Session 11: The Gospel and Culture Interact

Session 11 The Gospel and Culture Interact—East and West

Today we will review the expansion of the church during the 300 years of 1000 to 1300 and the evangelization of Northern Europe and Iberia.

The Inquisition in the Middle Ages was the church’s response to heresy, which it sought to eliminate by force.

The Roman Catholics advanced into Asia, particularly China, in the High Middle Ages. If the church had responded differently to the Mongols, the history of the world would have been quite different.


At the end of this lesson, participants should

describe the movements of the church into Northern Europe 
discuss the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Iberia during this period 
appreciate the efforts of Ramon Lull to evangelize the Muslims 
discuss the reasons for the Inquisition 
develop a consciousness of the ways the Church can misuse the authority of God in
          the Christian life 
describe the attempts of monks to evangelize Asia in the High Middle Ages 
Consider the failures of Christian attempts to evangelize Asia, and what might have
happened if Christians had been able to convert the Mongols

A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 22
            Write a Big Idea paragraph on your reading.

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. The Expansion of the Church in Europe
                        What do you know about Muslims today?
2. The Inquisition
                        What teachings today should the Church label as heretical?
            3.The Catholic Church in China and the Mongol Empire.
                       What opportunities for evangelism is the Church missing out on today? 

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  

The Expansion of the Church in Europe

Missionary Activity in Europe

Refer to Resource 11-1 in the Student Guide; Resource 11-2 is a map.

One thousand years after Christ, there were still large areas of Europe to be evangelized.

Scandinavia possessed a warlike culture that occasionally, as in the eighth century, launched out to attack and plunder areas of Europe. Vikings, the Norse, devastated Ireland in raid after raid between 800 and 850, and had pillaged and destroyed many ancient monasteries. Vikings established a pagan kingdom in Dublin that endured from 850 to 1150. The Danes attacked England and established a kingdom there as well as in Sweden. But both the Vikings and the Danes were ready to “make room for a Christian deity alongside the traditional gods,” as historian Richard Fletcher puts it.

In the early eleventh century Norway was still made up of various kingdoms or chiefdoms. One king, Haakon, had been raised and educated in England, and introduced Christianity during his reign, 946-961. A bishop was consecrated about 960.

Tradition has it nonetheless that Christianity came to
Norway in 995 through Olaf Tryggvason, who had been baptized in England in 994. Accompanied by an English bishop, Olaf returned to Norway in 995 in pursuit of a throne. During the next four years, he attempted to convert the people by force.

Olaf Haraldsson, a kinsman, who ruled from 1015 to 1028, carried on the work. Not content with nominal acceptance of Christianity, he admonished priests and bishops to instruct the people well in the faith. Yet paganism persisted, and Christianity itself was modified by Norwegian ways and traditions. In 1152 the Norwegian church declared itself independent of all church officials except the pope himself.

Iceland accepted Christianity by a democratic process. Iceland had been settled in the late ninth and early tenth centuries predominantly by Norwegians, but including Irish and Scottish people who had already embraced Christianity.

It is likely that Icelanders themselves sought Christian missionaries from Norway to evangelize their country. Since the Germans were actively engaged in missions in Norway, Thangbrand, a German bishop, arrived in Iceland sometime in the eleventh century. It is said that Christianity became the state religion of Iceland by an act of the country’s parliament about 1016. Christianity brought literacy, Latin, a written law, theology, and history. 

This created a dramatic break with previous customs, which had included offering human sacrifices to the gods. The church remained attached to the bishop of Norway. The first Icelander bishop, Islef, was educated in Germany in the eleventh century. Islef established a theological school.

The Danes had many contacts with their Christian neighbors to the south. The Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who ruled from 958 to 987, was a Christian. Under his rule, churches were built throughout the country.

His son Sweyn initiated raids on England. Sweyn’s son Canute, who reigned from 1016 to 1035, continued the conquest of England and extended Danish rule over Norway. Canute came under the influence of an English archbishop, Wulfstan of York, who explained the ways of Christian faith more clearly.

