History of Missions Lecture 3: The Dark Ages



As the Rome had fallen so did much of the civilisation that was organised by the Roman leaders. This meant that what followed was a time of movement and reaction against that movement, destruction and chaos. This included invasions by barbarians, Atilla the Hun and his army, and violent pagan tribes.

One particular pattern you might see in the history of missions is this:
A missionary would go to somewhere and be martyred.
There would be some rebellion but more missionaries would come.
Gradually there would be more conversions and less rebellions until Christianity won over a ruling class.


Birth and Spread of Islam

In 622 AD a man called Mohammed believed himself to have been inspired by God, moved from Mecca to Medina. He managed to unify a group of warring tribes in Arabia and gave them the mission to conquer. A Muslim was a man who was dedicated to carrying out the will of god. Certain aspects of this religion were somewhat aggressive, based from the desert-dwellers desire to gain possession of the richer land. Once the Arabs had begun to come out of the desert, they moved fast. By 650 AD the Persian empire was destroyed, Jerusalem fell in 638 AD, Caesarea in 640 AD. Alexandria  was captured in 642 AD.

Although traditionally Christian portrayals of this time are very much of death, it wasn’t all like that.  However, although there were occasional massacres, some Christians remained Christians within countries now under Muslim rule. Muslims did not want to convert them all. Christians lost some equality and were seen as second-class citizens but they were still needed to help run the country. There was pressure to convert only when you wanted to rise higher in government.

Muslim conquest was still devastating for the Christian world. It has even been suggested that as many of the Eastern Christians were techinically heretical (they believed that Jesus was both God and man, but these two parts were separate), they found it much easier to accept the new religion. There was very little effort made to convert Muslim people and under Muslim law, conversion to Christianity would be punished with execution.

Eventually Islam had control over a large portion of south east Europe and north Africa, and Christianity had become a religion of the West and north mediterranean.

Britain: Anglo-Saxons

Although Christian churches had existed in Britain as early as the third century, however, invasions of the Angles and Saxons had almost completely wiped it out. Christianity had withdrawn into Wales.

Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine and a party of monks into Britain. At that point Britain was broken up into a number of small kingdoms all constantly at war with one another. The team arrived in Kent and were grateful to be received by King Ethelbert who had married a Christian princess. Before long the king was won over by these Christian men and Augustine was able to baptise 10,000 Saxons.

Columba was an apostle of Scotland, founding the monastery of Iona. His purpose was evangelism and he preached to the heathen Picts over Scotland. By his death, Scotland had a number of monasteries and he left behind a simple sanctity. It is said of him: “in the midst of all his cares he showed himself open and friendly to everyone; he bore the joy of the Holy Spirit in the inmost places of his heart.”

In Britain particularly there were three main streams of Christianity:
Roman, British  and Celtic.

Boniface: Apostle of Germany

There are 5 main sections of Boniface’s time:

– He spent some time in Frisia in years of service
– He was summoned to Rome and sent to Germany as a bishop. He believed that missions needed to make sure that new churches became well structured and organised, or they would not last long-term.

– He gained a reputation after having cut down the sacred oak tree of Thor. This was not a sign of aggression or disrespect. The local population believed that this act symbolised a war between the gods, if his God was not greater than theirs then Boniface would be punished for cutting down the tree. As nothing happened the locals believed Boniface must be right and so he made a chapel out of the wood from the tree in honour of St Peter.

– He also attempted to reform the church in France. People were being given abbeys and turned into bishops just for doing something for the king, they were not necessarily faithful.
– He helped sort some of this out.
– When Boniface was much older he was travelling with a group of monks to confirm a group of newly-converted Christians. They were attacked by a group of pagans. Boniface held his bible up to his head, but all of the group were killed in the attack.

Charlemagne of France

Charlemagne was a wise and powerful ruler in France and had a real interest in theology. He started a campaign against the Saxons and decided that they needed to be brought under his control. However attaching a religion to the political power meant that any rebellion against the ruler was also a rebellion against Christianity. This meant that there was a lot of violence on both sides including a variety of Christian rules:

Anyone who killed a bishop/priest/deacon shall be put to death
Anyone who burns a dead body (like pagan ways) shall be put to death
Any unbaptised Saxon who tried to hide himself and refuses baptism shall be put to death
Anyone who plots with pagans against Christians shall be put to death


A big step forward was taken by the princess Olga who was baptised in Constantipole but found on her return to Russia that the nobles were not willing to follow her into this new religion. She attempted to invite a bishop into Russia. At this point her son took over the government from her and threw himself into a anti-Christian reaction. At one point there was even a chance he could’ve made his whole court convert to Islam.

It was his son, Olga’s grandson, Vladimir who eventually brought Christianity to Russia. He sent people in various directions to find the most sublime religion. Islam did not attract the messengers, Judaism was a possibility but did not seem well adapted to the Russians. However, when they reached Constantinople they found what they had been seeking:

“We did not know whether we were in heaven or on the earth. It would be impossible to find on earth any splendour greater than this, and it is vain that we attempt to describe it… Never shall we be able to forget so great a beauty.


Christianity moved through the trade routes of Asia to China and was mainly a monastic Christianity. With the Emporer A-lo-pen supporting Christianity in 635 AD it bloomed despite some anti-Christian reactions from the Buddist population. Monks took the trouble to learn the language and translate Christian books in Chinese.

Problems came in 845 AD when the Emperor Wu Tsung opposed monasticism in all forms. The Christian Church was broken by this and dwindled rapidly. In 987 a monk who went to investigate the Church of China reported back that he had found no trace of Christianity in the Chinese Empire.


The Dark Ages had been very tough on the Christian church. In 909 a cleric in France wrote:

“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 seem good 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 good of the Church… Men devour one another like the fishes in the sea.”

In 1000 the new day is just beginning to dawn upon Europe. Europe is again becoming a reality, and beginning to prepare itself for a great new age of Western civilisation and of the Western Church.

  •  Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions (Penguins Books, Great Britain, 1964).

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