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Christianization (from church Latin : christianizare ) describes the spread of Christianity as the predominant religion in regions or countries that were previously mostly non-Christian. Although there were hardly any repressive measures against pagans (pagans) in the Roman Empire after the Constantinian turn to Christianity in the early 4th century , the chances of advancement for Christians improved considerably. Laws against pagan cult practices were only increasingly enacted from the end of the 4th century, when Christianity became the state religion in the empire. Around the same time, the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum became Christian. In the early European Middle Ages , the forced conversion was officially rejected by the church, but the missionaries driven by military means were sometimes associated with considerable coercion and violence (like the Saxon Wars ). In contrast, missionary work in Northern Europe and large parts of Eastern Europe was largely peaceful.

About language usage

In contrast to the individual conversion of an individual, Christianization describes the process that takes place in a historical dimension, in which entire peoples or cultural groups adopt the Christian faith in the majority. This can be done of one's own free will, but it can also be forced through force.

Mission and Christianization are related terms, where mission refers to the theological aspect and Christianization to the long-term cultural and historical aspect. Christianization is the mission of whole peoples, viewed in the historical horizon.

Christianization and Faith

Svantevitstein in Altenkirchen, Ruegen

Many of the first churches were built on or in former pagan ( pagan ) places of worship, such as prominent hilltops or groves , as these places were already considered sacred and those who were to be missionaries continued to gather there. Prove that u. a. the locations of some old chapels and churches still exist today. Pope Gregory, the Great, pointed out e.g. B. in the year 601 his English abbot Augustine to spare the pagan sanctuaries, not to destroy them, but to consecrate them to Christian places of worship by erecting altars.

Other pagan places, such as rocks and many of the megalithic tombs in northern Germany , were given eerie names to deter them ( devil's stones , devil's oven, etc.), some of which they still bear today. This development is only to be found to a very lesser extent in Scandinavia.

Sometimes gods were sacred stones or entire monuments in churches built, converted to churches or Christian symbols transformed. Examples are the Christianized megalithic monuments , in the church of old churches built Svantevitstein and of a menhir worked out Mrs. Bill Cross on the Ferschweiler plateau in the Eifel . Pagan religious customs were preserved after Christianization often far as customs .

After the first centuries of missionary work by monks and preachers, Christianization was later often a question of power; groups and tribes of the early Middle Ages that were defeated in battles, for example, were baptized as a sign of submission or were forcibly baptized (but rejected under canon law) . Secular and divine power went hand in hand , as with Charlemagne . In many cases, elements or parts of pagan religious culture were also adopted during Christianization.

However, there are also examples of how Christianity has been translated into the local cultural context and expressed through the means of that culture. This includes the Saxon Heliand as well as Navidad Nuestra in South America, the Masai creed from East Africa and especially the African churches .

In some cases, not only did new forms of Christianity develop in the context of local culture, but these peoples were enabled to develop a cultural identity through Christianization (e.g. the Slavic Christianization by Cyril and Method ).

On the other hand, intact cultures were later destroyed ( Malay Archipelago , Oceania ). Often (from the early modern period) Christian mission and colonization went hand in hand, while in other places sharp contradictions broke out between missionaries and colonizers.

Christianization in modern times often goes hand in hand with development aid . There are Christian values taught and infrastructures , such as schools , nursing homes or hospitals built. At the same time, churches, monasteries and mission stations are being built. New centers of cultural power emerge, which subsequently dominate entire regions. In Latin America, for example, the religion of the indigenous peoples was portrayed as superstition , their lifestyle as primitive , and they were brought into line with European norms such as sedentarism , agriculture and clothing , something that Alexander von Humboldt made critical remarks in his travelogues 1800 ff.

Modes of appearance

Christianization has happened in many ways, and in most cases several factors have played together.

