Do Eastern Orthodox Evangelize? A History of Orthodox Missions Vol. 1 (1054-1600)

[This is the first half of the script for our video of the same title, which is found here.]

Hello and welcome to the first video we are doing in a series on the history of Orthodox missions in the second millennium. As a significant amount of research, editing, materials, and time go into these videos, your support on Patreon is greatly appreciated and allows us to create more content like this and at more regular intervals. Make sure to like, subscribe, and share our videos on social media.

Further, this video series would not have been possible without the assistance of one of our outstanding Patrons, Alexander. He hunted down and compiled the majority of the sources used in this video. His help was invaluable and we owe him a gigantic thank you for that.

One of the more common claims made against the Orthodox Church by Catholic apologists is the claim that we do not evangelize like the Catholic Church does. Not only is this disturbingly ignorant but it evinces a very palpable empty triumphalism. Part of this is wilful cluelessness but part of it is also a lack of access to resources that are primarily in languages such as Russian, Serbian, and Greek and therefore, most western Christians have never had the opportunity to study the history. In addition, there is also the preconceived notion of what evangelism looks like. Our own concepts of evangelism are created primarily by imperial and colonial era missionaries. Most people simply equate missionary work with popular images of Spanish mission stations in the American Southwest, or white Europeans venturing into the jungles of Africa. When most people think of Russia, they simply think of a cold, backward, and isolated land of tyrannical rulers surrounded by mountains of vodka and bear hide rugs.

Now, the East launched many missions in the first millennium – St. Athanasius consecrated bishops to undertake missionary work in Ethiopia and Nubia in the fourth century and Christianity in Nubia, in the non-Chalcedonian variety, lasted into the mid-second millennium. Under the Emperor St. Justinian in the 6th century, the region that is now eastern Turkey was converted from paganism. In the 9th century under St. Photius the Great, Sts. Cyril and Methodius were dispatched to the Abbasid court in Baghdad on an imperial mission but with the double mission of converting the Caliph. They were successful in converting the Caliph’s brother and several of his relatives after a public debate in which St. Cyril, who spoke fluent Arabic, debated a Muslim theologian. Sts. Cyril and Methodius were also instrumental in the conversion of the Slavs but prior to this, when Slavic tribes would invade the Byzantine holdings in the Balkans, it was the ordinary people and clergy who did missionary work among the pagan Slavs and would bring them into the Christian fold. Considering how often the Slavs invaded and held Byzantium’s Balkans territory, this was an impressive amount of missionary work. We also have the work of the eastern patriarchates in converting many Monophysites in Anatolia and the Levant during the fall out in the centuries after Chalcedon so from an early stage, large scale mission work was nothing new to the East and the vast majority of missionary work was done on an informal level, much as how Christianity spread throughout the Roman and Persian Empires in the first three centuries. But to add to the fact the Catholic Church did not have a monopoly on successful missions, the Nestorians engaged in large scale missionary work between the 5th and 12th centuries going as far as Japan, fanning out across China and the Asian Steppes, and pouring down into India. 

But the focus of this video will be on the post-schism Orthodox Christian missions.  We will use the year 1054 as a convenience date and will start our record after that. The missions in this first video will be broken into the following categories:

1) The Balkans: the Bogomils and Paulicians, re-evangelizing Bulgaria
2) The Rus: Converting the Masses
3) The Missions to the North: Evangelizing the Finno-Ugric Tribes
4) The Missions to the Baltic Nations

5) The Missions to the South: Converting the Turkic Tribes


Before we begin, there are a number of maps we have selected in order for the viewers to be able to reference the areas being mentioned. These maps will appear on screen, but for the viewers’ convenience, we will also compile a collection of pertinent maps on page on our blog and we will have that page linked in the description below.

Missions in the Balkans

Throughout Christian history, dualist movements have attempted to attach themselves onto Christianity and despite typically being known as “Gnostics,” the name was an umbrella term based on the claims of these disparate groups to possess special and secret knowledge, or in Greek, gnosis, that none one else had. They tended to be heavily dualistic in their world view seeing matter as evil and the spiritual realm as good, which caused them to reject material manifestations of grace such as the sacraments, church buildings, and relics. Two very famous groups of Gnostics were the Paulicians who seemed to have originated around Armenia in the 7th century and their much more successful continuation, the Bogomils, who, it is conjectured, originated in Macedonia in the 10th century.

In 970, the Byzantine Emperor moved close to a quarter of a million Paulicians to the Balkans to repopulate the area and act as a bulwark against the Bulgarian Empire. They were settled largely in the city of Philippopolis, which corresponds to the Bulgarian metropolis of Plovdiv. This city became a hotbed and center of the movement and is the most obvious germination point from where the Bogomils developed as the Bogomils take their root in roughly the same area and at roughly the same time as the settlement of the Paulicians. Further, if the sources can be trusted, both groups had a somewhat similar theology. For example, both were dualists and both were Adoptionists. For this reason, the sources occasionally use the names of the two groups interchangeably.

