Our Pagan Past
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Sometimes a view held in childhood is recalled later in life and inspires a smile.
There is one childhood view known to have been held by a few now sheepish adults that invites further thought. This idea is that we (Reformed Christians) are actually Jews. When the Old or New Testament speaks about Gentiles or foreign nations as distinguished from the people of God or Israel, we identify with and assume we are the latter.
For we read on many pages of Scripture that the Gentiles do not know or worship the one true God, while Israel does know and serve him. In our churches we hear much about the covenant and law; in sermons the importance of the tabernacle and temple, the Land and the promises to Abraham, the kingship and Jerusalem are explained. When we sing the Psalms, we sometimes refer to ourselves as the “tribes,” to our hope being in “Zion,” and to all the other “nations” being defeated in battle.
Furthermore, it is well known Christ our Saviour was crucified with the title over his head, “King of the Jews.” Yes, a child in the pew might be excused for being ethnically confused – it’s even said that we’re offspring of the Hebrew Abraham, after all!
But who are we? If we’re not ethnic Jews, then how did we come to be called God’s own people? And what were we before?
Our Native Land
As churches made up largely of people of Western European descent, our land of origin is no mystery. For this article, we will focus on the territory that many of our ancestors called home, the area now known as the Netherlands. Yet any reader not of Dutch physical descent may certainly continue reading, for – unless you have Hebrew heritage – the point is that paganism is common to the past of every one of us.
The Netherlands, in the opinion of one writer, is a place of spongy soil, humid air and few attractions to invite people to make it their dwelling, except for the natural fortifications of rivers and ocean.[i] Yet there are a few traces of people who lived there, even from an early time; in the north of the country one can find the so-called Giant’s Graves, huge rock memorials to the dead, dated to around 2000 BC. It is also believed the Celts later lived in these lands.
For a couple centuries before the Christian era, the area seems to have been left unoccupied. A German tribe, finding it empty, claimed the land and called it Betauw, the “Good Meadow.” Slowly the Netherlands was inhabited again. The Germans took the centre, the Belgae settled to the south, and the Frisians claimed the north.
These Germanic tribes and their villages were invaded in 57 BC by Julius Caesar, and stubbornly fell under Roman domination.[ii] Some centuries later, after the slow decline of Roman rule, the Netherlands became part of the Frankish empire.
The Pagan Ways
During these years, even leading up into the eighth century, our ancestors were decidedly non-Christian. The religion of the Netherlanders during the time before the arrival of the gospel can be compared to that of the Germanic peoples in general. While the evidence for the Germanic religion is scarce, and what is available is often provided by clerics who didn’t care to understand the heathen ways, we can still speak in broad terms about the pagan practices of our Western European forebears.
To our minds, the word “pagan” often suggests the worship of more than one god. And indeed, the Germanic peoples went to shrines in order to turn to one or several of the gods of the pantheon with prayer and sacrifice. In looking to the gods in expectation of help, they – as pagans ancient and modern have always done – associated different gods with different and changing spheres of influence.
Wodan was a wily magician, and was often called upon as the god of war. Thor, Wodan’s son, was seen as the god of the farmers. Also for purposes of human and agricultural fertility, these pagans turned to the goddess Frey, the wife of Wodan. Leading families among the tribes often claimed to be directly descended from particular gods, so as a family’s political or military power waxed or waned, so did popular dedication to its god of choice.
“Lesser” gods and goddesses were worshiped as well. Many of these were not depicted physically with engravings or statues, but were thought to dwell invisibly in nature. Various minor spirits were believed to inhabit soil, water, spring and forest. Sometimes trees (especially oaks) were considered to be sacred and were venerated.
Besides his offerings of prayer and sacrifice to the various gods, a pagan Netherlander could protect himself with charms and amulets. These trinkets warded off the dangerous evil spirits thought to wander the earth. Such spiritual defense was considered necessary for taking along on any major project, whether war or a hunting expedition or marriage. Sometimes these magical objects would even accompany a person into the grave.
The will of the gods was sought by means of various forms of divination. Casting lots, observing the flight of birds (especially storks) and the movement of horses, and inspecting the entrails of animals were common practices in the pagan desire to gain insight from beyond this realm. The prevalence of divination in the culture of the Netherlands at this period is confirmed by archaeological finds of the bones of birds in human graves. In their unstable world of war and disease, such practices were thought to provide the pagans with some assurance of what was going to happen. It was a link to the unseen and powerful order of the gods.
Paganism gave a sense of personal security, and also served to strengthen wider society. Some rituals were performed publicly, such as the eating horseflesh, and it is known that community religious banquets were held, sometimes in cemeteries. Pagan worship was often based in the family unit, and was presided over by the leading male of a household. Such performance of ritual was also an outward show of unity among the tribes-people. It was required that all participated, for not conforming was seen as a challenge to everyone’s security in a world of capricious gods.
