Apostles to the Slavs

March 5, 2007

The second of a series from Paul’s time to today via the Moravian church, in preparation for the Festival of the Nations in Herrnhut, May 25-28, 2007

When the request came from Moravia for missionaries, the emperor and the patriarch knew immediately who to send. The Moravians were Slavs who had migrated from the East and settled in and around today’s Czech republic. Prince Rastislav wanted teachers who could instruct his Moravian people about the gospel in their own language.

Catholic missionaries already active in the prince’s territory used only Latin liturgy. They insisted Moravians should do the same. But the prince disagreed. He wanted his people to understand their worship and sent to Constantinople for help.

After Paul had planted the first churches in what we now call Europe, the Christian message had spread quickly throughout the Roman empire. It had circled the Mediterranean Sea and radiated out to pagan tribes–like the Slavs–settling into the European peninsular.

By the ninth century, Latin-speaking churches and communities were established in much of western Europe. The bishop of Rome–the pope–was their spiritual leader. In the Greek-speaking east, Byzantium, the bishop of Constantinople was the spiritual leader. The three other patriarchs of the early church–in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria– were now all living under Muslim rule.

East and West had begun to drift apart. Tensions over doctrine and leadership were mounting and would erupt in 1054 into the Great Schism–a split that would scar Europe’s spiritual, social and political history for another thousand years.


In response to the prince’s request, then, Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Photius agreed to send two experienced priests with exceptional language and diplomatic skills. Methodius (825-885) and his younger brother, Constantine (827-868)–later renamed Cyril–had grown up in Thessalonica, where Paul had planted the first church over 800 years before.

Both already had careers behind them as priests and monks, as well as missionaries among the Khazars in the Dnieper-Volga region. Constantine had been professor of philosophy and had also served as a librarian in Constantinople’s famous Santa Sophia cathedral. Methodius had governed a district settled by Slavs and had already learned to speak their unwritten language.

So, setting off for Moravia in 863, they took skills needed for a task complicated by the growing East-West tensions around language and authority. For on Christmas Day in the year 800, the pope in Rome had unexpectedly crowned the Frankish ruler Charlemagne as emperor, in a shrewd move to ensure his empire’s loyalty to the Church. Empire and Church thus worked together to expand the eastern border of Charlemagne’s empire among the Slavs in Moravia.

The first task Methodius and Constantine set themselves was to create a Slavic alphabet to give the Slavs the Bible in their own language. While Rome imposed Latin conformity of language and culture, translation into local languages was standard practice for the eastern churches. Barnabas and Paul had not required the first Greek Christians in Antioch to worship and read in Hebrew. They had affirmed the need for believers to pray and worship in their own language. An earlier missionary, Ulfilas (c.310-388), had also created a Gothic alphabet for the Goths.

The brothers reasoned: “If God sends sunlight, air and rain to all the peoples, this is to testify that God loves all people in the same way. Why do you think then that God wants to be praised only in the languages of three peoples?” (Hebrew, Greek and Latin).

Using Greek and Hebrew letters, the brothers thus developed a 43 letter ‘Slavonic’ alphabet to produce the first Slavic Bible and liturgy.

Friction with Roman missionaries was inevitable. When it came, they decided to travel to Rome in 868 to see the pope. Adrian II received them warmly. Constantine entered a monastery during their stay in the city, taking on the name of Cyril–by which he is remembered today.


But Cyril’s stay in the monastery was literally short-lived. For just weeks after arriving in Rome, he died. Methodius had to return alone to Moravia to carry on the work. But first he was appointed archbishop and given authority by the pope to use the Slavonic liturgy.

On his return however, Prince Rastislav also died and his successor threw Methodius into prison. After two years, he was released by a new pope, but forbidden to use the Slavonic liturgy. In 878 he was summoned to Rome on charges of heresy. However, his arguments convinced the pope and he was allowed to return to Moravia. There he freely used the Slavonic liturgy until his death in 885.

A new bishop was appointed who again outlawed the Slavonic liturgy and Bible. Persecution forced Methodius’ followers into exile. Many moved south to Bulgaria and reorganised a Slavic-speaking church. A school was established on the shores of Lake Ochrid. There one of the brothers’ disciples, Clement, refined the Slavonic alphabet further into what is known as the Cyrillic Alphabet, named in honour of Cyril and still used today throughout the Slavic world. From there the Cyrillic liturgy and scriptures spread to Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Moldovia, the Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia.

But for the Moravians, the longing to worship in their own language never died.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for Weekly Word