Each July 15, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Protestant Christians commemorate the baptism of Prince Vladimir (956-1015). He was ruler of Rus, an area stretching from northwestern Russia to southern Ukraine.
The principal account of this pagan king’s baptism and the Christianization of his domain are found in the Russian Primary Chronicle, dating from the 11th century.1 This book explains that Vladimir had listened to envoys from Islam, Judaism and the Greek and Roman Christian church seeking to convert him and evangelize his people. The wise men he sent to investigate these religions were especially impressed with the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople and the splendor of its religious services.
When Vladimir heard their account, he decided to adopt the form of Christianity practiced at the Byzantine court, the center of what is today the Eastern Orthodox faith.2
Prelude to baptism
Before choosing a faith, Vladimir besieged the Byzantine city of Kherson, north of the Crimea. The Chronicle tells the story: A man from Kherson, Anastasius, informed him he could take the city by cutting off the springs feeding its water supply. Vladimir followed his advice, forcing the city to surrender.
Next, Vladimir engaged in some hard-ball political bargaining. He promised to be baptized and bring Byzantine Christianity to his people only if emperors Basil and Constantine gave him their sister, Anna, in marriage. If they refused, he threatened to destroy Constantinople, their capital city, as he had Kherson.
Greatly anguished, the emperors persuaded their sister to agree to the marriage. One church historian cynically says that Vladimir “captured a Byzantine town in the Crimea and as a price of peace exacted the hand of a Byzantine princess to add to his collection of wives and concubines.”3
Anna arrived in Kherson around 988 with priests to perform Vladimir’s baptism. When she heard he was afflicted with a terrible eye disease, she urged him to be baptized immediately to be healed of the condition. According to the Chronicle:
When Vladimir heard her message, he said, “If this proves true, then of a surety is the God of the Christians great,” and gave order that he should be baptized. The Bishop of Kherson, together with the Princess’s priests, after announcing the tidings, baptized Vladimir. When the Bishop laid his hand upon him, he straightway received his sight. Upon experiencing this miraculous cure, Vladimir glorified God, saying, “I have now perceived the one true God.”4
Let the baptisms begin
After his baptism, Vladimir married Anna and prepared his subjects for baptism. He ordered that at a given hour all the people of Kiev — men, women and children — should go to the Dnieper River and be baptized in a grand religious ceremony. The Chronicle describes the baptismal event and Vladimir’s prayer of thanksgiving:
When the people were baptized, they returned each to his own abode. Vladimir, rejoicing that he and his subjects now knew God himself, looked up to heaven and said, “O God, who has created heaven and earth, look down, I beseech thee, on this thy new people, and grant them, O Lord, to know thee as the true God, even as the other Christian nations have known thee.”5
The eminent church historian Philip Schaff saw this act from a disparaging perspective: “Thus the Russian nation was converted in wholesale style to Christianity by despotic power.”6 Yet, the spread of Christianity during the 9th through 11th centuries generally worked this way. The peoples of Scandinavia, central Europe and the Balkans were Christianized through the conversion of rulers who supported, often by forceful means, the work of Christian missionaries among their people.
After the Eastern and Western church split in 1054, the rulers and people of the expanding Russian empire continued to follow the Orthodox faith. Under the Czars, Moscow became the religious rival of Latin Christianity, “the Third Rome,” and the bishop of Moscow took the title of Patriarch. As leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, he became a “Russian Pope.”
1 Even skeptical historians believe the Chronicle provides a generally accurate account of these events.
2 Several decades later, in 1054, a formal split between the church in the East and West occurred. See article “The Great Schism of the Church.”
3 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1, p. 392.
4The Russian Primary Chronicle, edited and translated by Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor.
6 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 4, “Medieval Christianity,” page 141.