This September’s post focuses on a Christian missionary who was born in the month of September – a man who is no less imposing than many of the Vikings he sought to convert during his life. His name is Ansgar and he is often thought of as the first Christian missionary to the North.
The first Christian missionary to the Viking world
Christianity did not come quickly to the early Scandinavians. While the majority of western Europe had already accepted the Christian faith, the Vikings preferred their old gods and resisted the incursion of the new faith. It was not until the 800s that one man began to change that. His name was Ansgar.
Ansgar was considered to be the first Christian missionary to the Viking world, and for his deeds, he earned the moniker “Apostle of the North.” Ansgar was born on the 8th of September, AD 801, to a wealthy Frankish family. After his mother’s early death, Ansgar was brought to Corbie Abbey and was educated at the Benedictine monastery in Picardy. At that point in history, the Vikings still worshipped the Norse gods and Christianity had not yet made inroads into the northern world.
Sometime around AD 826, Louis the Pious baptized the deposed Danish ruler, Harald Klak, in Mainz. He also gave him lands in Frisia as a base from which to attack Denmark, and the support he needed to return to Denmark. Accompanying Harald on this journey were priests, including Ansgar. According to his biographer, “The task which he [Ansgar] proposed to undertake appeared to be so full of danger and difficulty that his friends and fellow monks tried hard to dissuade him from his purpose”, but he went anyway. The mission was not a huge success. He did establish a school in Hedeby, but within a year, Harald was deposed again and Ansgar was forced to return to Germany.
Then in AD 829, after the Swedish king Björn requested missionaries for his Swedes, King Louis sent Ansgar, now accompanied by friar Witmar from New Corbie as his assistant. Ansgar preached and made converts, particularly during the six months he was at Birka, and then again around Lake Mälaren.
Ansgar’s Political Life
Ansgar would eventually return to Germany in AD 831, where he would become the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. This was a new archbishopric, incorporating the bishoprics of Bremen and Verden and with the right to send missions into all the northern lands, as well as to consecrate bishops for them. With Louis’s death in AD 840, the church underwent considerable upheaval, which broke up Ansgar’s archbishopric and diminished his ability to carry out his mission. But it did not stop him entirely.
During the Danish civil war, he established good relations with two kings, Horik the Elder and his son, Horik II. Under their watchful eyes, Ansgar built a church in Hedeby and established Christianity as a tolerated religion. Ansgar did not forget the Swedish mission either, and spent several more years there in person (848–850), averting a pagan uprising. In AD 854, Ansgar returned to Sweden when King Olof ruled in Birka.
Ansgar is often thought of as the first missionary to the North and was declared “Patron of Scandinavia” by the church. There is no doubting the courage he must have needed to undertake his missions, and while he did not single-handedly bring Christianity to the North, he did pave the way for others to follow.
You can read a translation of The Life of Ansgar, written by his successor, Archbishop Rimpert, here.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Please feel free to leave any comments below or share with others who might be interested.
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