Within Christian circles, the terms crusade and crusader survive as expressions of devout purpose. Near where I live, a Christian high school calls its athletic teams “Crusaders,” and several evangelical organizations refer to their ministries as Christian “crusades.”

In other circles, however, crusade usually triggers less admiration, more shock. It recalls the violence and cruelty of medieval military expeditions to conquer the Holy Land, all done in the name of Christ and with the blessing of the church.

Many of us, then, not only balk at using the term crusades, we ask, “How could Christians have done such a thing?”

Sweeping Forces

Historians usually answer this question by describing the historical circumstances, or the “proximate causes,” of the Crusades. Three such causes often top the list.

First, Christians faced the military and political threat of Islam. The Seljuk Turks, new and fanatical converts to Islam, invaded the Holy Land and seized Christianity’s sacred shrines. They then aggressively headed for Asia Minor, Christian territory. Forces of the Byzantine [Eastern Christian] Empire tried desperately to bar the invader, but at the battle of Manzikert (1071), the Turks captured the eastern emperor and scattered his army.

Within a few years, Asia Minor, the chief source of Byzantine revenue and troops, was lost. Nicea fell to the invaders in 1092, bringing the Turks perilously close to Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. The new emperor, Alexius I, sent emissaries to Pope Urban II, pleading for mercenaries to aid in the rescue of lost territories.

Thus, Christian crusaders streamed toward the Holy Land in part because they were invited. They were giving aid to Christians in the East.

Second, the Roman Catholic Church of the eleventh century was led by a militantly aggressive papacy. The reform-minded party of the church, which had recently come to power, thought church improvement lay in investing the pope with more authority; they cast a vision of the universal sovereignty of the Holy Father. In his rallying sermon for the First Crusade, Urban referred to himself as “spiritual ruler of the whole world.”

A universal Christian sovereign, naturally, would want the Holy Land liberated from Turkish “infidels,” so Urban was inclined to accept the invitation to send troops to Asia Minor and Palestine. Some historians speak of the First Crusade as “the foreign policy of the reformed papacy.” That foreign policy would, it was hoped, bring the Holy City of Jerusalem back under Christian control. And it would possibly restore unity between Eastern and Western Christians.

Third, Europeans, after centuries of political and economic disintegration, were entering a new era of self-conscious unity.

Separate regions worked to enhance mutual interests: forest land was cleared, new markets opened, and Italian shipping poised to challenge Muslim dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. Many historians have suggested the Crusades would have been next to impossible without these Italian ships.

One answer, then, to “How could they?” is simply, “Conditions were right.” Christian crusaders were swept along by the tides of history.

Deeper Questions

Still, most Christians today feel an ethical shock over the crusaders’ seemingly blind and bigoted religious zeal. It is easy for us to criticize the Crusades. They permanently embittered relations between Christians and Muslims, and they left Jews suspicious and fearful of Christians.

Yet, if we fail to see the crusaders’ spiritual ideals, we misperceive the spirit of the times. The evil elements of the Crusades, though repulsive, are not the whole story.

The Crusades raise deep questions about the human heart. What is the nature of a “good” society? How do we restrain evil? Can “good” be defined by Christian doctrine? If so, how shall destructive ideas (called “heresy”) be eliminated from society? Such questions are not buried in the twelfth century. Thoughtful Christians today, concerned about the moral decline in our own society, are asking essentially the same questions.

So, a second way to answer the question about Christian sponsorship of the Crusades is to check the ideals of the times. We might call these “more distant causes” or “internal motivations.”

One can scarcely speak of a single motive in a movement embracing hundreds of thousands of people over several centuries. Still, a look at three principal ideals of crusaders helps explain their motivations.

Defending Christians

Pope Urban II and other preachers of the Crusades wanted to defend Christian society. In launching the First Crusade, Urban reportedly exhorted his listeners, “You must carry succor to your brethren dwelling in the East. … The Turks have attacked them, … occupying more and more the lands of those Christians.” They have “destroyed the churches and devastated the kingdom of God.” If Christians permitted them to go unchallenged, “they will extend their sway more widely over many faithful servants of the Lord.”