Canute made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1027. He established a close unity between the state and ecclesiastical structure and required his subjects to learn the Lord’s Prayer and attend communion at least three times each year. Canute invited missionaries from England to evangelize Denmark, but kept them tightly under his control. Bishop Adalbert of Hamburg, seeing himself as a kind of patriarch for the church in the North, became jealous of the English intervention in Denmark.

In Sweden, King Olof Skotkunung, who ruled from 995 to 1022, founded a bishopric at Skara and accepted missionaries from Germany. Later in the eleventh century missionaries also arrived from England, and possibly Poland and Russia.

In 1104 the pope appointed a bishop to Lund, Sweden, to serve over all of Scandinavia. Missionaries commonly smashed pagan idols and burned pagan temples. In the 1080s the king himself attacked a pagan cult at Uppsala. But Sweden remained pagan. In the 1130s King Sverker called upon austere Cistercian monks to evangelize the country. A bishop for Uppsala, a Cistercian, was appointed in 1164. But old superstitions long remained.

Finland was at war with Sweden during these years. Swedish settlements in Finland established Christianity. An indigenous bishop was appointed in 1291. Not until that date can the country be said to be Christianized. 

Christianity entered Poland through Bohemia and Germany. A Polish prince was baptized in the late tenth century. But the growth of Christianity in Poland awaited his son, Boleslaw Chrobry, who reigned from 992 to 1025. Boleslaw encouraged missionary activity and established an archbishopric and hierarchy that assured the church’s independence from Germany. He unified the kingdom, but at great cost. After his death the kingdom broke apart, churches and monasteries were destroyed, and priests and bishops driven out or killed. Yet Christianity in Poland persisted amid the political chaos.

Paganism proved resistant in the Baltic region of northeastern Europe. Many evangelists sent from Denmark, Poland, Russia, and Germany were martyred. During the Crusades, the Order of Teutonic Knights was given authority by the pope to evangelize and conquer by force, with the enticement that the order could retain two-thirds of any pagan lands it took, reserving the other third for the church.

The Dominicans arrived alongside the Teutonic Knights. The Knights conquered Prussia about 1250. Christianity was forced upon the people through the treaty imposed. Any who lapsed into paganism, the treaty stipulated, were to be reduced to slavery. The provisions also enforced monogamy and the order of Christian worship, which included the requirements to confess to a priest once a year and take communion at Easter time.

The kingdom of Lithuania held out longer against the Knights. Finally, they allied themselves with Poland in order to defeat the Knights, on the condition that the Lithuanian king, Jogaila, who was to wed a Polish princess, unite the kingdoms of Poland and Luthuania, and be baptized. Jogaila was baptized in 1385. This marked the official end of paganism in Europe. Missionaries from Poland evangelized Lithuania.

Success in Iberia
Refer to Resource 11-3 in the Student Guide
The Crusades against the Muslims in the Holy Lands naturally turned the church’s attention toward Spain, which had been under Muslim rule since the eighth century. The Christian reconquest of Spain began in 1002. During the next five centuries the churches in Spain conformed to Roman Catholic practices through the zeal and influence of French clergy. During the twelfth century both the Knights and the Cistercians arrived. The thirteenth century brought the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Ramon Lull (1235-1315) was a philosopher and lay missionary to the Muslims in Spain. Born to aristocracy, Lull’s native area of Spain, Majorca, had only recently been freed from Muslim control. At the age of 30 Lull had a profound conversion experience and professed a call from God to devote himself fulltime to His service, and particularly to evangelize the Muslims.

In order to prepare himself for this task, Lull spent nine years studying both Arabic and Christian thought. He began to publish apologetic works aimed at the Muslims and persuaded the king to set up a study center for the study of Islam and Arabic. Thirteen Franciscans enrolled for study.

Lull himself became a Franciscan. Their approach to the conversion of the Muslims, peaceful preaching and humble persuading, appealed to him. Lull wrote: I see many knights go to the Holy Land beyond the sea, wanting to conquer it by force of arms, and in the end they are all brought to naught without obtaining their aim. Therefore it seems to me, O Lord, that the conquest of that Holy Land should not be done but in the manner in which you and your apostles have conquered it: by love and prayers and shedding of tears and blood.

