This post originally appeared at Heretic Ation.
Heathen: A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something he can see and feel.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Up until the time of Constantine, Christianity was a small and inconsequential sect. During his reign Christians won positions of prominence and power. Those who opposed Christianity, “enemies of true religion”, were stripped of their honours, and those who had supported the previous, pagan, emperor were executed. Eusebius, a bishop, gloated over the fate of people who had elected to worship other gods. They were accused of fraud, subjected to “elaborate tortures” to confirm the charges, then handed over to the executioner. By the end of Constantine’s reign all pagan cults were being discouraged and temples were being destroyed. Toleration was under threat. As Gibbon noted:
The edict of Milan, the great charter of toleration, had confirmed to each individual of the Roman world the privilege of choosing and professing his own religion. But this inestimable privilege was soon violated; with the knowledge of truth the emperor imbibed the maxims of persecution; and the sects which dissented from the Catholic Church were afflicted and oppressed by the triumph of Christianity.
The Edict of Milan had been issued by the emperors Constantine and Licinius in AD 313, and gave official support to the toleration of Christianity. As soon as Christians become influential, the issue of toleration was no longer so important to them. By AD 330 Constantine was prohibiting pagan rites in Constantinople, his new capital. By around AD 350 the performance of a pagan sacrifice had become a capital offence. A few years later, in 391, under Theodosius I, Christianity became the only recognised religion of the Empire. In time the Church, supported by pliant Christian emperors, would eliminate its many rivals, though it would take centuries to achieve a total monopoly. Already, by the middle of the fourth century the Christians were being accused of cruelty exceeding that of wild animals. All religions except Christianity were suppressed, sacred property was confiscated, holy treasures were sized, temples and shrines were destroyed or taken over as new churches. The ancient rights of sanctuary which had been enjoyed by followers of all religions at their burial grounds were abrogated.
Anyone who failed to display the required enthusiasm for the Christian God was dealt with severely. Charges were laid by informants. Perjured evidence was presented to, and accepted by, partisan tribunals. Confessions were extracted with the help of torture. Young and old alike were induced to implicate their friends and families. Many were executed. The lucky ones were merely imprisoned or exiled. In some provinces prisoners, exiles and fugitives from Christian intolerance were said to account for more than half of the population. Property was confiscated, and the Church grew rich. The suppression of other religions left a large part (probably the larger part) of the population without priests, temples or sacred writings. By the reign of Justinian (527-565) baptism was compulsory for all. All pagan, and indeed non-Catholic Christian belief was illegal, and the death penalty was reintroduced. People were no longer free to chose their faith. Everyone was obliged to espouse Christianity, except sometimes the Jews, whom God was believed to have abandoned. Whole countries were converted by force, being given a choice between adopting Christianity and suffering an unpleasant death. Jesus had clearly authorised forcible conversions: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). This was interpreted by St Augustine as giving the right to use force to obtain conversions. Whole countries were won over in this way. The Saxons were forcibly converted at sword point. Charlemagne offered them the choice of adopting Christianity or instant death. In a single day, according to Christian Chronicles, 4,500 Saxons chose to die rather than forsake their own religion. The pattern was similar in Franconia after the death of Clovis in 511. First, Christians were favoured at court. Then non-Christian public worship was prohibited. Soon, even private worship was made illegal, and forcible conversions were enforced from 625 under Dagobert I. Late in the tenth century Russia was converted when Prince Vladimir adopted Christianity. His subjects were given the choice of Christian baptism in the river Dneiper or drowning in it. Vladimir is now a saint. Soon afterwards Norway was converted under King Olav again largely at the point of the sword. He too is now a saint. Other Scandinavians, Slavs, and many other peoples were converted in the same way. The Christianisation of Iceland was much less bloody than usual, though it shows the technique. A Saxon missionary, Friedrich arrived in the tenth century but was forced to leave when his assistant Thorvaldur killed too many locals. In AD 1000 King Olav of Norway (Ólafur Tryggvason) was possessed by one of his periodic bouts of Christian zeal. As an Icelandic historian, Jón Hjálmarsson, relates:
King Ólafur’s first missionary to Iceland was Stefnir Thorgilsson, a native of Iceland, who started by attacking and breaking down heathen temples, and was promptly exiled. Next, the King sent a Flemish priest named Thangbrandur, who had reached Norway via England. He managed to baptise several of the noble Icelandic chieftains, but as he could not tolerate any opposition and killed several men who spoke against him, he too had to leave the country.
Further Christian missionaries so destabilised the country that Thorgeir, the lawspeaker, was asked to decide what should be done. A liberal and tolerant pagan himself, he decided that the best way to keep the peace was that Christianity should be adopted as the national religion, but that the people should be allowed keep many of their traditional practices, including the right to worship in private whatever gods they chose. It seemed to be more than fair. Hjálmarsson says of the conversion:
The introduction of Christianity in Iceland was a peaceful and almost unique historical event. It was quite different from the prolonged conflicts, warfare and bloodshed which customarily accompanied Christianization in most other countries. This peaceful settlement arose probably more for political than religious reasons.
Within sixteen years the exemptions for traditional practices, including the liberty to worship other gods, was abrogated. Christians now denied the liberty of worship that they had previously advocated for themselves. Within a century compulsory tithes were introduced. Soon the Benedictine and Augustinians would introduce the abuses and corruption common in mainland Europe. By the thirteenth century a feudal system had been introduced, and freeholders were reduced to feudal tenants of the Roman Church. Another country had been successfully converted.
Over many centuries thousands, perhaps millions, were killed by Christians for the crime of not being Christian or sometimes for the crime of not being sufficiently Christian. Some were killed by the sword, some burned alive, some drowned, some buried alive, some forced to face wild animals. Traditional Christian history books rarely find room for this side of the story.
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