How Did Christianity Spread in Europe? | Church History

The idea of Europe as it is today did not come into existence until Catholic missionary monks began sharing the Gospel in northern Europe. Historian Douglas Jacobsen wrote, “at the time when the Roman Empire first became Christian, the idea did not exist of a place called ‘Europe.’ The Roman empire was a water-based domain circling the Mediterranean Sea, and the area of land now known as Europe was simply the northern hinterland.” Waves of Germanic tribes, also known as “barbarians,” migrated from central Europe especially in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, slowly occupying the western lands of the Roman Empire until the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476. Political boundary lines were then drawn by neighboring tribes throughout Europe. 

Most of these Germanic tribes were pagan in their religious beliefs, but some were discovered to be Arians. How did Arian theology become popular among some of the Germanic tribes? The Arian missionary Ulfilas, who was born among the Goths in central Europe in about the year 311, spent much of his life as a young man in Constantinople. Ulfilas was sent as a missionary to the Goths in particular while Arianism was gaining ground in the mid-fourth century, so his converts held to the heresy of Arianism. Generations later, they invaded and settled in the land of the Western Roman Empire. What were the Christians of the former Western Roman Empire to do? These Western Christians, or the ones who later came to be known as Catholic Christians, spent the next five or six centuries talking to their new Germanic tribal leaders and kings about the Gospel and the orthodox theology of the Council of Nicæa. One major difference between the Catholics and the Germanic tribes was that the people of the Germanic tribes tended to convert to whatever religion their leaders chose to follow. Therefore, Catholic missionaries focused their efforts primarily on the Germanic tribal leaders.

Some of the most successful and notable missionary movements in this era began in the British Isles. Christianity first spread into the British Isles when Roman armies conquered the southern portion of England in AD 43. Christians among the Roman invaders brought their early form of Christianity to the region. Four centuries later in the year 402, the Roman armies retreated to concentrate on defending Rome. England’s first notable missionary was Ninian, who grew up among the Britons and was ordained and commissioned to preach the Gospel to the Britons, Celts, and Picts that lived in the area between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. He began by attempting to organize the disorganized churches that already existed there and then attempted to share the Gospel with pagan leaders. In the year 397, Ninian established a center of operations called the “White House” as a center from which he and his Catholic monk missionary friends could launch their efforts.

The most notable Irish Catholic missionary of this era was Patrick. When he was sixteen years old, Irish pirates kidnapped him from his British home and sold him as a slave in Ireland, where he was held for six years. He had a dream that he interpreted as a vision from God, which directed him to escape, so he did. After he returned home, he had another dream in which God called him to Ireland to preach the Gospel to those who had kidnapped and enslaved him. He obeyed in 432 and began his work among the tribal leaders in Ireland. Within fifteen years, according to reports, most of Ireland became Christian. Patrick is credited with the beginning of the Irish monastic movement and Irish Christian tendencies from that time forward.

A third person of importance to the founding of the church in England was Augustine of Canterbury. Augustine was the prior (or the ranking member in charge) of St. Andrews Monastery in Rome when he and forty other monks were commissioned by Pope Gregory I to reestablish the church in England. He arrived at Kent in the summer of 597, and began conversations with King Ethelbert, whose wife, Bertha, was already a Christian. When the king converted, he allowed Augustine and the missionary monks to continue their work among the Angles and Saxons of his kingdom as long as the missionaries promised not to use any strong form of coercion. Augustine set up his missionary headquarters in Canterbury, which was the capital city of Kent. As each kingdom converted to Christianity, their ecclesiastical center became Canterbury for all England. 

Though these missionary monks and church organizers had the blessings of Rome, a distinctly English form of Christianity began to form. Who was to lead the local churches established or reestablished by the British monks? Instead of bishops over individual churches, the churches were led by the heads of monastic communities.

What should a Christian do after they commit a sin? The distinctly Roman Catholic idea had been to have the sinner perform elaborate rituals over a period of time before being allowed back into a church to worship on the Easter following their sin, and there were only instructions given for what to do for one major sin. The distinctly Irish Catholic idea understood that Christians committed minor sins frequently, so a system of penance developed among the Irish in which they would go to regular confessions to their local priests, who absolved them in a less elaborate and public manner. The Irish practice would later gain in popularity on the continent and eventually become a regular feature of Western Catholic Christianity.

The success of missionary monks in the British Isles soon became a model for the establishment of other monasteries and missionary work on the continent. The missionary monks of the early Middle Ages were loyal to Rome but also adapted their presentation and practice of the Gospel to local customs and ways of thinking. This process today is called contextualization—a way to communicate the timeless truths of Christianity to a wide variety of cultures.

  1.  Douglas Jacobsen, Global Gospel: An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 108.
  2. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 42.
  3.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Ulfilas,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  4. Paul R. Spickard and Keven M. Cragg, A Global History of Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 68.
  5. Paul R. Spickard and Keven M. Cragg, A Global History of Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 68.
  6.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 355.
  7.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Ninian, St.” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). The town at which the White House was established is Whithorn. 
  8.  Ed Martin, “Patrick, Saint” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Church History (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 264.
  9.  Ruth Tucker, Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 114-115. 
  10. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Augustine, St. of Canterbury,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  11. Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (New York, Penguin, 1990), 58.
  12. Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 358.
  13. Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Volume One—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, revised and updated edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), .
  14.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 362-363.
  15.  Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 198.