It was not until the late 11th century, in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnene, that serious attempts were made t­­­o convert the Paulicians. In fact, Alexios built the city of Alexiopolis outside of Philippopolis ­­­simply to house heretical converts to Orthodox and his daughter, Anna Komnene, claims that her father, through his efforts, converted most of the Paulicians. She states this in the work “The Alexiad,” book XV, ch. 9. Alexis went to such efforts that he even engaged in public disputations with them while he was in Philippopolis. The remainder of the Paulicians converted in the late 12th century during the reign of Alexios III shortly before the sack of Constantinople.

The Serbian Stefan Nemanja, whose youngest son was St. Sava of Serbia, held a council against the Bogomils in 1176 and condemned their heresy. They were expelled from the country and fled to Bosnia, which is why Bosnia was the last stronghold of the heresy in the East. Similarly, councils were held in Bulgaria and Byzantium condemning the heresy and by the mid-13th century, the heresy was eradicated in the Balkans except for Bosnia. It was the conquest of the Ottoman Turks that ended any record of Bogomilism in Bosnia. 

It should be noted that St. Stefan Nemanja was a convert to Orthodoxy from Catholicism and it was largely his efforts that kept Serbia on the path of Orthodoxy during an extremely turbulent time.

Bogomilism seems to have gone even further underground in the 14th century and very likely established itself as what was known as the “Bosnian Church,” which had initially been established as an autonomous church under the Pope. Now, it should be stated that there are debates about the extent of the association between the Bosnian Church and the Bogomils but the authorities are all in agreement that Bosnia was where the Bogomils concentrated when they were expelled from the surrounding kingdoms, specifically from Serbia. Once the Ottoman Turks conquered the entire region in the mid-15th century, most of the Bogomils rapidly converted to Islam as disguising their beliefs under the guise of other religions was part of their creed. This is the main reason why Bosnia has such a large Muslim population in relation to other regions.

The missionary work in the Balkans was not simply limited to Bogomils and Paulicians but also Jews. For example, on the death of St. Theophylact of Archbishop of Ochrid in 1108, Leo Mung was elected to take his place. Leo was an adult convert to Orthodox Christianity from Judaism who, due to his superb prowess in linguistics, had previously been sent to what is now southern Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarch to evangelize the area. He reposed in the Lord in 1120.

We also have the conversion of the Bulgarian Church back from the Uniates. In the year 1204, the Bulgarian Czar Kaloyan agreed to enter into communion with Rome and was crowned King of the Bulgarians by the papal legate. The union continued until 1234 when the new Czar of Bulgaria, Ivan Asen II went into an alliance with Byzantine Emperor Doukas Vatatzes and the following year, in 1235, at the synod of Lampsacus, the Ecumenical Patriarch, with the permission of the other patriarchs, elevated the see of Tarnovo to that of a patriarchate and consecrated came back into the Orthodox Church with the see of Tarnovo being elevated to patriarchal status and consecrated the archbishop of Bulgaria, German, to the patriarchal dignity. As can be seen on screen, this meant a sizeable population of Catholics coming back into communion with the Orthodox Church.

Helen of Anjou, more commonly known as St. Helen of Serbia and mother of both King Stefan Dragutin and King Stefan Milutin, was a converted from Catholicism. She was known for her piety and for building the Gradac Monastery, St. Nicholas Church in Skadar, and renovating the Monastery of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. She died in 1314 and her feast day is February 8th.

Under King Stefan Dushan, the Serbian state expanded dramatically and conquered many areas with large Catholic populations, one of them being modern day Albania. Because of this, in the Law Code of King Stefan Dushan, which was placed into law in 1349, it did not force Catholics to convert but it made clear that Catholics, specifically Catholic Albanians, should convert to the Orthodox Church. This was achieved through several means, but one of them was the banning any Orthodox-Catholic marriages unless the Catholic member first converted and only Orthodox Christians are referred to as “Christians” while Catholics are referred to as “half-believers.” The same law code also enacted harsh penalties against what were left of the Bogomils. The point of mentioning the law code of Stefan Dushan is that conversions to the Orthodox Faith were not just allowed but encouraged thus demonstrating that the idea we are some ethnic ghetto who turn away converts is simply slander, it’s a complete lie.

Another convert from Judaism, Empress Theodora of Bulgaria converted to Orthodox Christianity and married Czar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria. She served in the capacity of Empress from 1331-1371 and spent lavishly on the upkeep and construction of churches and monasteries. Her zeal for Orthodoxy was so great that she was the main instigator behind the calling of the Council of Tarnovo in 1360, which legislated against Jewish practices. She reposed sometime in the late 1380s and though she is not a canonized saint, she has been held in high esteem by the Bulgarian Church due to her generosity to monasteries and churches.

