Were Christendom’s Methods of Conversion Christian?
WHAT is wrong with Christendom? Why is it divided into countless sects? Why have so many people deserted its churches? Why have “Christian” countries fought one another so often? The true religion of Christ was not like that. So what went wrong? Were Christendom’s methods of making converts perhaps at fault? Is its foundation sand or rock?—Matthew 7:24-27.
Conversion means a turning around from one course of life to another. For example, in 50 CE, the apostle Paul made many converts to Christianity in Corinth. That city had a bad name for immorality to the extent that “to Corinthianize” meant to “practice whoredom.” Paul later wrote to his Corinthian brothers: “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, . . . nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom. And yet that is what some of you were.”—1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
How did the original, pure religion of Christ degenerate into the system of Christendom today? Various factors were involved. The apostle Peter foretold the demoralizing effect of “false teachers” guilty of “loose conduct” and “counterfeit words.” (2 Peter 2:1-3) Jesus said to his disciples: “You are no part of the world.” (John 15:19) But during the second and third centuries pagan philosophy and worldly trends perverted Christianity. Methods of conversion also degenerated.
The Conversion of Constantine
In the fourth century there occurred one of the outstanding “conversions” of all history, that of Roman Emperor Constantine. It is said that before a battle he saw the sign of the cross in the sky with the words: “By this conquer.”
Did Constantine become a real Christian? Christian conversion is symbolized by baptism, total immersion in water. Constantine postponed this vital step until his deathbed. Constantine was not “a Christian character,” contends historian H. Fisher in his History of Europe, and adds: “He . . . put to death his wife and his son. . . . He believed in Christ, but also in the unconquered sun. [Constantine initiated the observance of Sunday] He . . . retained the office of Pontifex Maximus [high priest].”
Due to Constantine’s support, “Christianity” (of a degenerate kind) became the official religion of the empire. This resulted in a sudden increase in conversions and set the pattern for multitudes of future conversions. Historian E. Gibbon explains: “As the lower ranks of society are governed by imitation, the conversion of those who possessed any eminence of birth, of power, or of riches, were soon followed by dependent multitudes.”
The Conversion of Pagan Tribes
In the fifth century the decadent Roman Empire began to shrink and crumble. Warlike Germanic tribes burst through the frontiers of the empire and flooded southward. The famous Pax Romana collapsed and Europe became a theater of war. In time, Clovis I, a Frankish king, subdued his rivals and became master of a large part of western Europe. The Franks were not Christians, but Clovis I married a Catholic princess named Clotilda.
According to some accounts, Clovis I had an experience similar to that of Constantine. Hard pressed in a battle with the Alamanni tribe, he appealed to Christ for victory. He won. On returning from his campaign he was baptized in 496. Charles Oman’s book The Dark Ages states: “3000 of his warriors followed him to the font [of baptism].”
Did they become real Christians? Answers Oman: “It cannot be said that the king’s conversion made any favourable change in his character or his conduct. . . . The Franks . . . hastened to follow him to the fold of the Church . . . But, as with king so with people, the change was almost entirely superficial.”
Early Conversions in Britain
Britain in the sixth century was mainly non-Christian. Under the empire it had been “Christianized” somewhat, but Saxons had invaded and driven the British “Christians” west. The latter had no ties with the papacy in Rome. So in 596 Pope Gregory I sent a monk called Augustine who landed near Ramsgate, Kent. He soon converted the local king, Ethelbert, followed by the men of Kent. Similar mass conversions took place in other parts of England. Fisher writes: “Here, as elsewhere, the conversion of the pagan is to be attributed not to any penitential movement of the heart, but to the pressure of the monarchy upon a submissive population. . . . The creed of the king became the creed of the people.”
But Augustine’s main assignment from the pope was to convert the independent British “Christians” to Rome. Two meetings held by Augustine with the local bishops failed completely. “If,” the “saint” exclaimed, “you will not have peace from your friends you shall have war from your foes.” This belligerent attitude echoed the policy of Pope Gregory I who, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “sometimes advocated a war of aggression against heathens in order to christianize them.”
Conversions in Saxony and Other Countries
War certainly played a major role in the conversion of non-Christian Europe. Concerning Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 813, H. G. Wells says: “He made his wars of aggression definitely religious wars. . . . Whole nations were converted to Christianity by the sword.” In 782 at Verden he massacred in cold blood 4,500 prisoners who had led a revolt and turned back from “Christianity.” Concerning the conquest of Saxony the Encyclopædia Britannica states: “The violent methods by which this missionary task was carried out had been unknown to the earlier Middle Ages.”
