Doesn’t the Inquisition prove that Christianity spread through Violence?

Doesn’t the Inquisition prove that Christianity spread through violence?

The number of people killed by the Inquisition (by which people largely mean the Spanish Inquisition) is variously estimated to be anything from 30,000 to 50 million.  The actual number is likely to be nearer 3,000 over 300 years.  This is not to justify or excuse what was an appalling chapter in one aspect of the church’s history – but it does set it in context.  And as Jack shows in his answer below – the Inquisition had nothing to do with the spread of Christianity.   Feel free to respond with your comments – or indeed follow up questions. We will put a follow up article to this later.

“When the reformed religion began to diffuse the Gospel light throughout Europe, Pope Innocent III entertained great fear for the Romish Church. He accordingly instituted a number of inquisitors, or persons who were to make inquiry after, apprehend, and punish, heretics, as the reformed were called by the papists.” John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

One of the other proverbial skeletons in the closet of the Church in the West that is often used in order to lob accusatory charges is that of the Inquisition. This historical phenomenon has become a meme in certain sections of our culture –  feeding off the line “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” – coined by Monty Python.

This is where most people’s knowledge of the Inquisition begins and ends.  It is usually summed up by images of a dark and dank dungeon where inquisitors in red robes are questioning their victim tied to a rack while a scribe sits in the corner recording the events. This image sounds like a Medieval role-play of the Stalinist show trials that took place in the 1930s where the NKVD brutally tortured men, such as Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky (one of the Soviet Union’s greatest post-WW1 military theorists), into giving false confessions of working for Capitalist powers, espionage, and anti-Soviet activity.

However, did the Inquisition (or more correctly Inquisitions) seek to spread Christianity? Part of the problem is simply the fact that the inquisitions were not ‘missions’ agencies’; their goal was not to go and make disciples as this role was already filled by the regular clergy and from the 13th century on various monastic orders, such as the Dominicans. The fundamental job of the inquisition (particularly prior to the official establishment of the Inquisition by Gregory IX in 1215) was concerned with those already professing to be within the Church. Specifically, inquisitions were called to guard the flock against violations of the discipline of Church in regard to churchmen and laymen brought before Ecclesiastical courts (Church based courts). Charges that required an inquisition included clandestine marriages, simony, etc. Only later did inquisitions become specifically concerned with combating heretics.   

Another problem centres on the question of what is it that one means by the phrase “spread through violence”. One of the main problems that many moderns struggle with is the nature of society in the Medieval World and earlier. The worldviews of those nations that made up the Christian West and broader Christendom were founded upon the precepts and upholding of Christianity. Thus, we see that in the 6th Century A.D. the Emperor Justinian I declared regarding the heretical Manichaeans in the law code compiled during his reign that:

“The Manichaeans shall be expelled from the cities and delivered up to capital punishment for there must be no place left them in which they might do insult to the very same elements”. 

If “spread through violence” is meant to convey the use of coercive forces, then that would exclude the use of coercion and force by the State.  The problem is that once the Church became identified with the State it was inevitable that the power of the State would be used to enforce the practice, if not the teachings of the Church.     We see a similar thing today where our current elites are seeking to erect a worldview out of the ashes of the Christian one where inclusion and diversity are cardinal virtues.  And they are more than happy to use the power of the State to enforce those values.  In fact, to be a heretic in the eyes of the elites is to be worthy of death (mostly metaphorically!).

There is a difference that needs to be established between those inquisitions that were run by the Church and those run by the State, such as the Spanish, Portuguese, and Mexican Inquisitions. Pope Gregory IX on establishing the Inquisition under Papal control sought to actively prevent summary execution of those accused of heresy by violent mobs (an example of this is the lynching of the supposedly heretical Italian priest Gundulf, or Gandalf! in the 11th Century). Convictions could not be determined without obtaining a confession and following the precepts of Canon law at the time of the Inquisitions creation,  this confession could not be obtained by torture. State inquisitions, the most famous one of course being the Spanish Inquisition, operated fundamentally as organs of the State and were utilised by monarchs to attack religious and political opponents.

 I am not denying the fact that (as spoken above by the great 16th century Anglican John Foxe) the inquisitions did act in ways that miscarried justice and were fundamentally immoral. For example, the 13th Century inquisitor Konrad von Marburg was accused of being too accepting of the accusations of heresy as true and that he believed that the accused was guilty until they were proven innocent.

In short, the inquisitions throughout history were never a tool for spreading Christianity. However, the history of the inquisition is instructive to those in the Church. It illustrates to us how the Devil, Sin and the World can corrupt those things that man creates/does, such as seeking to honour the Lord through Church Discipline. An example of this can be seen in the Old Testament where at the time of the Prophet Jeremiah the Temple itself had become an idol to the Israelites:

“Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!… But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless”. (Jeremiah 7:4–8)

Thank the Lord that Christ will return at the Second Coming to judge bringing the true justice that our times and history require. Amen.


Jack H–S

Resources: (great lecture on the Crusades, Inquisitions and Witch Trials in Church History)

Bernard Hamilton, The Medieval Inquisition (provides a summary of the Medieval Inquisition)


  • Good to see the actual number of executions due to Inquisitions put in terms of the numbers that modern scholarship has established. Good to see an acknowledgement that torture was rarely used as part of the Inquisitions. Good to see an acknowledgement that the purpose of Inquisitions was to bring order and judicial methods to the determination of heresy over mob rule. Good to see an acknowledgement of the difference between a Church Inquisition and a state Inquisition.
    The Spanish Inquisition was originally established because people were accusing converted Jews of continuing to be Jews in secret. It had no interest in either Gentile Christians or Moslems.
    A fundamental aspect of Medieval society was that monarchs wanted order in their realms. Part of that desire was that everybody followed the same religion. Heresy was seen not just as a religious matter but also as a matter of civil order. This same attitude could be seen in the centuries following the Protestant Reformation. The principle became accepted ‘Cuius regio, eius religio’: the religion of the people in a state should be the same as the religion of the ruler. Elizabeth of England held very firmly to this principle. She had no time for either Catholics or Protestant Non-Conformists. Both were subject to the penalties established for non-attendance at services of the state Church. Indeed, the whole idea of fining people for non-attendance at religious services was the result of establishing state Churches. Only in countries with established Churches were such fines imposed.
    One can argue about the extent of the brutality used by either side but it is beyond question that brutality was practised by both Catholics and Protestants. The executions of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were abominable acts and cannot be justified. But neither can the execution of Margaret Clitherow who was put to death by being crushed between two doors with heavy stones placed on the door on top of her body. Her offence was to assist in hiding Catholic priests from discovery by the state.


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