Raymond Lull, Missionary Martyr

This afternoon, I read Samuel Zwemer, Raymond Lull: First Missionary to the Moslems (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1902). I found this biography of Raymond Lull to be fascinating as well as inspiring and decided to share a condensed version.

Raymond Lull (1235-1315) was born into an illustrious family. His father was a successful military officer and land owner. Raymond served as an official, knight, and poet in the court of King James II of Aragon (now part of Spain). After his conversion, Lull dedicated his life to reaching the Islamic world with the gospel.

Lull himself, when he was about sixty years old, reviews his life in these words: “I had a wife and children; I was tolerably rich; I led a secular life. All these things I cheerfully resigned for the sake of promoting the common good and diffusing abroad the holy faith. I learned Arabic. I have several times gone abroad to preach the Gospel to the Saracens. I have for the sake of the faith been cast into prison and scourged. I have labored forty-five years to gain over the shepherds of the church and the princes of Europe to the common good of Christendom. Now I am old and poor, but still I am intent on the same object. I will persevere in it till death, if the Lord permits it” (64).

Lull’s ministry was remarkable in that he focused on learning the language of his target culture from the start. Remember, Lull lived during Middle Ages. The seventh through the ninth crusades were fought during his lifetime. Yet still:

It occurred to him that at least a beginning might be made by composing a volume which should demonstrate the truth of Christianity and convince the warriors of the Crescent of their errors. This book, however, would not be understood by them unless it were in Arabic, and of this language he was ignorant (40).

He laid plans for a thorough mastery of the Arabic language. To secure a teacher was not an easy matter, as Majorca had years ago passed from Saracen into Christian hands, and as no earnest Moslem would teach the Koran language to one whose professed purpose was to assail Islam with the weapons of philosophy.

He therefore decided to purchase a Saracen slave, and with this teacher his biographers tell us that Lull was occupied in Arabic study for a period of more than nine years (55).

Lull’s language preparation came to an unfortunate end.

In the midst of their studies, on one occasion the Saracen blasphemed Christ…. When Lull heard the blasphemy, he struck his slave violently on the face in his strong indignation. The Moslem, stung to the quick, drew a weapon, attempted Lull’s life, and wounded him severely. He was seized and imprisoned. Perhaps fearing the death penalty for attempted murder, the Saracen slave committed suicide. It was a sad beginning for Lull in his work of preparation (56).

Raymond Lull devised a philosophical method for use in apologetics. Lull’s system (“Ars Major sive Generalis”) exposed his scholastic heritage and consisted of a mathematical system of philosophical notation expressed across three concentric circles. While Lull’s philosophy may seem a bit fanciful today, Zwemer rightly observes:

In judging the character of Lull’s method and his long period of preparation, one thing must not be forgotten. The strength of Islam in the age of scholasticism was its philosophy. Having thoroughly entered into the spirit of Arabian philosophical writings and seen its errors, there was nothing left for a man of Lull’s intellect but to meet these Saracen philosophers on their own ground. Avicenna, Algazel, and Averroes sat on the throne of Moslem learning and ruled Moslem thought. Lull’s object was to undermine their influence and so reach the Moslem heart with the message of salvation. For such a conflict and in such an age his weapons were well chosen (62).

In 1276, Lull opened a school to teach missions. Again, Lull’s commitment to cultural sensitivity is astounding for the age in which he lived.

He aimed not at a mere school of theology or philosophy: his ideal training for the foreign field was ahead of many theological colleges of our century. It included in its curriculum the geography of missions and the language of the Saracens! “Knowledge of the regions of the world,” he wrote, “is strongly necessary for the republic of believers and the conversion of unbelievers, and for withstanding infidels and Antichrist. The man unacquainted with geography is not only ignorant where he walks, but whither he leads. Whether he attempts the conversion of infidels or works for other interests of the Church, it is indispensable that he know the religions and the environments of all nations” (66).

In 1286 and 1294-96, Lull visited Rome to petition the church to adopt his views on missions but to no avail. Lull’s theology as a whole diverged from the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church. He apparently took positions closer to those of later reformers and his works were eventually condemned by the Inquisition. Between his trips to Rome, Lull ministered in Tunis, North Africa. In 1299-1306, Lull again served in North Africa. During both ministries, Lull took a rather confrontational approach.

One of Lull’s arguments, given in his controversial books, consists in presenting to the Saracens the Ten Commandments as the perfect law of God, and then showing from their own books that Mohammed violated every one of these divine precepts. Another favorite argument of Lull with Moslems was to portray the seven cardinal virtues and the seven deadly sins, only to show subsequently how bare Islam was of the former and how full of the latter! Such arguments are to be used with care even in the twentieth century; we can imagine their effect on the Moslems in the north of Africa in Lull’s day.

Persecution followed (108).

After being expelled from cities and even imprisoned for some time, Lull eventually returned to Spain where he might have retired.

It might have been thought that he would have been willing to enjoy the rest he had so well deserved. Raymund Lull was now seventy-nine years old…. His pupils and friends naturally desired that he should end his days in the peaceful pursuit of learning and the comfort of companionship.

Such, however, was not Lull’s wish. His ambition was to die as a missionary and not as a teacher of philosophy. Even his favorite “Ars Major” had to give way to that ars maximus expressed in Lull’s own motto, “He that lives by the life can not die” (133-134).

[Lull returned to North Africa in 1314] For over tell months the aged missionary dwelt in hiding, talking and praying with his converts and trying to influence those who were not yet persuaded (142).

At length, weary of seclusion, and longing for martyrdom, he came forth into the open market and presented himself to the people as the same man whom they had once expelled from their town. It was Elijah showing himself to a mob of Ahabs! Lull stood before them and threatened them with divine wrath if they still persisted in their errors. He pleaded with love, but spoke plainly the whole truth. The consequences can be easily anticipated. Filled with fanatic fury at his boldness, and unable to reply to his arguments, the populace seized him, and dragged him out of the town; there by the command, or at least the connivance, of the king, he was stoned on the 30th of June, 1315 (143).

Raymond Lull pioneered cross-cultural ministry in the Middle Ages. He devoted his life to the Gospel and spent his retirement in martyrdom. “He that lives by the life can not die.”

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One thought on “Raymond Lull, Missionary Martyr

  1. Thanks so much fro writing about Lull and his work. During a time when the thrust of missions had more to do with earthly reputation and reward, there was still someone out there who was willing to love the world like Christ did and willing to give himself for the sake of the gospel.
    Attitudes toward missions still ebb and flow with current trend, but I pray that we love like Christ loved.

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