Boris Converts to Christianity

The conversion to Christianity of the Bulgarian khan Boris I anchored Bulgaria to a civilized, Christian Europe in a way that determined its national destiny.

Summary of Event

The Bulgarians were originally a Turkic people residing to the northeast of the Sea of Azov and ruled, according to legend, by the house of Dulo. Under a semilegendary figure, Kubrat Kubrat (semilegendary) , they entered history in the seventh century as a powerful tribal confederation. Kubrat’s grandson, Asperukh Asperukh , led a portion of the people south across the Danube River in 681, deemed the founding date of Bulgarian nationhood. [kw]Boris Converts to Christianity (864)
[kw]Christianity, Boris Converts to (864)
Bulgaria;Christianity and
Boris I of Bulgaria
Bulgaria;864: Boris Converts to Christianity[1000]
Government and politics;864: Boris Converts to Christianity[1000]
Religion;864: Boris Converts to Christianity[1000]
Boris I of Bulgaria
Michael III
Cyril, Saint
Methodius, Saint
Nicholas the Great

Asperukh and his heirs soon found themselves in conflict with the mighty Byzantine Empire, which yearned to reoccupy its former possessions in the Thracian territories the Bulgarians now held. The ferocious Bulgarian leader, or khan, Krum Krum so annihilated a Byzantine army in 811 that Byzantium became convinced it did not have the strength to conquer Bulgaria. Krum’s son and successor, Omortag Omortag , was more conciliatory to the Byzantines. By 852, with the accession of Khan Boris I, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were more amicable. In particular, whereas the ferocious Krum had been an unrelenting pagan, rejoicing in drinking blood out of the skulls of his enemies, Boris began to understand the air of sanctity and authority that Christianity provided to the Byzantine ruler.

Christianity also appealed to Boris for more local political reasons. The Turkic-descended Bulgars ruled over a majority of Slavs Slavs who were beginning to acquire increasing political power in the kingdom. Boris was interested in appealing to these Slavs as he wished to weaken the power of the Bulgar nobles or “boyars.” The Slavs and Bulgars were beginning to become one people. Yet the Slavs would never subscribe to the traditional Bulgar religion, and therefore the supraethnic nature of Christianity became a decided boon in Boris’s eyes.

Though desirous of converting to Christianity, Boris was also conscious that he had more than one version of Christianity from which to choose. Although Bulgaria was geographically closer to the Eastern church at Constantinople, that very proximity made the Western church centered at Rome a potentially less controlling alternative. Yet it was the Eastern church that had begun to realize the importance of missionary activity among the Slavic peoples. In the late 850’, the Byzantine emperor, Michael III Michael III , had approved the sending of the missionaries Cyril Cyril, Saint and Methodius Methodius, Saint to preach Christianity in the kingdom of Great Moravia, a kingdom to the northwest of Bulgaria whose exact location is disputed by historians. Seeing Moravian power as a threat, especially if exercised in concert with the Byzantine Empire, Boris sought an alliance with the German emperor as a counterweight, a potential alliance that entailed, as well, acceptance of the Western form of Christianity. This frightened the Byzantines into action, and a frantic rivalry began between East and West as to which would be the one to convert the Bulgars.

Both the Eastern and Western churches were blessed with excellent leadership in this period. The Eastern patriarch at this time was Photios Photios , one of the greatest intellects of Byzantine history and possibly the most gifted individual ever to occupy his position. The Roman Catholic pope was the capable and energetic Nicholas the Great Nicholas the Great , who was the most assertive pope the West was to have in the ninth and tenth centuries. Both Photios and Nicholas fully realized the importance of Bulgaria to the power of their churches. Photios, though, had the immediate advantage of the Byzantine army being ready to assist his cause. Michael sent his troops into Bulgaria and welcomed Boris’s rapid surrender in order to impose terms consisting of Boris’s adoption of Eastern Christianity for his nation. In a diplomatic turnabout, Boris was not only baptized but also accepted the sponsorship of the emperor and thereby received the symbolic name Michael.

Yet all was not harmonious in the newly Christian Bulgaria. The boyars sensed that Boris’s enthusiasm for Christianity stemmed partially from his eagerness to centralize power in the monarchy and thus revolted bloodily, a revolt Boris quelled only with much effort. Boris also was vexed by the rigor of the Eastern rite, with its seemingly minute and arcane modes of observation. Especially, he was annoyed by the sudden irruption of Greek-speaking clergy into his kingdom, since he realized that the priests would have no loyalty to him but only to the emperor and would limit the effectiveness of the Bulgarian church as a national organ. Thus the continuing entreaties of Pope Nicholas took on a renewed appeal to Boris.

