden, to celebrate service and partake of the Lord’s Supper in their own country without going to Duerstede or some other foreign place. But here, as in Denmark, the success of the Christian mission aroused the jealousy and hatred of the heathen, and, at last, even Hergeir was not able to keep them within bounds. An infuriated swarm broke into the house of Gautbert. The house was plundered; Nithard was murdered; the church was burnt, and Gautbert himself was sent in chains beyond the frontier. He never returned to Sweden, but died as bishop of Osnabrück, shortly before Ansgar. When Ansgar first heard of the outbreak in Sweden, he was himself flying before the fury of the Danish heathen, and for several years he was unable to do anything for the Swedish mission. Ardgar, a former hermit, now a priest, went to Sweden, and in Birka he found that Hergeir had succeeded in keeping together and defending the Christian congregation; but Hergeir died shortly after, and with him fell the last defence against the attacks of the heathen and barbarians.

Meanwhile Ansgar had been established in the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen. In 848, he determined to go himself to Sweden. The costly presents he gave to king Olaf, the urgent letters he brought from the emperor, and the king of Denmark, the magnificence and solemnity of the appearance of the mission made a deep impression. The king promised that the question should be laid before the assembled people, whether or not they would allow Christianity to be preached again in the country. In the assembly it was the address of an old Swede, proving that the god of the Christians was stronger even than Thor, and that it was poor policy for a nation not to have the strongest god, which finally turned the scales, and once more the Christian missionaries were allowed to preach undisturbed in the country, . Before Ansgar left, in 850, the church was rebuilt in Birka, and, for a number of years, the missionary labor was continued with great zeal by Erimbert, a nephew of Gautbert, by Ansfrid, born a Dane, and by Rimbert, also a Dane.

Nevertheless, although the persecutions ceased, Christianity made little progress, and when, in 935, Archbishop Unni himself visited Birka, his principal labor consisted in bringing back to the Christian fold such members as had strayed away among the heathen, and forgotten their faith. Half a century later, however, during the reign of Olaf Skotkonge, the mission received a vigorous impulse. The king himself and his sons were won for the Christian cause, and from Denmark a number of English missionaries entered the country. The most prominent among these was Sigfrid, who has been mentioned beside Ansgar as the apostle of the North. By his exertions many were converted, and Christianity became a legally recognized religion in the country beside the old heathenism. In the Southern part of Sweden, heathen sacrifices ceased, and heathen altars disappeared. In the Northern part, however, the old faith still continued to live on, partly because it was difficult for the missionaries to penetrate into those wild and forbidding regions, partly because there existed a difference of tribe between the Northern and Southern Swedes, which again gave rise to political differences.

The Christianization of Sweden was not completed until the middle of the twelfth century.


31. The Christianization of Norway and Iceland

Snorre Sturleson (d. 1241): Heimskringla (i.e. Circle of Home, written first in Icelandic), seu Historia Regum Septentrionalium, etc. Stockholm, 1697, 2 vols. The same in Icelandic, Danish, and Latin. Havn., 1777-1826; in German by Mohnike, 1835; in English, transl. by Sam. Laing. London, 1844, 3 vols. This history of the Norwegian kings reaches from the mythological age to a.d. 1177.

N. P. Sibbern: Bibliotheca Historica Dano-Norvegica. Hamburg, 1716. Fornmanna-Soegur seu Scripta Hist. Islandorum. Hafniae, 1828.

K. Maurer: Bekehrung des Norwegischen Stammes zum Christenthum. München, 1855-56, 2 vols.

Thomas Carlyle: Early Kings of Norway. London and N. York, 1875.

G. F. Maclear: The Conversion of the Northmen. London, 1879.

Christianity was introduced in Norway almost exclusively by the exertions of the kings, and the means employed were chiefly violence and tricks. The people accepted Christianity not because they had become acquainted with it and felt a craving for it, but because they were compelled to accept it, and the result was that heathen customs and heathen ideas lived on in Christian Norway for centuries after they had disappeared from the rest of Scandinavia.

