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
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,
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
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.