The History of Missions: 1000 to 1500 A.D.

The period of history from approximately the year one thousand to the time of the Reformation is characterized by various mission endeavors. There was the mission effort of the Roman Catholic Church to make converts among the barbarians that still existed on the mainland of Europe and the surrounding country. There was, secondly, the attempt to reach into the countries where the Mohammedans had gained control. And there was, thirdly, what may be referred to as the reformatory mission endeavors within the Roman Catholic Church as the Church became increasingly apostate. 

We have seen in a previous article that by the year 1000 the greater part of Europe was nominally Christian and even assumed an attitude of being able to rule the world. Nevertheless the Scandinavian countries had not been won over to Christianity. The efforts that had been made in Denmark, for example, did not prove to be of lasting significance. At the beginning of the tenth century Gorm, the king of Denmark, decided to destroy the churches and kill the priests. However his son and successor, Harald Bluetooth, claimed to have made the Danes Christians. He reestablished the religion of the Roman Catholic Church and allowed bishops to be appointed throughout the country. Yet it was King Canute (Knut) who allowed Christianity, as it was known at that time, to become a part of the life of the Danish people; In 1018 he became king of Denmark and for a time he also ruled over Norway, having control of both sides of the North Sea. In 1026 he made a pilgrimage to Rome and thus showed himself prepared to join the western world in their religion. In 1022 he sent bishops to the archbishop of Canterbury to be consecrated, and thus a contact was established with England. The State maintained a certain power over the Church with remote control by the pope. 

In Norway the State also played a chief role in introducing the Christian religion into the country. The name of Olaf Tryggvesson (969-1000) is often referred to in this connection; Olaf was influenced by a hermit whom he met in the Stilly islands and by whom he was baptized. In 995 he returned to Norway and shortly after was elected king of Norway. He resorted to every means available to introduce his religion into the country, not hesitating to use flattery, guile, persuasion and even coercion. The members of the Assembly were reluctant to accept his views, but finally conceded. Olaf Haraldsson, also referred to as St. Olaf, carried on this work, but passed the responsibility of working it out to the bishops. When St. Olaf was overthrown, the religion of Norway was a mixture of Christianity with ancient customs and traditions. The State had control of religious matters. 

Christianity soon made its influence felt in Iceland and Greenland also, changing the customs and practices of the people and introducing bishops who were under the authority of Rome. Sweden was probably slower than all the rest in adopting the new religion. The king, Olof Skotkonung, put forth his effort in the early part of the eleventh century to bring a bishop into the country, but he met with great opposition. A hundred years later Inge became king and tried to abolish the heathen practice of sacrifices and to introduce baptism, but he also met with serious resistance. It was in the twelfth Century that finally Christianity had gained a foothold in Sweden, about the same time as in Finland. Thus all Europe, with a few exceptions, was said to be Christianized. In some areas, as in Prussia, Christianity was forced upon the people by the edge of the sword. We read that “all who were not baptized must receive the rite within a month, that those who declined to comply should be banished from the company of Christians, and that those who relapsed into paganism should be reduced to slavery.” 

There was also an intensive effort made by the Roman Catholic Church to win back those countries that had fallen to Mohammedanism. Mohammed had imposed his teachings as well as his influence upon the warring tribes of Arabia in the early part of the seventh century. These Arabs, partly through fanatic zeal and partly driven by the urge to obtain richer lands, set out to conquer the world. By 650 the ancient empire of Persia had fallen into their grasp. Jerusalem was taken in 638, Caesarea in 640, and thus Palestine and Syria came under the Moslem control. The armies spread out into Egypt and along the entire northern coast of Africa until in 697 Carthage was taken. Then sweeping into Asia Minor and through the southern part of Europe the Islam armies reached into Spain. Even Rome was plundered and Sicily fell into their hands. For many centuries afterward Islam held control of practically all the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Roman Catholic Church obviously resented this control and put forth every effort to regain the territory that was lost to them. It is quite generally agreed though that the crusades (1096-1270) actually attained nothing from a religious aspect. Whatever they may have accomplished they did not succeed in their attempt to replace the Islam Crescent with the Cross. They actually brought the Name of Christ in ill repute among the nations. 

It was especially the Italian Franciscans and the Spanish Dominicans who felt it their calling to spread the Gospel of Christ among these Mohammedans. Francis of Assissi established the brotherhood or Order that carried his name. He inaugurated the mission endeavors among the Islams. In 1223 he went to the East to preach the gospel to the sultan of Egypt. He is said also to have labored in Spain, and sent out many followers to various areas of the East. Also Dominicus, the founder of the Dominican friars, felt it his calling to send out members of his order to spread the gospel wherever possible. 

