Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Noah, after awaking from his drunken stupor, had blessed his two sons, Shem and Japheth. Japheth’s blessing was that the day would come when he would dwell in the tents of Shem. With the work of the apostle Paul, and in subsequent centuries, God brought Japheth into the tents of Shem as the church was established first in Antioch, then in Syria, Greece, and Italy, and finally in the whole of Europe. Gradually Europe, where during the time of the apostle Paul and for many centuries later cruel and fierce barbarians lived, was brought the gospel, was Christianized, and in time became the center of the church.
At the time of the Reformation, when Rome had become apostate, Europe was split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Only very few countries became completely Protestant, and these were not Lutheran, but Calvinistic. One can count them on one hand: The Netherlands, England, and Scotland.
Some of the greatest heroes of the faith were to be found in Scotland. There the Covenanters shed their blood for the cause of the gospel as they fearlessly raised their voices in protest against all forms of papacy and prelacy. There was established the purest of Presbyterian churches. From them the great truths of Calvinism spread, especially into our own country. None fought so fiercely and bitterly against every corruption of the pure gospel as the Scots.
It is hard to imagine, then, that, prior to the sixth century, Scotland was inhabited by some of the most fierce, warlike, superstitious, idol-serving and reprehensible heathen among all the barbarian tribes, the Picts and the Scats. It was the gospel which subdued them; and it was the gospel which established in Scotland the church of Christ.
The story of the conversion of Scotland is the story of the great missionary Columba.
Columba was born probably on December 7, 521 in County Donegal in that part of Ireland which is known today as Ulster, or Northern Ireland. He was born a Celt from royal parents. The Celts were an ancient barbarian tribe in Western Europe who were supplanted by the Germanic tribes and who were the ancestors of the Irish, Welsh, Scats, and Picts. He is pictured by later biographers as a rather wild child, full of energy and mischief and always looking for a good fight. He was tall and strong, possessed a powerful and pleasing voice, and had a mischievous sense of humor. Raised from childhood in the Christian faith, he soon showed promise of intellectual achievement. He grew up in the company of a people who were quarrelsome and given to fighting; who though in some superficial sense were Christian, nevertheless retained many pagan customs and superstitions; who were fond of music and song; and who were characterized by a rough individualism. All these native characteristics were woven into the makeup of Columba.
Under the influence of his tutor, a priest named Cruithnechan, he soon became religiously inclined. His habit of spending a part of each day in a little church soon earned him the affectionate nickname, Columcile—Colum of the church. Under the later tutelage of two different Finnians, he began a systematic study of Scripture and was introduced to the monastic life. Eventually he became a deacon and a priest. As an ordained minister of the gospel, Columba was instrumental in the establishment of a couple of monasteries and several churches in Northern Ireland.
However, in about 561 two events took place which altered Columba’s life forever.
The first arose out of his interest in the Scriptures. Eager to have his own copy of the Scriptures, he copied secretly the Psalms and the Gospels from a manuscript which Finnian had taken with him from Rome. When Finnian unexpectedly came upon Columba while he was copying, Finnian demanded the copy. When Columba refused, the matter was submitted to the king who ruled in Finnian’s favor. But Columba was adamant in his refusal and was consequently branded a rebel.
The second incident arose out d the first. The king who ruled against Columba was Columba’s cousin. A rift developed between them to the point where it led to open war. Columba, at the head of his clansmen, went to battle against the king and decisively defeated him. The slaughter was great and at least 2,000 of the kings followers were killed.
After the slaughter, Columba was so smitten with remorse over the body-strewn battlefield that he determined to live the rest of his life in penance. Whether he was forced to flee Ireland because of these two events, or whether the choice to leave was his own, is not known. But, shortly after these events, in 562 or 563, when Columba was over forty years old, he took with him twelve companions and sailed for the coast of Scotland. After a rough and perilous journey and a lengthy search for a good place to settle, he found the small island of Hy, now known as Iona, where he determined to live. The island was a treeless, somewhat barren piece of land measuring about three miles in length by one mile in width, but had a breath-taking view of the sea and of the coast of Scotland.