Lull’s approach to the Muslims was based on three principles.

First, missionaries should have a comprehensive, accurate knowledge of the language. There needed to be colleges to teach these languages along with theological education.

Second, he believed the Muslims would be won with rational arguments, and without recourse to Scripture, since Muslims rejected its authority. He spoke of God in monotheistic ways that Muslims and Jews as well as Christians could accept. He made extensive use of diagrams and charts as well as Neoplatonist philosophy.

Third, missionaries must be ready to sacrifice themselves. That Lull himself was martyred in North Africa is open to question.

Lull’s ideas possessed mystic tendencies. He centered his contemplations upon divine perfections, which, he said, was achieved by the purification of memory, understanding, and will. He defended the immaculate conception of Mary. Lull elaborated his idea in a number of books and tracts.

For about 10 years, 1287 to 1297, Lull traveled throughout Europe to elicit the support of the monarchs for the evangelization of the Muslims. He secured centers of Arabic language study in five universities. He also undertook missions to North Africa.

In 1299 he persuaded the king of Aragon to force the Muslims and Jews to attend instruction in Christianity. Protected by the crown, Lull himself began preaching in synagogues and mosques in Aragon. Even later in life, in 1305, Lull admonished the pope in the Crusade to the Holy Land, to first send as an advance party, friars well trained in both Arabic and apologetics to preach to the Muslims. If the Muslims refused the Good News, force was tolerable, Lull now believed. At least some Muslims, he was confident, would be responsive to public disputations and preaching.

Jews as well as Muslims in Iberia were pressed by force to convert to Christianity. At the same time, Christians did not trust the conversions. They feared that Jews maintained their own customs secretly, and that there was an alliance between Jews and Muslims. The Christians imposed the Inquisition, which forced neighbor to report on neighbor, in an attempt to discover and root out false conversions. The Christianization process in Iberia was completed only in 1492, after the union of the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, and the defeat at Granada of the remaining Muslims.

The Inquisition

The Dissenting Groups

Refer to Resource 11-4 in the Student Guide.
In 1022 a group of heretics were condemned at the Council of Orleans. The heretical movement spread from southern France to northern Italy and Germany. In France the heretics were called Albigenses. In Germany they were called Catharists—from the Greek, katharos, pure. They were also known as the Patarenes.

These heretics were dualists. They rejected flesh and matter as evil and saw matter and spirit in eternal conflict. With both a soul and a body, human beings lived in a “mixed” state. Redemption was the liberation of the soul from the flesh. There were two classes of believers, these heretics taught. The “perfect” were those who received the baptism of the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands, and who lived by the strictest rules, and were celibate. Below them were ordinary believers.

These heretics were not only dualists but also Docetists. Christ was not fully incarnate, but like an angel. He did not suffer, die, or rise from the dead. The Old and New Testaments were filled with allegories, which the heretics believed the Catholic Church wrongly interpreted literally. Refer to Resource 11-5 in the
Student Guide.

The heretics rejected the sacraments, indulgences, and various doctrines, including purgatory and the resurrection of the body. All matter was bad; therefore, they lived self-denying, very strict lives. In ascetic practices, they exceeded monks. As pacifists, they refused to take up arms. The most vigorous condemned marriage. They were vegetarians, refusing milk, butter, cheese, eggs, and meat.

These heretics actively attempted to boycott and disrupt the Catholic Church. They issued propaganda against the Catholic Church. They thought of themselves as the only true church. They excited extreme reaction but welcomed suffering—to the point of committing suicide—and martyrdom.

Refer to Resource 11-5 in the Student Guide.
An unrelated group, also considered heretics by the church, were the Waldensians. These were followers of Peter Valdo who died about 1215, a rich merchant of Lyons. Beginning in southern France, the movement spread to northern Italy and Austria. They believed they represented an unbroken tradition stretching back to Paul’s trip from Rome to Spain.

