The Conversion of the West to Christianity

By Dr. Mike Magee | 19 August 2005

The Triumph Of Christianity Over Paganism by Gustave Doré. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Church in a Pagan World

When the Church formed, the Roman Empire had a practical unity about it but nonetheless consisted of many nations and ethnic groups. The church grew in this mixed milieu and its response in those days was never uniform. Even within the Church there were battles against various heretics. Indeed one of the factors which gave rise to its regional varieties and theological squabbles was the extent to which different areas and theologians had been influenced by their local Paganism. This extends right back to the founder of Christianity, Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.

Christianity entered the Empire as “sheep among wolves”. The popular religions were mystery cults, and mainly they were well established, only Mithraism looking a little youthful. Christianity was merely a babe. It had no philosophy. It had little ritual, only baptism and the holy repast, and particularly had no unequivocal burial customs. It made peculiar and difficult demands upon its converts, not so hard as the demands of Judaism but still hard demands for Pagans. How were these first Christian missionaries to “persuade the heathen?”

Christianity used Paganism like a teenager building his hot rod—it was a great source of spare parts. The large holes in Christianity were filled with adaptations from Paganism. The ancient philosophers, whose schools the Christians shut, gave it philosophy. Christianity often cynically adopted Pagan rites and ideas. They were “received” into the Church. Every important church festival coincides with an ancient solar or Pagan festival. The roles of Pagan gods were given to saints. It is a curious god this Christian one, that refuses to allow any other gods but cannot think of any new dates for his own festivals. Instead, He choses ones used for countless millennia by the gods he does not like and renames those old gods as Christian saints and lets them carry on with their old jobs!

Many silly Christian fundamentalists deny that any compromise was made by the first Christian missionaries. The same people try to argue that the Pagan converts instantly forgot all their Pagan habits of a lifetime and took to the new Christian ones unerringly. So, when the converts themselves, like the born-again clappies of today, earnestly went out enthusiastically evangelising, they only told the perfect, unblemished Christianity given to them by the Holy Ghost. Not a Pagan word fell from their lips or a Pagan thought entered their heads. Though Christians were a tiny minority with an inchoate and incomplete religion in a world of well-developed and well-loved Pagan religions, it was not influenced by them in the minutest detail. It offends all reason.

A very simple proof is that Christians are summoned to communion by the ringing of bells. That was the way the Pagan Romans were called to meetings. Bells or “tintinabula” summoned Romans to the forum for public meetings, and also announced that the hot bath house was open. Christianity adopted the Pagan practice.

The Conversion of Europe

The conversion of Europe is conditioned in modern thought by Christian stereotypes, spread by Christians in the intervening periods. The problem is Christian truth. What Christians call truth is not often true. It is whatever suits Christians. The popular view of the conversion of Europe is that a king, or more often, a queen, converted then their family and the nobility followed together with the whole of the people gladly and gratefully taking up the sovereign’s new religion. The whole process was done and dusted easily and seamlessly, the people joyfully converting en masse and thenceforth denoted as Christian.

In fact, “the conversion was neither sudden, nor complete”, according to Sundkher (The World of Mission). “Only gradually did pagan beliefs, customs and ceremonies fall into abeyance”, particularly as the traditional religion was ancient and popular, and the church was, out of necessity, much more tolerant of tradition than it subsequently made out. In Sweden, for instance:

Well over 300 years had elapsed since the time when the gospel was first proclaimed by the shores of Lake Mölar before its victory was completely secured, and even then heathenism lingered for some time in the more remote districts.
~ C J A Opperman, The English Missionaries in Sweden and Finland

The Christian propagandist view has ignored the person in favour of some official declaration. There were known people who admitted to being of mixed faith. An Icelander, Helgi inn Megri, named his house after Christ, but when he was in danger at sea, he prayed to Thor. Similarly, king Redwald of the East Angles, in the seventh century had a temple with an altar to Christ next to one “on which victims were offered to devils”, as the Venerable Bede somewhat pejoratively puts it. Many teutonic charms and spells made the transition unaltered into the Christian era. The Anglo-Saxon Land Remedy was recorded in poetry in the Christian age. Obvious referring to the fertility and fruitfulness of Mother earth in the arms of Father God, it is a spell said when the first furrow was cut:

Hail to thee, earth, Mother of Men.
Be fruitful in God’s embrace,
Filled with food for the use of men.