Here, on this small island, he built a monastery, which was not an imposing structure, but a small group of huts which included a refractory, a library, a guesthouse, a kiln, a mill, two barns, and a small church. Here the monastic life was organized around Columba and consisted of three groups of residents: the seniors, who were responsible for leading in worship, preserving manuscripts, and teaching the other residents; the workers, who performed the manual labor necessary to keep the monastery functioning; and the juniors, who were responsible for miscellaneous tasks. It was a hive of activity, but was devoted especially to the training of missionaries to the inhabitants of what is now Scotland. Columba, in his own words, had now dedicated his life to bringing as many heathen to Christ as were killed in the battle with his cousin, the king.
Missionary work in those days was difficult. It required that the monks who were trained on Iona, and Columba himself, go to the mainland, where they were in constant peril of fierce people, wild animals, rugged terrain, an unforgiving climate, and the enmity of the Druids (the priests of pagan religion who hated with all their souls the arrival of Christianity). Here too the Picts and Scats lived, who, though Christianity had made some inroads into their land, were still basically the barbarians they were long before our Lord was born in Bethlehem.
The stories that are told of his work are, in many instances, legendary. His biographers relate how he counteracted the magic of the Druids with miracles of healing; how he drowned out the chanting voices of the Druid priests with songs of praise to God sung in his own booming voice; how he gained the respect of Brude the king of the Picts who lived in a castle on the shores of Lock Ness; how he labored with unrestrained zeal for the cause of the gospel. But, stripped of all these legendary stories, the work of Columba shines as a light in the midst of the darkness of heathendom. His missionary labors were blessed by God in Scotland so that the true gospel was proclaimed there and the church of Jesus Christ was gathered. His missionary zeal is an example to all those whom God throughout the years calls to this difficult work.
He returned briefly to Ireland, the land of his birth, to attend various meetings of the church. His prestige and the respect in which he was held made all his past troubles in Ireland seem irrelevant. He worked towards the settlement of various disputes which had begun to trouble the church in Ireland, and his influence often led to a successful solution to these difficulties.
But his heart was in Scotland. To Scotland he returned, and in Scotland he died. On the last day of his life at the age of seventy-five, he spent his time in transcribing a Psalter. In the late night, at midnight, he arose with difficulty from his hard bed to take part in the traditional midnight service. He arrived somewhat earlier than his fellow monks to kneel in prayer before God. Weakened by years of difficult labor, burdened with cares of the church, and bearing the ravages of many years, he suddenly collapsed. He revived briefly when his fellow monks arrived, took the few moments he had left to bestow on them his final blessing, and died peacefully in the early hours of Sunday, June 9, 597.
The character of Columba was never changed throughout his life, for God gives to each man his character and personal characteristics at birth. But his love of fighting, his robust constitution, his tendency towards entering into every controversy, were tempered by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And, under the tempering powers of sanctification, he became the powerful missionary that he was.
He possessed great leadership abilities. He was a man of impressive and attractive appearance. God had blessed him with a powerful voice. His singing, unusually beautiful, could be heard above all the gathering. His melodious voice was eloquent as he brought the gospel to the heathen among the Scots and Picts. But he was also forthright and uncompromising in the cause of the gospel. An old Gaelic eulogy speaks of him1 as “not a gentle hero.” He had no patience with evil-doers and could not abide duplicity. He was and always remained quick to reprimand sinners, and he would tolerate no shame upon the gospel which he loved and preached.
There was also another side of his gifted personality He was a man who showed great love for the poor and downtrodden. His deeds of mercy and compassion were known throughout the land. He possessed a deep love for the beauties of God’s creation and reveled in the glories of God’s handiwork in trees and moors, flowers and sunshine, heather and wildlife. All this was possible because he possessed a poetic soul. Some of his poetry has remained and the reading of it is still enjoyable.
It is true that he lived in an age when the Romish Church had already departed from the pure worship of God. But Columba was his own man more than he was a son of his church. That is, he was more Christ’s man than a man in all things loyal to the Romish faith. This is especially evident in his deep devotion to the Scriptures. Although he loved the poetry of the Scriptures more than other parts, to the whole of the Scriptures he was faithful. He carried them with him wherever he went. He taught his fellow monks to honor and study the Scriptures. He preached from them and taught God’s people in them. His preaching was simple, direct, and, above all, biblical. He urged God’s people to study and meditate on God’s Word. And he preached that great and glorious theme of the Scriptures: Christ crucified. If it could be said of Patrick, missionary to Ireland, that he “lived with the Bible,” the same could be said of Columba.
Through these labors (as well as those of others who braved the dangers of heathen lands to bring the gospel to barbarians—for Columba is only one example among many) God was pleased to begin to bring Japheth into the tents of Shem.