Converting the Masses in the Rus Territories

When Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity in 988, the majority of the conversions came from the upper class and were mostly relegated to cities. The average people, especially in the countryside, remained thoroughly pagan. In fact, even in the year 1100, a city like Novgorod, which, after Kiev, would be the most Christianized, would have been something like one-third to one-half Christian. Cities further east like Yaroslavl and Vologda would be even less Christian. It was not until the early 12th century that most of the inhabitants of the big cities would have considered themselves Christian. Even further, it would be another three to four centuries before the northern tribes – who were largely Finno-Ugric and who made up the majority of northern Russia, were majority Christian. For example, in her magnum opus “Medieval Russia 980-1584,” Janet Martin points out that, quote:

“Some of the towns, such as Novgorod, Polotsk, and Belgorod […], became the centers of diocese during Vladimir’s reign. Elsewhere the Christian presence was probably little more than a small mission supplemented by the prince, his retainers, and a few converts.” Medieval Russia,” p. 11

This situation lasted longer than one would think as episcopal sees were established slowly. Case in point, the Principality of Smolensk, which was a large city, did not have a bishop until 1136, nearly a century and a half after the baptism of St. Vladimir. Martin continues, quote:

“During the 12th century, various indicators, including the popular use of Christian rather than pagan symbols in dress and decorative apparel, signaled that Christian culture was gradually taking hold in Rus society.” Medieval Russia,” p. 76

And:

“Although Christianity officially became the official state religion in 988 it was not readily accepted by the general populace, who remained loyal to their pagan gods, influential priests and shamans, and to the customs and rituals that gave meaning to the most basic human activities.” Medieval Russia,” p. 73

Now, that takes into account the bigger cities. But in the Rus country side, the Slavic population accepted Christianity later and only very gradually, probably only once the cities had been largely Christianized, quote:

“The rural society, which clung to tribal traditions reinforced by their communal institutions and elders, internalized Christian behavior and secular legal standards at a slower pace than the urban populace.” Medieval Russia,” p. 89

This should not be surprising as Christianity has traditionally been a religion that spread quickly in the urban areas. In fact, the term “pagan” comes from the Latin term “paganus” meaning something like “redneck” or “hillbilly.” Initially, after the conversion of St. Vladimir, with the exception of Kiyev, none of the large cities had a Christian majority and the countryside was nearly entirely pagan in the year 1100. Even the city of Novgorod, in the year 1100 was at most half Christian while cities further east like Vologda were no more than 1/3 Christian. Therefore, the first task of the Orthodox Church in the Rus lands was to complete the conversion of the cities followed by the countryside and this was accomplished by the early 13th century. So, more than 200 years after St. Vladimir was baptized, almost 250 years, the Rus principalities were actual Christian societies.

Great missionaries during this era include St. Kuksha and his disciple, St. Nikon of the Kiyevan Caves who were martyred in the year 1114 while converting the Vyatichi and Radimichi Slavic tribes who lived around Moscow. The same saints were also famous for converting Jews and making many of their new converts into outstanding monastics. When he was killed, St. Pimen the Faster heard about it by divine revelation and announced it to the monks in the Kiyevan Caves before then shortly reposing himself. Sts. Kuksha and Nikon are commemorated on August 27th.

Following in this tradition is St. Abraham of Smolensk who is credited with the conversion of the large tribal union in modern day Belarus known as the Krivichs along the Dnieper River – their chief tribal centers was Polotsk. He also did missionary work among the Drevelyans, who lived in what is now northern Ukraine along the border with Belarus but their large scale conversion was not until the end of the 13th century. St. Abraham fell asleep in the Lord in 1222 and his feast day is August 22nd. It should be noted that for some reason unbeknownst to us and despite living his entire life outside of the Roman Catholic Church while never evincing any specifically papist beliefs, Pope Paul III canonized St. Abraham as a Catholic saint in 1549.

The Missions to the North: Evangelizing the Finno-Ugric Tribes

The territory of the Rus principalities was a relatively small area, really only a fraction of the size of European Russia, so though the conversion of the Rus was of monumental importance, it was really only the first domino in a long row that would eventually end up in America. Once the Rus were largely converted, though the push began to convert the northern peoples, commonly known in the Russian sources as “Chud.” Chud was perhaps initially the name of a tribe but it soon became a generic term for the Finno-Ugric tribes who inhabited the area of the north. In fact, as can be seen on screen, they made up the majority of the northern territory controlled by the Principality of Novgorod as well as ruling their own kingdoms and principalities. Now, if you notice the map on screen, the green territory is the expanse of the Finno-Ugric people. This used to be a fairly widespread language group but now, the main languages remaining from it are Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. In fact, even the name “Moscow” is originally a Finno-Ugric name meaning “black water,” but they made up the entirety of the north so that if you were to make a horizontal line about 100 miles north of the city of Moscow and that line went from the Baltic Sea in the West to the Ural Mountains in the East, almost everything north of that line would have been Finno-Ugric and pagan.

