The period from five hundred to one thousand after Christ is often referred to as The Dark Age. There was much corruption in the church, especially among the popes that controlled the church. Paganism and barbarianism still prevailed in much of the continent of Europe. And there was often a bitter struggle between the church and the pagans. One of the clerics of France wrote in the early part of the tenth century (909), “The cities are depopulated, the monasteries ruined and burned, the country reduced to solitude . . . . As the first men lived without law or fear of God, abandoned to their passions, so now every man does what seems right in his own eyes, despising laws human and divine and the commands of the church. The strong oppress the weak; the world is full of violence against the poor and of the plunder of the goods of the church . . . . Men devour one another like fishes of the sea.” (The History Of Christian Missions,” by Stephen Neill, pg. 97).
From the point of view of mission endeavors this period is particularly interesting to us who are of Dutch or of German descent. For this was the period in which most of Europe broke away from pagan barbarianism to the Christianity of that day. We will have: occasion to mention especially the mission endeavors that were made in what is now the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Actually in Europe there were two movements being carried on at almost the same time. One effort was being made by the pope in Rome to win Europe for the Roman Catholic persuasion. The other was the labor of individuals mainly from Ireland and England exerting their influence upon the mainland of Europe and more or less independent from the pope.
It was Gregory I (590-604) who insisted on the universal supremacy of the pope. He liked to refer to himself as the Servant of servants, the Vicar of Christ, with the right and authority to rule over the entire world, both from a religious and a political aspect. Bent on increasing his prestige in other lands, and at the same time endeavoring to keep his monks from becoming involved in the affairs of the world, he sent them out to win converts for the Roman Catholic Church. Some were appointed for Anglo-Saxon England, while others were directed to Germany which was still for the most part barbarian. In 596 Augustin (sometimes referred to as Austin) with forty monks was appointed to work in England. The Anglo-Saxons had come from Germany in 449 and had invaded eastern England and southeast Scotland, and forced the existing church farther into the interior. Now Ethelbert, King of Kent, had married a woman from Paris who professed Christianity. This likely influenced the king to receive Augustin and his followers, to listen to his sermon and to promise him protection. A few years later Ethelbert was baptized and thereupon many others professed Christianity. Augustin was made bishop of Canterbury, after which he made serious efforts to bring the Celtic Church into the Roman communion, but these efforts met only with failure.
It may be well to mention that Augustin used his own peculiar method which was sanctioned by the pope and was later used elsewhere, the effects of which are still evident today. Instead of condemning the pagan practices and festivities that he would meet, he tried to combine them with the worship and activities of the church. He was encouraged by the pope that “the heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols found in them . . . . And since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honor of the devil, but in honor of God and for their own food; when they have eaten and are full, then they must render thanks to the Giver of all things. If we allow them these outward joys, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy . . . . It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.” (Bede, “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.”) This all sounds very nice, but it obviously does not reckon with the complete change wrought by the Holy Spirit in regeneration and conversion of the elect. It is no wonder that so many who professed to be converted became only nominally Christian. And this undoubtedly accounts for the strange mixture of religious and pagan elements in the celebration of Halloween as indulged in by so many still today. Even the celebration of the birth of Christ is a concoction of Christ-mass with its baby Jesus in a manger, combined with Santa Claus, “Jingle Bells,” and tinsels and tissue paper and gifts.
Apart from the efforts of the pope at Rome, there were also many monks, particularly from Ireland, who went out as missionaries either alone or in groups into the British Isles and into western Europe. These monks were not ordained and sent out by the church according to the principle laid down in Acts 13, but were either appointed by some abbot or bishop or went out entirely on their own. Many of them, were motivated by the desire to separate themselves from their families and country, to become “wanderers” as a form of asceticism that was considered pleasing to the Lord. One of these was Columba, who became missionary in Scotland at about 560 A.D. Forty years later a monk by the name of Columbanus appeared on the scene. Since the monasteries ruled the churches, it need not surprise us that monks went out as missionaries. This was even the case from the churches already established in England.