Factors in the religious field:

  • In the first centuries after Christ, Christianization of Pagan areas took place almost exclusively through Christian outposts (hermitages, monasteries, mission stations) through missions or diakonia , which promotes Christianity within the population. Examples are the mission of individual traveling missionaries ( Paulus in the Roman Empire, Boniface in Germany, Patrick in Ireland, Cyril and Method among the Slavs) or missionaries ( Nino in Georgia ), which subsequently led to the planting of churches (of course there were always Setbacks in this process that grows "from below").
  • Voluntary or forced changes of location by Christians (destruction of Jerusalem, slave trade and Roman army in antiquity, emigrants and settlers), who continue to cultivate their faith in the new location and win over locals for it, also had a great influence.

Factors in the political field:

The winning of the respective ruler to Christianity was in some cases an essential factor for Christianization, in others it only came after a fairly fait accompli or played no role at all (e.g. North America). In cultures with a strong sense of community, the conversion of the local leader could almost naturally lead to the conversion of his followers, since community was more important for everyone than individual decisions about religious affiliation.

In some cases, Christianization led to integration into the Catholic Church, in other cases independent local churches were formed ( Celtic Christianity in Ireland, or in Russia, North America, African churches). In some places Christianity was declared the state religion , other largely Christianized countries reject state influence on the religion in principle.

History of Christianization

Church conditions in Europe in the Middle Ages (map from 1872)

Early Christianization phase

The first Christianized empire was the Kingdom of Armenia . According to the legend, around 301 it came about through the conversion of King Trdat III. for the proclamation of Christianity as the state religion , in fact this event probably did not take place until 314/315, since the Diocletian persecution of Christians took place around 301 . In Egypt, Christianity is already in the 1st century through Acts 18:24 and in the 2nd century through Papyrus 52 (with lines from the Gospel of John) as well as the Patriarch Demetrius (188 / 89–231 AD) and the first school of catechists of Christianity in Alexandria. For several centuries, Christian and non-Christian beliefs and their cults ran parallel.

The Christianization of the Imperium Romanum dragged on for centuries from the turn of Constantine and was only completed at the end of late antiquity , although all non-Christian religions had already been banned in 380. In the 5th century the followers of the pagan cults were already in the minority and members of the upper class also increasingly turned to Christianity. From the end of the 4th century, laws against pagan cult acts were increasingly being passed, but initially they were apparently hardly ever seriously implemented. Pagan officials were still tolerated in the Roman civil service in the 5th century. A forced Christianization did not take place, rather the pagan cults lost their attraction, while new opportunities for advancement opened up for Christians. At the end of late antiquity, however, stronger action was taken against the remains of the pagan cults, for example in Justinian's time .

Christianization in the Middle Ages

Iro - Scottish monks and the influences of Rome played a prominent role in the early medieval proselytizing of Central Europe around the 6th century . Ireland has been Christianized by Patrick of Ireland since the 5th century . There an independent Irish Church and a completely independent Celtic Christianity developed , which was not led by bishops but by monasteries. In these abbeys, life was organized according to different rules, and a high culture of book art developed with richly decorated Bibles and other books. Because Ireland was off the beaten track, much of the ancient knowledge was preserved here and was also preserved by monasteries. As there was no centralized unity, the Irish monks had to deal with local rulers who were hostile to the Church and who, like the Vikings, robbed monasteries. This lasted essentially into the High Middle Ages. It was not until the 12th century that the Irish Church was redesigned based on the Roman model, following a decision by the Synod of Cashel , with Rome quickly losing influence again due to the Anglo-Norman occupation. Monks of the Irish Church repeatedly withdrew to hermitages and lonely islands or left the island and were active in missionary work.

The wandering monasticism played an important role here. In the 6th century not only did the missionary work of Scotland and northern England under Columban of Iona begin, but Irish monks also traveled to Gaul , southern Germany and Switzerland ( Columban of Luxeuil ), where they founded monasteries. In the Franconian Empire, when Clovis was baptized in 499, the heathen Franconian upper class also became Roman Catholic. As a result of Columban's missionary travels on the mainland, the Irish Scottish mission was so successful that around 300 monasteries were founded there in the 7th century. Previously, almost exclusively the urban population had become Christian, but now an effective Christianization in rural areas has also been achieved.