Now, most of the missionary work to these northern tribes was done by the monastics and, as mentioned, it should not be thought that these tribes and federations easily gave up their paganism upon the conversion of St. Vladimir nor should one believe that they typically accepted Christianity peacefully. Much as a Christian doing missionary work amongst Muslims today, it was extremely dangerous and a disproportionately large number of the missionaries were killed in the mission field with others experiencing beatings, being driven out, and repeated attempts on their lives.

One such martyr is bishop of Rostov, St. Leonty, who, having to flee the city due to civil unrest, settled in the countryside nearby in Rostov-Suzdal and started to care for the local people, a minority of whom were Slavic Christians while most were Slavic and Finno-Ugric pagans. These pagans eventually martyred him in 1070 but Bishop Isaiah, who succeeded the martyred Bishop Leonty, continued the missionary endeavors of his predecessor and they eventually converted the countryside around Rostov. His memory is commemorated on May 23rd.

Similarly, 1127 when Prince Yaroslav Svyatoslavich founded the principality of Murom, just outside of Moscow, he initiated an organized effort to convert the pagans in the urban centers. In fact, when Prince Yaroslav sent his son, Mikhail, to start catechizing the pagans, they martyred Mikhail. The pagans then attempted to kill Prince Yaroslav himself but when he appeared carrying only an icon, they suddenly changed their minds and shortly thereafter, many accepted Christianity.  

On a larger scale and more successful than Prince Yaroslav Svyatoslavich  were the efforts of Grand Duke Yaroslav II Vsevolodovich, the father of Prince St. Alexander Nevsky. He sent missions into Karelia in 1227, which brought about the first mass baptisms in the region and began a long process to convert the Finno-Ugric tribes. Further, he continued to support these efforts until his death in 1246. Grand Duke Yaroslav II will be mentioned later on in relation to missions to the Turkic tribes as he was twice married to Turkic princesses who were both Christians.

Though there were sporadic conversions, the movement to convert the Finno-Ugric, also known as “Chud” tribes had started in the 13th century with figures St. Dionysius Glushitsky who founded the Spaso-Kamenny Monastery and evangelized pagan Finno-Ugric tribes in the Vologda region northeast of Moscow. His monastics then organized the construction of parish churches in newly converted Chud villages and St. Dionysius often crafted the icons for his monasteries and the parishes they established.

The work of evangelizing these tribes was interrupted by the Mongol invasion and the devastation it wrought is discussed later on but after nearly a century of stagnation, the mission to the northern tribes accelerated rapidly in the mid-14th century under the famous Russian holy man St. Sergius of Radonyezh. Famous for his exceeding humility and holiness as well as his ability to work miracles, St. Sergius established the Holy Trinity Monastery in Moscow and was able to establish roughly 40 more monasteries across north and central Russia before reposing in 1392. These monasteries were the mission centers to the pagan tribes that surrounded them and they further solidified the Christianity of the existing Christians. The memory of St. Sergius of Radonyezh is celebrated on September 25th and his life was written by his disciple St. Epiphanius the Wise, the same person who wrote the life of another saint we will see shortly, St. Stephen of Perm. Just as several other post-schism Orthodox saints we have and will encounter in this video, St. Sergius of Radonyezh is canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

One of St. Sergius’s disciples, St. Abraham Galich, evangelized the area of Chukhloma Lake in the Gallich region of Kostroma province, which is northeast of Moscow, by founding four monasteries before his death in 1375, including the famous Gorodetsky monastery, which he placed next to the capital of the local Finno-Ugric tribe specifically because it was the epicenter of their pagan rituals. 

One of the most famous missionary figures in Russian history and a major figure in the missions to the northern tribes is St. Stephen of Perm. Born in 1340 in the Vologda region west of the Ural Mountains, St. Stephen preferred church services and books at an early age and learned to read Slavonic letters followed by study of the Permian language, known as Zyryan or Komi so that he could evangelize the Permians, who lived in a gigantic expanse to the north and east of Rus. He also learned to read Greek for the expressed purpose of translating the Bible, liturgical services, and the Church Fathers in Zyryan but he was faced with a great obstacle: Zyryan had no alphabet, so St. Stephen invented one for them, which can be seen in the image on screen. In 1379 and now a hieromonk, he travelled up the Northern Dvina River, which drains directly into the Arctic Sea via Arkhangelsk. There, where the Northern Dvina and the Vychegda River meet, he began his missionary endeavors. Shortly thereafter, he headed to the main pagan shrine of the Permians in Yemdyn. He cut down a sacred birch tree and built a church on the site. Shortly thereafter, the Archangel Michael Monastery was built there and acted as a beacon in the conversion of the Permians. St. Stephen founded three other monasteries for the Permians: a second one also named Archangel in Yarensk, one in Spaso-Ulyanovsk, and a fourth in Stefanovsk. Furthermore, he created a network of educational centers to spread literacy in the Zyryan alphabet and to continue catechizing the Permians. The entirety of the Permian people were now in one diocese that was 500 kilometers or more in any direction from the main see of Yemdyn. St. Stephen served the Permians for 18 years before reposing in the Lord in 1396.