Furthermore, Christians of the time believed that violence, if used rightly, was a proper means of defending Christians. Augustine had laid down the principles of a “just war”: it was conducted by the state; its purpose was the vindication of justice, meaning the defense of life and property, and it respected noncombatants, hostages, and prisoners. For Augustine, a just war’s purpose was to achieve peace. Even in waging war, a follower of Christ must “cherish the spirit of a peacemaker.”

Unfortunately, this ideal evaporated in the heat on the way to the Holy Land. The just defense of Christians faded from view, and Christians became increasingly inflamed with avenging the wrongs perpetrated against Christians and their holy places—especially Jerusalem.

En route to the Holy Land, crusading mobs destroyed Jewish communities in the Rhineland, raping, plundering, and murdering. And in the Holy Land, even Muslim noncombatants, women, and children, were slaughtered. In the fervor of a crusade, the noble end justified the ignoble means.

Knights’ Honor

Many crusaders were also motivated by the honor of knighthood. The clearest portrait of the ideal knight came from English philosopher John of Salisbury, who wrote, “What is the office of the duly ordained soldiery? To defend the church, to assail infidelity, to venerate the priesthood, to protect the poor from injuries, … to pour out their blood for their brothers … and, if need be, to lay down their lives. The high praises of God are in their throats, and two-edged swords are in their hands.”

The First Crusade, as originally designed, was composed of nobles from France, Germany, and Italy. The pope envisioned the Crusades partly as an outlet for restless, pugnacious nobles. “Gentle knights were born to fight,” wrote one French chronicler, “and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.” Urban wanted to enlist the knight for the glory of God.

Unfortunately, honor, in historian J. Huizinga’s words, is “a strange mixture of conscience and egotism.” In addition, though the crusaders formally took high moral and spiritual vows in “taking up the cross,” history shows that greed motivated some of them, at least some of the time. This mixture of knightly motives led too often to brutality.

Forgiveness of Sins

Finally, the crusaders were empowered by the hope of salvation, an ideal that was not buried with the crusaders.

For centuries, peaceful European pilgrims had been traveling to worship at the birthplace of Christ. The rise and spread of Islam during the seventh century did not interrupt this traffic. By the tenth century, bishops were organizing mass pilgrimages to the Holy Land. In 1065, about 7000 pilgrims set out from Germany, probably the largest of these events.

Like our rallies at state capitals or marches on Washington, these pilgrimages were part devotion and part celebration. Through the years, the church adopted them as acts of penance. Surrounded by deep, religious emotions, pilgrimages assumed an aura of special sanctity; any disruption of them could be interpreted as blasphemy.

The crisis came when the Seljuk Turks seized Jerusalem from their fellow Muslims and sometimes denied Christians access to Christianity’s most holy places. This halted medieval Christians from practicing a deeply meaningful act of devotion and an aid to salvation.

When Pope Urban II rallied Christians, he offered an extraordinary reward to those who set out to liberate the land of the Savior’s birth: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.”

For years the church had claimed the power to remit part of a sinner’s temporal punishment, but no complete remission had been granted until this historic moment.

It was only a slight step further to confer like benefits upon those who were unable to go on a crusade but who contributed to the cause. Thus, as the risks of the pilgrimage were heightened, so were the spiritual rewards.

Another World

The intensity of crusaders was caught by Shakespeare, in words put in the mouth of that pugnacious English monarch Henry IV:

We are impressed and engaged to fight …
To chase those pagans in those holy fields,
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet,
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed,
For our advantage on the bitter cross.

Some Christian ideals change with time and culture. Today, we do not share many of the assumptions of medieval Christians. The modern world exalts democratic individualism, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. Urban II and the crusaders lived in a world with different ideals.

Still, we consider it unfortunate that the crusaders never understood two basic truths: Christianity’s highest satisfactions are not guaranteed by possession of special places, and the sword is never God’s way to extend Christ’s kingdom.

Dr. Bruce L. Shelley is professor of church history at Denver Seminary. He is author of Church History in Plain Language (Word) and a member of Christian History’s advisory board.