The Crusades

Historical overview
    First Crusade
    Later crusades
Were the Crusades justified?
    Behavior of the crusaders

Historical overview

Links to historical information:

First Crusade

Pope Urban II gave the following reasons for starting the First Crusade in his speech at the Council of Clermont:

The most emphasis seems to have been on the second point, that Jerusalem was in the hands of nonbelievers. While Fulcher of Chartres records Urban as saying, "Christ commands it," there is no record that the pope received a direct command from God (one would expect that a vision or other sign would have been prominently featured in the pope's speech), so presumably he meant the crusade was in line with Christ's commands and teachings in the Bible. During his speech, the audience spontaneously broke into a cry of "It is the will of God!", which was taken by the pope and others to be a sign that it was in fact God's will. While this could have been a genuine response of people to the Holy Spirit, another possibility is that it was of human origin (c.f. Ac 19:28-34).

Later crusades

Pope Eugene III called for a second crusade for largely the same reasons as the first. The Christian city of Edessa had been captured by the Turks, and the pope called upon people to rescue the Christians who had been taken captive and free the city from pagan influence. However, the actual crusade didn't restrict itself to Edessa, but rather became a general campaign to capture lands held by nonbelievers; the crusaders fought in Lisbon, Damascus and other cities far from Edessa. (See The Second Crusade by E. L. Skip Knox.)

The Third and Fourth Crusades purported to reclaim Jerusalem from the Turks, though neither crusade actually fought in Jerusalem. The Fifth and later crusades focused on Egypt, with the intent of weakening the Muslim position in order to capture Jerusalem. Emperor Frederick II of Germany and King Louis IX of France each led crusades because they'd vowed to go on a crusade.

Were the Crusades justified?

The three main reasons given for the Crusades were:

  1. Rescuing fellow Christians from invasion and persecution
  2. Conquering or retaking lands in the possession of Muslims
  3. Fulfilling personal vows to go on a crusade

In my opinion, a war is justified only as a last resort for defense of oneself or others or if it is clearly and directly commanded by God (e.g. God speaks directly to a person). (For more on this, see Onward Christian Soldiers? Christian Perspectives on War by Timothy J. Demy.) Therefore, I consider the first reason to be a possible just cause for war. However, the crusaders seemed primarily focused on the second objective, which casts some doubt on the extent to which they were motivated by the first objective.

With the later crusades, the length of time since the initial invasion should be considered as well. If the current inhabitants of a city weren't alive when the invasion occurred and aren't being oppressed, they're not necessarily in need of rescue. Jerusalem was retaken by the Turks in 1187; Frederick II's and Louis IX's crusades occurred forty and sixty years later, respectively.

As for the second reason, there is nothing in the Bible to support the notion that certain lands (e.g. Jerusalem) ought to remain in the hands of Christians or that Christians ought to take control of lands which belong to non-Christians. The Bible teaches that Christians are to love their enemies (in the case of the Crusades, the Europeans viewed the Turks as their enemies) and help them:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Mt 5:44)

If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it. (Ex 23:4-5)

Land or other property belonging to non-Christians or a non-Christian government should be left in their keeping (Ex 20:15, 17, Mt 22:21). Furthermore, Christians are not to coerce others into faith (1 Pt 3:15-16). When nonbelievers refuse to accept Christianity, Christians are to move on and evangelize others (Mt 10:14), not punish the nonbelievers (Lk 9:51-56).

Concerning vows, Jesus taught that they should be avoided altogether (Mt 5:33-37). The OT warns against making vows (Pr 20:25) and includes several examples of foolish vows having disastrous results (e.g. 1 Sam 14:24-35).

Behavior of the crusaders

Many of the crusaders' actions were in opposition to the principles of the Bible. This doesn't mean the crusaders were not Christians (though some of them may not have been), for even Christians do wrong. It does mean that not all actions of Christians or those who claim to have God's approval are in fact approved by God.

General Biblical guidelines for Christians' treatment of nonbelievers are discussed in the previous section. Below are some specific wrongs committed by the crusaders and the Bible passages which teach us to do otherwise.

ActionOpposing verses
Attacks on Rhineland Jews (First Crusade) Romans 11:28, Leviticus 19:18
Theft of locals' property (when the crusaders were traveling) The Israelites pledged to not take anything when they passed through foreign lands, and to pay for whatever they might happen to use (Num 20:17-19, 21:21-22)

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