St. Stephen’s work can still be seen to this day in which, despite heavy assimilation, there are more than 300,000 Permians and they still speak their languages and a disproportionately large number of them are Old Believers.

Now, as mentioned earlier, St. Stephen’s life was written by St. Epiphanius the Wise who died in 1420 and who is commemorated on May 23rd. You can see him on the far left in this illustration from the vita of St. Sergius of Radonyezh, as this is the same St. Epiphanius who was a disciple of St. Sergius of Radonyezh and who also wrote St. Sergius’s life. In the illustration, St. Epiphanius is writing that vita. Now, in St. Stephen’s vita, St. Epiphanius records how St. Stephen was confronted by a local shaman and magician named Pam. Pam attempted to turn the curious Permians against St. Stephen but St. Stephen publically debated Pam. Seeing no end to it, it was decided that they would undergo two trials. First, Pam would accompany St. Stephen into a burning hut and stay in it while it burned. Pam, not surprisingly, refused. Next, they would both have to climb into the river through a hole in the ice and then, being carried by the river, come out a hole further downstream. St. Stephen, trusting in God, completed the task but Pam refused. Infuriated at their shaman whom they now realized was just a poser and a fraud, the Permians gave Pam to St. Stephen and encouraged him to execute Pam. Now, St. Stephen was far kinder than many who would have immediately jumped at the opportunity to publically finish off their obnoxious and heretical opponent in a blood-drenched demonstration of victory, but St. Stephen, following the Gospel injunction, pardoned Pam and allowed him to go in peace.

In 1383, St. Stephen was consecrated a bishop and installed in Perm. Impressed by St. Stephen’s progress in evangelizing the Zyryans, the hero of the Battle of Kulikovo Field, St. Dmitri Donskoy, funded St. Stephen’s mission richly thus allowing St. Stephen to build numerous churches and furnish them with icons, bells, Eucharistic vessels, and Gospel and liturgical books in the Zyryan language. According to the life of St. Stephen by St. Epiphanius, quote:

“With the donation of the great prince Dmitry Ivanovich and his boyars, he constructed churches and monasteries and zealously destroyed all pagan monuments. He destroyed their hollowed-out gods, uprooted them, burned them with fire, chopped them apart with an axe, and turned them to ashes.” 

St. Stephen reposed in the Lord in 1396. His feast day is April 27th.

The immediate successor of St. Stephen of Perm was Isaac but not much is known about him except that he stayed mostly in Moscow. Isaac’s successor, St. Gerasim, continued the missionary work of St. Stephen and expanded it to the Vogul, also known as “Mansi” people. It was while ministering to the Mansi people that St Gerasim was martyred when an overly patriotic Vogul strangled him with his own omophorion in 1444 believing rumors that St. Gerasim was an agent of Moscow. His feast day in January 29th.

St. Gerasim’s successor, St. Pitrim the Wonderworker, pictured in the middle here along with his predecessor and successor, continued the missionary endeavors of his predecessors over the gigantic Perm diocese and sought to protect the Zyryans from marauding tribes. He was killed by marauding Voguls after serving liturgy in 1455 and the memory of his martyrdom is celebrated on August 19th.

St. Pitrim was succeeded by St. Jonah who evangelized the region known as “Greater Perm” and even baptized Greater Perm’s ruler. By the time of St. Jonah’s death in 1472, Christianity was the majority religion among the Permians with all of their spiritual needs being provided in Permian and largely by native Permian clergy. His memory is also celebrated on August 19th with St. Pitrim.

At roughly the same time that St. Stephen of Perm was beginning his missionary activities, another St. Stefan, this one St. Stefan Makhrishchsky left the Kiyevan Caves and travelled northwest past Moscow to the Vologda region where he founded the Avnezh Monastery with his disciples, St. Gregory and St. Cassian in 1370. The great saint was so renowned that the Prince of Moscow and Grand Prince of Vladimir, St. Dimitri Donskoy, was counted among St. Stefan’s admirers and patrons. In such high esteem did St. Dimitri Donskoy hold St. Stefan that he asked Stefan to assist in the founding of another monastery, that being the Simonov Monastery in Moscow, where the bodies of the warriors killed at Kulikovo Field were buried. Kulikovo Field, it should be remembered, was the battle in which the beleaguered Rus forces, led by St. Dmitry Donskoy, who, it should be noted, was blessed to fight the Mongols by none other than St. Sergius of Radonyezh, smashed the Mongols in 1380 and thus shattered the myth of Mongol invisibility. When St. Stefan died in 1406, his body became extremely fragrant as a sign of his holiness. The monastic establishment he began then served as a base for the illumination of the surrounding area to the Christian Faith. We celebrate his memory on June 14th.  

