Crusades: Man’s War or Holy War?

Templar Cross

By Noah Webster’s original definition, Crusades were, “Military expeditions undertaken by Christians, for the recovery of the Holy Land, the scene of our Savior’s life and suffering, from the power of infidels or Mohammedans. Several of these expeditions were carried on from Europe, under the banner of the cross, from which the name originated.” Today’s definition is a far cry from its original classifying them as merely, “Christian military expeditions to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims.” What happened to “the scene of our Savior’s life and suffering?” Over time, historical revisionism has continued to chisel away the centrality of Christ in the crusades. While much is still being discovered, there remains the debate over whether these military expeditions were early religious perceptions of a jihad: “holy war” making them in essence a Christian jihad while scholars like John O’Neil believe, “Before the advent of Islam, Christians had no concept of ‘Holy War’ at all, and that it was from the Muslims themselves that Europeans took this idea.” While it is important to stress the word “Crusade” was not in existence until more than 100 years after the First Crusade, the practice of crusading seems to have functioned differently and meant vastly different things depending on the time, place, and participants who were involved.

As Jonathan Riley-Smith illustrates:

The consensus among Christians on the use of violence has changed radically since the crusades were fought. The just war theory prevailing for most of the last two centuries—that violence is an evil, which can in certain situations be condoned as the lesser of evils—is relatively young.” [Now,] the main areas of debate are whether violence could be employed on behalf of Christ’s intentions for mankind and whether they could even be directly authorized by Him.

The true version of history is so eagerly sought after because he who controls the past controls the future and as Simon Sebag Montefiore demonstrates, “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions, and she is the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth.” The reasons and motives behind the Crusades have seen a renewed interest following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and as Brian Hale points out, “The Crusades remain today one of the most misunderstood events in western history.”


This paper will show if Pope Urban II had the right to commission the crusades, if violence could be employed on behalf of Christ’s intentions for mankind, and whether this act could lead to the forgiveness and remission of sins. Through a chronological approach, beginning with the Word of God, as a foundation and as an authority, this paper will demonstrate God’s sovereignty since the beginning of time and will demonstrate at what point in history man may have overstepped their authority. Finally, this paper will analyze the theory of the First Crusade being more of a solution to a problem and a means to an end by examining evidence suggesting the Crusades were either a political or religious mission.


Riley-Smith recognizes the appearance of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I’s embassy at the church council at Piacenza in March of 1095 as the origin and notion of where crusading began. This council was presided over by Pope Urban II and in Alexius I’s call for help against the invading Turks who had advanced within striking distance of Constantinople, “[It] set off the chain of events that led to the First Crusade.” Rodney Stark details Alexius I’s request vividly:

Detailing the gruesome tortures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and vile desecrations of churches, altars, and baptismal font. [In his letter, he said,] “Should Constantinople fall to the Turks, not only would thousands more Christians be murdered, tortured, and raped, but the most holy relics of the Savior will be lost, [so] therefore in the name of God… we implore you to bring this city all the faithful soldiers of Christ… In your coming you will find your reward in heaven, and if you do not come, God will condemn you.”

The continued advance of the Turks and the disintegrating eastern frontier of Christendom was not something new and had even led Pope Gregory VII in 1074 to contemplate sending a force of his own to free his Christian brothers in the east. Urban served under Gregory, so it is no surprise how his background had perpetually been leading to this cataclysm he was now about to undertake. Riley-Smith points out, “Urban called for a war of liberation, to be waged by volunteers who had vowed to fight as an act of penance. He stressed that he was speaking on God’s behalf [and he] wrote of the crusaders being inspired agents of God… engaged in God’s service out of love for Him… as knights of Christ.” To rally his cause, Urban preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont where he proposed that the Western European nobleman and their armies join forces with the Eastern Christian Byzantine Emperor’s army to mount an offensive against the Muslim Turks.

