The Conversion of Lithuania 1387

The Conversion of Lithuania 1387

By William Urban

Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Volume 33, No.4 (1987)

"Christianization of Lithuania in 1387", oil on canvas by Jan Matejko, 1889

Introduction: The foundation of the bishopric in Vilnius in 1387, marked by the presence of Jogaila (1350-1434) to assist in teaching the fundamental tenets of the faith, was a decisive, moment in the history of the Lithuanian people. In the year 1387, however, this was not so clear.

This was not the first time missionaries had congratulated themselves on their seeming success in converting the warlike Lithuanians from their pagan beliefs, and, like all previous conversions, the events of 1387 depended so strongly on unstable political relationships, that skepticism and prayer were more appropriate than congratulation and thanksgiving. No one could forget the apostacy of King Mindaugas (?-1263) in the previous century, nor the failure of papal and imperial efforts during the lifetimes of Gediminas (1275-1341), Algirdas (?-1377), and Kęstutis (1300-1382). In each case, these Lithuanian rulers had found conversion such a political liability that it outweighed the very real advantages it offered in securing their political authority at home and in dealing with their neighbors to the west.

Although not unified, for generations the Lithuanians had been the dominant military people in the Baltic; they had enriched themselves by taking horses, cattle, and slaves from their Christian and pagan neighbors. When German Christians appeared at the mouth of the Dauguva (Dvina), many natives saw them as less of a threat than the Lithuanian raiders; and Christian efforts to defend newly converted peoples along the Lithuanian frontiers soon became a crusade against paganism itself. When the crusades organized by kings of Poland and grandmasters of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia caused the Lithuanians to form a more unified state under a gifted noble family, the Lithuanians were able to offer nearby Russian lands protection against Mongol domination. Once the dukes of Lithuania had acquired vast territories in Russia, they came to see the crusaders as a distraction from their obligations in the east.

The dukes could have ended those crusader attacks by adopting Roman Christianity. However, there were two great problems associated with that: First, most Lithuanians saw the crusaders as the national enemy and looked to their pagan gods for help against them; paganism was thus a guarantee of political and social freedom — not just against the Germans, but also against their own dukes. Secondly, the dukes had to remember the wishes of their many Russian Orthodox subjects. Both pagans and Russian Christians objected to Roman Catholic claims to a monopoly on religious truth. They feared forced conversion so greatly that the dukes had reason to worry that insurrections would follow any announcement of plans to convert to western Christianity.

The Lithuanian expansion into Russia, however, had already the effect of undermining paganism. If pagan rulers could baptise their children into the Russian Orthodox faith without being punished by their ancestral deities, perhaps the gods were no longer worthy of fear and respect.


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