Christianity in Kent: Not Exactly an Inquisition


Augustine (not the famous one but a namesake) arrived in Kent in 597. He and 30 other monks were sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. They did just that, with varying results. For Augustine, however, Kent was a rousing success.

The key to Augustine’s triumph in Kent was moderation: He didn’t preach hell and damnation; he didn’t tell the pagans they were going to burn for eternity; he didn’t insist on tearing down non-Christian worship centers. Rather, Augustine made use of the existing structures–building and worship–to preach the Christian doctrine. He ordered that pagan temples be spared and that only the idols be removed, to be replaced with signs of the cross and the sacraments.

This message was not lost on the warriors of Kent. They were used to fighting for and to protect their gains, and they worshipped their own set of gods. To the casual observer, it seemed that only the face of the god(s) had changed. The warriors still went to the temple and still did homage to a god or gods; the difference was that the symbol and recipient of their practices was now the One True God, as told to them by Augustine. And with the preservation and modification of the pagan temples came acceptance of those new religious symbols, followed by a similar acceptance of new, Christian churches containing the same, new symbols. Because the church, under the guidance of Augustine, introduced Christian symbols to the Saxon warriors in the warriors’ traditional religious settings, these warriors were more tolerant of wholly Christian worship centers. In a sense, it was religious co-existence very much like the one practiced by the Romans.

Ethelbert, who was ruler of Kent, married a Christian woman. He also allowed Augustine to bring in more followers and to establish a church at Canterbury. In this way, Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury. From this powerful seat, he maintained his flock in their devotion to Christianity. Similar conversion expeditions in other parts of Saxon England met with lesser success. Essex, for instance, converted itself back to heathenism in 616. But Northumbria and Lindsey soon followed Kent’s lead, and the conversion of Britain was off and running.