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The Strange Christian Beliefs That Time Forgot

Two thousand years ago, the followers of Jesus started spreading the word across the Roman Empire: God had come to earth, preached a message of love and forgiveness, was put to death by the government and then, three days later, came back to life. 

That’s the sort of story that’s just a little too good to pass up, and word spread like wildfire. People who believed the story started getting called “Christians” (literally “little Christs”) and today, it’s one of the dominant global religions. 

If you still believe it today (as this writer does), it’s pretty easy to assume that Christianity has stayed more or less the same since those early days. Sure, we dress a little differently now, maybe the music is different, maybe the churches are bigger — but the basic concept is still the same, right? 

Well, on the one hand, sure. Various councils and creeds have helped maintain the core theological tenets of Christianity preserved for several millennia. But on the other hand, culture evolves and it’s inevitable that Christianity would pick up and discard various traditions along the way. Some of these beliefs were intertwined with the oppression (if not slaughter) of women, minority racial groups and people of other faiths. Other beliefs were condemned as heresy. But often times, certain beliefs just fell out of style over time — no pitchforks and torches necessary. 

Here are just a few of the strange Christian beliefs that got forgotten: 

Sin Eating

Though it’s unclear how widespread the practice was, sin-eating has popped up throughout history in various strains of Christian folklore including, especially, Scotland and Wales in the 18th century. The idea relates to someone who would consume a small meal prepared near or sometimes even in the corpse of a recently deceased person as a way of freeing sins from their soul. This person would carry the dead person’s sins within them, mirroring Jesus taking on the sins of the world at his death. Although the practice declined over time, Scottish novelist Catherine Sinclair wrote that she heard of the practice continuing well in the 1800s.

Grotesques 

Often times, Christianity would spread to a region and integrate into local religious beliefs instead of completely replacing them. That’s one theory for the prevalence of architectural grotesques — the monsters carved into the framework of ancient castles, churches and homes. Sometimes, these were gargoyles — frightening creatures meant to ward off demons. Other times, they were Sheela na gigs, feminine creatures with exaggerated sex characteristics, perhaps created as fertility figures. 

Suicide Burials

In the 18th and 19th centuries, people who died by suicide were considered to have committed a grave sin against God, and their body was dragged through the streets and buried at a crossroads at night. The idea was that the crossroads would confuse the victim’s spirit, which might otherwise return to town as a ghost and start causing problems. The practice was banned by the Burial of Suicide Act 1823.

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Irish Sailing Monks

In the Middle Ages, many Irish monks would set sail in a small coracle with no provisions or plans — only trust that God would see them to a new shore if that’s what God wanted. It was a sign of extreme devotion, and monks who survived their voyage would live out the rest of their days in peace and isolation on whatever small Irish island God brought them to. You can still see many of their monasteries today.  

Stylite Monks

You’re probably familiar with self-flagellation — monks that would whip themselves as a sign of supplication and humility. Despite flagellant monks’ prominence in the modern day imagination, the actual practice was never all that widespread. Stylite monks worked in a similar vein, with a little twist. They’d use a ladder to climb to the top of a tall building and then kick the ladder down, vowing to remain up there contemplating God until they died. That could end up being a long time, since kind travelers and passersby would give them food or water in a bucket raised by a rope. There are reports of monks staying in place for as long as 20 years.

The point of this piece isn’t to make fun of these people. The people who held to these beliefs were real people who had friends, told jokes, fell in and out of love, dealt with sadness and loneliness and loved God. Their beliefs may come across as strange and maybe even offensive now, but they — like us — were doing the best they could. It’s humbling to remember that future generations may think of certain practices we hold dear today in the same light. But it’s important to remember that all of us are part of traditions with some strange chapters in them. 

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