In this connection Ramon Lull (sometimes referred. to as Raymond Lully) is mentioned, who worked both with the Franciscans and the Dominicans, but who especially stressed the need for trained missionaries. Laboring among the Mohammedans he wanted to be able to refute any argument that they could raise against the ,Christian religion. He formulated certain definite rules or requirements for an effective mission endeavor. The first was a comprehensive and accurate knowledge of the oriental languages. Five colleges were established for the study of such languages as Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Greek. Second, he felt the need of a well formulated book of doctrine that could give grounds for its contentions and refute the errors of the Moslems. A Mohammedan leader had challenged him, “If you hold that the law of Christ is true, and that Mohammed is false, you must prove it by necessary reasons.” A challenge of that sort could hardly be ignored. And third, he felt the need of willingness to be faithful and courageous in the witness against the opponents, even at the cost of one’s life. It was a perilous effort to witness against the Mohammedans, because the preaching of the Gospel in Islamic countries was an offence punishable by death. Lull himself paid three or four visits to Africa to dispute and to preach. On the last visit in 1315 he was so roughly handled that he died of his injuries. 

Actually all the mission endeavors in the Far East have borne very little fruit throughout the centuries. Undoubtedly God did gather His own elect also in those countries from time to time, but the nations never became even nominally Christian. One is reminded of the prophecy of Noah concerning his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, Japheth, who spread throughout Europe after the confusion of Babel, did come to dwell in the tents of Shem. The line of the covenant definitely runs through the descendants of Japheth as well as through those of Shem. But nothing was said about Ham, and as far as Ham’s descendants are concerned, the line of the covenant never continues for any great length of time among them. 

But there is still a third phase of mission endeavor in this period which I would not like to ignore, even though this is not usually considered mission work in the accepted sense of the word. I have in mind the reformatory efforts that arose within the Roman Catholic Church as the church became increasingly corrupt; efforts that announced the dawn of the Reformation. 

We should mention, first of all, John Wycliffe who is often referred to as “The Morning-Star of the Reformation.” Wycliffe was born in Hipswell, near Richmond, Yorkshire, England, about 1320. He was a teacher in Oxford, but stands out more particularly as a writer and a reformer. Wycliffe’s views concerned particularly three subjects, the Church, the Eucharist, and the place of Scripture for Christian doctrine and life. In regard to the Church, he insisted that our membership in the church does not depend on the authority of the pope. He also denied, the priestly power of absolution. Over against these errors of the Roman Catholic Church he maintained the Scriptural doctrine of predestination, holding that “the true Church was composed of the ‘congregation of the predestined’ as the body of Christ, where neither place nor human election makes a person a member of the Church, but divine predestination in respect to whoever with perseverance follows Christ in love, and in abandoning all his worldly goods suffers to defend His law.” (“The Morning Star,” by G.H.W. Parker). In regard to the Eucharist, Wycliffe insisted that the priest did not have the power to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He opposed the practices of the Mass as idolatry. In regard to the Scriptures he maintained that they are the only sound basis for doctrine and behavior. His translation of the New Testament was completed in 1380; the entire translation of the Bible was completed in 1384, although it is not probable that he did more than a fragment of the work of translation himself. His followers were known as Lollards, who later were arrested and after some time were compelled to recant. Thirty years after Wycliffe’s death his writings were condemned, his bones dug up and burned in an official ceremony.

In this connection John Hus of Bohemia must also be mentioned. He came in contact with the writings of Wycliffe, agreed with them and taught them. Although Hus did not agree with Wycliffe on the Eucharist, his arguments about the nature of the Church were similar to those of Wycliffe: “he claimed that it was composed of the predestined under Christ, and that the Pope, cardinals and all the clergy possessed ministries only insofar as they lived according to God’s law in Scripture; he denounced simony in any form, and denied any sacerdotal power to remit sin. In addition, he upheld the right of individual judgment against ecclesiastical authority.” (The Morning Star, page 81). He was excommunicated, but stood his ground. Later he was brought to trial, called upon to recant, and when he categorically refused was burned to ashes. 

It can also be mentioned that Peter Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons, France, disposed of all his possessions and became the leader of “The Poor Men of Lyons.” He also opposed the errors of transubstantiation, mass, purgatory, absolution of sins by the priests, sales of indulgences, and the supreme authority of the Pope in Rome, as well as the worship of images, relics, of the virgin Mary and of the saints. (The March of Truth, Sr. Stephen Szabo). His followers were known as the Waldenses and are said to have joined the Calvinists after the Reformation. 

How true it is that the Son of God, and He alone, gathers His Church, and that by His Word and Spirit. Heid. Cat. Ques. 54.