Cowed, no doubt, by Charlemagne’s cruel reputation, the Slavs of eastern Europe were easily subdued and converted. In 988 Vladimir, the Russian ruler, maneuvered his marriage to a Byzantine princess, an Eastern Orthodox Catholic, and agreed, as part of the political contract, to become a “Christian.” He then “commanded the collective baptism of his subjects.”
“The conversion of Europe to Christianity,” wrote historian Fisher, “was, after the first heroic age of poverty and enthusiasm, mainly the result of material calculation or political pressure. The Goths, the Franks, the Saxons, the Scandinavians went over to Christianity, not as individuals directed by an inner light, but as peoples subject to mass suggestion and under the direction of political chiefs.”
Many of the clergy had become wealthy, politically powerful and immoral. This caused the growth of “heretical” sects. By the twelfth century, Languedoc, or Southern France, had become a hotbed of heresy. Let us now consider how the Church attempted—
The Conversion of Heretics in Southern France
There were two groups of heretics in Languedoc—the Cathars, or Albigenses, and the Waldensians. The former were the most numerous and their beliefs had elements of Christianity and Oriental ideas. The Waldensians were more orthodox and very zealous in preaching the Bible among the common people.
Peaceful methods of conversion were tried first. When this failed, Pope Alexander III declared at a Lateran Council: “The Church . . . must . . . invoke the aid of princes, that fear of temporal punishment may force men to seek a spiritual cure for their shortcomings.”
However, Pope Innocent III tried another preaching campaign. Prominent in this was a Spanish priest, Domingo de Guzman. But in spite of his zeal conversions of heretics were few. A Dominican writer credits him with saying: “Where a blessing fails, a good thick stick will succeed.” What was this “good thick stick”?
In July 1209, a powerful army of knights, men-at-arms and mercenaries set off from Lyons to Languedoc. They were soldiers of the Cross. They had mustered at the bidding of Pope Innocent III to conduct a Crusade against the heretics. Their leader was a papal legate. On July 21 this force camped near the city of Béziers in southeastern France. A suggestion that a group of heretics should be given up to the Crusaders was rejected by the citizens.
The next day the Crusaders attacked and soon overwhelmed the small body of defenders. The mercenaries, vicious desperados, and the knights, all eager for plunder, were ruthless. Many people fled to the churches for safety. Historian Oldenbourg, in the book The Massacre at Montségur, describes the outcome: “The doors of the churches were forced open . . . All inside were slaughtered wholesale—women, invalids, babies, and priests. . . . In a few short hours the wealthy city of Béziers was a city of bleeding mutilated corpses, and nothing else.” And this shocking display of brutality was done by men led by the papal legate, who triumphantly wrote to the pope: “Nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to the sword, regardless of age and sex.”
Did this “thick stick” get results? Hundreds of Cathars and Waldensians were burned at the stake, but by 1229, after twenty years of war and misery, the heretical groups were still well supported in Languedoc.
In 1233 two Dominicans were given special powers as Inquisitors. Their method was to announce a “period of grace” during which heretics or sympathizers could come and confess. But to prove their “conversion” they had to denounce others. This crafty scheme, backed by the fear of torture or the stake, caused many to collaborate. Denunciations snowballed and set off a reign of terror. In just one place, Moissac, 210 heretics were burned alive in a monstrous holocaust. The Holy Inquisition succeeded in suppressing the Cathars. The Waldensians still survive.
A few centuries later the fair country of France was convulsed with the struggle between the Church and the Reformation. In England, when King Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church of England in 1534, those Catholics who refused to be converted to his new politico-religious system were in great danger. “The creed of the king” still had to be “the creed of the people.”
Protestantism made progress during the reign of his son, Edward VI, but the pendulum swung the other way during the following reign of Catholic Queen Mary. Sir Winston Churchill commented, in his “History of the English Speaking Peoples”: “Here were the . . . living beings who composed the nation, ordered in the name of King Edward VI to march along one path to salvation, and under Queen Mary to march back again in the opposite direction; and all who would not move on the first order or turn about on the second must prove their convictions, if necessary, at the gibbet or the stake.”
Can you imagine Jesus Christ or any true Christian condemning people to the gibbet or the stake for their beliefs?
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Whole nations were converted to Christianity by the sword
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Hundreds who refused conversion were burned at the stake
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Charlemagne threatened to kill those who refused baptism