27 July 2020

The Seven Saints of the early Slavs

The Seven Saints
From left to right: Ss. Naum, Kliment, Sava, Methodius, Angelarii, Cyril and Gorazd

The twenty-seventh of July is the feast day of Saint Kliment of Ohrid, but it is also the tradition in the South Slavic nations, particularly Bulgaria and Serbia, to honour him alongside his fellow apostles to the Bulgarian people and to the early Slavs more generally. Saints Cyril and Methodius, of course, head this list. The successor to Saint Methodius as bishop, Saint Gorazd, is held next in honour. Then there are the priests, Saint Kliment and Saint Naum. And then there are the deacons, Saint Angelarii and Saint Sava.

As I hinted in my hagiography of Saint Kliment earlier, the mission of these saints from Constantinople to the Slavs cannot be underestimated in its importance. In them and through them, the radicalism of the Great Commandment of Christ to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations, and that of the first Pentecost, was truly realised. They were the bearers of a great kenotic and creative work, in the uplift of an entire people, and in the creation of an entire written language. The podvig, the struggle, of these Seven Saints is matched in world history only by the efforts of creative indigenous luminaries like Sequoyah of the Cherokee nation, Sejong Daewang of Korea and his Hall of Worthies, Souleymane Kanté of Guinea and Great Teacher Iri of Western Xia. And their mission was global in its importance. As Fr Thomas Hopko puts it: ‘The work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the ‘Evangelisers of the Slavs’, continued on from Bulgaria through the Serbian lands, and ultimately into Kiev and Northern Russia in subsequent centuries.

The political and theological disputes within Great Moravia on the suitability of the Slavic language for Liturgical use form the backdrop of this struggle. The reasons that the saintly king of Great Moravia Rastislav requested missionaries from Constantinople were: to gain a greater degree of political independence from Louis II of East Francia; to curtail the activities of Frankish missionary priests among his people – who were in fact agents of Frankish domination; and to cultivate a cadre of local priests from among the Moravian people who could act as teachers. In his own words to Emperor Michael III:
Though our people have rejected paganism and observe Christian law, we do not have a teacher who can explain to us in our language the true Christian faith, so that other countries which look to us might emulate us. Therefore, O lord, send us such a bishop and teacher, for from you good law issues to all countries.
Saints Cyril and Methodius were sent to him, both because they were well-versed in the tongue of the Southern Slavs who lived in Macedonia, but also because they were eager for just such a mission. As soon as they set foot in Great Moravia, however, their mission was threatened by Frankish interests – who, again, were more interested in subjugating and exploiting the Slavic people of Moravia than they were in making them Christian. Louis II sent Salomo, the bishop of Constance, to complain to Pope Nicholas I with the scurrilous charge that the Moravians were causing sectarian strife in Passau. In response, the Pope invited both men to Rome to answer the charges, something which they were free to do only after Pope Nicholas had died and Pope Hadrian II had been consecrated as Bishop of Rome. Pope Hadrian blessed their endeavours, consecrated their followers Gorazd, Kliment, Naum, Angelarii and Sava with holy orders, and assigned to the brothers the canonical territories of Great Moravia, Pannonia and Serbia – all of which spoke Slavic languages. Saint Cyril would become a monk in Rome, and die there within two months. Saint Methodius would be sent back to the Slavs as bishop.

After the betrayal of Rastislav to the Franks by his treacherous nephew Svätopluk, Saint Methodius was again subjected to political intrigue. He was captured and imprisoned by the Frankish bishops of Salzburg, Passau and Freising – who illegally deposed him and kept him confined within a German monastery. Pope John VIII had Methodius reinstated as bishop, though as a compromise with the Franks told him to stop conducting the Divine Liturgy in Slavonic. Although Saint Methodius was allowed to continue as bishop in Great Moravia for some time, Svätopluk was incensed by Methodius’s critiques of his lascivious and power-hungry way of living. Again the elderly bishop was sent to Rome on politically motivated false charges, and again Pope John VIII cleared him. However, when John VIII was succeeded by Stephen V, Papal policy swung hard in favour of the Franks. The new bishop of Nitra, Wiching, constantly butted heads with Methodius over the Liturgical use of Slavonic.