With St. Stefan were his two disciples, St. Gregory and St. Cassian who helped him found the Holy Trinity-Sergius Avnezh Monastery, they both worked relentlessly to convert the local pagans and strengthen the existing Christians in their faith. Both were martyred in 1392 by the Vyatchan tribe and Tatars who were pillaging the borders of Vologda. Their feast day is June 15th.

Other disciples of St. Sergius of Radonyezh entered the Vologda region far north of Moscow and worked on the evangelization of the countryside. Most notable among them were Sts. Paul and Sylvester Obnosky who established the Pavlo-Oborsk Monastery in 1414 – this monastery ended up becoming a highly influential institution in the 17th century and was a beacon of Orthodox Christianity to the local Chud tribes.

Yet another disciple of St. Sergius of Radonyezh was St. Sergius of Murom, who was a Greek by birth but travelled from Mt. Athos to meet the famed St. Sergius of Radonyezh. St. Sergius of Murom eventually settled in the Vologda region where he gathered about 40 monks. There, he built the Transfiguration parish and, at the insistence of the aforementioned St. Paul Obnosky, he also constructed the Holy Trinity monastery. The saint reposed in 1412 having worked tirelessly for the evangelization of the region and he is commemorate on October 7th.

Northern Russia was also blessed by the efforts of the extreme ascetic St. Dimitri Prilutsky who established the monastery of St. Nicholas in Yaroslavl but, with his disciple Pachomius, he travelled to the region of Volodga in search of a quiet abode. After searching far and wide, they settled on a spot near the Volodga River and established another monastery, eventually becoming known as the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery, was the first cenobitic monastery in northern Russian. St. Dimitri was renowned for his charity to the poor, his clairvoyance, and, because his Lenten diet consisted of nothing other than prosphora and water, his strict ascetical life. St. Dimitri fell asleep in the Lord in 1392 and his feast day is February 11th.

Another great saint operating in the Vologda region was St. Cyril Belozersky, the abbot of the Simonov Monastery in Moscow. In 1397, the Mother of God appeared to him and disclosed the location for a new monastery to be named after the Dormition along the White Lake in an area inhabited largely by pagan Finno-Ugric tribes. When famine struck, through the prayers of St. Cyril, the resources of Dormition monastery, specifically bread, did not run out and he was able to feed the local inhabitants, many of whom were pagan and who converted after seeing the miracle. St. Cyril died in 1427 and his memory is celebrated on June 9th.

In the 14th century, the nephew of St. Sergius of Radonyezh, St. Theodore of Rostov, converted the Finno-Ugric tribes along Lake Kubenskoye in the region of Vologda. Much like St. Dionysius Glushitsky, St. Theodore of Rostov was an iconographer and crafted the icons in the monasteries and churches he founded. His memory is celebrated on both November 28th and May 23rd.

Now, if we travel north of Vologda and follow the path of the Northern Dvina River, we find it drains into the Arctic See via the province of Arkhangelsk. The monks followed the rivers along which the majority of settlements had developed and it was along the Northern Dvina in the 12th century that the Archangel Mikhailov Korelsky Monastery began evangelization efforts among the Finno-Ugric tribes there. For example, St. Cyril of Chelmogorsky founded the Chelmogorsky Monastery in the city of Kargopol in modern day Arkhangelsk province and when he died in 1368, significant headway had been made in the conversion of the local Finno-Ugric tribes due to St. Cyril’s calm, compassionate, and gentle demeanor. His feast day is celebrated on December 8th.

St. Lazar of Murom was a Greek by birth and was sent by Bishop Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia to St. Basil, bishop of Novgorod. Known for his exceptional skill in iconography, upon arriving in Novgorod, St. Lazar copied the Sophia icon of the Mother of God and wrote a chronical of the churches, monasteries, and shrines in Novgorod. When both the bishop of Novgorod, St. Basil and St. Basil of Caesarea reposed in the Lord, St. Lazar was grief stricken and desired to return to his homeland but the hierarchs appeared to him separately in dreams ordering him to go north to Lake Onega to evangelize the tribes there. Heeding their orders, he immediately went north and settled on Lake Onega where he was refused entry by the land owner who only allowed him to settle due to a vision in which St. Basil of Novgorod appeared to the land owner ordering him to allow St. Lazar to settle there. Even after that, despite being attacked, beaten, and nearly assassinated by the pagan Lapps, St. Lazar established the Dormition Monastery after being repeatedly shown the location in a vision by the Mother of God. The situation with the inhabitants was essentially fruitless and at best volatile until, out of pure desperation, a local Lapp brought his child who had been born blind to St. Lazar who immediately and miraculously restored the child’s vision. The local Lapps, impressed by the healing and moved by the saint’s mercy towards them in performing the miracle, began to convert to Christianity and many became monastics under him. Shortly thereafter, St. Lazar was joined by other Greek monastics, namely the monks St. Eleazar, St. Eumenius, and St. Nazarius, all of whom are celebrated on June 4th and who eventually founded the Forerunner Monastery in the region of Olonetsk. Before his death at age 105, St. Lazar built the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos church, which was the first along that coast. He also built two other churches: one dedicated to the Resurrection of St. Lazarus and another to St. John the Honorable Forerunner and Baptist. He reposed in the Lord in 1391 and his feast day is March 8th.