Missionary zeal, as most modern Christians will appreciate, comes from the newly converted and, in the Dark Ages, the main source of new missionaries was most often the last country converted. At the highest level there will always have been previous contact through travel, trade and diplomacy, unknown to the poorer people. In many instances, the kings, for diplomatic reasons or, more often their queens because of the appeal of Christianity to women, had already converted.

Often the king would invite some dependants or relatives to convert first, just in case! These would be likely to be his children. If no terrible calamities ensued through the anger of their traditional gods, he would invite others of his family to join him in baptism and his nobles also. To history another country had converted but it would take generations if not centuries for the peasants to convert in their hearts.

In any event, the missionary needed permission to preach and guarantees of safety, so, if the king was not already sympathetic, he was the first one to persuade. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Kent from Italy seeking King Ethelbert to convert first. In less than two hundred years England was sending missions to convert the Germans, and the Devononian monk, Wynfrith, otherwise S Boniface, admitted that without the protection of the Frankish princes, he could not defend his clerics or stop the worship of idols in Germany. In his case, the protection was insufficient anyway—the Pagans got him.

The king might have announced that his country had joined Christendom, and Christian ritual might have been adopted at the top level, but his individual subjects had their own beliefs and saw no reason to change them. Kings come and go, after all. Clergy may have been ordained, but not all of them, by any means were willing to forego their old beliefs:

The lesser clergy remained incurably superstitious (althouh, in fact, the ecclesiastical historians are not fond of dwelling on this side of things).
~ Eric J Sharpe

A superstition to a Christian is a belief in anything other than Christianity, just as Christianity was itself a superstition to pagan Romans.

European kings were not stupid. They saw that Christianity was a powerful instrument for them to strengthen their own rule. The help for the missionaries was not without conditions. Their condition for supporting the Church was the support of the Church. The church had to help keep their subjects subject. The church which had refused to recognise Roman Emperors as divine, declared that kings had a divine right to rule. Direct intervention was also part of the deal. King Niels of Denmark (1104-1134 AD) had enraged his subjects and was fearful for his position. He demanded that the Archbishop of Lund, a respected churchman, should appeal to the mob on his behalf. It seems the bishop succeeded in calming them. Furthermore, while keeping a close eye on the mortal dangers to the souls of the subject people, the wise church man turned away from commenting on potential dangers to souls of their benefactors. Christian missionaries they might have been but they were not that keen to get to heaven.

After the kings, the missionaries always concentrated on the young. They realised that they it was who would be running the country in future years and they had not been as indoctrinated with Paganism as their parents. They were impressionable. Today evangelicals are no different and Christians have alerted many other loony sects to the psychology of capturing young minds. Christian parents are the first to be appalled. Can you believe it?

The method they used is that the Churches and Christian parents have used ever since. First, the young ones were horribly decried as sinners, wicked, creatures of the devil and unworthy of anything, least of all the love of God. When it is considered that the subjects are sufficiently contrite and concerned, they are told that a continuation of their wicked, wicked ways can only lead to one conclusion—eternal torture, burning in hell with no further possibility of repentance. When the little ones are sobbing in anguish and fear for their eternal being, they are told that God had personally arranged that they could, if they had sufficient faith, escape this gruesome and everlasting torture. There was one way only, reject their previous life and put themselves in the hands of the Almighty through His son Jesus Christ whom he had sent to atone for all the sins of humanity. That alone would save them. The Pagan youth were being addressed by a man who was the emissary of God himself, so it must have been true. Applied, as it is today by churches of many different inclinations, to young children, this can only be seen as a psychological crime. And so it was to the people of the Middle Ages, many of whom were mentally children, though adults.