After Saint Methodius died in 885, with the consent of Svätopluk, Wiching relentlessly persecuted the followers of Saint Methodius. They were subject to arrest, beatings, imprisonment, torture and slavery from the Venetian markets. Saint Gorazd, apparently, had some degree of political protection on account of his ties to the local Moravian nobility; he may even have continued as a bishop from what is now Krakow, and the Slovaks consider him their first saint. However, Svätopluk and the Frankish priests beat and hounded the deacon, Saint Angelarii, to his death – he reposed in the Lord in Bulgaria in 886, succumbing to the ‘grievous wounds’ he had suffered in Svätopluk’s prisons and along the march to Venice. Little is known about the fate of his fellow-deacon, Saint Sava; his name does not appear in the historical record after Methodius’s death.

Agents of the Eastern Roman Empire were apparently able to ransom many of the followers of Saint Methodius from Venetian slavery. From there, the mission of Saint Methodius was brought to the court of the saintly Prince Boris Mihail of Bulgaria. It was apparently the case that in the early years of Boris Mihail’s reign, being motivated by similar concerns as Rastislav (his one-time frenemy, we might say), he invited clergy from both Constantinople and Rome to his capital and asked them to serve his people. There was some confusion over canonical territory as a result of this move. By the time he invited Saints Kliment and Naum and the other survivors of the ill-fated mission in Great Moravia, he had decided firmly in favour of the Greek clergy and the Byzantine Rite – but not in favour of the Greek language!

Boris Mihail provided Saints Kliment and Naum with safe harbour and an opportunity to continue their mission. In turn, they provided him with a Heaven-sent opportunity, to forge through an independent church polity through educating priests from among his own people in Slavonic through the use of the written language pioneered by Saints Cyril and Methodius. Boris Mihail established schools: one in Pliska (later moved to Preslav), and one in Kutmichevitsa. Saint Naum preached and taught in Pliska, and undertook the translation of Liturgical texts and other scriptures from Greek into Slavonic. Saint Kliment taught in Kutmichevitsa and taught Slavic boys and young men to become priests in their own language.

The significance of the Seven Saints is therefore doubly profound. Not only did Saint Kliment and Saint Naum represent a bottom-up missiology, as already discussed. But the language-creating mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius and their five saintly successors, in the promotion of Church literature in the native language of the Slavs, also set an important precedent for the work of Orthodox missionaries like Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, Saint Innocent of Alaska and Saint Herman of Alaska, who took it as their goal to understand and live within the indigenous cultures they encountered, rather than to conquer them or replace them. O Holy Seven Apostles among the Slavs, confessors of the True Faith among the people and true inheritors of the Great Commission, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Church of the Seven Saints, Sofia, Bulgaria


  1. It's for this reason I thank God for the saintly William Tyndale, ultimately sacrificing his life for a nearly complete English bible, fulfilling what Lollards had struggled to do for centuries.

    Do you have any sense why this impulse changed among Orthodox in later eras? Part of Cyril Loukaris' interest among the Reformed was in their efforts to translate the Bible into the vernacular. I wonder if it was a kind of turn inwards after the 4th crusade and conquest by the Turks.

  2. That might be, although again I note the interest by the Russian Orthodox missionaries in the Far East from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries in translating the Scriptures, the Fathers and the various prayer books into local indigenous languages (though these languages were always rendered in the Cyrillic alphabet).

    William Tyndale is a highly interesting person in English religious history, of course. Certainly a Lollard and a proto-Protestant in his denunciations of the Pope, but his critiques of the king of England for his shameful treatment of his wife echo Sir Thomas More's!