Shortly after St. Lazar of Murom, in 1429, the ascetic St. Savvaty arrived at Solovetsky Island on the Arctic See and was soon joined by the monks St. Zosima and Herman who founded Solovetsky Monastery in 1436. From the monastery, the monks began to evangelize the pagan Finno-Ugric groups such as the Izhora, the Murman, the Lopye, and the Kayane peoples. St. Savvaty died in 1453 but his disciple, St. Zosima, managed to make major headway in converting the local pagans by the time of his death in 1478. St. Savvaty’s memory is commemorated on September 27th.

Turning our gaze west from Arkhangelsk, we encounter the region of Karelia and its famous Valaam monastery. It is not clear exactly when Valaam was established but the scholarly consensus is that it was in the late 14th century, which makes sense as Valaam was part of a much larger push to convert the surrounding Karelians, who are another Finno-Ugric people, to Orthodox Christianity.

It was for this expressed purpose that St. Arseny of Konevsky established the Konevsky Nativity Monastery on Konevets Island in Lake Ladoga in 1393. St. Arseny’s missionary work amongst the pagan was exceptionally successful despite having to deal with the monastery’s island property repeatedly flooding. St. Arseny even brought a miraculous icon of the Mother of God from Mount Athos, which portrays the Christ child playing with a dove. It should be noted that the Konevets Monastery is considered the younger twin of Valaam as both of them are on Lake Ladoga in Karelia and both were founded with the primary purpose of evangelizing the local Finno-Ugric tribes. His feast day is June 12thSimilarly, in 1410, St. Euthymius came to Karelia with several disciples and built the St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Monastery outside Arkhangelsk. For years they labored among the pagans with little success and finally, in 1419, Norwegians attacked the monastery killing some of the monks and setting fire to the complex. St. Euthymius was determined to rebuild and a wealthy noblewoman whose two sons were buried at the monastery donated a large sum of money to cover the cost of construction. After this, the missionary work began to bear tremendous fruit and for this, St. Euthymius is known as the “Enlightener of Karelia and Finland.” His disciples, Sts. Stephen the Ascetic, Isaiah, and Nikanor continued his work in the conversion of the Lapps. St. Euthymius’s feast day is April 18th.

In 1533, a monk from Novgorod named St. Tryphon travelled to Pechenga, which is located at what is currently the very northern border between Russia and Finland and continued the work of evangelizing the Lapps. At first, the Lapps were uninterested and at times violent, but St. Tryphon’s meekness and humility won them over. Further, he made sure to have a thorough understanding of their religious beliefs and customs, which helped him tremendously while evangelizing them. St. Tryphon built the Church of the Holy Trinity and later, nearby, he built the Church of Sts. Boris and Gleb. Czar Ivan the Terrible donated bells, Eucharistic vessels and utensils, and vestments to the monastery. For his work among the Lapps, he is known as “St. Tryphon Enlightener of the Sami.” Having worked tirelessly for the conversion of the Lapps along the Pechenga River, St. Tryphon reposed in the Lord in 1583 and his feast day is December 15th. As a side note, St. Tryphon of Pechenga’s intercessions are often sought by sailors who are in danger.  

A figure whom we will discuss more later when we cover the conversion of the Turkic peoples but who is important in the conversion of the northern tribes is St. Macarius of Novgorod who later Metropolitan of All Russia. Though he is now most well-known for his 12 volume Great Menaion containing the lives of Russian saints, the great Archbishop of Novgorod and later Metropolitan of All Russia, St. Maracrius was instrumental in the conversion of untold numbers of pagans and Muslims to Orthodox Christianity and it is to this towering figure, whose memory we celebrate on December 30th, that we now turn.

The work of the monastics and hermits had sown deep roots and word of the miracles they worked, the kindness they displayed, as well as their humility and charity spread far and wide so that many pagan tribes in the north began to send requests to St. Macarius of Novgorod for missionaries to be sent to them. One such group, the Lapps from Kandalazhskaya Bay on the White Sea, requested missionaries in 1526 while another group of Lapps, these from the Onoya River also requested missionaries and when Czar Ivan the Terrible heard of this, he order the church of Sts. Peter and Paul to be built for them and he supplied them with liturgical books, vestments, Eucharistic vessels and utensils, bells, and icons. St. Macarius ordained a priest and deacon for them and raised funds to have the church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist built as their second church. Shortly thereafter in 1532, other tribes of Lapps from the Murmansk Sea and the Kola and Tutolma Rivers also asked for missionaries from St. Macarius and when a priest and deacon were sent to them, they converted willingly.

