The Road of Christianity to Lithuania

Lithuanians in 1387 and Western Lithuanians, or Samogitians, in 1417 were the last in Europe to accept the Roman Catholic faith. They did not go through the Middle Ages. Until then Lithuanians had worshiped their own pagan gods related to the cosmos, natural phenomena (fire worshipping), nature and wildlife. The pagan faith was an animalistic religion imposing spirituality on the living and non-living nature. There was nothing particularly Lithuanian in it, as it was the religion of the ancient pre-Christian Europe. The first Christian missions reached the Balts, or Aistians (aestiorum gentes), as late as in the 10th through 12th centuries. Missionaries visited Western Balts: Bishop Wojciech Adalbert of Prague was killed in 997 in Prussia; the German missionary Archbishop Bruno of Querfurt (St. Boniface) was killed in 1009 by the Yotvingians; the German Bishop Meinhard was consecrated as the Bishop of Livonia in 1186, and the second Bishop of Livonia Berthold, the Abbot of Saxony, barely managed to get away from the Daugava estuary in 1197 and escape death. [He perished in a battle with the Livonians in 1198]. Pope then proclaimed a crusade, and Albert, the third Bishop of Livonia, arrived with military force in 1200. This was how the wars of the crusade started at the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. During the crusade in Palestine the Teutonic Order (Ordo Theutonicorum Sanctae Mariae Dei Virginis) was established in 1190. In 1226 the Polish (Masurian) Duke Conrad invited the knights of the Order and granted them a small province of Kulm (Chelm) on the Vistula. He was hoping to use them in the fight against the pagan Prussians. The European rulers Emperor Frederick II (1226) and Pope Gregory IX (1230) approved the gift. In 1234 the Pope took the Order “in ius et proprietatem beati Petri” and gave all pagan Prussian lands “in veram et perpetuam proprietatem possidendum pleno iure” to it. The statement was reiterated by the popes Urban IV in 1263 and Clement IV in 1268. This laid the foundation for the state of the Teutonic Order. Pope Innocent IV divided all Prussian lands into four dioceses in 1243, granting them one third of the Prussian land and two thirds of the lands to the Order. In fifty years all Prussian lands from the Vistula to the Nemunas were conquered by the Order. The Prussian tribes were subordinated to the power of the Order and christened against their will. In 1283 the cruellest war of the Order against the pagan Lithuanians started and continued for over a hundred years. The objective of the war thrust upon Lithuanians by the Order was to establish their own state.

In the middle of the 13th century a pagan Lithuanian state was formed. It fought a war of life and death against the Order. The Order sought to gain control of the country and then convert the population without granting the new Christians any political or social rights. This brought about wide resistance of the population. The Order colonised the occupied Prussian lands, created public institutions and defence system. In the warfare against the pagans, the Teutonic knights burned their farms and villages, killed the old and the young, took the stronger men and women into captivity and took away their livestock. In the 14th century the knights carried out approximately 100 military campaigns in Lithuania, while Lithuanians waged twice as few campaigns in Prussia. The climax of the war reached in the latter half of the 14th century, yet it did not bring a victory to either side. The Lithuanians managed to push the Tatars out of their Ukrainian and Belarussian territories, annexed these lands and acquired a huge military power in their opposition against the Order. The pagan and Christian faiths were not at war. By that time Franciscan and Dominican monasteries had already been established in Lithuania with Lithuanian monks. Therefore, it was a war of political and social nature waged on a religious pretext. In this war the knight monks had the military power recruited from Germany and volunteers from all over Europe who were looking for adventure, knightly entertainment, titles, indulgences and plunder. Their tactics consisted of repetitive military raids. Their justification was the pagan lands given to them by popes and emperors (in 1337 Emperor Louis gave the whole of Lithuania to the Order). The war that the Order thrust upon the Lithuanians and their relatives was cruel, unreasonable and senseless. Were there any attempts to baptise the Lithuanians in a peaceful manner? Mindaugas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, was baptised in 1251 and in 1253 was crowned King of Lithuania. Lithuania joined other Christian states and the crusade was stopped. The author believes that this was a consequence of a wide front against a possible invasion to Europe by the Tatars organised under the initiative of Pope Innocent IV.
