Christianity Is Introduced into Germany

Christianity’s introduction into Germany expanded the borders of Christendom beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

From 500 to 700, Irish and later English missionary monks under religious conviction attempted to create a new Europe out of its wreckage from previous wars. Anglo-Saxon monks and the Papacy were hard at work in the mission field during the eighth century in a dual attempt to transform the Frankish church and to convert the pagan continental Germanic tribes. [kw]Christianity Is Introduced into Germany (735)
[kw]Germany, Christianity Is Introduced into (735)
Germany;735: Christianity Is Introduced into Germany[0620]
Netherlands;735: Christianity Is Introduced into Germany[0620]
Religion;735: Christianity Is Introduced into Germany[0620]
Willibrord, Saint
Boniface, Saint
Gregory, Saint, II

An early evangelical pioneer was Willibrord, Willibrord, Saint a Northumbrian monk, who began a minimally successful forty-year effort to convert the Frisians in approximately 690 in the area around the town of Utrecht (now in the Netherlands). Willibrord was later joined in Frisia by one of his missionary associates, Wynfrith, a celebrated English nobleman and Benedictine monk. Wynfrith would later be renamed Saint Boniface Boniface, Saint and be given the title apostle of Germany from his patron, Pope Gregory II Gregory II , who called him in 718 to preach in Germany. Wynfrith’s personal call by the Papacy, however, did not come immediately as Gregory II was initially disturbed to see a member of the Roman Church trying to organize a band of pilgrims instead of settling in a monastery permanently. Only after Wynfrith produced an episcopal letter of recommendation and explained his intentions did Gregory II authorize him to go into the German mission field and represent the Roman Church.

Wynfrith, born in a noble Anglo-Saxon family in Kirton, Devonshire, and christened as Winfrid, labored at making converts for three years before the pope made him bishop for all of Germany east of the Rhine River in 723 and gave him the name Saint Boniface. In approximately 743, Saint Boniface founded the Abbey of Fulda, which later became one of the most famous monasteries in Germany, and served as archbishop of Mainz from 747 to 754. Visiting the Frankish ruler Charles Martel Charles Martel on his way to minister in the rebellious heathen province of Hesse, Saint Boniface was granted protection by Frankish officials. This civil protection greatly assisted his ability to further institute and strengthen papal authority in France and allowed his missions to succeed where others had previously failed. Ten years of missionary work in the areas of Hesse and Thuringia followed, during which tradition relates that Saint Boniface felled a famous oak tree sacred to the pagan gods at Geismar to reinforce one of his teachings and then used the timber to build a church in honor of Saint Peter.

Saint Boniface’s work among the heathen was later opposed by Frankish bishops and Irish monks who accused him of working in regions under their jurisdiction. News of this resistance to his work brought numerous English volunteers to his aid, which served to advance the young German church but at some cost to the Church of England. When Gregory III became pope in 732, Saint Boniface was granted metropolitan rank with power to consecrate other bishops, although he remained without an episcopal see until he secured the chair of Mainz. With great organizing skill and loyalty to the Holy See, Saint Boniface founded missionary works for Bavaria in Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, and Passau. By 742, he had established episcopal seats for Hesse and Thuringia at Wurtzburg, Buraburg, and Erfurt.

Saxons undergoing baptism after being conquered by Charlemagne. From a miniature in a fifteenth century manuscript in the Burgundy Library, Brussels.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Saint Boniface visited Rome in 738 for the third time when the structure and organization of the German church was completed. Even though Saint Boniface enjoyed the numerous advantages of papal support during his missionary projects, his work among the heathen Saxons resulted in very limited success. He had apparently underestimated the difficulties of converting the Saxons, his continental blood brothers, and met such fierce resistance that military efforts by Charlemagne a half-century later were necessary to make them permanent converts. Although Christianity is founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ, who sought to prepare his disciples to convert followers for the coming kingdom of God, Saint Boniface found through his studies and struggles that the Bible includes very few organizational instructions on how to accomplish this. After his failure with the Saxon tribes, Pope Gregory III instructed Saint Boniface to continue the organization of the church in southern Germany on a diocesan basis, which he accomplished with tremendous skill and dedication.