One of the outstanding men of the time was Willebrord, who was born and raised in England. He had spent a few years in a monastery of which Wilfried was abbot. This Wilfried had been on his way to Rome when a contrary wind forced him to the shores of Friesland, where he spent the winter at the court of Aldgild, preached and also baptized a few converts. Later Willebrord went to a monastery in Ireland, since these monasteries were considered to be more spiritual than those of England. There he met a certain Egbert, who was not able to go to the continent of Europe himself, but who sent Willebrord at the head of a company of twelve monks. Willebrord went to Utrecht, where (690) the Friesian king Radboud had his residence. Since the king had just suffered a defeat from their archenemy the Franks, he was not ready to listen to anyone who professed a like religion to that of the Franks. Willebrord and his companions could gain no open door in northern Frisia, which is now Netherlands. He was forced to go south of the Rhine, in that part of Frisia that was occupied by the Franks. At the encouragement of the French king, Pepin, he was made archbishop, so as to have more influence over the other bishops. When Utrecht fell into the hands of the Franks in 695 he was given the seat of archbishop there. He rebuilt a number of the churches and the monasteries that had been destroyed in that area.
Besides working in Frisia, he also brought the gospel to the Danes. He met much opposition in his first attempt, but he did manage to take with him a few young Danes to train them in Utrecht and later allow them to return to their own people.
Boniface, another well known figure of this time, worked along with Willebrord for a few years. In 716 he ventured to go directly to the king Radboud and to admonish him that he should no longer oppose Christianity. Although Radboud respected his courage and allowed him to work in his domain, Boniface met with very little success in spreading the gospel. After a few years he went into Germany to preach the gospel there. In spite of much opposition from the pagan Germans, he did gain and baptize some converts and even pressed farther into the country. The pope, pleased with his efforts, first made him bishop and then archbishop of Germany. He is said to have been more of an organizer than a preacher of the gospel, since he worked hard especially to improve their agriculture and raise the standard of their living in general. At a ripe age of almost 80 years he returned to the Netherlands. From Utrecht he went in 753 to northern Friesland. A year later he is said to have been waiting for a group of converts to be confirmed, when he and his companions were suddenly attacked by the pagans and killed. It appears that he was very devoted to the Roman Catholic Church and completely subservient to the pope, so that he even brought churches already established into the Romish community.
Under Charlemagne (742-814) the Holy Roman Empire had control of much of western Europe, particularly in the area which is now France. The king tried to convert the barbarians to Christianity “by the, Word and by the sword.” He forced many to be baptized by the edge of the sword. But he met fierce opposition from the Frisians in what is now the Netherlands and from the Saxons in what is now Germany. They fought back and even destroyed a number of monasteries and churches. Charlemagne even had intentions of uniting the newly revived eastern empire with his own. This was to be accomplished by his marriage with Irene, who was then at the head of the eastern empire. But all his schemes failed when she lost her throne.
One great unifying force in western Europe was the fact that the pope insisted on Latin as the sole liturgical language in the churches. He considered the languages of the barbarians as uncouth, uncultured and ill-adapted for liturgical usage. The weakness was that worshippers understood little, if anything, of the form of worship. Dead formalism with a certain atmosphere of the mysterious filled the churches.
It would take up too much space to write in detail about the spread of the gospel to central and eastern Europe, even into Russia. The Orthodox Greek Church did send missionaries into the Scandinavian countries. Sweden in particular saw a number of churches established throughout the country. The eastern churches worked rather zealously toward translating parts of the Bible into the languages of the common people. Through all the efforts that were put forth by the tenth century a large part of Europe had become nominally Christian. There are accounts that even speak of the spread of the gospel as far as China already in the seventh century. And after the ninth and tenth century a Christian Church is said to have existed there for almost two hundred years.
It is no wonder that this period is considered the dark age, even from the point of view of all the corruption prevalent in the church and from the aspect of the mission labors that were being performed. The Roman Catholic Church was interested in power at any cost, both religiously and politically. Many converts were forced into the church at the threat on their lives, so that they became only nominally Christian. They often kept their pagan practices and used them in the religion taught by the church. Even the missionaries that went out on their own accepted the approval of the pope, sought the aid of kings in order. to gain protection and prestige, and were at times more interested in culture and social improvement than in the truth of the Scriptures. This became a seedbed for many evils that later cropped up in the church.
And yet in spite of all this, the Lord obviously also had His elect people also at that time, and gathered His Church unto Himself, small and insignificant as that may have been. There must have been even at that time those who were impelled by the love of Christ, both in preaching the gospel and in receiving it. One can only marvel at the wonder of grace, that God proves so repeatedly in history that He and He alone gathers His Church through His Son, Jesus Christ, andby His Spirit and Word. And even as He gathers His Church, so He also defends and preserves a remnant according to the election of grace, even in the darkest hours of history. His strength is accomplished through weakness, but always according to His purpose.