The planned buffer zone to be organised by Archbishop Albert II of Riga included the southern (Galicia and Volyn) and northern (Novgorod) Russian lands, the lands of the Order and the converted Lithuanian territories. In 1248 Tautvilas, Mindaugas’ nephew, was baptised and was being pushed to take the Lithuanian throne. Mindaugas only had to follow Tautvilas and ask the Pope to be baptised. However, as the direct Tatar threat disappeared, Mindaugas and Danil, the Duke of Galicia, refused the Pope’s protection, while Alexander Nevski, Duke of Novgorod, had refused it at the outset. The coalition broke apart. In 1323 Gediminas sought to remove Lithuania’s isolation from Europe. He accused the Order of selfish interests in Lithuania and promised the Franciscans of Vilnius he would ask the Pope for baptism through the Franciscans of Riga. However, he later changed his mind as he intended (1325) to seek rapprochement with Poland and reject the services of the Order. In 1349, 1351 and 1358 Algirdas and Kestutis were involved into Western politics. The initiative came from King Casimir III of Poland, titled Great. He was intent on containing Lithuania’s expansion into south-eastern Russian lands in order to get a foothold there himself. Casimir promised to the Pope to establish seven dioceses in the Russian lands. In return the Pope urged King Louis of Hungary and King and Emperor Wenceslas of Bohemia to help the Polish king in the matter of baptising Lithuania. Yet Lithuanian rulers felt to be powerful. The condition for Lithuania’s conversion they raised was that the Order should withdraw from Lithuanian territories and should itself be resettled to the steppes for fighting the Tatars. However, nether the Pope, nor the Emperor was willing to abolish the Order on the Baltic Sea, which probably was not in their powers. Baptism came to Lithuania through Poland. That was determined by several circumstances. In 1382 Jogaila promised to accept baptism from the Order, yet this could mean the loss of Samogitia to the Order. The marriage of Jogaila to a daughter of the Duke of Moscow was planned for 1383. Baptism would have meant vassalage for Lithuania against the Orthodox faith as the Duke of Moscow demanded that Jogaila should call himself the “junior brother” of the father-in law. Therefore baptism and a union with Poland was Jogaila’s best choise. Both countries were interested in the union. Poland was threatened by the rule of Sigismund of Brandenburg, husband of the daughter Maria of King Louis of Hungary and Poland (1382) or William of Habsburg, fiancée of his other daughter Hedwig. After the death of Casimir the Great (1370) Poland had lost the crown and the Russian lands conquered by him. Therefore Polish landlords were interested in the rich Russian lands that belonged to Lithuania. For Lithuania, in turn, baptism was long overdue because of the unstable situation in the east of the country, the rivalry among the Gediminians and the fast rise of Moscow. In addition, Lithuania needed Poland’s support against the Order. That is why the Polish nobility chose the newly baptised Lithuania’s ruler Jogaila Vladislaus as a husband for King Louis’ younger daughter Hedwig. In 1386 Jogaila was crowned King of Poland for which he promised to baptise Lithuania, return the lost lands to the crown and unite Lithuania and Poland under the Polish crown, while leaving it with its own rule. The political union of Poland and Lithuania was long (lasting for 400 years) and firm. Lithuania accepted baptism from Poland and joined Western civilisation. The Poles baptised the Lithuanians without bloodshed, on the basis of the conversion model created in early Middle Ages, and Lithuania soon entered European politics in helping the Empire to fight the Turks, dealing with the issues of the Czech Hussites and the Russian schism.