About 1173, Valdo heard Christ’s words to the rich young man in Matthew 19:12 to sell all he had and give his money to the poor, and he obeyed literally. Valdo separated from his wife, placed his daughters in a convent, and set off as an itinerant preacher. He preached against the worldliness of the church and its priests, and against the dualism of the Catharists.

Unlike the Albigenses or Catharists, Waldensian beliefs regarding Christ were strictly orthodox. Valdo sought papal recognition for his movement at the Third Lateran Council of 1179. Not only did the pope refuse, but the Council of Verona in 1184 placed the Waldensians under the ban of excommunication along with the Catharists.

So the Waldensians separated from the Roman Catholic Church. They doubted the efficacy of sacraments given by unworthy priests, and so appointed their own preachers. Without the church’s consent, Waldensians used lay preachers, including women.

These preachers used local languages to proclaim the Scripture. On biblical bases they denied purgatory, refused to pray for the dead or venerate the saints and relics. They emphasized the Sermon on the Mount, refused to kill for any reason, and lived simply.

The Church’s Response

In the early centuries, the means by which the church controlled heresy was the threat of excommunication. However, after the church became the official religion of the empire, it allowed the state to resort to physical punishment, even death, to control heretics.

Even so, many medieval church leaders, including Bernard of Clairveaux, counseled the church to use appropriately Christian means against heresy, and decried the use of force. Nonetheless, the 1179 Third Lateran Council sanctioned the state’s use of force to suppress heresy.

In 1184 Pope Lucius inaugurated the Inquisition by making it mandatory for bishops to examine their people once a year and to require of them an oath attesting to their orthodoxy. The term “inquisition” and “inquisitor” came from the Roman law and were taken over from the Roman Empire.

The church became threatened by the Catharists, Albigenses, and Waldensians. Various councils, including the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), condemned their teachings. Pope Innocent III sent out missions to combat the heresy, and finally an armed and cruel crusade that ended in 1218.

The Dominicans became involved in refuting them. Yet the common person was impressed by the austerity of the heretics’ lives, which they contrasted to the moral laxity of many clergy and monks, and the movements severely threatened the church.

In 1232 Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), who was also king of Sicily, issued an edict calling upon state officials to find and punish heretics. Pope Gregory IX (1148-1241) had several struggles with Frederick for control over Italian lands. Fearing that the state would take over what was truly a task for the church, realizing the failures of earlier attempts to uproot the heretics, and taking away control from the local bishops, Gregory centralized the church’s response and appointed inquisitors responsible to himself.

The Council of Toulouse in 1229 sanctioned the Inquisition in order to free the church totally from unorthodox beliefs. In 1231 Gregory issued an edict excommunicating all heretics in general, and mentioning in particular the Catharists, Albigenses, and Waldensians. Those suspected of heresy should be thoroughly examined, and if recommended for punishment, handed over to the state. Indeed, secular rulers lent support to the church in the uprooting of supposed heretics.

Laypersons were expected to report on their neighbors if they believed them deviant from the faith. “Infamy” was ascribed to those who aided heretics. Anyone who protected a heretic was equally liable to be excommunicated.

Gregory selected inquisitors from the new orders, the Franciscans, founded in 1209, and the Dominicans, founded in 1220. Unlike resident priests, the orders could devote themselves fully to the task. He particularly felt the Dominicans were well trained in theology for the mission and task of routing out heretics, and officially entrusted the Inquisition to them in 1233.

Gregory was a personal friend of Francis of Assisi and felt the Franciscans lacked the worldly ambition that might tempt the other, older orders in their pursuit of  heretics. The Franciscans were officially appointed to the Inquisition only in 1246. The austere lives of the Franciscans could be compared favorably to the Catharists or Waldensians.

 The friar inquisitors traveled around the countryside, admonishing those who held heretical views to confess them. Their first tactic was preaching. They believed that knowledge of the truth itself would guard local laypersons from error.

Gregory’s explicit instructions to the inquisitors were: When you arrive in a city, summon the bishops, clergy and people, and preach a solemn sermon on faith; then select certain men of good repute to help you in trying the heretics and suspects denounced before your tribunal. All who on examination are found guilty or suspected of heresy must promise to obey absolutely the commands of the church; if they refuse, you must prosecute them, according to the statutes which we have recently promulgated.

