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How Christian Militarism slowed the spread of Christianity

In 1250 AD Mindauguas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, accepted Christianity. This was to be a “Clovis moment” for the Lithuanian tribes, but history took a different path. Mindaugas’ nobles rebelled, he apostatized, and he was eventually killed. Only in 1386 did the Lithuanian elite accept Christianity; more specifically, in its Western Latin Rite form. If you read S. C. Rowell’s Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295–1345, you will know that the author believes the Lithuanian elite prevaricated on the conversion in part because it allowed them to balance at an equipoise between the Latin West, represented by Poland and the Germans who were colonizing the Baltic, and Orthodox Christian east, representing the people who had once been ruled by Kievan Rus (the Lithuanian elite intermarried extensively with their Orthodox subjects).

But, to me, and others, there seems another reason that the Lithuanian tribes balked at Christianization: the fact that it was the religion of their sometimes genocidal enemies, the German-speaking Christian military orders that dominated the Baltic coast. The Baltic Crusades, which enabled knights from the German-speaking lands to sally forth into the pagan eastern Baltic region starting around 1200 AD, created a level of ethnoreligious animus that was extremely strong for Europe during this period. Rowell notes that though the Lithuanians began converting to Christianity in large numbers in 1386 (though those nobles and warriors settled to the west and east often assimilated to local Christian cultures), there were pagan Letts on the lands of German military elites in Livonia on into the early 1400’s. The reason that this delay occurred is that pagan peasants were economically far more exploitable than Christian peasants, who could appeal to the Church. These nobles, who were themselves the descendants of Christian Crusaders, excluded the Church’s missionaries from their lands for decades while Lithuania to the south was being baptized. This phenomenon prefigures some dynamics we know from chattel slavery in the American South, where some planters discouraged evangelization among their slaves for the purposes of more efficient economic control.

One model that people routinely have is that pagan resistance to Christianization was inevitable. On a microlevel this seems correct, but on a macrolevel for Northern Europe, Christianity was the only metaethnic high culture transnational religious identity that was on offer. At some point, the Northern European proto-states were going to become Christian. It was a matter of when. We see this in Ireland, where the Christianization process was entirely endogenous and occurred gradually and piecemeal. This resembles Alan Cameron’s model of the decline of Roman paganism in The Last Pagans of Rome. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, you see a different model, where the Northern European kings convert to integrate themselves into the international system of Christian states, and also consolidate their rule over their polity. Unlike the Irish example, where conversion was gradual and organic, these top-down conversions tend to be more of a cultural rupture and instantiate resistance from entrenched interests that are disfavored by the new Christian regime that erupted overnight. That being said, these top-down conversions seem to result in faster (nominal) baptism of the population than the more gradual conversion of the Romans after Constantine or the Irish between 400 and 600 AD.

But there is a downside the Lithuanian example illustrates: the fusion of Christianity with incipient militaristic states with an ethnonational basis resulted in  Christianity becoming associated with an enemy state and people from the pagan perspective. This is illustrated in Chris Tyrmen’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, where citizens of a besieged West Slavic city march outside of the gates and explain to the German soldiers that they had already converted to the “German religion.” If Christianity had not become associated with German identity would the Wends have resisted the new religion for so long? If the Germans had not synthesized their ethnic identity with their religion, would they have been so brutal to the Slavic heathens to their east? I doubt both of these. There is a more powerful recent historical illustration of this phenomenon. By the late 1500’s Latin Rite Christianity was becoming a popular religion in southern Japan, and Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi both favored it tacitly above Buddhism. But there were cases where Iberian Christians proudly identified the new religion as a fifth column in the spread of their political regime, and this prompted Tokugawa Ieyasu to suppress the new faith, not on theological, but political grounds.

Christianity was the strength of the state and nation. The religion gave a metaethnic and creedal vigor to the Portuguese and Castilian monarchies and drove the Sword Brothers and the Teutonic Knights to acts of both valor and viciousness. But the other edge of this sword is that the Christian religion became associated with the enemy, dispossession and oppression. If Europe had remained small tribes after the fall of Rome, and Christianity had spread as in Ireland, gradually from tribe to tribe over the centuries, I wonder if the pagan holdouts in Scandinavia and the Baltic may have fallen to the faith of Christ earlier because it would not have been seen as alien and imperial.

(the late sociologist and historian of religion Rodney Stark explicitly argued that the shifted from the Roman model, where individual conversion was critical, to the Northern European one, where trickle down was operative, produced a slower and thinner Christianization)

16 thoughts on “How Christian Militarism slowed the spread of Christianity

  1. what do you mean by “this”?

    (i think islam’s success in maritime se asia had to do with the shift of the indian ocean trade network to Islam in the western half)

  2. That Islam didn’t spread in Southeast Asia through foreign conquest but through native rulers adopting the high culture.

  3. ah, i see. yes.

    in fact, in SE Islam spread through austronesian groups. not into any of the tai viet or burman populations. the only reason ppl in the Philippines are catholic is spain conquered and in Vietnam the chams were isolated from the outside world after conquest

  4. The Japanese exemple were tangential. Japanese christians weren’t really militarists or a fifth column the Tokugawa was just brutal and authoritarian.

  5. 1) they were militarist. but that’s because they were Japanese. the daiymo in the south were converting, not just peasants

    2) the tokugawa perceived them to be fifth columnists because of what the European Catholics let slip. probably not true, but perception was the point

    so not tangential at all

  6. OT but prompted by the above, I just had a random woke thought – people from the Philippines should insist on being called Filipinxs in English. I must inform them immediately.

    In Tagalog they use Pinoy/Pinay – no clue how to make that woke. Pinxy?

    Back OT in response to HJ, there is of course Islam in the southern Philippines.

  7. The Teutonic Knights: the dumber, more brutish cousins of the Knights Templars.

    The Knights Templars: Get too rich, lend too much money, pay the price.

    The Knights Hospitallers: Stay humble, stay alive (getting an island helps too).

  8. “2) the tokugawa perceived them to be fifth columnists because of what the European Catholics let slip. probably not true, but perception was the point”

    I don’t know if the term “cultural pollution”, or a similar term, was in use in Japan back then but there certainly was a sense of unclean alienness about Christianity.

    The Tokugawa also took a dim view of some Buddhist sects, Jodo Shinshu for example, because it was so popular among the peasantry. There had already been one political movement centered on it, the Ikki Ikkō.

  9. In most of northern and Eastern Europe christianization went hand in hand with political centralization and the creation of permanent kingdoms that became part of Christendom. Ireland seems a case apart – became Christian prematurely in the 5th century – probably to its detriment, seeing that the consequence this fragmentation was English domination (albeit hundreds of years later in the 12th century).

  10. Iirc both Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights still exist. Hospitallers are a semi-sovereign entity and run one of the world’s largest medical charities. Teutonic Knights continue their charitable activities as well.

  11. Well, I suppose. The German Order still survives (via Austria), but its territories were converted to hereditary domains by the Peace of Pressburg and Napoleon enforced the terms.

    The Hospitallers have several offshoots, but the main one, the Knights of Malta, still exist (I have a few acquaintances who are Knights) and they have a better claim to be Hospitallers.

  12. Not sure how a nation ‘prematurely’ become Christian, Danny! Was there a set timeline folk forgot to tell the Georgians (3rd-5th centuries) and the Irish (4th-6th centuries)? In the case of Ireland, how did Christianisation + political fragmentation = English domination?

  13. There wasn’t a set timeline for nations to become Christian, Danny. Nor do I understand your proposed correlation between Christianisation, political fragmentation and the English invasion. Three discrete processes, surely?

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