Supposed "Forced conversions" and "Torture" of European Pagans


How should one respond to the claim that forced religious conversions, torture, murder and religious cleansing were forced on the pagans of Europe by Christians?

This claim is often used by modern neo-pagans, particularly Odinists (i.e. Norse pagans) to justify their hatred of Christians and Christianity.


First you need to tell them to provide specifics and sources for their alleged claims. Then, if they can come up with anything, you can deal with whatever they give you.


As a former neo-pagan, I can tell you that my examination of history showed that the conversion of northern Europe to Christianity was far from forced and was, in fact, relatively bloodless. I cannot speak so much about Scandinavia, but reading about the conversion of Ireland made a huge impression on me and was the start of my own path towards the Church. Here’s a helpful book that deals a lot with Christianity’s beginnings in the British Isles:


Agreed. Just ask them. Chances are they can’t back it up.

I post quite a bit on a protestant message board, and they’ve got a section called “ask the webpastor” where you ask this baptist pastor a question and he answers it. There is no dialogue, only the one question and the answer. One time this pastor, in response to a question started talking about these so-called forced conversions. So I asked the pastor to refer me to some resources where I could read about this. He backed off and admitted that he was wrong to say what he did. He also took a few minor obligatory swipes at Catholicism, but I didn’t expect anything less. You can read the exchange below:


As it has been stated the conversions were not forced. In fact a number of conversions took place because the pagan king married a devout Christian woman. It was the witness of his own Christian wife to him that made him consider converting to Christianity.

I do agree you need to get them to provide you with some examples first.


Weren’t a lot of our Christian missionaries and saints killed by pagans in the process of teaching and preaching the Gospel? Like St Boniface, for example. Does it make sense that there would be unarmed Christian heroes, ready to shed their blood for the sake of spreading the Gospel, when it was the standard practice at the time to force conversions on innocent pagan populations?


from GK Chesterton’s book, Heretics


The following, from the Catholic Encyclpedia’s article on Charlemagne, might be interesting:

During the Spanish crusade Wittekind had returned from his exile, bringing with him Danish allies, and was now ravaging Hesse; the Rhine valley from Deutz to Andenach was a prey to the Saxon “devil-worshipers”; the Christian missionaries were scattered or in hiding. Charles gathered his hosts at Düren, in June, 779, and stormed Wittekind’s entrenched camp at Bocholt, after which campaign he seems to have considered Saxony a fairly subdued country. At any rate, the “Saxon Capitulary” (see CAPITULARIES) of 781 obliged all Saxons not only to accept baptism (and this on the pain of death) but also to pay tithes, as the Franks did for the support of the Church; moreover it confiscated a large amount of property for the benefit of the missions. This was Wittekind’s last opportunity to restore the national independence and paganism; his people, exasperated against the Franks and their God, eagerly rushed to arms. At Suntal on the Weser, Charles being absent, they defeated a Frankish army killing two royal legates and five Counts. But Wittekind committed the error of enlisting as allies the non-Teutonic Sorbs from beyond the Saale; race-antagonism soon weakened his forces, and the Saxon hosts melted away. Of the so-called “Massacre of Verdun” (783) it is fair to say that the 4500 Saxons who perished were not prisoners of war; legally, they were ringleaders in a rebellion, selected as such from a number of their fellow rebels. Wittekind himself escaped beyond the Elbe. It was not until after another defeat of the Saxons at Detmold, and again at Osnabrück, on the “Hill of Slaughter”, that Wittekind acknowledged the God of Charles the stronger than Odin. In 785 Wittekind received baptism at Attigny, and Charles stood godfather.


Ireland is a place where conversion was relatively bloodless. Scandinavia and Central/Eastern Europe were another story.

Charlemagne forcibly converted a lot of Saxons. And he wasn’t unique. His policies were followed over the next few centuries not only by his successors but by their imitators to the north and east.



Interesting. I did know there was some resistance to Christianity in eastern Europe and even some places where it never did completely take hold. I did not know the extent.


This was definitely the exception, not the rule. Also, it comes from a misunderstanding of the culture back then. Most of the pagans were warrior tribes back then, ruled by a king who they believed was their intermediary between the gods and men. Therefore, what he believed, they all believed.

The Christian evangelists went straight to the top, as a consequence. The kings converted, so all the people converted with him. This was culturally ingrained, as their kings were seen as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. It wasn’t really “forced” in most cases- most of the people who converted in these circumstances genuinely wanted to, because their king had, and their cultures trained them to rely in him on spiritual matters.

Also, it’s important to understand that most of those pagan tribes that converted through a mixture of force and genuine feeling were actually the aggressors in war.

The Slavs, the Vikings, the Lombards and others all attacked the Christians first. Many of those Charlemagne attacked were involved in banditry and raids on his borders- especially the Muslims. They were so extreme that they were truly on a completely different playing field than all the pagan tribes.

It’s a gross misrepresentation to say that Christianity was spread by violence, torture and forced conversion. It was partly spread this way, usually after having won wars that the pagans started in the first place, or after having converted kings who then forced disobedient followers into line (most joined of their own free will when their king did, though, because he was seen as their special spiritual Intermediary). Almost all Christianity’s spread was peaceful, though.

Take the Roman Empire. Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire before Constantine brought the religion into politics, persecuted, but faithful and not harming or fighting anyone. An enormous amount of conversion happened before Constantine came into power. After Constantine did come into power, there was some persecution of pagans, though not very severe before Theodosius became emperor. I don’t know how much persecution he or following emperors did. But I know the spread of Christianity in the Medieval Ages was primarily peaceful. Ask the neopagans you’re talking with to show sources and specific information proving this wrong, and then, if they do present any, give it to us to analyze, critique and compare with other history books.


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