Keyholes in CHurch History, Part 8: The Gospel to the Slavs

Beginning in the 8th century, the Slavic tribes of what is now modern Belarus, Russia and Ukraine invited a handful of Viking warriors to rule over them. These Vikings (also known as Varangians) established a medieval state known as the Kievan Rus.

After two centuries of forceful and bloody rule, one Rusyn warrior named Vladimir emerged as supreme, and established himself as the grand prince of Kiev. Having consolidated his power over the Slavs, Vladimir made a historic decision: he decided to get a religion for his people. Of course, the Slavs had a pantheistic set of beliefs, but Vladimir felt that this homemade religion would do little to gain recognition for his people among the other great empires of the earth. What he needed was a recognized faith.

A 12th century document known as the “Primary Chronicle” or The Chronicle of Nestor, records Vladimir’s search for a national religion. He sent emissaries to explore the religions of neighbouring nations: to the German Christians in western Europe, to the Muslim Bulgarians, and to the Eastern Orthodox Byzantines of Constantinople. He even received a delegations of Jewish Khazars, in order to enquire about Judaism.

According to the Chronicle, Vladimir rejected western Christianity because it was “too gloomy”; Islam because of its restrictions against alcohol, which Vladimir characterized as “the joy of the Rus”; and Judaism because he saw the loss of Jerusalem as a sign of their being “abandoned by God.” When his emissaries returned from Constantinople, however, they excitedly described the worship of the Byzantine Church: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.”

Whether he was motivated by the beauty of Byzantine worship, or by some other more political motive, Vladimir chose Byzantine Christianity for both himself and his people. He received baptism, and married a Byzantine princess. He tore down the pagan temples of his people, and built churches in their place. He ordered a statue of the supreme Slavic god Perun to be thrown into the Dnieper river. Finally, he ordered the residents of Kiev to come down to the Dnieper, where they were to receive baptism as he had done.

The Chronicle records this iconic event in the following way: “Vladimir made known throughout his village: ‘Those who day after tomorrow do not appear on the bank of the river, rich or poor, will be considered as rebels and traitors.’ The day following Vladimir accompanied by the priests, those of the empress and those of Kherson, went to the Dnieper, where there was gathered an innumerable crowd of men who entered into the water, some up to the neck, others only to the chest. The children stayed on the bank and were covered with water; some plunged into the river. Others swam here and there while the priests read their prayers. And this formed a spectacle tremendously curious and beautiful to see. At last, when all the people were baptized, each returned to his home.”

Left to Vladimir’s heavy-handed methods (he was a Viking, after all), the Slavs may never have taken to Christianity. However, the Byzantine missionaries who came to catechize the newly Christianized people did so not by force, but through cultural baptism, a process I have spoken about in a previous article. Here again, six centuries after Christianity first appropriated pagan Roman culture for its own purposes, was a sensibility that insisted on the inherent value of local culture and spiritual traditions, and attempted to translate Christianity into those contexts, rather than imposing it at the point of the sword.

Most significant among these efforts was the creation of a written form of the Slavic language of Vladimir’s people. The Cyrillic alphabet, so named after one of its originators, Cyril, a Byzantine missionary monk, was used to transcribe Old Slavonic, and render the Scriptures in a language the people could understand.

So effective were these methods that eight centuries later, a group of Russian missionaries sent to North America brought with them an inherent respect for native cultures. Arriving in Alaska, the Russian missionary monks simply re-enacted the process that their ancestors had experienced: they sought to live with and understand the First Nations they found: the Yupik, the Aleut, and the Tlingit nations of the Northwest. Indeed, such Russian missionaries as Innocent Veniaminov even imitated Cyril, and created a written form of Tlingit in which he could write the Gospels for teaching purposes.

Contrast this with Protestant missionaries who appeared one century later, destroying native language and culture, and we can see the historical significance of the mass conversion of Slavs in the 10th century. We can see that winning people to belief is not accomplished by political force driven by a vision of nation or Empire. Rather, it is a matter of speaking to minds and hearts in a language that can be understood. This conversation begins with literal spoken language, of course, but it goes beyond that. It also means speaking the language of a people’s way of life, which can only be learned by living among them. And ultimately, it means speaking the universal language of love, the language of the One who spoke the language of human existence so that we might speak the language of God.

For more information on Eastern Orthodoxy in Alaska, see Michael Oleksa’s excellent book Orthodox Alaska.

Next time: the Great Schism between East and West.


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