The suspected persons were brought before a kind of local jury that included the local priest and laypersons. Those accused by witnesses were closely interrogated. One question they were asked was, “Have you heard the heretics say, and have you believed that all the good spirits as well as the souls of the angels and of men had been made originally by the good god in heaven, and that there they had sinned and had fallen from heaven, and that some of these spirits had become embodied in human bodies by the bad god?”

Another question was simply, “Did you, at this time, believe that these heretics were good men and spoke the truth, that they had a good faith and a good sect, in which men were able to be saved, and that the doctrine which you heard from them was true, wholly or partially?” To that question one French widow responded:

I, at the time, thought and believed that these heretics were good people, in that they engaged in great abstinences, never took anything of others, did not render evil for evil, also because they observed chastity. But now I do not hold them to be good people, but on the contrary to be evil, for they are very grasping and selfish, and also because they force people to die “the endura.” But all the doctrines exposed above, all their errors, I believed to be the truth, pressured as I was to believe it. And I remained in this belief for about a year, until they told me not to suckle my daughter, after her heretication, and also because at that time I heard them tell their “believers” to kill those who persecuted them, betrayed them, or denounced them, “for it is necessary to cut down the bad tree” [Matthew 7:19]. That is why, since that time, I no longer believed their doctrine to be true, but rather that they were evil people. I provided for them since that time in my house, because I was afraid of them and I loved my husband very much, and I did not wish to offend him. I had observed him to be very attached to these heretics.

There were various ways the inquisitors hoped to establish the truth. They hoped for confessions. The ones who voluntarily confessed to heresy were offered lighter penalties—fasting, the wearing of a yellow cross, fines, or a pilgrimage, for instance. At the same time, they were asked for the names of other heretics. 

Eyewitnesses were called. Those who were obstinate in the face of several witnesses were imprisoned. Heavy penalties included flagellation, the confiscation of goods, imprisonment, and ultimately surrender to the state—which usually meant death by burning. In Germany especially, trials sometimes resorted to “ordeals,” for divine intervention to determine the guilt or innocence of a person. One such method was trial by hot water. A person would draw a stone from the bottom of a boiling pot. His arm then was bandaged. If, after three days, the hand was whole, the person was acquitted.

But it soon became apparent that abuses of the Inquisition system were common. One zealous Dominican inquisitor in France brought 180 persons to death by burning in 1239. The pope, when he heard of it, thought this excessive and had the inquisitor imprisoned for life in a monastery. In Toulouse, between 1245 and 1246, 945 people out of a population of about 5,000 were interrogated. One hundred and five were sentenced to prison, and the remainder to lesser punishments.

In certain localities, inquisitors were themselves placed in danger by townspeople. As the Inquisition progressed, local inquisitors sent questions and problematic issues back to Rome for decision. Appeals of sentences to the pope became common.

In 1244 the inquisitor’s role was more fully circumscribed, and the Council of Narbonne stipulated  that the orders should receive no monetary benefit from the Inquisitions, listed various categories of heretics, and declared, “It is better for the guilty to remain unpunished than for the innocent to be punished.”

Manuals for inquisitors began to circulate. However, in 1252 Pope Innocent IV sanctioned the use of torture to induce confessions, and increasingly the pope restored power and authority to the inquisitors.

This strengthened and centralized the control of the pope over the church and set precedents in church law. The Inquisition indicated the extent to which the church would go to enforce conformity, not only to its doctrines, but to its authority.

As a result of the church’s aggressive actions against them, by 1400 few traces of the Catharist heretics remained. However, in spite of the Inquisition and persecution, the Waldensians thrived, especially among the lower classes. They influenced the Hussite movement in Bohemia. Even without any central leadership, they survived to embrace the Reformation, but found the reformed churches equally as intolerant of them as the medieval church had been.