In the 7th century England was proselytized by Iro-Scottish and Roman-Catholic missionaries at the same time, which led to conflicts because of the different understanding of the church. The Synod of Whitby in 664 decided in favor of the Roman rite. Numerous missionaries also traveled from England to the continent, devoting themselves in particular to the Germanic peoples who are related to the Anglo-Saxons. The outstanding figure was Bonifatius , who in Hesse and Thuringia came across sections of the population that had already been Christianized by the Irish Scottish mission, reorganized them according to the Roman model and founded numerous monasteries in Hesse and Franconia in particular .

Boniface considered Celtic Christianity to be inadequate and demanded its submission to Rome. Celtic clergy who were not subordinate to the Pope, he called false prophets, idolaters and adulterers (since they were married as clergy). Benedict's rule of the order , which was passed as binding at the Gallic Council of Autun , was disseminated by him and was intended to replace Columban's Irish-Scottish rule. In Bavaria in particular, he encountered strong resistance from the Irish-Scottish Christians.

The Saxons were brought to Christianity by Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries, sometimes by force. Charles defeated the Saxons in northern Germany around 800 and issued regulations in the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae such as B .:

  • 8. Whoever wants to remain a heathen and hides among the Saxons should die in order not to be baptized or to disdain to go to baptism.
  • 21. Whoever makes vows according to pagan custom at springs, trees or groves or who sacrifices according to pagan custom and organizes a communal meal in honor of idols, pays 60 as noble, 30 as friling , as late 15 sol. And if he does not have the money, should he work it off in the service of the church.

The Ottonians then became a strong pillar of Western European Christianity in the 10th century. Northeast Germany did not come to Christianity until the 10th century. The Christianization of Scandinavia , which began around 820, was completed around 1030. Missionary Bishop Ansgar played an important role in this .

Bohemia was evangelized primarily from Germany. In the 10th century, Wenceslaus of Bohemia was a Christian ruler who was murdered by his pagan brother Boleslav I. His son, Boleslav II , however, actively promoted Christianity again, founded monasteries and built churches, and completed the nominal Christianization of Bohemia.

In order to avoid a possible forced conversion of the countries of Poland by the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish prince Mieszko I decided in 966 through his marriage to Dubrawka , a daughter of the Přemyslid Boleslav I , to accept Christianity from the Bohemians (Czechs).

The Christianization of Hungary took place in the late 10th and early 11th centuries and was mainly achieved by the royal family, especially Stephen I.

The peoples of the Baltic States , the Prussians , Latvians and other Baltic tribes , as well as the Estonians and Wends , were not forcibly Christianized until the 10th to 13th centuries as part of the German settlement in the east , whereby the Grand Duchy of Lithuania could not be conquered and was only established at the end of the 14th century. Converted to Christianity in the 20th century.

When the Christianization of a region or a group was completed and from when the pre-Christian cults continued only in customs and superstition, can usually hardly be determined exactly.

Orthodox mission

European Christianity since 1054
  • Catholic Church
  • Orthodox Church
  • The Christianization of Eastern Europe essentially took place from Constantinople .

    The Serbs were proselytized from the seventh to the ninth centuries . In the ninth century, the Salonika brothers Kyrill and Method von Saloniki translated parts of the New Testament and the liturgy into Slavic and wrote them down in the Glagolitic script developed by Kyrill . They did missionary work on behalf of Photius I in Bohemia and Moravia , where they became involved in disputes between the Western Church and the Eastern Church. Moravia professed Christianity, but after the Hungarian invasion the majority became pagan again.

    The translations of Cyril and Method played an essential role in the spread of Christianity in Bulgaria and after 950 also in Russia. In 864 Boris, the Khagan of the Bulgarians, was baptized, which soon led to a mass conversion. Bulgaria was the first country to officially introduce a Slavic liturgy. And the country was completely Christianized for Boris' son Simeon . In 917 the Bulgarian Church declared itself autocephalous and became its own patriarchate. The church was orthodox in teaching, but independent in administration - the first of several Slavic churches that became independent according to this model.