In fact, the Lapps who resided at the Kola and Tutolma Rivers were enlightened by enlightened by St. Theodoritus, often called “Enlightener of the Lapps.” He preached along the Kola River for 20 years attaining fluency in the Lapp language, inventing an alphabet for them, translating liturgical books, and catechizing them. Initially, though it was hard and thankless work. For example, he worked among them for seven years before he was able to build the church of St. John the Baptist at the mouth of the Niva River but after eventually attaining greater success in his missionary endeavors, he travelled to Novgorod and asked assistance from Archbishop St. Macarius who sent St. Theodoritus back to the Kola River with teams of builders and liturgical supplies. From there, he had two parishes built: Annunciation Church and St. Nicholas Church, which are in what is now the modern city of Kola. Due to the saint’s fluency in Greek, he was sent on an embassy to Constantinople and in the image on screen, he is seen in the left accepting gifts from Czar Ivan the Terrible. He reposed in the Lord in 1571 and his memory is commemorated on August 17th.

The missionaries were not always evangelizing pagans but often times Christians who had failed to completely leave their paganism behind. For example, between the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga resided various Finno-Ugric tribes such as the Izhora, and Koreal tribes, both of which have now been almost completely assimilated into Russian society. They had adopted Christianity starting in the 13th century but continued consulting shamans, sacrificing animals, and keeping sacred trees and stones. When the Archbishop of Novgorod, St. Macarius, heard about this, he sent the Hieromonk Elias in 1534 to catechize these groups and eradicate pagan customs. So convincing was Elias that the local tribes destroyed their own pagan idols and sacred trees. When St. Macarius was elevated to metropolitan of Moscow in 1542, his successor in Novgorod, Archbishop Theodosius II, continued his work and by the time he died in 1551, paganism had been effectively eradicated north of Novgorod with the exception of some nomadic tribes.

Another saint of this time is St. Tryfon of Vyatka. He was an abbot and evangelized the Khanty, Ket, and Selkup peoples, all of whom were small, nomadic groups in the diocese of Perm. He famously cut down and then burned a tree sacred to the pagans before founding a monastery dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God on the Chusova River in northern Russia. In 1580, he then founded a second monastery also dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God in the diocese of Vyatka, not far from Perm. St. Tryfon was known for his strict ascetism as he always wore a hair shirt and heavy chains. He reposed in the Lord in 1612 and his memory is celebrated on October 12th.

Finally, St. Misail of Aglomazovo, Archbishop of Ryazan, is called the Apostle to the Mordovians, which were another Finno-Ugric group. He also did some limited missionary work amongst the Tatars in the area but was martyred in 1655 by a disgruntled pagan Mordovian who shot him with an arrow. The saint died nine days later shortly after Easter. In addition to the saint’s missionary work, he was known for the strictness of life, starting a crusade against laxity amongst the clergy and against drunkenness in the general population. St. Misail’s incorrupt relics are at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Ryazan and we celebrate his memory on April 10th.

In the 12th century, had you drawn a horizontal line across what is now Russia about 100 miles north of Moscow, almost everyone above that line would have been a Finno-Ugric pagan. After centuries of missionary work by monastics who knew they would be attacked and beaten, who knew their monasteries would be plundered and burned, who knew they would see their fellow monastics martyred, and who knew they would very likely be martyred themselves, all of northern Russia has become Christian by the early 17th century and paganism had been completely eradicated from northern Finland to the Urals. For example, by the year 1600, in Karelia, Karelian Pomorye, and the Kola Peninsula, there were 200 Orthodox schools and so many churches that for every 500 people, there was an Orthodox parish where services were performed regularly and these statistics represent simply the most newly converted area within the Russian Empire.

Orthodox missionaries had managed to convert a gigantic area roughly the size of Western Europe – that is Russia west of the Ural Mountains. This was due not to government mandates or conversion by the sword. The monastics were not backed by Conquistadors nor did they have to slave drive indigenous people to Mass using whips like the Spanish friars regularly did. No, this was done simply because these monks were willing to be martyrs, because they worked miracles, because they translated service into the locals’ native languages, and above all, because they were committed to following Christ’s injunction to ‘Go and make disciple of all nations.’

When we began this section, it was stated that even in a place as Christianized as Novgorod in the year 1100, the total Christian population of the city would have amounted to no more than one-third to one-half of the city. Cities closer to the Urals would have had even less, perhaps one-quarter to one-third of their inhabitants as Christians. In other words, the vast majority of the conversion of European Russia was completed in the 500 years after the Great Schism. Despite this great success, we have not yet covered the missions in the Baltic states or to the Russian Steppe and in this next half available to our Patreon subscribers, we will cover in detail how the missionaries converted the pagan tribes to their west in the midst of Catholic invasions as well as how the missionaries went south to convert gigantic swaths of pagan, Muslim, and Nestorian Turkic tribes making most of what is now Russia Orthodox Christian.

Here ends the first half. If you would like to listen to the second half of the video, please visit us on our Patreon page found in the video description below. A special thanks to our Patreon subscribers whose generosity allow us to create more material like this and at more regular intervals.

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