According to Richard McBrien, “[Urban was] among the less celebrated and, in some cases, [the] most notorious [Pope, by] launching the First Crusade in an ill-conceived and utterly counterproductive attempt to recapture the holy places in Palestine from the Muslims.” Despite his current reputation and potential motives, Urban was positioned in a place and time of great power and he possessed an extremely expressive and commanding speaking voice, which he put to great use in his speech. Stark depicts this scene vividly as:

The pope began by graphically detailing the torture, rape, and murder of Christian pilgrims and the defilement of churches and holy places committed by the Turks saying, “They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either pour on the altars or pour into vases of the baptismal font… What shall I say about the abominable rape of women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”

The idea that violence in pursuit of religious aims was not unlawful and may in fact be required did not start with the Crusades, but the Crusades represented a time where killing in the name of God became part of the canon for believers as they assumed they were involved in a war of liberation in the name of God. This rhetoric about religious aims and fighting became only increasingly commingled and the Plenary Indulgence was the result, which stated the remission of all punishment for the sins committed up to the date it was issued. Riley-Smith demonstrates this authority came from, “Citing the powers of binding and loosing granted by Christ to the Apostles [and this] value of repayment [would reduce] the time repentant sinners would have had to spend in Purgatory.” However, as Everett Ferguson illustrates, Urban II carried this pledge one step further by, “Offering to crusaders the same remission of the church’s penalties for sin that were customarily granted to pilgrims to Jerusalem, but in the subsequent promotion of the crusade, preachers extended the promise to a remission of all penalties for sin that God would inflict both in this life and in the next.”


This concept of doing some good work to cancel out previous sin was completely transformed into retaking the Holy Land by force to satisfy the requirements for the temporal punishment of sins, as Riley-Smith points out, “The crusade was going to be presented as an exercise that went far beyond service to God in arms [And] this idea of penitential warfare was revolutionary, because it put the act of fighting on the same meritorious plane as prayer, works of mercy, and fasting.” Ferguson further clarifies, “An indulgence was the remission of the temporal punishments ‘whether inflicted on earth or in purgatory’ for sin. The guilt of sin ‘eternal punishment’ was forgiven by absolution in response to the contrition and confession by the sinner, but satisfaction ‘temporal punishment’ still had to be made for sins.”

While these conditions may have led to being involved in the Crusades, Riley-Smith reminds the reader the Crusades ultimately were a penitential war highlighting the belief that, “When humans sin, they owe debts to God which must be repaid through suffering in this world or by punishment in the next.” As William Webster illustrates, “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification, is in fact a process which is dependent upon infused grace which can be lost by committing serious sin. Should that happen, forgiveness must be sought and the state of justification regained. Forgiveness for sin is mediated through the Church and the sacrament of Confession and Penance.” Therefore, in order to make atonement for sins, one would take on a form of penance to satisfy the debt of sin and to receive God’s mercy of forgiveness. For the modern church, these principle seems foreign because the sacrifice Jesus made wiped away all past, present, and future sin because as scripture states, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

This was a point in time where a major shift occurred in the way the church viewed sin and forgiveness as Webster points out:

With the Church’s teaching that only the sins committed up to the time of baptism were forgiven in coming to Christ, there remains the problem of how sins were to be forgiven after baptism. The Church taught that confession of sin and repentance was necessary to receive forgiveness. But over time what we see is that the biblical idea of repentance is slowly displaced by the concept of penance. This began with the teaching that true repentance will manifest itself in fruit or outward works, and those works became identified as works of satisfaction such as fasting, weeping and praying.