    Photius I also sent the first missionaries to Russia in the ninth century. In the middle of the tenth century there was a Christian church in the capital Kiev and the Grand Duchess Olga of Kiev was baptized. It was only under her grandson Vladimir I (960-1015) that there was a mass conversion of Kiev and the surrounding area (see Christianization of Rus ). In 991 the population of Novgorod was baptized. When Vladimir died in 1015 there were three dioceses in Russia. In the twelfth century, Christianity spread along the Upper Volga . The mission was primarily carried out by monks and numerous monasteries were founded.

    Christianization in the course of colonialism

    The colonial regimes of European powers since the 15th century required justification and compatibility, above all with the Christian religion, which linked the colonizing conquerors with their European sending metropolises. With the papal bull Inter caetera in 1493, for example, the Spaniards were granted the rights to new lands in America to which they were supposed to bring the Catholic faith. European colonialism in the age of imperialism also favored neither a cultural nor a religious synthesis ( syncretism ). Already the earliest Spanish and English colonial theorists stylized the conquests as pagans - proselytizing within the framework of a divine plan of salvation or the "civilization" of the " barbarians ". The later American and Japanese colonialism also made use of such broadcast ideological rhetoric .


    In the Middle Ages , forced Christianizations were often rejected by the church, as the prevailing view was that the faith imposed by force could not be permanent. At the time of Charlemagne, for example, Alcuin criticized the royal procedure: a person could be driven to baptism, but not to believe. Forced baptism was also prohibited under canon law; no one should be forced to believe by force. The Christianization of northern and large parts of Eastern Europe took place largely peacefully and also not as part of military expansion (as with the Carolingians and some subsequent kings of Eastern Franconia ), but through missionary work. Nevertheless, as a result of the Crusades, there were repeated violent attacks against non-Christians.

    Today the large-scale forced Christianization of the Middle Ages and the colonial times is viewed in a differentiated manner and the majority viewed it critically.

    See also


    • Peter Brown : The Rise of Western Christendom. triumph and diversity, AD 200–1000: 2nd edition. Blackwell, Cambridge MA et al. 2003, ISBN 0-631-22138-7 .
    • Ramsay MacMullen : Christianizing the Roman Empire. (AD 100-400). Yale University Press, New Haven CT et al. 1984, ISBN 0-300-03216-1 .
    • Lutz E. von Padberg : The Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages (= Reclams Universal Library . No. 17015). Reclam Philipp Jun., Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-15-017015-X .
    • Michele Renee Salzman: The Making of a Christian Aristocracy. Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA et al. 2002, ISBN 0-674-00641-0 .
    • Christoph Stiegemann, Martin Kroker, Wolfgang Walter (eds.): Credo. Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages. Two volumes. Michael Imhof, Petersberg 2013, ISBN 978-3-86568-827-9 .

    Web links

    Wiktionary: Christianization  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


    1. ^ Siegfried G. Richter : The Coptic Egypt. Treasures in the shadow of the pharaohs. (with photos by Jo Bischof). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2019, ISBN 978-3-8053-5211-6 , pp. 32–39.
    2. Cf. generally Alan Cameron : The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford University Press, Oxford et al. 2011, ISBN 978-0-19-974727-6 .
    3. Michele Renee Salzman: The Making of a Christian Aristocracy. Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire . Cambridge MA 2002.
    4. Osterhammel 1995: p. 20.
    5. Alkuin, Epp. 110.
    6. ^ Resolutions of the 4th Council of Toledo 633, c. 57
    7. Christoph Stiegemann et al. (Ed.): Credo. Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages. 2 volumes. Petersberg 2013.
    8. See Bernd Moeller, Geschichte des Christianentums in Grundzügen , 8th edition. Göttingen 2001, p. 147ff.