The Catholic Church in China and Mongol Empire

Refer to Resource 11-7 in the Student Guide.
Christian influence reached into the heart of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Emissaries and letters went back and forth between Christian leaders in Europe and Mongol Khans; Nestorians already were prominent in the inner circles; and wives and mothers of Mongol leaders were Christians. There was an opportunity for Christians to unite with Mongols against Muslims in the Middle East. It seemed, in fact, that there were opportunities for the Christian conversion of Mongol leaders themselves, who had extended their empire far beyond the borders of any empire before or since in world history.

The Mongols were a nomadic people emanating from Central Asia. Genghis Khan (1162-1227) unified Mongol tribes and allied himself with others, including the Keraits, who had been converted to Christianity in the 10th century by Nestorians. The Mongols captured Beijing in 1215. Genghis warred against the Muslim Khorezin empire in southwestern Asia in the same decade and conquered Tibet in the 1220s. The Mongol armies terrorized people everywhere, evidencing military might and strategy characterized by a rapid movement of cavalry.

Religiously, the Mongols were Shamanist, but they realized these beliefs were insufficient for a state religion. Although many leaders adopted Tibetan Lamaism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism, by policy they were tolerant of all religions. Nestorian priests attended to the royal court along with Buddhist monks and Muslims. In Genghis’s capital, Karakorum, mosques, temples, and churches could be found alongside each other. 

Europeans were confused as to where the Mongol invaders originated from when they rode out of the east in the 1220s to wreak havoc upon Eastern Europe. They captured Kiev, by then a center of Eastern Orthodoxy, in 1240; and the next year attacked Hungary, Poland, and Prussia.

They defeated the Teutonic Knights and Templars, the finest European military forces. This brought greater urgency to the European rulers. But Europe was divided politically. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick would not take a united front with the pope, who called for a Crusade against the Mongols, and so no force was mobilized. Throughout Europe, Christians prayed they would be saved from the Mongol onslaught. It began to seem all Christendom would fall unless God intervened. Suddenly the Mongols turned back. Perhaps God had intervened. Actually, Second Supreme Khan, Ogedai, had died, and Mongol princes and generals hastened back to the capital. But Europeans wondered when the Mongols would return, and shuddered. 

In 1245, Pope Innocent IV sent two Franciscans with letters for the “Emperor of the Tartars.” Friar John of Plano Carpini arrived in Karakorum in 1246, in time for the coronation of Genghis’s grandson, the Third Supreme Khan, Kuyuk. 

The first letter was largely theological, describing the redemptive and mediatory work of Christ. The pope said he was sending the friars to fulfill the apostolic mission of the church, “so that following their salutary instructions you may acknowledge Jesus Christ the very Son of God and worship His glorious name by practicing the Christian religion.”

From your reading of the first letter, what was your impression of its message?

The second letter of the pope, written a week later, was more confrontational. It spoke against the Mongol invasion and destruction and “earnestly beseeched” the Khan to offer penance to God, who “without doubt you have seriously aroused by such provocation.” God may be refraining from chastising the proud for a season, the pope warned, but He may “take greater vengeance in the world to come.”

How would you expect someone to receive and respond to this second letter?

The Khan’s response began by calling upon the pope to come with the other princes to serve him. He called the pope’s words impudent. So far as the Khan was concerned, the Mongols were carrying out God’s commands. “How could anybody seize or kill by his own power contrary to the command of God?” the Khan asked. He had his own theology: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, all the lands have been made subject to me. Who could do this contrary to the command of God?” The Khan sent his warning: unless the pope himself came to pay homage, he would be considered an enemy.

What is your impression of the Khan’s response? How would you expect the pope to receive it?

Despite these recriminations, Kuyuk did favor Christianity of all the religions in his empire. His mother was a Christian, at least in name (both she and her son lived profligately). Kuyuk ruled only two years. But before dying of alcohol poisoning, he was baptized.

Refer to Resource 11-8 in the Student Guide.
Meanwhile both the Europeans and the Mongols were directing their attention to the Holy Lands. France’s King Louis IX in 1248 received ambassadors from the Mongol commander, Eljigedei, who himself had been  baptized a Christian, suggesting an alliance between the Europeans and the Mongols against the Muslims. Louis informed the pope, who promptly sent another mission to Karakorum led by Friar Andrew. But by the time Andrew reached the Khan, in 1250, the empire was under the regency of Kuyuk’s widow, Oghui- Ghaimish, who saw no reason to form an alliance with the Europeans.