As Glenn Sanders points out, “It was the belief that crusades were collective acts of penance, repayments through self-punishment of the debts owed to God for sin, which distinguished them from other Holy Wars” and Pope Urban II took penance one enormous leap forward and set the precedent for future crusades playing on the vulnerability of commoners wanting to do God’s work, be restored in fellowship with God, and as Colin Morris has argued, the Pope used these motivators to his advantage exposing how, “The popes, were aware of the persuasive power of visual imagery, particularly on the illiterate. Therefore, in addition to the preaching of the Crusades in sermons, songs, and liturgy, papal policy encouraged the Crusades through placards carried to advertise a particular Crusade, and through the art and architecture of churches and halls.” Urban even used Matthew 16:24 as a platform to institute the work of the cross and he carried them around distinctively as though he was enacting what Jesus commanded, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” However, as R. T. France states, “Discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom. It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interests and comfort, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage.” Both the cross and the losing of one’s life are meant literally, yet Urban was stretching his interpretation beyond its intended use. Jesus fully expected his loyal followers to die for the cause, but Urban blurs the lines between dying for Jesus and giving up your life for Him. Ferguson points out how quickly, “War cries received formal authorization – Deus le volt ‘God wills it’ [And] how the crusaders were urged to sew a cloth cross on the back of their outer garment; on their return, to place it on the front. Romans said it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country [And now] the pope said that one must be ready to die for the earthly Jerusalem.”


The true motives behind the crusades remains a highly debated topic, while the theological motivation for the crusades was quite flawed from a biblical perspective. In recent years, especially with tensions in the Middle East, some scholars contend the Crusaders did not march out of a sense of idealism, but instead in the pursuit of honor, land, or wealth. Some go as far to say the Crusades were a crime against Islam in their attempt to Christianize the Muslim masses. Karen Armstrong even suggested, “Crusading answered a deep need in the Christians of Europe. Yet today most of us would unhesitantly condemn the Crusaders as unchristian. After all, Jesus told His followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. He was a pacifist and had more in common with Gandhi, perhaps, than with Pope Urban.”

While the Turks were advancing and Christian brothers were certainly in peril, a similar problem was happening closer to home as a nation bred for war no longer had any function, which was leading to uncontrolled violence. Riley-Smith highlights how, “When Urban called for liberation, he was using a concept colored by its employment in the last half-century by reformers with an exaggerated notion of liberty… [And how] for over forty years the popes had supported the use of force against those who resisted the new ideas.” Through this precedent, Urban sought to use the same violence that had conquered the known world to be put to use in God-given purposes. The church recognized this evil and aggressiveness and sought to redirect it for the service of the church by convincing the population it was their God-given purpose to volunteer for the Crusades. Riley-Smith portrays this scene as; “It is as though society was yearning for a means of expressing its beliefs the only way it knew.” Essentially, the leaders of the church had turned the Holy Land into God’s version of the coliseum by making crusading vocational, as they became warriors for Christ and the remission of sins gave the crusades a stained disenfranchised religious character.

Urban claimed to have two distinct goals; the first was freeing the church in Jerusalem from Muslim rule and the second was the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre. Riley-Smith adds a potential tertiary motivation was, “The liberation of specific groups of the faithful with the needs and renewal of the Church at large.” More than anything, Urban was merging the common practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem with the new concept of crusading. Riley-Smith shows how:

It would never have been easy to justify the inflicting of pain and loss of life, with the consequential distortion of the perpetrator’s internal dispositions, as a penance simply because the penitent was exposing [his or her] self to danger, however unpleasant the experience might have been. It was to be Pope Urban’s achievement that he gave the idea a context in which it could be presented more convincingly, because he associated it with the most charismatic of all traditional penances, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Creating crusaders for the act of penance will forever be the legacy of Urban for it was at the council of Clermont where he said, “Whoever joined the army for devotion alone,” meaning not for monetary gain or honor, could take this voluntary quest for complete penance of sins. The crusaders enacted a vow committing them to liberate Jerusalem by force and in death if necessary. As Montefiore points out, “Urban saw his life’s mission as the restoration of the power and reputation of the Catholic Church, [so] he devised a new theory of holy war to reinvigorate Christendom and the papacy, justifying the cleansing liquidation of the infidel in return for the remission of sin… that created a Christian version of Muslim jihad.” Urban’s role in the Crusades seems limited to the conception and idea rather than the logistics and tactics. His greatest strength was his endeavor to play on the emotions of his listeners. While there are many questions raised to his exact speeches, E. R. Appleton paints the most vivid imagery portraying Urban saying, “Go forth and fight boldly for the cause of God. Christ Himself will be your leader. If you have rich possessions here, you are promised better ones in the Holy Land. Those who die will enter the mansions of Heaven: those who live shall behold the sepulcher of their Lord. You are soldiers of the cross. Wear on breasts the blood-red sign of Him who died.”