History will remember Saint Boniface being clearly more successful as a missionary than other notable missionaries during the Middle Ages such as Saint Augustine, apostle to the English nation and first archbishop of Canterbury. One contributing factor may have been that Saint Boniface had considerably more military protection and financial support from Charles Martel and Pépin III the Short than Saint Augustine did from King Ethelbert of Kent (d. 616). Saint Boniface also had the advantage of working among people less different from himself than missionaries either before or after him. Additionally, the previous attempts by Irish monks to convert the Saxons and other Germanic tribes in the area had undoubtedly helped prepare the way for Saint Boniface and his talent for attracting helpers and financial support.


Saint Boniface left his mark on German religion and culture by starting the Benedictine-dominated German church of the early Middle Ages and, to some extent, the Carolingian monarchy of the eighth and ninth centuries. Saint Boniface’s love for and devotion to the Papacy also contributed to the final emancipation of the Papacy from the Roman Empire in the East, to the penetration of the idea of the theocratic monarchy into Western Europe, and to the legal founding of the papal states. Willibrord, Wilfred, and Saint Boniface are credited by most historians as “heroes whose labor established the Roman Church as the ultimate standard in the heart of Europe.” The festival of Saint Boniface is celebrated in both the Catholic and Anglican churches on June 5, the anniversary of his death in 754 at the hands of an angry pagan mob.

The Roman Catholic Roman Catholic Church;Germany form of Christianity continued to prosper in all German lands until the advent of the Protestant Reformation. Reformation A majority of the Protestants of the sixteenth century followed the teachings of Martin Luther, which were based on the scripture “the just shall live by faith,” and thus became known as Lutherans. Other German Protestants followed the teachings of the French Protestant reformer John Calvin and thus organized Reformed and Evangelical churches. Many of the Polish-speaking people of eastern Prussia remained in the Roman Catholic faith, as did many peoples of Austria, Bavaria, and some of the Rhineland cities of western Prussia. Most of Prussia, Saxony, and northern and central Germany increasingly turned away from the Roman Catholic form of Christianity to the Protestant church after the Great Reformation.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. A survey of the development and spread of Christianity during the first millennium, focusing especially on the different types of Christianity in different parts of Europe and the Middle East and the interactions of believers.
  • Deanesly, Margaret. The Pre-Conquest Church in England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. This volume contains excellent and well-organized chapters on Boniface and other English missionaries to Germany in the eighth century.
  • Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars. 1947. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967. A biographical account of numerous Anglo-Saxon saints and scholars who shaped the religious development of Europe during their time.
  • Egmond, Wolfert von. “Converting Monks: Missionary Activity in Early Medieval Frisia and Saxony.” In Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals, edited by Guyda Armstrong and Ian N. Wood. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000. Explores the encounter between missionaries and non-Christians in two medieval German regions.
  • Godfrey, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Eulogizes Boniface as a creator of Europe, a founder of German Christianity, a reformer of the Frankish church, and a chief architect of the monumental alliance between the Papacy and the Carolingian family.
  • Greenaway, George W. Saint Boniface. New York: Humanities Press, 1955. A brief account of the life, struggles, and dedication of Boniface.
  • Levison, Wilhelm. England and the Continent in the Eighth Century. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1946. A text that contains a full, standard, and learned account of the work of English missionaries in the time of Boniface.
  • Logan, F. Donald. A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2002. Covers the spread and development of medieval Christianity, beginning with the conversion of the Celts and of the Germanic tribes.
  • Schnurer, Gustav. Church and Culture in the Middle Ages: Volume I, 350-814. Paterson, N.J.: Saint Anthony Guild Press, 1956. Emphasizes the numerous difficulties Boniface had to overcome and calls him “probably the most able missionary ever produced by a north European country.”
  • Talbot, C. H., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba, and Lebuin, Together with the Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald and a Selection from the Correspondence of Saint Boniface. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954. An excellent write-up on the “Life of Saint Boniface” is included in this well-edited text, with all sources translated into English.