Louis sent another emissary, Friar William of Rubruck. William traveled from Acre, the remaining Christian outpost in the Holy Lands, to the Mongol ruler in Russia, Sartak, who was a Christian. Sartak sent William and his companions on to the Great Khan Mangku in Karakorum.

The friar arrived in 1253. Mangku’s mother had been a Christian, but he believed he needed to remain impartial toward any religion. William had the opportunity to explain and defend the faith, but his theology was, as historian James Chambers describes it, “intolerant and dogmatic and his arguments were academic and philosophical.” His only “conversions” were a Nestorian priest and six German children. 

The Mongols continued to amass armies to face the Muslims and attacked Baghdad in 1258. Not only were Christians included among the Mongol soldiers, but the Mongol commander placed Christians in prominent positions in Syria, which now came under Mongol control. Just when the Mongols were preparing their advance against Muslims in Jerusalem, Mangku died and the Mongol commander withdrew. This spared the destruction and possible annihilation of Islam. 

Mongols saw Europeans as their natural allies against the Muslims and sent various representatives, mostly Nestorian Christians, to European courts in the 1270s and 1280s. In 1288 and 1290 Argur, Ilkhan of Persia, sent letters to the pope and the king of France, proposing a joint effort in 1291 to drive the Muslims out of Palestine. The Khan had his son baptized as a Christian and promised he himself would be baptized in the River Jordan, and would restore Jerusalem to the Christians, if the alliance achieved its goal.

But remarkably, neither the pope nor the European princes seemed interested in this project. Their last Crusade efforts had failed miserably, and they were unwilling to cooperate on another. Soon Argur died and his son, who had been baptized a Christian, converted to Islam. By this time the Mongols of the “Golden Horde” who ruled Russia also had become Muslim. Any chance for a Christian/Mongol alliance in the Middle East against the Muslims was lost forever. 

In context the Christian response seemed rational. The Europeans were terror-stricken by the Mongols. In spite of their desire to retake the Holy Land, they realized the attainments of medieval Islamic civilization surpassed their own. Muslim philosophy and architecture were arguably the most advanced in the world in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Why embrace a barbarian horde and turn against these civilized neighbors?

There were still opportunities waiting for Christianity in eastern Asia, nonetheless. The Fifth Supreme Khan, Kublai, directed his attention to China and particularly aimed at pacifying the south. He had no preferences toward Chinese religions or learning, and used foreigners, such as the Italian explorer Marco Polo, as well as Mongolians to govern the subjected Chinese. Kublai Khan even invited the pope to send a hundred missionaries to evangelize China! They did not come— they were not sent—and so Buddhist lamas filled the religious void. Apparently Kublai himself embraced Buddhism.

The pope did send John of Monte Corvino, who arrived just after Kublai’s death in 1294. John was able to establish an active Christian center in the Khanbalik, the heart of the eastern Mongol empire. The Pope appointed John as archbishop in 1307 and sent additional missionaries. John wrote to the pope from Beijing in January 1305 regarding his mission and the conditions of the church in China:

In the year of our Lord 1291, I, Brother John of Monte Corvino, of the Order of Friars Minor, left the city of Tauris, in Persia, and penetrated into India. For thirteen months I sojourned in that country and   in the church of the Apostle St. Thomas, here and there, and baptized about a hundred people . . . Resuming my journey, I arrived at Cathay, the kingdom of the emperor of the Tartars, who is called the great Khan. In delivering to the said emperor the letters of the Lord Pope, I preached to him the law of our Lord Jesus Christ. The emperor is too rooted in his idolatry, but he is full of good will to Christians. And I have been twelve years with him.

Isolated in this distant pilgrimage, I was eleven years without making my confession until the arrival of Brother Arnold, a German from the province of Cologne, who has been here for two years.