As Thomas Asbridge points out, “In Urban’s day, faith dominated and dictated everyday life to an extent that can seem almost inconceivable to a modern observer attuned to the attitudes and preconceptions of an increasingly secularized contemporary society.” However, the problem was sin and temptation was still everywhere despite this immense amount of faith and Asbridge suggests medieval mankind did not have a way to live a true Christian lifestyle. An important question of the day that must be answered was what did the New Testament say about the use of force. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke for God and when Moses descended from Mount Sinai one of God’s ten commandments was “Thou shall not kill.” Riley-Smith highlights how, “What struck fourth-century Christian theologians was how that commandment was immediately modified in the narrative on and around Sinai… [As God] demanded the death penalty… for those who barred the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land.” Another contradiction to this new commandment was what happened when the Israelites had made a golden calf and were worshipping it while Moses was on top of the Mount Sinai and Riley-Smith proposes, “Moses was described authorizing their slaughter.”

The foundation of the New Testament is centered on Jesus, the Great Commission, and the Great Commandment to love God and thy neighbor as yourself. While Riley-Smith agrees that Jesus demanded His followers to love friends as well as enemies, he also illustrates how Jesus’ disciples carried swords and on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter cut the ear off of the High Priest’s servant. Although Peter was rebuked for his actions by Christ, we also see other references by Paul who said, “The ruler in authority does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” This theology and mindset goes back to the time when the Israelites wanted a king because Samuel’s sons were unrighteous, but as history proves, the king who thinks he is God quickly becomes the devil. God warned the people of the tyranny and oppression that would result, but the people still wanted a king like the other nations had. God also knew the potential cruelty of this position and what kind of monster it could become, since this position of power could be used to abuse the people when they looked to the king as their Savior instead of God because eventually, the king will only determine what he thinks is right and good by what benefits the king the most.


Christopher Tyerman explains how, “The church’s teaching on war early reflected this process of interpretation and exegesis. Negatively, the so-called charity texts of the New Testament that preached pacifism and forgiveness, not retaliation, were firmly defined as applying to the beliefs and behavior of the private person.” Tyerman also offers examples of John the Baptist advising the soldiers to remain in the army and draw their wages; and as citizens, Jesus told the people to give unto Caesar what was his, which clearly distinguished the separation between spiritual and political obligations. It is through this interpretation that Tyerman argues, “There was no intrinsic contradiction in a doctrine of personal, individual forgiveness condoning certain forms of necessary public violence to ensure the security in which Christians may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” Christian attitudes towards violence varied in the eleventh century, but as Tyerman illustrates, “The main thrust of papal reform was towards restoring to the church the pristine autonomy and spirituality of the Acts of the Apostles… [This marked] a radical alteration in the relationship of church and state, which had assumed cooperation rather than separation.” Even if moral reform was the goal of the clergy, it raised a red flag and presented theoretical repercussions, as anyone who fought for the church now became a matter of serious concern.

Two thousand years later, the church believed it was the pope’s duty to speak for God as Riley-Smith points out: “The war was authorized by the pope as vicar of Christ.” Riley-Smith traces the early Christian contradiction towards violence through Augustine of Hippo, arguably one the greatest early theologians, whose ideas were rooted in the law of the Roman Republic. He believed, “That violence, whether expressed in warfare, armed rebellion or an internal state sanction, required criteria to be considered legitimate.” Violence itself was conceived as being ethically neutral, so intention was what really mattered to form a legally sound defense. Using this argumentative platform, Crusaders were thought to have right or just intentions by liberating the Holy Land and protecting fellow Christians as their cause. This represented a new chapter, as one could kill for the church in order to save one’s soul or forgive their sins and this created a completely new category of warfare.

