college travels

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Children's Crusade

When I think of the Crusades, the picture that comes to my mind is of hundreds of knights in armour painted with a red cross off on adventure anticipating their opportunity to reclaim the Holy Land. I think of blood, pillage, death and war. So with this picture in mind, I was extremely surprised to read that there was a children’s crusade. But what place do children have in religious war?

According to historical accounts, in 1212 many children were swept along in the popular crusading enthusiasm, along with youths who left their families, shepherds and mothers with babies. Writers have claimed that this was the first popular youth movement, long before the hippy movement, the punk movement or the scouts. Young people left behind the humdrum of daily life for an impossible dream of Jerusalem regained. Albert of Sade mentions the rebellious nature of the movement, as youth left despite their parents’ opposition. The children’s enthusiasm is also a reproach to half-hearted adults, including the Pope!:

Around this time (1212) children without a master, without a leader, ran together with eager steps from all the towns and cities of every region to parts beyond the sea. When people asked them where they were running, they answered, “To Jerusalem, to seek the holy Land”. The parents of many of them confined them at home, but in vain; for they smashed their locks or walls and escaped. The Pope (Innocent III) heard rumours about them, and, sighing, said “These children reproach us, for while we sleep they race to recover the Holy Land”. Even now it is unknown what happened to them. But many of them returned home, and when they were asked for the reason for their journey, they said they did not know. Also, around the same time naked women ran through the towns and cities saying nothing.

(1232 Albert of Stade)

There were in fact two movements in 1212, one in France and the other in Germany. The French Movement was said to involve 15-30,000 people led by Stephen of Cloyes a Shepherd boy. The German Movement was led by another youth Nicholas of Cologne and involved around 8,000. (The statistics are very hard to estimate because medieval chronicles are often myth-history and unreliable). There is some indication that these two movements may have joined together in their march toward the sea.

What motivated these children to leave their homes and families and face death and starvation? It seems they were certainly swept up in the same religious enthusiasm that motivated other pilgrimages and popular crusades. They wished to show their dedication to Jesus and his kingdom by marching to Jerusalem. Many believed that God would open up a pathway through the sea as he did for Moses and the Israelites. Though adults had failed in Crusade, God would bless the attempts of innocent children.

The end of the story, unfortunately, is tragic, an absolute disaster. Many died along the way to the sea. Some arrived in Italy, but then the accounts are quiet. There are myths that some found their way onto ships and were later ship-wrecked or enslaved. Albert of Sade states that many went home, not knowing why they had left in the first place. He also states that “naked women were running around, out of their minds”, thereby associating this erratic behaviour with the religious enthusiasm of the children. Many believed later that the children had been gullible and led astray by evil adults and clergy.

What can we learn from this story as we consider ministry to children and youth? Young people are the same today – they are enthusiastic, and seeking to make an impact in the world on their own apart from their parents and families. We should be thinking of ways to harness their enthusiasm to serve and to make a contribution to growing God’s kingdom, working with their natural passion. This may involve risking the perfectionist quality of our ministries by allowing young people to lead and serve in community outreach events, music, leading services, praying etc. How are your young people involved in Connect 09? Are we leaving it all to the adults?

The story is also a warning to us. Children and young people are vulnerable to charismatic leaders and movements. Are you careful with the way you use your leadership with the precious children God has entrusted you with? We need to be giving them a good biblical foundation so they can make wise choices as they seek to follow Jesus. We must teach children and young people a discernment from God’s word so that they will be able to evaluate true and false teaching themselves.

1. G. Dickson The Children’s Crusade Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008.
2. Dickson (2008) p, 109

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