Volume 33, No.4 - Winter 1987
Editor of this issue: Antanas V. Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1987 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



The various historical details of Lithuania's conversion to Christianity have been long discussed and disputed among scholars ever since the appearance of Dlugosz's famous History of Poland. Here I would like to discuss, in more general terms, the historical impact of Christianization for the Lithuanian people. In 1387, Jogaila initiated a process by which Catholicism became the dominant form of Christianity in the ethnically Lithuanian lands. This marked a turning point in Lithuanian history for a number of reasons. Most important, the Catholic Church was to become the greatest religious institution in Lithuania. In the centuries that followed, its influence would extend to virtually every aspect of Lithuanian religious, cultural, economic and political life. And in addition to its obvious spiritual role, the Church had also a temporal function: it served as the medium through which the values of the West became part of the Lithuanian experience. It is difficult to imagine how the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Baroque could have become part of Lithuania's heritage without Jogaila's turn to the West. One need only walk the streets of Vilnius, to stroll past St. Anne's or the ornate Church of Saints Peter and Paul, to appreciate how much the country's very physical landscape is conditioned by what happened in 1387.

In more theological terms, utilizing the idiom of faith, Pope John Paul II expressed his vision of the importance of the Catholic Church for the Lithuanian people in his apostolic letter to the Lithuanian bishops, On the Occasion of the Sixth Centenary of the 'Baptism' of Lithuania (June 5, 1987):

The Church was so immersed, and I would say identified, with the reality of the Nation that in every age your forefathers stood firmly together around her, especially in times of trial, in the dark, sad hours, which even in recent times have marked the history of your land.

In the Church, in her teaching, in her evangelizing and sanctifying work, in her service of unity and truth, your people always found the meaning of their own history, their particular identity, their reasons for living and hoping.

However, there are some who argue that the advent of Roman Catholicism was a mixed blessing for the Lithuanian people. Most often, they point to the fact that the Church also served as a conduit for the injection of Polish culture into Lithuania to the detriment of the native Lithuanian language and culture. Others claim that, in addition, the Church was an important factor in the eventual subjugation of Lithuania, particularly after 1569, to the political interests of Poland. Still others, including Marxists, contend that the Church was an important pillar of the upper classes in upholding a feudal system based on the grievous exploitation of the peasant masses by a landholding elite.

Of course, all of these criticisms have some merit. These points of view have been discussed, and even held, by various Catholic scholars. In brief, it can be answered that the Church, like other medieval institutions, was a product of its times, and carried within it some of the social inequities and national prejudices of the age. The Crusades of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic certainly had little to do with the spirit of the Gospels. Yet the Church has never really claimed perfection in the temporal sphere, where its activities are carried out by fallible human beings; it only claims that it embodies the true faith in leading its flock toward salvation of the spirit. In any case, it is difficult to see how a Lithuanian turn to the Orthodox East, the only other viable Christian alternative at the time, would have alleviated any of the problems mentioned above, except to replace Polish domination with Russian cultural hegemony.

There is another problem with Lithuania's Christianization in 1387. Some say that the date is an artificial construct; that King Mindaugas' baptism of 1251 is, in fact, the starting point of Lithuanian Christianity and is the real date of Lithuania's baptism. There is some validity to this point of view as well, inasmuch as it is clear that Christianity, both in its Orthodox and Roman Catholic forms, had penetrated Lithuania long before 1387. Only last year archaeologists in Vilnius discovered the foundations of what would appear to be a large cathedral dating back to Mindaugas' reign, that is, the thirteenth century, and published their findings in the magazine Kultūros Barai. There is evidence that, even before the mission of 1387, there were at least three Catholic churches in Vilnius, as well as several Orthodox ones. Furthermore, one must agree that the date of 1387, like other historical 'anniversaries that we commemorate, is somewhat arbitrary; that is, it tends to assume greater significance in retrospect and usually signifies a less dramatic beginning of a long and complex process rather than a sharp turn with immediately obvious results. In Lithuania, traditional pre-Christian practices did not disappear in 1387, nor did the majority of Lithuanians become ardent Catholics that year: the process took decades, in some areas, centuries. In 1387 Samogitia was still largely under the rule of the Teutonic Order and, thus, was not included in the missionary efforts and the establishment of Church administration that was centered in the Vilnius region.

Yet even if the immediate effects of Lithuania's Christianization of 1387 were not overly dramatic, there are still good reasons for considering it a crucial event worthy of commemoration. It is significant that, while Mindaugas' successors tolerated and permitted the existence of both Eastern and Western Christianity within Lithuania, they themselves clung to the traditional Lithuanian religion, even when, like Algirdas, they married Christian wives. Before Jogaila, none of the Lithuanian rulers formally acknowledged the Pope as the spiritual leader of their state, and the very fact that they continued to negotiate with the West (and the East) for the baptism of their subjects into a Christian "realm" suggests that they considered themselves outside of it. Furthermore, after 1387 there was no official reversion to traditional religion or, if you will, "paganism." If we are to measure historic turning points in terms of choosing alternatives and initiating decisive trends, then 1387 is one such point in Lithuanian history.


1 This introduction is excerpted from a forthcoming book surveying the history of Christianity in Lithuania.