The Gospel in the World: No. 3 - The Middle Ages

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 8
S. L. Jacob
No. 3. — The Middle Ages — Early in the 7th to Early in the 16th Century
We now come to the Middle Ages, and a time of deepest darkness and apostasies; yet, thank God, during all that time Christ was at the right hand of God and the Spirit here; therefore, as divine Persons never fail, the will of God was being accomplished in His own people all through this period, and the moral features of Christ were being reproduced in their hearts and lives.
The centers were corrupt, the brightest spots were on the outskirts. Rome rose up to her greatness at the beginning of this period, the Pope claiming to be the Vicar of Christ, and to have a triple crown and complete jurisdiction in every way over the world. This was in the west, while in the east there rose up Mohammedanism to be God’s scourge on idolatrous Christendom; for the state of Christendom was terrible.
Mohammedanism rose in Arabia with startling rapidity and power; it quickly conquered Syria and Egypt, and then spread over North Africa, penetrating into Spain and even into France, though driven back from the latter by the conquering sword of Charles Martel. It also spread north and east, and divided Western Christendom, with its center at Rome, from Eastern or Persian Christendom, of which Babylon was at one time the center.
There were times when Eastern Christendom had revivals, and missionaries went out therefrom to the Mongols, the Chinese, the Tartars, and Indians; and at times partial and even considerable successes seemed to be gained. This was especially the case in the time of the Kerait prince generally known as Prester John: handsome stone churches were built far and wide, and in 1250 A.D. the majority of the Turks were Christian, not Mohammedan, and there were more Christians (so-called) in the east than in the west.
But it all came to naught; the form of Christianity there was corrupt, forms and ceremonies occupied its votaries. Vernacular translations of the Bible were practically unknown; and while there doubtless were many true humble followers of Christ, the known leaders were no help, but more often corrupters. Christianity fell in the east, and we cannot wonder at it, for it was not pure. The Chinese expelled it from China. Timur destroyed Bagdad, the then center of Eastern Christendom; and early in the 15th century Christianity as a vital force had gone from the east.
There remained the Syrian Church in Travancore in South India, the Armenians, Nestorians, and others in Asia; the Copts in Egypt; and the Abyssinians in East Africa. All these clung to the truth that Christ is the Son of God and suffered, in consequence, and God will not forget this; but other vitality there seems to have been none, deadness was everywhere, no gospel preached, no going out in the activities of love, but mostly dead forms; though we must not forget that God ever has hidden hearts who know Him in the darkest places.
Deeply humbling it all is, for the power was there in Christ and the Spirit. It is useless to talk of the great power of the Eastern religions. Could they stand before the Lord and the Spirit? No: it is the corruption of the truth that brought all to the ground; God cares not for forms and names. He wants Christ formed in souls in vital power, and nothing less will satisfy: better nothing than the presentation of a false Christ.
Now we turn to the west.
In the center at Rome there was corruption deep and dire, yet even there now and again we see something of God, though more and more suppressed; but in the outskirts the best work was done. From the Celts, Scots, and Franks grand missionaries went forth. From Iona in Scotland and from Lindisfarne in Northumbria and other places noble men arose. Among these may be mentioned Cuthbert in the north of England, and Chad who worked in the Midlands, whose brother became the apostle of Essex; and thus it was from the North that England was mainly evangelized.
The Roman priests, however., were in England at the beginning of this period, seeking to Romanize everything, and in the middle of the 7th century these came into collision with the simple Iona missionaries. The chief point about the dispute was the method of computing Easter; the king sided with the Romans and the simple Christians were driven back, and the Roman agents began to Romanize all England. Still, many noble names are met with, amongst them Wilfred of York who evangelized Sussex; the Venerable Bede and others. But it was not till the beginning of the 11th century that Canute’s kingdom, including Britain, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, became as a whole Christian (as we speak). The battle was oft strong and dire, but the apparent victory was won at last, but not, alas, without compromise and the sowing of much corrupt seed.
Wulf the Goth, being converted, went to the Goths; an Englishman named Winfred, but better known as Boniface, did great things among the Saxons and Norsemen on the Continent; Willibrord worked in Friesland. These pagans did not yield easily. Then with the 9th century came Charlemagne and his conquests. He set out to conquer the Saxons and force on them the gospel, and behind his troops came an army of monks. It was rough work, not the way of Christ, yet in the midst of all the failure God worked. It took four centuries to subdue the stout Teuton race, and then paganism disappeared to return no more to all those regions.
Later the Bulgarians, Moravians, Bohemians, Poles, Prussians, Russians, etc., were attacked, but it was not till about the year 1400 that these parts became wholly Christian. Alas, in the work good and evil were ever mixed. Pure work, like that of the Apostle Paul, we see not; still how greatly we are indebted to the noble missionaries of those days, of whose work we know little; but their record is on high.
In Spain there was conflict continually between the Christian and the Moslem. Finally the Cardinal Ximenez paid large sums to secure converts. The Moors rebelled; they were suppressed with cruelty; then about 1500 A.D. no other religion save Christianity was tolerated in Spain. Europe was at last in name practically Christian, though in 1453 A.D. the Turk established himself in Europe, and a corner of Europe was therefore Mohammedan.
In the meantime corruption had spread apace. The Waldenses in the rocky fastnesses of the Alps kept the torch of truth burning in spite of much persecution. The Albigenses, less fortunate, were wiped out by Pope Innocent III., and their fair country of Languedoc turned into a desert with awful cruelties, just because they were simple Christians and would not accept Popery.
Peter Waldo and his poor men of Lyons, did much to preserve the pure gospel. In the 14th century Wickliffe nobly stood for the truth, and his followers, the Lollards, bore much for Christ. In Bohemia that man Huss, of beautiful character, stood faithfully for Christ, and in the 15th century he and Jerome of Prague were burnt to death. Witnesses there were, and not a few — though the names of most are on high, not in the annals of men — but generally speaking sad corruption had its sway all over Europe.
In the 11th century the great schism between the west and the east occurred.
The nominal cause was as to whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from both Father and Son, or only from the Father; but never did the ostensible cause of the breach appear to be the real cause of any division, ancient or modern. The breach occurs in spirit, and then some trifle is taken up; the stronger demands complete submission, with excision as the only alternative, and the thing is done. Alas, alas, truly we only do the deeds of our fathers.
Thus the corruption spread both west and east, though the west exceeded; but God is over all, blessed be His Name. All must be well, and the Seed of the woman must bruise the serpent’s head in the end, even if dispensations end in great darkness, as they assuredly do. How wonderful it will be when God displays the hidden beauties which He formed and sustained in all this apparently hopeless confusion.