Augustine of Hippo also argued, “Force could not be employed lightly or for aggrandizement, but only for a legally sound reasons, which had to be a reactive one.” The debate was centered over whether God could personally order violence. Riley-Smith demonstrates how, “On divine authority, Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice Isaac and Moses had waged war, [but how] God, in mandating the use of force, acted not out of cruelty, but in righteous retribution.” This ideology led the Popes to turn to biblical scholars and theologians to justify the use of force. As a result, we are given two premises that stipulated the use of violence: “The first was an insistence on the ultimate authority of God… [And] the second was the conviction that violence was ethically neutral.” Riley-Smith illustrates how these principles led Augustine to develop the theory of just war, which haunted Christianity and led to modern-war theory, which he defines as, “Violence is indeed evil, but [how] disorder can be a greater one [And] the use of force may therefore become a necessity as the lesser of evils.” This theory was a catalyst for the justification for violence and in many ways simply removed God’s will from the equation and the end result was holy wars. Out of Augustine’s work, Pope Gregory VII based his beliefs around Jeremiah 48:10, “Cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed.” Tyerman elaborates further how Gregory, “Identified two forms of occupation for arms-bearers, one secular, selfish, and sinful; the other penitential, justified by legitimate rights, loyalty to a lord, protection of the vulnerable or defense of the church.”

At any rate, this writer contends with Riley-Smith’s conclusion of, “Historians used to believe that the Church had been pacifist in the early Christian centuries, but had then become contaminated by the values of its host societies in a process which culminated during the period when crusading was at its height, but the idea of charting attitudes in such a linear way is unrealistic.” Ultimately, one’s actions depended on the context and situation as Riley-Smith clarifies how the crucial element in the church’s correlation with violence was one by choice. Augustine of Hippo strengthened this argument by stating, “Violence was validated to a greater or lesser degree by the state of mind of those responsible,” which gave the church authority to enact warfare on multiple fronts based on Old and New Testament teachings, Roman Law, and the ideologies of the major theologians of the day.


Whatever the cause or reason, Tyerman portrays how Urban’s appeal astonished all and shocked some with an outcome provided by its own justification and showed how:

The story has resonated down the centuries of how tens of thousands willingly uprooted themselves for the sake of liberating Jerusalem, a place of unimaginable physical remoteness yet ubiquitous immediate appeal; of how, suffering horrific losses and agonizing obstacles, they were painfully forged into an army that appeared to campaign as much in a war of the spirit as of the flesh; of how they surmounted seemingly fatal odds, of climate, terrain, local hostility, and superior enemy numbers in repeated desperate battles and skirmishes; [And] of how the story of the march to Jerusalem obscured much that failed to fit an acceptable and accepted literary and theological pattern, or challenged the embroidered reminiscences of the returned warriors of Christ.

Pope Urban II believed he had the right to commission the crusades and he turned this opportunity to his own purposes by commissioning violence on behalf of Christ’s intentions as well as claiming this act would lead to the forgiveness and remission of sins. As scripture and scholarly sources have indicated, there is tremendous danger in the sphere of church and state, especially when God is removed. “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” God has appointed leaders and rulers throughout history and despite man’s fallen state and numerous failed attempts, God remains on the throne as He can use anyone and anything to accomplish His will, as He is sovereign in all things. As Douglas Moo illuminates, “By punishing those who do wrong and rewarding those who do good, secular rulers are carrying out God’s purposes in the world. Christians, therefore, are to submit to the secular rulers” even in their mistakes, so while the crusades were more of a solution to a problem and a means to an end because of the state of affairs in the European region, it did not matter if the Crusades were a political or religious mission because the Pope, as the ruler and representative of God, called and the people answered in mass? Urban died just two weeks following the Crusaders recapture of Jerusalem, yet the news of their success did not reach the pope before his passing. One can only wonder what sort of reception awaited him at the heavenly gates and who among the crusaders were present is truly a mystery left only to God. This stained chapter of Christianity is one that leads to deep remorse and in some cases shear embarrassment as is evidenced by the Pope’s and many church leader’s apology to the Muslims throughout the years. Everett Ferguson sums it up best by demonstrating how: “The crusades permanently poisoned Christian-Muslim relations and ended the spirit of tolerance for Christians living under Muslim rule.”


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