From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The historical phenomenon of Christianization, or Christianisation, is the conversion of individuals to Christianity or the conversion of entire peoples at once. It also includes the practice of converting native pagan practices and culture, pagan religious imagery, pagan sites and the pagan calendar to Christian uses, due to the Christian efforts at proselytism (evangelism) based on the tradition of the "Great Commission".
The process of Christianization has at times been relatively peaceful and at times has been a very violent process, ranging from political conversions to adopt Christianity to military campaigns to force conversion onto native populaces often resulting in massacres and murder.
Various strategies and techniques employed in Christianization campaigns from Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages: Ancient holy sites were destroyed or converted to Christian churches, indigenous pagan gods were demonized, and traditional religious practices were condemned as witchcraft and even criminalized — sometimes upon penalty of death.
Reformatting native religious and cultural activities and beliefs into a Christianized form was officially sanctioned; preserved in the Venerable Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is a letter from Pope Gregory I to Mellitus, arguing that conversions were easier if people were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditions, while claiming that the traditions were in honour of the Christian God, "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God". In essence, it was intended that the traditions and practices still existed, but that the reasoning behind them was altered. The existence of syncretism in Christian tradition has long been recognized by scholars, and in recent times many of the instances of syncretism have also been acknowledged by the Roman Catholic church.
Humanistic studies of Antiquity and the Reformation combined in the sixteenth century to produce works of scholarship marked by an agenda that was occupied with identifying Roman Catholic practices with paganism, and identifying the emerging Protestant churches with a purgative "re-Christianization" of society. The Lutheran scholar Philip Melanchthon produced his Apologia Confessionis Augustanae (1530) detailing the rites derived from pagan practices. Heinrich Bullinger, De origine erroris libris duo (1539) detailed the pagan "origins of (Catholic) errors".
Isaac Casaubon, De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticus exercitationes (1614) makes a third familiar example, where sound scholarship was somewhat compromised by sectarian pleading. Thus such pagan precedents for Christian practice have tended to be downplayed or even sometimes dismissed by Christian apologists as a form of Protestant Apologetics.
The 20th century saw more purely historical inquiries, free of sectarian bias; an early historicist classic in this field of study was Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods: the mythological tradition and its place in Renaissance humanism and the arts. (1972).
Few Christian churches built in the first half millennium of the established Christian Church were not built upon sites already consecrated as pagan temples or mithraea, the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (literally Saint Mary above Minerva) in Rome being simply the most obvious example. Sulpicius Severus, in his Vita of Martin of Tours, a dedicated destroyer of temples and sacred trees, remarks "wherever he destroyed heathen temples, there he used immediately to build either churches or monasteries" (Vita, ch xiii), and when Benedict took possession of the site at Monte Cassino, he began by smashing the sculpture of Apollo and the altar that crowned the height.
The British Isles and other areas of northern Europe that were formerly druidic are still densely punctuated by holy wells and holy springs that are now attributed to some saint, often a highly local saint unknown elsewhere; in earlier times many of these were seen as guarded by supernatural forces such as the melusina, and many such pre-Christian holy wells appear to survive as baptistries. Not all pre-Christian holy places were respected enough for them to survive, however, as most ancient European sacred groves, such as the great Irminsul (whose location is now lost, but was possibly located at Externsteine), were destroyed by Christianizing forces.
During the Reconquista and the Crusades, the cross served the symbolic function of possession that a flag would occupy today. At the siege of Lisbon in 1147, when a mixed group of Christians took the city, "What great joy and what a great abundance there was of pious tears when, to the praise and honor of God and of the most Holy Virgin Mary the saving cross was placed atop the highest tower to be seen by all as a symbol of the city's subjection." (De expugnatione Lyxbonensi)
- Christian debate on persecution and toleration
- European colonization of the Americas
- Goa Inquisition
- Missionaries in India
- Taiping Rebellion