the Great Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Christianity

By Joanna Lozinska

February 1999


Christianity was slow in spreading in Lithuania, yet it can be said that the country’s rulers exhibited only some marked signs of hostility towards those who sought to spread the doctrine of Christ among her people. Nevertheless, Lithuania was the last stronghold of paganism in Europe, for it was not until the end of the fourteenth century that notable progress was made in winning the steadfast people from their allegiance to their ancient gods. Even then, it was nearly because Christian Europe was no longer tolerating paganism of the country. As a result, the bulk of Lithuanians were induced to submit to the onward march of Christianity.

After many bitter struggles, in which the excellent fighting qualities of the Lithuanians were repeatedly demonstrated, in 1251 the Grand Duke Mindaugas was induced to accept the Christian faith. The decision was mainly due to frequent fights with the Teutonic Knights, who in the twelfth century were the Crusaders in Europe. These were German Knights who were given the right, from the Roman Pontiff, to plant Christianity in the land by fire and sword. Lithuanian people resisted to accept the teaching of which, until then, they had received but little authentic knowledge. Their very sturdiness rather than their love of paganism, made them a difficult people to convert to Christianity.


It wasn’t until the Grand Duke of Vytautas reign that Lithuania fully embraced Christianity in 1387. As a young man, Vytautas had the advantage of a thorough familiarity with both Christian and pagan doctrines. The later, he learned from the teaching of his pagan mother, Birute, and the former in both his previous association with the Teutonic Knights and Slavs of the Oriental Church. These were under the government of Lithuania but they were extended the fullest freedom in the practice of their religion. It was the Latin Catholic Church that Vytautas showed his stronger leaning towards. Latin or Western Christianity represented a higher culture than the schismatic Easterners, who symbolized a lost cause in the struggle for supremacy. It was in 1383, when Vytuatas went to the Teutonic Knights and was baptized.

In 1386, Vytautas made a profession of the Roman Catholic faith in Krakow. When Jagaila, after his marriage to Hedvig of Poland, made an accession to the Polish crown, he undertook to advance the Christianizing of Lithuania. Vytautas was Jagaila’s greatest supporter. In 1387, when he was in conference at Vilnius with Jogaila, he assisted Jogaila in translating into Lithuanian the sermons and discourses of the Polish prelates and clergy as a means of wining his people to closer and more intelligent adherence to the Catholic religion. In order to still further assist in the propagation of the faith, Jogaila had enacted a law, prohibiting a marriage of Roman Catholics with those of the Orthodox Church, unless the latter first renounced orthodoxy and became members of the Catholic Church.


When Vytautas was the Duke of Gardinas, he donated Tribuna, Kolodno, and other villages to the bishopric of Vilnius. When he later became the Grad Duke of Lithuania, he added to these several other villages in the district of Varniai, on condition that services should be held for the repose of the souls of his relatives, Dukes Karigaila and Vygandas. To the canons of Vilnius, he gave the lands of Berzinskai, and still later he added half of Lake Iseta as his gifts to the Bishop of Vilnius.

For the period of almost two centuries, the Teutonic Knights have striven to spread Christianity by military force throughout Lithuania. But when the Lithuanian Dukes, who themselves had became Christians, began publicly to proclaim their conversion and to endeavor to spread the faith, the response was satisfying. The people, impressed by the practical and generous manner in which the nobles supported the Church, were drawn to the new religion in greater numbers that could have been imagined. When the Pope’s delegate visited Vilnius for the first time, he spoke in surprised admiration of the signs which greeted him on every side of a youthful Catholicism, specifically demonstrated by the Lithuanian nobility. The Teutonic Knights, however, claimed that the Lithuanians were Catholics in name only, laying particular stress on the incident of Duke Mindaugas’ acceptance of Christianity and his resultant coronation as King of Lithuania by the Roman Pontiff, followed by the virtual disappearance of Christianity from the land. In fact, in 1393 the Order demanded the sanction and authorization of the Council of Torun for their continued expeditions of spreading Christianity in Lithuania by fire and sword. The Knights accused Vytautas of harboring a greater sympathy with the Orthodox than with the Catholic Church, and they went so far as to send delegates to the Dukes of Germany to make charges against him on that ground.


Although these misrepresentations of Vytautas’ attitude towards the religious question received the widest publicity throughout Europe, the fact in no way affected his helpful policy nor detracted from his determination to give support to the Catholic Church. He continued to build churches wherever their need was most keenly felt and, after an unsuccessful expedition of Vorskla where he almost lost his life, he built two Franciscan monasteries at Kaunas.

It is true that Vytautas did not only confine his support to the Catholic Church. It is also true that he erected Orthodox monasteries and churches in Russian provinces of his domain, but his policy was to give aid to any agency that concerned itself with driving his people away from paganism and so enlarging the resources from which adherents to Christianity might be drawn. I think it is noteworthy that while Vytautas afforded every measure of freedom and no inconsiderable assistance to the proponents of the Orthodox teaching, he made it a strict stipulation that no utterance detrimental to the Roman Pontiff would be tolerated from the Russian clergy. For instance, when in 1404 the Metropolitan Cyprian made derogatory statements concerning the Holy Father in one of his public addresses, his case was disposed of in accordance with an order issued by Vytautas and he was sent back to his monastery.


To offset any doubts that he supported other faiths, he reiterated his obedience to ecclesiastical laws and determination to defend and promote the Catholic faith in his own country. He also restated his promises to make no alliance with non-Catholic countries or rulers against the interests of the Catholic Church and to permit no military forces to pass over Lithuanian territory if their movement was directed against Catholic countries.

Vytautas was undoubtedly a supporter of the Catholic faith in his country. Some question the reasons behind his convictions. It could be argued that he was drawn to the Catholic faith because of its ideology. I think, however, that there was a greater force behind his conviction, mainly that he embraced the Catholic religion for the welfare and spiritual good of his subjects, to avoid further conflicts with his neighbors.





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