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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 76. Missions among the Mongols.


Central Asia and what is now the Chinese Empire were almost as unknown to Western Europe in the twelfth century as the lake region of Central Africa was before the journeys of Speke, Livingstone, and Stanley. To the Nestorians, with their schools at Edessa and Nisibis, naturally belonged the task of spreading the Gospel in Central and Eastern Asia. They went as far as China, but after the ninth century their schools declined and a period of stagnation set in. Individual Nestorians reached positions of influence in Asiatic courts as councillors or physicians and Nestorian women became mothers of Mongol chiefs. But no Asiatic tribe adopted their creed.

In the twelfth century the brilliant delusion gained currency throughout Europe of the existence in Central Asia of a powerful Christian theocracy, ruled over by the Presbyter John, usually called Prester-John.899899    G. Oppert, D. Presbyter Johannes in Sage u. Gesch., Berlin, 1864, 2d ed. 1870. Brunet, La légende du Prêtre-Jean, Bordeaux, 1877. Zarncke, D. Priester-Johannes, Leipzig, 1870.. According to Otto of Freisingen, a certain bishop of Gabala in 1145 had brought Eugenius III. the information that he was a Nestorian Christian, was descended from one of the three Wise Men, and had defeated the Mohammedans in a great battle.900900    Chronicon, VII. 33. Otto also reports the bishop of Gabala as declaring that out of respect for his ancestors, the Magians, who had worshipped at the cradle of the Redeemer, John had started with an army to relieve Jerusalem, but for want of boats got no further than the Tigris., purporting to come from this ruler and addressed to the Emperor Manuel of Constantinople, related that John received tribute from seventy kings, and had among his subjects the ten tribes of Israel, entertained at his table daily twelve archbishops and twenty bishops, and that his kingdom was overflowing with milk and honey.901901    The letter must have had an extensive circulation, as it exists in more than 100 MSS., 13 in Paris, 15 in Munich, 8 in the British Museum, etc.

To put themselves into communication with this wonderful personage and bring him into subjection to Rome engaged the serious attention of several popes. Alexander III., 1177, sent his physician Philip with commission to inform the king of the faith of Western Christendom. He also addressed him in a letter as his "most dear son in Christ, John, king of the Indies and most holy of priests." The illusion abated as serious efforts to find the kingdom were made. Rubruquis wrote back to Europe from the region where John was reported to have ruled that few could be found who knew anything about Prester-John and that the stories which had been told were greatly exaggerated. He added that a certain ruler, Coirchan, had been followed by a Nestorian shepherd, called John. It has been conjectured by Oppert that the word "Coirchan," through the Syrian Juchanan, became known as John in Europe. A prince of that name whom the Chinese call Tuliu Tasha fled from China westwards, and established a kingdom in Central Asia. Nestorians were among his subjects. Chinese tradition has it that the prince was a Buddhist. Thus dwindles away a legend which, to use Gibbon’s language, "long amused the credulity of Europe."

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Asia witnessed the establishment of the vast Mongol empire. Scarcely ever has military genius among uncivilized peoples had more wonderful display than in its founders, Zenghis Khan and his successors, especially Kublai and Mangu.902902    It was at Kublai’s court that Marco Polo (about 1324) spent many years. The origin of the Mongols is lost in legend. The Mongol historian Sanang Setzen traces it back to a blue wolf. Zenghis Khan, 1162-1227, is known among the Chinese as Ching-sze, perfect warrior. The word "Mongol" comes from mong, meaning brave.plished in Spain it was feared the Mongols would do for the whole continent. They destroyed Moscow and advanced as far as Cracow in Poland, and Buda Pesth in Hungary, 1241. The empire rapidly disintegrated, and was divided into four main sections: the empire of the Great Khan, including China and Thibet; the empire of Central Asia; Persia, extending to the Caucasus, and the loose kingdom of the Golden Horde in Russia and Siberia.903903    Hulagu, one of Manguls brothers, overthrew the Caliphate of Bagdad, 1258, and established the Mongol empire of Persia. He took in marriage a daughter of the Byzantine emperor, Michael Palaeologos. defence against the imminent menace of these Tartars,904904    See Hefele, V. 1096, 1114. A provincial synod at Erfurt, a few years before, 1241, had considered measures for defence against the Tartars. Hefele, V. 1081. For some of the papal bulls bearing on missions among the Mongols, see Potthast, 7429, 7490, 7537, 7550, 9130, 9139, 9141, 10350, 10421.