A Light for the Gentiles
The great distance between those old pagan ways and our lives today is apparent. Few of us have experienced firsthand polytheism, divination, amulets and the like. Rather, we know the Scriptures’ indictment of paganism as pure folly, such as in Isaiah 44:9, “All who makes idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.” Yet let us remember: These fools are our ancestors. As recently as 1300 years ago, the Germanic tribes from which many of us are descended were lost in the darkness of paganism.
But thanks be to God, the light has shone in the darkness.
In the seventh century, the real frontiers in Europe did not so much mark nations as they marked those lands that were pagan, and those lands identified with Christianity. The Netherlander populations along the coast of the English Channel and the south of the Rhine, as well as pockets of people in what is now Germany, were considered the “unconverted” areas.
Though Christians at this time certainly thought of Christianity as universal, such that persons of all peoples could become believers, there was no strong missionary impulse. It was simply accepted there would always be a barbarian hinterland. The unruly peoples living on the fringes of Christianity did not need to be evangelized but could be left in ignorance.
But not everyone was content to leave the pagans in this state. The borders between paganism and Christianity did not deter some men, such as the monks Willibrord (658-739) and Boniface (675-754), who were eager to wander strange lands as acts of religious devotion. With their supporters these men left the British Isles for the distant barbarian regions on the Continent.
Willibrord presented himself to Pippin, the Frankish ruler. Before this Christian king Willibrord stated his desire to save the souls of the pagans still scattered throughout the dominion. With Pippin’s encouragement, Willibrord set to work among the Germanic peoples in Frisia, in the town of Utrecht. At Echternach, some 350 kilometres from Utrecht, he founded a monastery. As the work got underway, both he and Boniface quickly opposed the local pagan customs and religion. They even physically demolished the pagan places of worship and cult objects, in order to prove that the gods were nothing more than stones and pieces of wood.
However, it was very difficult for a pagan who desired to become a Christian to make the step of announcing allegiance to the Christian faith. As we have seen, the pagan religion was intricately connected to wider pagan society. Worship of only one God was seen to conflict with the religious peace of the community, where safe conformity was demanded. For this reason, permission for preaching or baptizing in the towns and villages was often sought by missionaries from the local tribal chiefs and kings. And it seems the Frisians initially did not accept the Christian faith; Boniface was murdered by hostile pagans in 754 near Dokkum in Friesland.
Yet even after the murder of Boniface, the work continued. The Frisians were probably one of the last major tribes on the European continent to be converted to Christianity, around 800 A.D. – but many were converted, such that paganism was largely uprooted.[iii] In time, the work of Willibrord and others among the Frisians thrived; in the words of the Venerable Bede, an eighth century English church historian, “Aided by God’s grace, [Willibrord] converted many folk in a short while from idolatry to belief in Christ.”[iv]
In the spongy soil of the Netherlands, the gospel seed had been planted; it had sprouted; and by God’s grace it would continue to produce a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
The Israel of God
That childhood notion of Jewishness might be smiled at today, yet it raises good opportunity for thanksgiving. Often we overlook what a privilege and blessing it is that the gospel has been preached also to us, descendants of Western Europeans.
But let us remember this “distribution of the gospel is not to be ascribed to the worthiness of one people above another… but to the sovereign good pleasure and undeserved love of God” (Canons of Dort 3/4:7).
Like every tribe outside of Israel, when our Lord Jesus came to this earth we were pagans. Our ancestors lived without any saving knowledge of God. We stood not in the line of the covenant, but in the line of the ignorant and condemned, those who worshiped created things rather than the Creator. Let us be thankful that God wanted us, who were at one time pagans and “wild branches,” to be grafted in by faith to his people (Rom 11:17). He planted the gospel seed in Western Europe, that it might produce an abundant crop, even for export to places all around the world.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, a city proud of her grand pagan temple dedicated to the Roman fertility goddess Diana, Paul speaks words that also apply well to us descendants of Netherlander pagans,
Remember that you are Gentiles by birth… Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ (Eph 2:11-13).
[i] J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 3 (Edmonton, AB: Still Waters Revival Books, n.d.), p. 2. [ii] See Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, 2.4. [iii] Residual hints of paganism remain, however: the days of the week (e.g., Wednesday = Wodan’s day), Yuletide, May Day, etc. [iv] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 5.10. Other Sources P. Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd ed. (U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). P. Jones and N. Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe (London: Routledge, 1995). C.W. Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 1. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). H. Wagenaar, “Theology, Identity and the Pre-Christian Past.” International Review of Missions 88 (1999): 364- 380. I. Wood, “The Conversion of the Barbarian Peoples,” in The Christian World. G. Barraclough, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980): 85-98.