Heaven, according to Irish Pagan traditions, was in the Fairy Hills with everlasting feasting with no work. The gods of Olympus had a similar idyllic existence, eating, making love and sleeping, eternally but with the occasional adventure thrown in. Mortals could only hope for elevation to an existence like this if they had behaved as gods on earth. A few did and were raised up. Eventually, though, every toiling and anxious human aspired to this wonderful life — everyone wanted to be a god, to have immortality and live in eternal boredom. Christianity fulfilled their wish. Plainly, it is a racial memory of the lost golden age of hunting and gathering, the Garden of Eden of the Jewish scriptures, where food was simply picked from the trees and the sexes did what came naturally. Christianity made the forbidden fruit specifically the key to carnal knowledge and then they had to try to persuade Pagans that their ideas of heavenly bliss should be replaced for the Scottish Presbyterian version—an austere place with a severe father making sure you were never naughty.

Finally, the practice of confession, quite unknown to Europeans was introduced so that the Church had knowledge and therefore direct control of every act of the Pagan converts. The origin of private confession was in the early medieval hermits and monks of Ireland and Wales. The Irish kings were above the law. How then could they be controlled? It all depended upon the king’s honour, an important Pagan concept, and the moral pressure people could apply to their sovereign—fasting. When Christianity arrived, the same method was used to get the attention of the King of Kings in the sky. God was being forced against his will, a magical concept rejected by Christianity but here it was allowed to prove that he was honourable!

In this ascetic atmosphere, the hermits and monks introduced personal private confession, a listing of personal sins and promises to atone. The Irish and Welsh missionaries took the idea with them to their European missions and the Church eventually adopted the practice universally for its own totalitarian reasons. The church had substituted the Hebrew God for all the old gods and spirits, then obliged people to “voluntarily” confess their sins so that their soul was transparent to the priest. God became truly omnipresent. Through Him, the prelates knew everything the faithful were doing and even thinking. At the Reformation, Protestantism rejected the confession on the grounds of Jeremiah 17:8 which effectively declareds that, since everyone is wicked anyway, there is no point in expecting them to confess honestly. The deceitful heart can never be known.

From the fiftth to the twelfth centuries, the Church gave out lists of sins with suitable penances. As time went on the variety of sins and penances multiplied. In the sixth century two cases of adultery were distinguished in an Irish list of penances. By the ninth century the German list of penances distinguished 35 cases of adultery, even distinguishing the sexual positions used. By then, the penances were not trivial, a few Hail Marys or Our Fathers as they might be today. Masturbation by a pubescent boy was punished by 30 days on bread and water. Committing a lewd act might get three years of fasting.

Christians like to contrast the growth of Christianity and the growth of Islam. Islam converted by the sword but Christianity used reason. There was little to chose between them for the average person. Whether the ruler is a native prince or a foreign one makes no difference to the peasants who were told to abandon their old and trusted superstitions. Sweden was forcibly converted by the Swedish prince Inge, who had been thrown out once for trying to impose Christianity on his subjects but returned with a large enough army to get his own way. The Carolingians had a policy of forcibly Christianising everyone they conquered.

Childebert I of the Merovingians (511-558 AD) decreed that all images of “false gods and demons” (the Pagan gods) had to be removed on pain of 100 lashes, practically a death penalty. A Saxon decree was less generous—baptism or death. With such inducement, the Christian fonts were splashing liberally but the converts were hardly sincere. Nor was any instruction required. Charlemagne, the warrior king, insisted that no one should be baptised without two or three weeks’ instruction! Why should it have been necessary? Most kings introduced new decrees offering the death penalty for anyone not following Christian practice. Pagans had to appear in every outward sign to be Christians.

In some times and places the transition from Paganism to Christianity was apparently seamless. At others, there was conflict. Christians often accused Pagans of violence. The Pagan side of the story rarely exists, except in the form the Christians were ready to publish it. It is not hard to discern, though, that much of the Pagan violence was a response to the arrogance and disrespect of Christians who felt justified in emulating their god in turning over, not only the tables in the temple but the temples themselves and the images of the gods they contained. They then felt aggrieved when the Pagan worshippers assaulted them.

The missionaries killed sacred animals, they split sacred trees, they sang loud Christian hymns in the holy silence of Pagan sacred groves. Then they thought it spiteful that anyone should protest. Most often, the Pagan worshippers could only look on in sorrow for their already converted ruler permitted the sacrilege. Nevertheless, the protests continued. From 1021 to 1120 AD, anti-Christian riots occurred almost every nine years in Sweden, matching the nine yearly cycle of Pagan festivals at Uppsala.

The Pagan Origins of Christianity

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