I saw an advertisement recently for a series on the History Channel on the Vikings. A viewer’s guide blurb reads, “Chronicling the medieval adventures of a band of Norsemen.”
“Adventures”? I guess that’s one way to put it. They went around killing people, raping women, stealing, and destroying things.
For two centuries the Vikings were the scourge of Europe. But what changed them? Who changed them? It’s really one of the great stories in human history. However, in our highly politically correct age of multiculturalism, the truth is often obscured.
Norway, my wife’s native land—we were married there, in fact--was once dominated by Vikings. These days, Norway has a reputation as a country committed to peace. The Nobel Peace Prize, is given in Norway.
But it didn’t used to be that way…as you can see, I’m sure, in this TV series on the Vikings.
Sometime in the 800s or so, Norwegian Vikings would plant their crops in the spring and then board ships they made to invade all over Europe. They would return with loot, just in time for harvest.
The Christians in the pillaged lands would pray, “God, save us from the Norsemen [Vikings].” Religious institutions (e.g., monasteries) in particular were a favorite target of the Vikings because they often housed treasures and were often poorly defended.
The Vikings pillaged, raped, and killed men, women, and even children. They would systematically put to the torch what was left.
Dr. Kennedy and I noted in the book, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?, “Their fighting men, berserkers, were so fierce in battle that our word berserk comes from them. What changed this horrible scourge of humanity? Jesus Christ did.” (They used drug-inducing mushrooms in battle.)
But when one of their leaders, “St.” Olaf (995-1030), claimed to become a follower of Jesus, things began to change. I put the “saint” in quotes because by Christian standards, he wasn’t always too saintly.
He forced his people to worship Christ instead of their gods, like Odin (from whence we have the word Wednesday, i.e., “Odin’s dag” in Norwegian) or Thor (Thursday). As Thomas Jefferson rightly said, “the holy author of our religion” doesn’t force Himself on anyone. The gospel should never be imposed by force. But despite this rough start, Christianity began to take root.
Over time, the Vikings were changed. As Dr. Kennedy and I note, “…over time, many of the Scandinavians became true Christians, and so the Vikings stopped their terrible raids. Virtually every Norwegian, Dane, Swede, and even many British [because of the Viking raids] are descendants of these formerly fierce and warlike people.”
The gospel had such an effect that by 1020 A.D., Norway passed laws, reflecting these new values. Norwegian historian Sverre Steen writes about that law that “old practices became illegal, such as blood sacrifice, black magic, the ‘setting out’ of infants, slavery and polygamy.”
I recently preached a funeral for a Norwegian/American. The coffin of the deceased had an American flag on one part and a Norwegian flag on the other.
I noted to the assembled mourners how the Norwegian flag, and all the flags of the Scandinavian countries, are based on the cross of Jesus. Only the colors are different. The Danish flag (a white cross with a red background) is among the oldest national flags in the world.
Norway has sent out more Christian missionaries per capita than any other country until recent years. Norway is now one of the most humanitarian countries when it comes to helping the world’s poor. In short, Norway--a formerly warlike, barbarian nation--now has a good reputation as a peace-loving country.
My wife Kirsti told me, “It was Christianity that changed the Vikings. No doubt about it. Before Christianity came, things like humility, kindness, gentleness were considered a female weakness, instead of as virtues.” The Vikings are a trophy of the gospel of Jesus.