22

The adherents of Protestantism and Catholicism have evangelised across the world. Did Orthodox churches try to spread their religion in a similar way?

Did the Byzantines or Russians try to convert their conquered subjects to Orthodoxy? Did they send missionaries beyond their borders to spread the gospel?

I chose 'before 1980' because in the internet age, you can find someone to say anything. Just my attempt to filter out 'one dude with a website' who says we should all be Orthodox.

  • 16
    "Apostles to the Slavs": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saints_Cyril_and_Methodius – bgwiehle Nov 27 '17 at 13:38
  • 6
    yeah. After the schism. It seems silly to call Paul a Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, but I'm sure some people would disagree. – Ne Mo Nov 27 '17 at 14:01
  • 1
    @bgwiehle Good point about the conversion of the slavs, I didn't think of that – Ne Mo Nov 27 '17 at 15:20
  • 2
    Post has been locked due "abusive" flagging and incipient edit war. Poster and community need to come to an agreement on an acceptable non-abusive form for this post. – T.E.D. Nov 28 '17 at 12:29
  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Nov 28 '17 at 12:31
40

Yes, Eastern Orthodox missionaries preached their version of the Gospel to outsiders in a manner not very different to Protestants and Catholics.

Russian missionaries preached Orthodoxy to Alaskan natives in the 1700's (Alaska was by then a territory of the Russian Empire), converting some. Also see here. One famous Russian missionary is St. Innocent of Alaska, who started translating the Bible into Aleut.

The Russian Orthodox Church honors St. Nikolai of Japan, who (in the 1800's) preached Orthodoxy in Japan, which was never part of the Russian or Byzantine empires.

So, the short answer is:

Yes, they attempted to spread their religion to conquered areas within their borders.

Yes, they attempted to spread their religion beyond their borders.

  • 1
    OK, but is it "with fire and sword" or not? – i486 Nov 28 '17 at 12:58
10

Yes, sending out Orthodox missionaries was quite common, at least in the more distant past.

When the Byzantine Empire was still a thing in the Middle Ages, missionaries were commonly sent to the pagans in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Slavs in particular were common recipients of missionaries. The missionaries at the time commonly pursued a top-down style of conversion, where the local ruler was converted, who would then convert those beneath him.

The Serbians, Bulgarians, and Wallachians were converted this way, and the Russians were converted as one of the terms of a peace deal. Missionaries were then sent to the Russians to teach them and monitor their conversion.

In fact, an Orthodox missionary from Constantinople, St. Cyril, invented the Cyrillic alphabet while on a mission to what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia in order to better write Slavic languages. Those regions ultimately ended up becoming Roman Catholic, but Cyrillic flourished in the Slavic Orthodox regions.

Once the Byzantine Empire declined and eventually fell in the late Middle Ages, Russia was the main Orthodox power and was the driver behind further proselytizing. As Russia expanded, missionaries were busy converting the non-Christians in the newly-acquired regions.

There have no doubt been missions to what are currently non-Christian regions, but I have no information on those. My guess is that Russia had missionaries in China in the early 20th century along with all the other European powers. I'm not aware of any general success in conversion in the 20th century. I suspect that Orthodox missionary work greatly declined when most of the Orthodox countries became communist.

  • 4
    Welcome to History:SE. Sources to support your assertions would greatly improve your answer. – sempaiscuba Nov 27 '17 at 17:43
  • 2
    Source for Chinese Orthodoxy - add this to your last paragraph – axsvl77 Nov 27 '17 at 18:13
  • 2
    China bans foreign trained clergy, and there are no orthodox seminaries in China, so they have adherents in Harbin, Beijing, and Shanghai, but no clergy. Russian Embassy Parish in Beijing lets foreigners in for liturgy on normal Sundays, but not Chinese. I heard in 2016 they got special permission for Chinese Orthodox to go also, and the church was packed. – axsvl77 Nov 27 '17 at 18:17
  • 2
    Probably add a source for that Czech / st Cyril thing also. – axsvl77 Nov 27 '17 at 18:17
  • 3
    As an aside, its notable that the Orthodox missionaries were more successful in areas that primarily traded with existing Orthodox areas (eg: Russa with Constantinople), while Catholic missionaries were more successful in areas that primarily traded with existing Catholic areas. That may speak volumes toward countries real motivations in picking a faith. – T.E.D. Nov 27 '17 at 18:28
8

The answer is yes.

Orthodox Christianity has a long history of Missionaries proselytizing and spreading the Christian Gospel to various cultures.

The first example dates to the 800's AD/CE, during the heyday of the Byzantine Empire. There were 2 Greco-Thessalonian Saints named, Cyril and Methodius. One of their major roles or "mission", was to convert the Slavs to Christianity; more specifically, the Slavic peoples living in the neighboring Balkan region, particularly around Bulgaria, whereby many Slavic peoples had settled beginning in the 500's AD/CE.

The Slavs, were originally a polytheistic pagan culture whose geographical origins were in Russia and Poland. However, by the 500's AD/CE-(about a generation after The Fall of the Roman Empire), many Slavic peoples conquered and settled throughout Eastern Europe, which at that time, was largely comprised of three major lands: Illyria, Dacia and Thrace-(though including Thrace as an Eastern European land, is debatable). The Slavs dramatically and irreversibly changed the demographic landscape of Eastern Europe-(as well as having invaded a sizable portion of the Greek mainland, including parts of the Peloponnese in Southern Greece).