The Church sent forth several deputations of missionaries to these tribes, some of whom were received at the court of the Great Khan. The most fearless and adventuresome of their number was William Rubruquis, or Ruysbroeck, the Livingstone of his age, who committed to writing a vivid account of his experiences. John of Monte Corvino ventured as far as Pekin, then known in Europe as Cambaluc and among the Mongols as Khanbaligh, "the city of the Khan."

Merciless as they were in battle, the Mongols were tolerant in religion. This was due in part to the absence among them of any well-defined system of worship. Mangu Khan, in answer to the appeals of Rubruquis, said, "We Mongols believe that there is only one God, in whom we live and die. But as God has given to the hand different fingers, so He has given to men different ways to Himself. To you Christians he has given the Holy Scriptures; to us, soothsayers and diviners."

Kublai showed the same spirit when he said to Marco Polo, "There are four prophets who are worshipped by the four different tribes on the earth. Christians look upon Christ as their God, the Saracens upon Mohammed, the Jews upon Moses, and the heathen upon Sogomombar-Khan (Buddha). I esteem and honor all four and pray that He who is supreme amongst them may lend me His help." Alexander Severus perhaps did no better when he placed side by side statues of Abraham, Christ, and Orpheus and other pagan gods. It was not till after the contact of the missionaries with the Mongols that the khans of the East adopted Buddhism, while the tribes of Persia and the West chose the rites of Islam.

In 1245 Innocent IV. despatched four Dominicans to the Mongol chief in Persia and three Franciscans to the Great Khan himself. The next effort was due to Louis IX., then engaged in his first Crusade. Ambassadors from the Mongol chief of Tartary visited the French king at Cyprus.905905    Joinville, Chronicle of the Crusades, Engl. trans., pp. 384 sqq., 476 sqq. present of a tent embroidered with representations of Scriptural scenes and so constructed as to have the shape, when put up, of a chapel. It is from one of these two Franciscans, Rubruquis, that our first reliable information of the Mongols is drawn. He found Nestorian priests using the Syriac liturgy, which they did not understand, and joining with the Mohammedans and Buddhists in offering a blessing over the khan’s cups. Rubruquis reached Karkorum and had a hospitable reception at the court of Mangu Khan. One of Mangu’s secretaries was a Christian, another a Mohammedan, the third a Buddhist. A religious disputation was held in the khan’s presence. After Rubruquis had asserted that all God’s commandments are contained in the Scriptures, he was asked whether he thought Mangu kept them. The missionary adroitly replied that "it was his desire to lay before the khan all God’s commandments and then the khan would be able to judge for himself whether he kept them or not."

The Mongolian chiefs in Persia and the Christians were joint enemies of the Caliph of Egypt, and after the Mongolian conquest of the caliphate of Bagdad, embassies were sent by the pope to Persia, and Dominican and Franciscan convents established in that land; but after their adoption of Islam in the fourteenth century, the Mongols persecuted the Christians and the convents were destroyed.

In Central Asia among the Jagatai Mongols events took the same course. At first, 1340, permission was granted to the missionaries to prosecute their work. John of Marignola preached and baptized converts. These Mongols afterwards also adopted Mohammedanism and persecuted the Christians.

In the Mongol empire of China the efforts gave larger promise of fruitfulness. Nicolo and Maffei Polo906906    Nicolo was the father of Marco Polo, Maffei was Marco’s uncle. Marco was born in 1254 and went on his first journey to Asia when he was seventeen, 1271. The party went first to the island of Ormus on the Persian Gulf, at that time an important market for the exchange of goods. Of it Milton speaks:—
   High on a throne of royal state, which far

   Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind.
Kublai Khan to Gregory X. for missionaries to instruct his people in Christianity and European habits. Two Dominicans accompanied the Polos on their return journey, Marco Polo being of the party. The missionaries did not reach their destination. Three years later Franciscans were sent. John of Monte Corvino, a Franciscan sent out by Nicholas IV., reached the court of the Great Khan at Cambaluc, and in 1303 was joined by Arnold, a Franciscan from Cologne. They translated the New Testament and the Psalms into the Tartar language, bought and trained one hundred and fifty boys, built two churches, one of them close to the palace and overtopping it, and baptized six thousand converts. In 1307 John was made archbishop of Pekin, archiepiscopus Cambalensis, and died 1330. The khans passed over to the Buddhist faith and in 1368 the Ming dynasty which raised itself to power abolished Christianity. It remained for the Jesuits three hundred years later to renew missionary operations in China.



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