There is no doubt that the spiritual legacy of Celtic Christian pioneers like Patrick and Columcille inspired missions in their successors. And it was indeed those Celtic Christians who would have a hand in converting one of the most brutal people Europe has ever known, in a way they would never expect.
Some of the most unlikely converts to Christianity were those people who were collectively known as the Scourge of Europe and even of Christendom itself. Threatening the whole of European civilized society with their brutal raids, ransacking, and wholesale destruction of the towns and villages they plundered, the Vikings were eventually undone by some of the very people whom they settled amongst and enslaved in their crushing conquests.
The Viking Age officially began in 793/4 AD when Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of Northumberland, England, that served as one of the main centers of Celtic Christianity that was birthed through missionaries coming from Iona, Scotland, was suddenly attacked. Marauding Norsemen hit the small island near the Scottish border with an early form of shock and awe, devastating its inhabitants with overwhelming force as they came ashore in their strange-looking boats.
Ransacking and looting the small island, which was inhabited by Celtic Christians involved in study and prayer, they carried off many of its treasures and took captives as slaves back to Scandinavia. As the Vikings continued their attacks in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and began to establish settlements throughout those lands, a strange thing happened: “Under contacts with the peoples they were attacking, the inherited religion of the Vikings was disintegrating and they were adopting both the faith and much of the culture of those they conquered.” (Latourette, A History of Christianity)
Here we can see the amazing paradox of the verse: “…The weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength,” (1 Cor. 1:25) played out through real-life events. God used those in a position of military weakness, Celtic Christians, to reach those Vikings who were, militarily and politically speaking, much stronger than themselves. The One crucified in weakness on a cross would, through the power of the Gospel, be the beginning of the undoing of the Viking’s violent culture. Missionaries, who themselves would go willingly to Scandinavia later, would help complete the process God had begun in such a paradoxical fashion. Much like the Roman Empire itself which was conquered by the Christians whom the Romans spent so long persecuting.
We had the privilege of visiting the beautiful little Island of Lindisfarne on our last trip—all via divine appointment, more on that in a future post—it was not a place we were originally planning to go. However, God hooked us up with some awesome families in the North of England and our friend Al insisted on taking us up for a visit that we were more than glad to do!
Walking along the shores of Lindisfarne we reflected upon what a significant place of history we were standing on. Lindisfarne became over time one of the main centers of Celtic Christianity in its day. It was also where the infamy of the first Viking raid marked the official beginning of the Viking Age. It was an incredible moment to walk on a place so rich in history, and reflect on that great cloud of witnesses who went before us—such triumph and suffering—seen so radically in one spot.
Celtic Christianity had spread throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the British Isles, and Lindisfarne had become a center for missionary training and Bible Scholarship. Missionaries had come directly from Iona, Scotland to establish a center there. Pioneers of the faith like Patrick and Columcille had inspired succeeding waves of missionaries and mission activity that had carried the purer form of the faith (*see footnote below) well into lands on the lower part of the continent of Europe as well.
Many of the far northern areas in Europe had been left unreached though, with the exceptions of some attempts by people like Anskar, who went to Scandinavia as a missionary. But because his mission work was never followed up on, Scandinavia, by and large, remained firmly in the pagan grip. And yet the weakness of God is greater than man’s strength…
When invading Vikings took captives from places like Lindisfarne in their raids and began to settle in Celtic lands, they unwittingly took captives home to be used as slaves, not realizing they were actually taking home those who’d be missionaries to them. Isn’t it divine irony that those they settled around and those they took home as slaves and captives would eventually end up evangelizing them.
It was, however, an incredible form of suffering to be endured for those who were invaded as well as captured: first witnessing the brutal destruction suddenly unleashed by these invading hordes come on shore in strange foreign ships along with the slaughter of friends and loved ones, then for some to be captured and taken from their lands and to be put into servitude like this. The utter devastation visited upon the land, which seemed shocking and unthinkable, was in the end redeemed by God and used as a means to bring forth the Gospel into the forsaken and frozen territories of the extreme north. The extreme north had bred extreme men in the Vikings, which required extreme means to bring forth God’s redemption.