The first attempt to introduce Christianity in the country was made in the middle of the tenth century by Hakon the Good. Norway was gathered into one state in the latter part of the ninth century by Harald Haarfagr, but internal wars broke out again under Harald’s son and successor, Eric. These troubles induced Hakon, an illegitimate son of Harald Haarfagr and educated in England at the court of king Athelstan, to return to Norway and lay claim to the crown. He succeeded in gaining a party in his favor, expelled Eric and conquered all Norway, where he soon became exceedingly popular, partly on account of his valor and military ability, partly also on account of the refinement and suavity of his manners. Hakon was a Christian, and the Christianization of Norway seems to have been his highest goal from the very first days of his reign. But he was prudent. Without attracting any great attention to the matter, he won over to Christianity a number of those who stood nearest to him, called Christian priests from England, and built a church at Drontheim. Meanwhile he began to think that the time had come for a more public and more decisive step, and at the great Frostething, where all the most prominent men of the country were assembled, he addressed the people on the matter and exhorted them to become Christians. The answer he received was very characteristic. They had no objection to Christianity itself, for they did not know what it meant, but they suspected the king’s proposition, as if it were a political stratagem by means of which he intended to defraud them of their political rights and liberties. Thus they not only refused to become Christians themselves, but even compelled the king to partake in their heathen festivals and offer sacrifices to their heathen gods. The king was very indignant and determined to take revenge, but just as he had got an army together, the sons of the expelled Eric landed in Norway and in the battle against them, 961, he received a deadly wound.

The sons of Eric, who had lived in England during their exile, were likewise Christians, and they took up the cause of Christianity in a very high-handed manner, overthrowing the heathen altars and forbidding sacrifices. But the impression they made was merely odious, and their successor, Hakon Jarl, was a rank heathen. The first time Christianity really gained a footing in Norway, was under Olaf Trygveson. Descended from Harald Haarfagr, but sold, while a child, as a slave in Esthonia, he was ransomed by a relative who incidentally met him and recognized his own kin in the beauty of the boy, and was educated at Moscow. Afterwards he roved about much in Denmark, Wendland, England and Ireland, living as a sea-king. In England he became acquainted with Christianity and immediately embraced it, but he carried his viking-nature almost unchanged over into Christianity, and a fiercer knight of the cross was probably never seen. Invited to Norway by a party which had grown impatient of the tyranny of Hakon Jarl, he easily made himself master of the country, in 995, and immediately set about making Christianity its religion, “punishing severely,” as Snorre says, “all who opposed him, killing some, mutilating others, and driving the rest into banishment.” In the Southern part there still lingered a remembrance of Christianity from the days of Hakon the Good, and things went on here somewhat more smoothly, though Olaf more than once gave the people assembled in council with him the choice between fighting him or accepting baptism forthwith. But in the Northern part all the craft and all the energy of the king were needed in order to overcome the opposition. Once, at a great heathen festival at Moere, he told the assembled people that, if he should return to the heathen gods it would be necessary for him to make some great and awful sacrifice, and accordingly he seized twelve of the most prominent men present and prepared to sacrifice them to Thor. They were rescued, however, when the whole assembly accepted Christianity and were baptized. In the year 1000, he fell in a battle against the united Danish and Swedish kings, but though he reigned only five years, he nevertheless succeeded in establishing Christianity as the religion of Norway and, what is still more remarkable, no general relapse into heathenism seems to have taken place after his death.

During the reign of Olaf the Saint, who ruled from a.d. 1014-’30, the Christianization of the country was completed. His task it was to uproot heathenism wherever it was still found lurking, and to give the Christian religion an ecclesiastical organization. Like his predecessors, he used craft and violence to reach his goal. Heathen idols and altars disappeared, heathen customs and festivals were suppressed, the civil laws were brought into conformity with the rules of Christian morals. The country was divided into dioceses and parishes, churches were built, and regular revenues were raised for the sustenance of the clergy. For the most part he employed English monks and priests, but with the consent of the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, under whose authority he placed the Norwegian church. After his death, in the battle of Stiklestad, July 29, 1030, he was canonized and became the patron saint of Norway.

To Norway belonged, at that time, Iceland. From Icelandic tradition as well as from the “De Mensura Orbis” by Dicuilus, an Irish monk in the beginning of the ninth century, it appears that Culdee anchorites used to retire to Iceland as early as the beginning of the eighth century, while the island was still uninhabited. These anchorites, however, seem to have had no influence whatever on the Norwegian settlers who, flying from the tyranny of Harald Haarfagr, came to Iceland in the latter part of the ninth century and began to people the country. The new-comers were heathen, and they looked with amazement at Auda the Rich, the widow of Olaf the White, king of Dublin, who in 892 took up her abode in Iceland and reared a lofty cross in front of her house. But the Icelanders were great travellers, and one of them, Thorvald Kodranson, who in Saxony had embraced Christianity, brought bishop Frederic home to Iceland. Frederic stayed there for four years, and his preaching found easy access among the people. The mission of Thangbrand in the latter part of the tenth century failed, but when Norway, or at least the Norwegian coast, became Christian, the intimate relation between Iceland and Norway soon brought the germs which Frederic had planted, into rapid growth, and in the year 1000 the Icelandic Althing declared Christianity to be the established religion of the country. The first church was built shortly after from timber sent by Olaf the Saint from Norway to the treeless island.