After living in the Balkans for 300 years-(including a sizable portion of the Greek mainland), the Greco-Thessalonian Bishops, Cyril and Methodius had assimilated the Balkan Slavs into Byzantine rite Christianity-(what would later be called, "Orthodox Christianity"). As the Balkan Slavs adopted the Byzantine Christian religion and culture passed onto them by Saints Cyril and Methodius, it began to spread and influence the Slavs of Russia whereby the First Russian King-(or one of the earliest Russian Kings) adopted Byzantine rite Christianity at the beginning-(or near the beginning) of the 2nd Millennium AD/CE.

Though the Byzantines also brought their own form of Christianity to Africa, specifically, Ethiopia, centuries before the arrival of Cyril and Methodius. During the early years of the Byzantine Empire-(I believe in the 500's AD/CE if my chronological memory is correct), a Greek Bishop named Frumentis and his Missionary Entourage had introduced Eastern rite Christianity to the Ethiopians. Now, it should be noted that Ethiopia has a long historical connection with the Middle East dating to King Solomon; so the Early Medieval Ethiopian assimilation and conversion to Byzantine rite Christianity was not necessarily that culturally radical or shocking-(and relations between Greeks and Ethiopians predate the Byzantine era, dating back to the days of Homer).

And if my memory is correct, the Byzantines also conducted Christian missionary work in Nubia-(present-day Northern Sudan) centuries before the Sudan was conquered by the Arab Muslims. In other words, "once upon a time", Northern Sudan, was Christian, specifically, Byzantine Christian.

There were perhaps other regions within the Byzantine Empire whereby Missionary activity may have occurred; places, such as Sicily, parts of North Africa, as well as the Middle East. However, Byzantine Christian missionary work within the Balkans and East Africa during the Early Middle Ages is well documented.

  • 3
    A good answer, but once again it would be greatly improved if you were to edit it to include sources. – sempaiscuba Nov 27 '17 at 21:30
  • I don't have any primary sources that I can cite at this moment. However, if you search for various historical texts on The Byzantine Empire, as well as visit some Eastern Orthodox Christian-(namely, Greek or Russian Orthodox Christian) sites, they should be able to provide you with information and literature which should better detail and chronicle the history of Byzantine Missionary work. – user26763 Nov 27 '17 at 21:36
  • And Ethiopian Orthodox Christian sites as well. – user26763 Nov 27 '17 at 21:37
  • 2
    I think you're missing my point. Please read Mark's answer linked to from my previous comment. It does a good job of explaining why including sources improves the quality of answers. In particular, the last sentence: "The problem is that without sources, I can't tell whether [the answer is] trustworthy, accurate or reliable" – sempaiscuba Nov 27 '17 at 21:40
  • 1
    I did. Just click on the link (the text "include sources", it's generally coloured blue) in my previous comment above. – sempaiscuba Nov 27 '17 at 21:57
4

I don't have a source for this, but what I heard from others is that the methods are different. Orthodox missions consist of some clergy showing up, building a church, and starting to do services, and waiting for people to start showing up.

They will just go ahead and translate the service into the local language, inventing an alphabet if necessary, and start. They don't really do to much "I give you food/medicine, you become Christian?" sort of exchanges. They just do the liturgy and wait.

It is my understanding that in addition to the missions in Alaska, the whole of Siberia was converted this way : build church, translate bible, and wait. (At the dawn of the SU, there was a ton of written languages that got replaced by latinized alphabets, then Russian.)

There is some of this happening in Uganda between 1920 and now. More recently one in Guatemala.

  • 1
    Should I delete this? I feel like it is probably more of an extendend informational comment than an actual answer. – axsvl77 Nov 27 '17 at 15:32
  • 4
    No, don't delete it. It's unstacky, but then so is history (which is why this stack is so much less than it could be) – Ne Mo Nov 27 '17 at 15:53
  • 4
    @NeMo "... which is why this stack is so much less than it could be". I would love to see you expand on that point on meta. I agree with you entirely on the principle, it would be interesting to find out whether we also agree upon the details of why that is so. – sempaiscuba Nov 27 '17 at 22:32
  • 3
    Yeah, at some point I will, cheers – Ne Mo Nov 27 '17 at 22:40
3

Much more recently than the other answers: http://www.hchc.edu/missions/articles/articles/orthodox-mission-in-tropical-africa documents Greek Orthodox missionary activity undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa by the Patriarchate of Alexandria; It is pretty much 20th century. The bishoprics of Africa are listed under https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Orthodox_Patriarchate_of_Alexandria_and_all_Africa, and mugshots of the bishops are in http://www.patriarchateofalexandria.com/index.php?module=content&cid=004001 (in Greek).

  • Nope, 1980 ("internet age"), and the earliest date in the link was 1892. I remember as a kid (in 1980 in fact) reading reports on Greek missionary activity in the Church newsletter. – Nick Nicholas Apr 21 '18 at 13:08
  • 1
    Oops. My bad. Upvote. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 21 '18 at 13:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.