In the city of Khanbalik I built a church which has been finished six years. I added a campanile with three bells. I have baptized, I think, almost six thousand people in the church, and had there not been the campaign of calumny of which I spoke earlier, I would have baptized more than thirty thousand. I am often busy administering baptism. I have also bought, one by one, forty children of pagans below seven and twelve years of age. As yet they know no faith: I have baptized them and educated them in Latin letters and in our worship.

Through me, a king in this region, of the sect of Nestorian Christians, who was of the race of that great king called Prester John of India, adopted the true faith; he received minor orders and robed in consecrated vestments, served me at mass. The Nestorians even accused him of apostasy; nevertheless, he brought the majority of his people to the Catholic faih. He built a fine church, worthy of his royal munificence.

I beg you, brothers whom this letter may reach, to have a care that its content comes to the knowledge of the Lord Pope, the cardinals, and the Procurator of our Order at the Roman court. Of our Minister-General I ask alms of an antiphonary and readings from the lives of the saints, a gradual and a psalter to serve as a model for us, since here I have only a portable breviary and a small missal. If I have a model, the children will copy it.
At present I am in process of building a new church so that the children can be distributed in several areas. I am getting old and my hair is quite white, less from age—I am only fifty-eight years old–than from weariness and care. I have learned the Tartar language and script reasonably well; that is, the language customarily used by the Mongols. I have translated the whole of the New Testament and the Psalter into this language. I had it transcribed in superb calligraphy and I show it. I read it, I preach it, and I make it known publicly as a testimony to the law of Christ.

 And I had made an agreement with King George, mentioned below, had he lived, to translate the whole of the Latin office, so that it could be sung through all the territories of his state; during his lifetime the Latin rite was celebrated in his church in the language and scripture of his country, both the words of the canon and the prefaces.

In response to this letter, Pope Clement V sent several bishops to China to consecrate John of Monte Corvino as archbishop. The pope also installed a bishop at Ts’iuan-Tcheou in south China. For sixty years Catholic missionaries established churches throughout southern China.

However it seems likely that the churches were made up mostly of the ruling peoples, the Mongols, and foreigners. So when, inevitably, the Chinese rebelled against the Mongols, they also rejected the religions associated with them.

Chu Yuan-Chang defeated the Mongols in 1368, established the Ming dynasty, and returned Confucianism to its central place in Chinese society. As the Nestorian churches had been virtually all destroyed with the spread of antiforeignism in the tenth century, now in the fourteenth Christianity again suffered near if not total collapse.

The story of Christian contacts with the Mongols brings a whole series of intriguing “what if” questions, revolving around the seemingly unlimited opportunities opened to Christians to spread the faith throughout the empire, which spread from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan.

What if the pope’s admonitions in 1245 had been more winsome and intelligible to Kuyuk, who after all, became a Christian?

What if the European princes had met the Ilkahn in 1291 at the River Jordan to rout the Muslims out of the Holy Lands?

What if the pope had sent a large contingent of missionaries in 1294 to evangelize China, and what if their efforts had been directed to the masses rather than to the ruling elite?

The only answer to these questions is that the history of the world, and the shape and form of Christianity today would be different. 

The opportunities were lost because of the Christians’ fear of the unknown, their incapacity to believe God could be in a murderous horde of devastation-bearing nomads. Opportunities were lost because of the Christians’ bickering and divisions.

The popes failed to inspire the confidence of the princes toward some great mission to the Mongols. The Mongols, it seemed, were looking for what Christianity offered, a great religion that could unify their empire from East to West. If Christians had been able to step into the void . . . only if.

Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:


28. Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree—how I know not—and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to you. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to you: “And you, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt you be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl—I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him, “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was soon forthwith converted to you. So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Preparation for your final class session--
Email your response paragraphs to by the Sunday before class.

Assignment to be done before class
A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 23
            Write a Big Idea paragraph from your reading.

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. Ministry and Worship in the Late Middle Ages
                        How is pastoral care different now than in the Middle Ages?
2. The Struggle Within the Church
                        Describe a person who might be called a heretic in the church today.
            3.Theology Devotion and Reform.
                        How did Thomas Aquinas change biblical interpretation?

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  


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