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§ 30. The Christianization of Sweden.


Rimbertus: Vita Ansgarii, in Pertz: Monumenta II.

Adamus Bremensis: Gesta Ham. Eccl. Pont., in Pertz: Monumenta VII; separate edition by Lappenberg. Hanover, 1846.

Historia S. Sigfridi, in Scriptt. Rer. Suec. Medii-oevi, T. II.


Just when the expulsion of Harald Klak compelled Ansgar to give up the Danish mission, at least for the time being, an embassy was sent by the Swedish king, Björn, to the emperor, Lewis the Pious, asking him to send Christian missionaries to Sweden. Like the Danes, the Swedes had become acquainted with Christianity through their wars and commercial connections with foreign countries, and with many this acquaintance appears to have awakened an actual desire to become Christians. Accordingly Ansgar went to Sweden in 829, accompanied by Witmar. While crossing the Baltic, the vessel was overtaken and plundered by pirates, and he arrived empty handed, not to say destitute, at Björkö or Birka, the residence of King Björn, situated on an island in the Maelarn. Although poverty, and misery were very poor introduction to a heathen king in ancient Scandinavia, he was well received by the king; and in Hergeir, one of the most prominent men at the court of Birka, he found a warm and reliable friend. Hergeir built the first Christian chapel in Sweden, and during his whole life he proved an unfailing and powerful support of the Christian cause. After two years’ successful labor, Ansgar returned to Germany; but he did not forget the work begun. As soon as he was well established as bishop in Hamburg, he sent, in 834, Gautbert, a nephew of Ebo, to Sweden, accompanied by Nithard and a number of other Christian priests, and well provided with everything necessary for the work. Gautbert labored with great success. In Birka he built a church, and thus it became possible for the Christians, scattered all over Sweden, to celebrate service and partake of the Lord’s Supper in their own country without going to Duerstede or some other foreign place. But here, as in Denmark, the success of the Christian mission aroused the jealousy and hatred of the heathen, and, at last, even Hergeir was not able to keep them within bounds. An infuriated swarm broke into the house of Gautbert. The house was plundered; Nithard was murdered; the church was burnt, and Gautbert himself was sent in chains beyond the frontier. He never returned to Sweden, but died as bishop of Osnabrück, shortly before Ansgar. When Ansgar first heard of the outbreak in Sweden, he was himself flying before the fury of the Danish heathen, and for several years he was unable to do anything for the Swedish mission. Ardgar, a former hermit, now a priest, went to Sweden, and in Birka he found that Hergeir had succeeded in keeping together and defending the Christian congregation; but Hergeir died shortly after, and with him fell the last defence against the attacks of the heathen and barbarians.

Meanwhile Ansgar had been established in the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen. In 848, he determined to go himself to Sweden. The costly presents he gave to king Olaf, the urgent letters he brought from the emperor, and the king of Denmark, the magnificence and solemnity of the appearance of the mission made a deep impression. The king promised that the question should be laid before the assembled people, whether or not they would allow Christianity to be preached again in the country. In the assembly it was the address of an old Swede, proving that the god of the Christians was stronger even than Thor, and that it was poor policy for a nation not to have the strongest god, which finally turned the scales, and once more the Christian missionaries were allowed to preach undisturbed in the country, . Before Ansgar left, in 850, the church was rebuilt in Birka, and, for a number of years, the missionary labor was continued with great zeal by Erimbert, a nephew of Gautbert, by Ansfrid, born a Dane, and by Rimbert, also a Dane.

Nevertheless, although the persecutions ceased, Christianity made little progress, and when, in 935, Archbishop Unni himself visited Birka, his principal labor consisted in bringing back to the Christian fold such members as had strayed away among the heathen, and forgotten their faith. Half a century later, however, during the reign of Olaf Skotkonge, the mission received a vigorous impulse. The king himself and his sons were won for the Christian cause, and from Denmark a number of English missionaries entered the country. The most prominent among these was Sigfrid, who has been mentioned beside Ansgar as the apostle of the North. By his exertions many were converted, and Christianity became a legally recognized religion in the country beside the old heathenism. In the Southern part of Sweden, heathen sacrifices ceased, and heathen altars disappeared. In the Northern part, however, the old faith still continued to live on, partly because it was difficult for the missionaries to penetrate into those wild and forbidding regions, partly because there existed a difference of tribe between the Northern and Southern Swedes, which again gave rise to political differences.

The Christianization of Sweden was not completed until the middle of the twelfth century.


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