In what has become something of an annual ritual, conservative media outlets like Fox News claim that there is a War on Christmas in this country. One of the pieces of evidence offered is that some people use the greeting "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". Call me insensitive if you will, but you have to be pretty darned thinned skinned to consider such an innocuous greeting as some form of oppression. After all, if the forces of secularism and atheism in this country were really waging a War on Christmas in this country, you would expect to be seeing large scale vandalism of manger displays, the smashing of stained glass windows of churches and so forth. Of course, we thankfully don't see these things and I would be the first to condemn such actions if they were happening.
But if you look at the history of Christianity during the late Roman period into the early Middle Ages, you will see that Christians quite literally waged a violent war against paganism. Of course, some Christians will retort that Christians were persecuted by pagan Roman emperors before the time of Constantine. And that of course is quite true. But these persecutions were deliberate acts of government policy, rather than instances of pagan priests themselves disrupting Christian church services.
One of the earliest examples of a confrontational and aggressive Christianity was Martin, a bishop of Tours in the late 4th century. Richard Fletcher, in The Barbarian Conversion, quotes Martin's biographer Sulpicius:
In a village named Levroux, however, when [Martin] wished to demolish in the same way a temple which had been made very rich by its superstitious cult, he met with resistance from a crowd of pagans and was driven off with some injuries to himself. He withdrew, therefore, to a place in the neighbourhood where for three days in sackcloth and ashes, continuously fasting and praying, he besought Our Lord that the temple which human hands had failed to demolish might be destroyed by divine power.
Then suddenly two angels stood before him, looking like heavenly warriors, with spears and shields. They said that the Lord had sent them to rout the rustic host and give Martin protection, so that no one should hinder the destruction of the temple. He was to go back, therefore, and carry out faithfully the work he had undertaken. So he returned to the village and, while crowds of pagans watched in silence, the heathen sanctuary was razed to its foundations and all its altars and images reduced to powder.
The sight convinced the rustics that it was by divine decree that they had been stupefied and overcome with dread, so as to offer no resistance to the bishop; and nearly all of them made profession of faith in the Lord Jesus, proclaiming with shouts before all that Martin's God should be worshipped and the idols ignored, which could neither save themselves nor anyone else.
Adds Sulpicius, "He immediately built a church or monastery at every place where he destroyed a pagan shrine."
Fletcher notes, "Archaeological discoveries have furnished confirmation of the destruction of sites of pagan worship at this period which, in the words of Paulinus of Nola, was 'happening throughout Gaul'. At a temple of Mercury at Avallon in Burgundy pagan statues were smashed and piled up in a heap of rubble: the coin series at the site ends in the reign of Valentinian I (364-375), which suggests that the work of the destruction occurred shortly afterwards."
Does this remind anyone of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001?
We see such behavior manifested again in the early 8th century by one Boniface of Wessex. In about the year 723, the bishop received a commission from Pope Gregory to lead a mission to the region of Germany known as Thuringia.
Fletcher again, "Pagans 'not yet cleansed' were first encountered at Geismar, where there was a sacred oak tree. It is possible there may have been there 'a pagan shrine of more than local significance'. In a brave act of public Christian assertion Boniface felled the oak. 'At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord.'"
Such is the fame of Boniface, that today, the town of Crediton in Wales, boasts of it being his birthplace on its tourism web site. The web site notes, without irony, that "He boldly tackled superstition, including the felling of Thor's sacred Oak at Geismar by his own hand in front of hostile tribesmen, and laid the foundation of a flourishing new church." (Emphasis added) An engraving depicting the event appears at the top of this post.
As for Boniface, he eventually met a fate that was not all that different from the Geismar Oak. In 754, he was a member of a party on the Frisian coast, which Fletcher describes as "well beyond the protecting reach of Frankish power. There they were awaiting the arrival of the recently baptized for confirmation. Instead they were surprised...by a gang of seaborne predators attracted by the prospect of loot. In the struggle that ensued we are told that the elderly missionary tried to ward off the blows of his assailants by using a book as a shield: to no avail; Boniface and his companions were slaughtered."
While Boniface was described thereafter as achieving martyrdom, it appears that rather than being killed for his faith, he was simply killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At any rate, the murder of Boniface did not halt the westward march of Christianity, which will be the subject of Part 4: The Saxon Capitulary.