In a letter to the pope, Boris inquired as to the necessity of the various practices of Eastern Christianity, as well as the extent to which he had to reform pagan practices, such as polygamy, that still flourished among his people. Nicholas’s response was firm in its insistence on the basic truths of Christianity but pleasingly flexible on certain details.

Because Nicholas and Photios were simultaneously quarreling on a massive scale over the theological issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, an issue that would lead to schism between the Eastern and Western churches centuries later, their duel over Bulgaria took on an added urgency. Nicholas sent in a detachment of bishops and priests, and the Greek supremacy in the Bulgarian church was overturned. Although Boris was pleased by the fact that the new clergy owed allegiance only to the pope and therefore were unlikely to provide support for a rival sovereign, he still was uneasy about the amount of local control Rome would permit. Nicholas made some vague promises of a future autonomous Bulgarian church, but, on further pressure from Boris, retrenched and made it clear that the only permissible model for the Papacy was a centralized church hierarchy completely controlled by Rome. Boris decided that he preferred Eastern Christianity because of its tendency to leave political matters to the monarch and concentrate on spiritual questions alone. Papacy;relations with Eastern churches

The Byzantines, meanwhile, had decided to change their tactics. A new and more energetic emperor, Basil the Macedonian Basil I the Macedonian , succeeded Michael and decided to fire Photios as patriarch in order to repair relations with the Western church. The new patriarch smoothed over matters with Rome sufficiently to obtain grudging consent to Bulgaria being within the Eastern sphere. The Byzantines had made a huge concession: They sanctioned the liturgy being preached not in Greek but in Bulgarian, a language that by that time had a heavy admixture of Slavic syntax and structure. This would ensure that the priests would themselves be Bulgarian and thus owe allegiance to the Bulgarian king. After 870, Boris enthusiastically promulgated the new order and, as a symbol for the evolution of his people, prepared to move the seat of government from the old capital, Pliska, with its pagan associations, to the new city of Preslav. Although his conversion was motivated by political expediency, Boris became personally pious and ended his days as a monk.


The new Bulgarian liturgy flourished, as did the Cyrillic alphabet especially developed for the Slavic languages by the missionaries Cyril and Methodius and propagated by their disciples, such as Saint Clement of Ohrid. This liturgical language eventually came to be called Old Church Slavonic and was the basis for the church language used in Slavic countries, such as Russia, which followed Bulgaria in converting to Eastern Christianity. Perhaps the most far-reaching effect of Boris’s conversion was to sanction the use of vernacular languages in Orthodox Christianity, which had previously permitted worship in only the three “sacred” languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

The Bulgarians, like their contemporaries the Anglo-Saxons in England, had managed to keep their own language and culture while fully participating in the classical and Christian heritage. It is for this that Bulgarians are often termed the Englishmen of the Balkans. After Boris’s conversion, Bulgaria was to hold a permanent place in the framework of European civilization.

Further Reading

  • Bowlus, Charles R. Franks, Moravians, and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube, 788-907. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Radical revision of early Central European history that highlights relations between Bulgaria and the West.
  • Browning, Robert. Byzantium and Bulgaria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Accessible account of Bulgarian-Byzantine relations.
  • Crampton, R. J. A Concise History of Bulgaria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains a brief but useful treatment of Boris in the chapter on medieval Bulgaria, as well as an extensive bibliography.
  • Fine, John. The Early Medieval Balkans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Learned and comprehensive work aimed at the advanced student.
  • Lang, David Marshall. The Bulgarians. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1976. A convenient overview of early Bulgarian history.
  • Norris, Frederick W. Christianity: A Short Global History. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2002. Places Boris in the context of the medieval spread of Christianity.
  • Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth. Crestwood, Ill.: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1971. This epochal book describes how Byzantine Christianity was spread to the emerging nations of Eastern Europe.
  • Runciman, Steven. The First Bulgarian Empire. London: Bell, 1930. Although dated, this work is still the best narrative account of the period in English.
  • Tsvetkov, Plamen. A History of the Balkans. San Francisco: Mellen Press, 1993. A densely written account that situates Bulgarian history in a regional context.