The masters of the Order made a fatal mistake. They underestimated to role of the Polish-Lithuanian union and were not content with what they already had, making further attempts to overpower Samogitia. They were at war with the Christian Lithuania until Pope Boniface IX expressly banned it in 1403. They tried to explain that Lithuania remained a pagan country, was being united with the schismatic Russians and eastern Saracens and posed a threat not only to the Order but also to the whole of West Europe. The Order was finally rewarded on 15 July 1410 in the fields of Tannenberg when the joint Polish and Lithuanian army crushed the forces of the Order and buried the myth of its invincibility. The Order was forced to give up on Samogitia, yet it continued to lay diplomatic traps. It was only in 1417 that the Council of Constance confirmed Samogitia’s conversion and establishment of diocese. It was the first and only instance when a Church Council established a diocese. The nomination of the bishop, the establishment of the foundation and parishes were the prerogative of the ruler of Lithuania Vytautas Alexander. The annexation of Russian lands, accounting for two thirds of the population of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and a huge territory stretching to the Black Sea and Moscow, posed additional problems to Lithuania’s conversion. The Russian Orthodox faith did not reach ethnic Lithuania. At the time of Lithuania’s conversion the Russians were allowed to keep their faith and were not converted to Roman Catholicism. This proved to be a far-sighted policy of the Lithuanian rulers Jogaila and Vytautas. Only mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox believers were banned and prevented the Russification of Lithuanians. On the other hand, high official posts and privileges were only granted to Catholics. Lithuanian Orthodox Metropolitan Gregory Camblak, sent by Jogaila and Vytautas to Constance Council, proposed a church union between Catholics and Orthodox, yet Europe refused to deal with the issue then.
In the 16th century the Church was shaken by the teachings of Martin Luther (1517) and John Calvin (1535). The Theutonic Order was secularised. Differently from other European countries, the majority of the Lithuanian nobility accepted the new evangelical creed. In towns it was only accepted by German communities. The nobility expected to curb the power of the Church hierarchy, repossess its lands and reduce the influence of the Polish landlords in Lithuania. The Evangelicals gave rise to an intellectual movement, causing the Catholic Church, which until then had remained mainly ritualistic and superficial, to get to know its faith from the primary sources. The romanisation of Lithuania, which had started in the 15th century, was accelerated in the 16th century, mainly due to the education of the children of Lithuanian nobility in foreign universities, mostly in Cracow. Upon their return to Lithuania, they became members of diocesan chapters of Vilnius and Medininkai, worked in the court of the Grand Duke, codified legislation and were the initiators of historical narrative literature, especially poetry. Latin literature in Lithuania was also promoted by foreigners who had found a new homeland in Lithuania and become patriots of the country. In 1564 the Seim (Parlament) of Poland and Lithuania unconditionally accepted the decrees of the Council of Trent. Catholic bishops invited Jesuits to Lithuania and established the Jesuit Academy in Vilnius (1579), the only school of higher education in Eastern Europe. The rulers of Lithuania and Poland did not allow the Evangelicals to proclaim their religion as official and left them to act in their own domains. They prohibited the Evangelicals to establish a school of higher education. Religious subjectivism (sects) was not overpowered. The Greek Orientalist schism was defeated through the union of Catholics and Orthodox (1596) approved in Rome. In the 17th century, of the five [Orthodox] dioceses in the territory of Lithuania remained none. In their place two Uniate dioceses and ca. 1.5 thousand Uniate parishes were established. Thus Lithuanian intellectuals carried Western civilisation to the East.
Due to a late conversion to Christianity Lithuania suffered huge material and demographic losses and was doomed to cultural and spiritual backwardness. Without its own writing, pagan Lithuania was prevented from developing its national consciousness and forming a medieval nation. The persevering paganism was a tribal religion. The Lithuanian language was only used for confessional matters, while the Russian language, and, later, Polish assumed the role of the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Afterwards, the union with Poland took away the right of Lithuania to the Kingdom of Lithuania that would have guaranteed it sovereignty of the state and territorial unity. Thus Lithuania remained in the shadow of Poland.