Cyril and Methodius

By: Timothy Ware ( Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)Read time: 9 mins4273 Hits

Cyril and Methodius

For Constantinople the middle of the ninth century was a period of intensive missionary activity. The Byzantine Church, freed at last from the long struggle against the Iconoclasts, turned its energies to the conversion of the pagan Slavs who lay beyond the frontiers of the Empire, to the north and the northwest — Moravians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians. Photius was the first Patriarch of Constantinople to initiate missionary work on a large scale among these Slavs. He selected for the task two brothers, Greeks from Thessalonica, Constantine (826-869) and Methodius (815?-885). In the Orthodox Church Constantine is usually called by the name Cyril which he took on becoming a monk. Known in earlier life as “Constantine the Philosopher,” he was the ablest among the pupils of Photius, and was familiar with a wide range of languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, and even the Samaritan dialect. But the special qualification which he and his brother enjoyed was their knowledge of Slavonic: in childhood they had learnt the dialect of the Slavs around Thessalonica, and they could speak it fluently.

The first missionary journey of Cyril and Methodius was a short visit around 860 to the Khazars, who lived north of the Caucasus region. This expedition had no permanent results, and some years later the Khazars adopted Judaism. The brothers’ real work began in 863 when they set out for Moravia (roughly equivalent to the modern Czechoslovakia). They went in answer to an appeal from the Prince of the land, Rostislav, who asked that Christian missionaries be sent, capable of preaching to the people in their own tongue and of taking services in Slavonic. Slavonic services required a Slavonic Bible and Slavonic service books. Before they set out for Moravia the brothers had already set to work on this enormous task of translation. They had first to invent a suitable Slavonic alphabet. In their translation the brothers used the form of Slavonic familiar to them from childhood, the Macedonian dialect spoken by the Slavs around Thessalonica. In this way the dialect of the Macedonian Slavs became Church Slavonic, which remains to the present day the liturgical language of the Russian and certain other Slavonic Orthodox Churches.

One cannot overestimate the significance, for the future of Orthodoxy, of the Slavonic translations which Cyril and Methodius carried with them as they left Byzantium for the unknown north. Few events have been so important in the missionary history of the Church. From the start the Slav Christians enjoyed a precious privilege, such as none of the peoples of western Europe shared at this time: they heard the Gospel and the services of the Church in a tongue which they could understand. Unlike the Church of Rome in the west with its insistence on Latin, the Orthodox Church has never been rigid in the matter of languages; its normal policy is to hold services in the language of the people.

In Moravia, as in Bulgaria, the Greek mission soon clashed with German missionaries at work in the same area. The two missions not only depended on different Patriarchates, but worked on different principles. Cyril and Methodius used Slavonic in their services, the Germans Latin; Cyril and Methodius recited the Creed in its original form, the Germans inserted the filioque. To free his mission from German interference, Cyril decided to place it under the immediate protection of the Pope. Cyril’s action in appealing to Rome shows that he did not take the quarrel between Photius and Nicholas too seriously; for him east and west were still united as one Church, and it was not a matter of primary importance whether he depended on Constantinople or Rome, so long as he could continue to use Slavonic in Church services. The brothers traveled to Rome in person in 868 and were entirely successful in the appeal. Hadrian II, Nicholas I’s successor at Rome, received them favorably and gave full support to the Greek mission, confirming the use of Slavonic as the liturgical language of Moravia. He approved the brothers’ translations, and laid copies of their Slavonic service books on the altars of the principal churches in the city.

Cyril died at Rome (869), but Methodius returned to Moravia. Sad to say, the Germans ignored the Pope’s decision and obstructed Methodius in every possible way, even putting him in prison for more than a year. When Methodius died in 885, the Germans expelled his followers from the country, selling a number of them into slavery. Traces of the Slavonic mission lingered on in Moravia for two centuries more, but were eventually eradicated; and Christianity in its western form, with Latin culture and the Latin language (and of course the filioque), became universal. The attempt to found a Slavonic national Church in Moravia came to nothing. The work of Cyril and Methodius, so it seemed, had ended in failure.