The Extreme North
It is interesting to notice that the areas in the northern British Isles and Ireland lied outside what had been the boundaries of the former Roman Empire, consequently lacking some of the usual defenses the Romans would have built in earlier days. Lindisfarne, in fact, lies just an hour north of the huge defensive wall and other defenses built by emperor Hadrian during the Roman era in Britain.
Ireland, given the name of Hibernia (“land of endless winter”) by the Romans, had in fact been ignored altogether by the Romans who didn’t want to bother with the constant rain and cold there (those old Roman tunics didn’t repel rain like your North Face jacket—no Goretex back then.)
The Vikings, however, came from an even harsher climate and were an adept seafaring people who had the fastest boats in Europe. They swept in with speed and ferocity to these unprotected Celtic lands, plundering and looting as they went and making settlements and taking captives with them. They continued to expand their barbary further and further out throughout these lands.
Dublin itself, Ireland’s capital city, is in fact a Viking name given by its conquerors which means Blackpool, further indicating what an incredible imprint the Norsemen left upon the Celtic landscape.
The conquered Celts however, ended up causing the very demise of the Vikings’ savage violence, and the Celts left a deeper and longer-lasting imprint with the power of the Gospel than the Vikings ever did in all their ruthlessness and savagery. The weakness of God is greater than man’s strength. (It is worth noting that the Scandinavian lands once known for producing “The Scourge of Europe” later became, comparatively speaking, one of the more peaceful regions in all of Europe, thanks largely to the strong and lasting Christian permeation effected there).
Signs and Wonders
God also brought forth conversions to the Vikings through signs and wonders in some amazing ways to aid in bringing the Gospel back to Scandinavia.
A Viking leader named Olaf Trygvassen was on a raiding venture when he heard of a fortune-teller in the Isles of Scilly, which lie off the coast of Cornwall in Britain. Deciding to pay a visit, he ran upon what instead turned out to be a Christian prophet.
Olaf received a prophecy that he would be wounded in a mutinous battle and carried back to his boat on his shield by sailors faithful to him. He would lay seven days wounded, and then would recover, turn to Christ, and take the Gospel back to Norway.
After Olaf was wounded and survived just as the prophecy had foretold, he then visited the prophet again in amazement, who then led him to Christ, baptized him, and sent him back to Norway to proclaim the Gospel.
Olaf began to proclaim Christ, leading many to salvation throughout Norway, where he eventually became the first Christian King. Latourette says: “He converted many by persuasion, but sometimes by force when he saw neccessary.” He was, after all, a Viking trying to rule in an equally violent Viking land and this was a violent age; furthermore, believers not always acting exactly as they should after conversion is just part of the whole saga through and through in Christian history from beginning to end and what the Scriptures speak of as the remaining battle of the “old man.”
Another Christian King would also have a dramatic effect upon Norway’s process of conversion. Olaf Harraldson (lots of Olaf’s to keep straight here) was another Viking out “going a-viking,” meaning out pillaging and plundering more innocent victims throughout Europe, when he had a strange dream “of a great and important man saying ‘return home, you shall become king of Norway.’ ” Olaf had a conversion and did become King of Norway and proclaimed the Christan faith throughout the realm and built churches. Though he stood firm and strong against enemies, he preferred peace and law, and was used to spread the faith even more, as well as to further the process of dismantling the pagan stronghold in Scandinavia.
“The weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” God worked through the conquered Celts as well as using signs and wonders to begin the process of converting some of the most ruthless and unlikely people Europe had known—the very scourge of Christendom—in bringing them to Christ.
*Footnote - Celtic Christianity was much more similar to later Protestant Christianity that held to justification by faith through grace and upholding scriptural authority while Catholicism at that time was descending into a spiritual and political morass.