22 May 2013

Evangelism with Olaf

I’m currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Heimskringla (The History of the Norse Kings) by Snorre Sturlason. Right now I’m reading about Olaf Tryggvason, the second king of Norway to embrace Christianity. Haakon the Good had previously tried to spread Christianity among his people, but what he got in return were death threats. Specifically, the people of Trondheim told him that if he didn’t drink the offering cup to Thor at the annual sacrifice, they would kill him and get a new king. Since the people of Trondheim were numerous and strong, he gave in, but not without causing a huge ruckus by making the sign of the cross over the cup before he drank it. His PR person spun the situation by telling the people that he was making the sign of Thor’s hammer.

Fast forward a couple of kings to Olaf Tryggvason. He had a slightly different take on the conversion of his fellow countrymen. I’m not sure why we never studied him in our evangelism class at LU.

King Olav straightway opened the matter with the common folk, that he would ask all men in his kingdom to become Christian. Those who had already promised to do so, agreed first to that behest, and they were the mightiest present: all the others followed them. Thereupon all the men in the east in the Vik were baptized. Now the king went north in the Vik and bade all men take up Christianity, and those who spoke against it he dealt with hard; some he slew, some he maimed and some he drove away from th eland. So it came about far and wide over all the kingdom which his father King Tryggvi had vormerly ruled and likewise over that which his kinsman Harald the Grenlander had had, that all the folk took up Christianity as Olav bade. And in that summer and the following winter the folk in the whole of the Vik were all converted to Christianity. (VII.53)

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, this seemed to work very well. Of course, Olaf didn’t always offer the choice between conversion and death. Sometimes, if the man he was trying to convert was a jarl who had a number of warriors at his command, Olaf would offer him the choice between conversion or battle. Given the choice, conversion often resulted. Olaf was not known for losing battles.

When confronted with the stubborn people around Trondheim who demanded he sacrifice to Thor, he readily agreed. But he told them that he was an all or nothing sort of guy and that if they wanted him to sacrifice he would do it in the most ancient way possible and sacrifice men rather than animals. And of course he wouldn’t sacrifice slaves or criminals, but would be free to choose from the richest and most powerful families since the gods deserved the best. This caused many to reconsider and accept Christianity.

Finally, for the people who still insisted he come to the sacrifice, he relented. He asked to be led into the temple of Thor to pay his respects. Then, when inside, he hefted up his battle axe and went to town on the statues of the gods while the leader of the people who had been instigating the unrest got the axe from Olaf’s men. Upon exiting the ruined temple, the rest of the people decided to accept baptism, and so that was that.

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