Yet in fact this was not so. Other countries, where the brothers had not themselves preached, benefited from their work, most notably Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. Boris, Khan of Bulgaria, as we have seen, wavered for a time between east and west, but finally accepted the jurisdiction of Constantinople. The Byzantine missionaries in Bulgaria, however, lacking the vision of Cyril and Methodius, at first used Greek in Church services, a language as unintelligible as Latin to the ordinary Bulgar. But after their expulsion from Moravia, the disciples of Methodius turned naturally to Bulgaria, and here introduced the principles employed in the Moravian mission. Greek was replaced by Slavonic, and the Christian culture of Byzantium was presented to the Bulgars in a Slavonic form which they could assimilate. The Bulgarian Church grew rapidly. Around 926, during the reign of Tsar Symeon the Great (reigned 893-927), an independent Bulgarian Patriarchate was created, and this was recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927. The dream of Boris — an autocephalous Church of his own — became a reality within half a century of his death. Bulgaria was the first national Church of the Slavs.

Byzantine missionaries went likewise to Serbia, which accepted Christianity in the second half of the ninth century, around 867-874. Serbia also lay on the dividing line between eastern and western Christendom, but after a period of uncertainty it followed the example of Bulgaria, not of Moravia, and came under Constantinople. Here too the Slavonic service books were introduced and a Slavonic-Byzantine culture grew up. The Serbian Church gained a partial independence under Saint Sava (1176-1235), the greatest of Serbian national saints, who in 1219 was consecrated at Nicaea as Archbishop of Serbia. In 1346 a Serbian Patriarchate was created, which was recognized by the Church of Constantinople in 1375.

The conversion of Russia was also due indirectly to the work of Cyril and Methodius; but of this we shall speak further in the next section. With Bulgars, Serbs, and Russians as their “spiritual children,” the two Greeks from Thessalonica abundantly deserve their title, “Apostles of the Slavs.”

Another Orthodox nation in the Balkans, Romania, has a more complex history. The Romanians, though influenced by their Slav neighbors, are primarily Latin in language and ethnic character. Dacia, corresponding to part of modern Romania, was a Roman province during 106-271; but the Christian communities founded there in this period seem to have disappeared after the Romans withdrew. Part of the Romanian people was apparently converted to Christianity by the Bulgarians in the late ninth or early tenth century, but the full conversion of the two Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia did not occur until the fourteenth century. Those who think of Orthodoxy as being exclusively “eastern,” as Greek and Slav in character, should not overlook the fact that the Church of Romania, the second largest Orthodox Church today, is predominantly Latin.


Byzantium conferred two gifts upon the Slavs: a fully articulated system of Christian doctrine and a fully developed Christian civilization. When the conversion of the Slavs began in the ninth century, the great period of doctrinal controversies, the age of the Seven Councils, was at an end; the main outlines of the faith — the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation -had already been worked out, and were delivered to the Slavs in their definitive form. Perhaps this is why the Slavonic Churches have produced few original theologians, while the religious disputes which have arisen in Slavonic lands have usually not been dogmatic in character. But this faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation did not exist in a vacuum; with it went a whole Christian culture and civilization, and this too the Greek missionaries brought with them from Byzantium. The Slavs were Christianized and civilized at the same time.

The Greeks communicated this faith and civilization not in an alien but in a Slavonic garb (here the translations of Cyril and Methodius were of capital importance); what the Slavs borrowed from Byzantium they were able to make their own. Byzantine culture and the Orthodox faith, if at first limited mainly to the ruling classes, became in time an integral part of the daily life of the Slavonic peoples as a whole. The link between Church and people was made even firmer by the system of creating independent national Churches.

Certainly this close identification of Orthodoxy with the life of the people, and in particular the system of national Churches, have had unfortunate consequences. Because Church and nation were so closely associated, the Orthodox Slavs have often confused the two and have made the Church serve the ends of national politics; they have sometimes tended to think of their faith as primarily Serb, Russian, or Bulgar, and to forget that it is primarily Orthodox and Catholic. Nationalism has been the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries. Yet the integration of Church and people has in the end proved immensely beneficial. Christianity among the Slavs became in very truth the religion of the whole people, a popular religion in the best sense. In 1949 the Communists of Bulgaria published a law stating: “The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is in form, substance, and spirit a People’s Democratic Church.” Strip the words of their political associations, and behind them there lies an important truth.

 From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now  Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)