Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Our Lord gave commandment to the whole church when, just before His ascension into heaven, He said to His disciples, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The early history of the church of Christ is an exciting and moving history of her missionary enterprise. Scripture itself records for us how the gospel was brought to Judea, Samaria, and the entire Mediterranean world, so that the church was spread throughout the Roman Empire. The early annuls of the church provide us with information of how courageous missionaries moved beyond the Mediterranean world into darkest Europe to bring God’s Word to the many barbarian tribes who had moved into Europe and settled there.
Through the labors of the church the whole of Europe was Christianized, so that it was changed from darkest heathendom and paganism and became the cradle of Christianity. Although the work covered many centuries, it had its lowly beginnings in the lives of men who sacrificed all for the cause of the gospel.
This is the story of one such missionary: Patrick, missionary to Ireland.
Not a great deal is known of Patrick’s life, and, indeed, many myths have been constructed concerning his labors. What is certain is what he himself wrote in his Confessions. He was born in Britain somewhere around the year 389. Although the precise place of his birth is not known, he was born in a small village somewhere on the western coast of Britain, across the Irish Sea from Ireland.
At the time of his birth, Christianity had already come to Britain, probably through Christian soldiers in the Roman army; for Britain formed the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. The Romans had succeeded in establishing in southern Britain a rather advanced civilization, and, through the spread of Christianity, many Romans in Britain were Christians. Within the sphere of the influence of Roman control, Patrick was born.
He tells us in his Confessions that his father, Calpornus, was a deacon and a local magistrate, and his grandfather was a priest in the church of that time. He received some Christian instruction, although he leaves the impression that this instruction was meager and unsatisfactory. He learned only the rudiments of the Christian faith, but true faith in God had not yet found a place in his heart.
At the age of sixteen, tragedy struck his home. Raiders from across the Irish Sea, crude and illiterate barbarians, raided the coast where Patrick lived. We can only imagine the suffering and pain which was the lot of the inhabitants when thousands of young men, including Patrick, were captured and sold as slaves in Ireland.
In the providence of God, however, this captivity, which lasted about six years, was to be Patrick’s preparation for his great work as missionary to the Irish. He was sold to a farmer who assigned him the task of taking care of cattle. It was during this time of loneliness and suffering that Patrick was converted. He speaks of it himself.
After I arrived in Ireland, every day I fed cattle, and frequently during the day I prayed; more and more the love and fear of God burned, and my faith and my spirit were strengthened, so that in one day I said as many as a hundred prayers, and nearly as many in the night.1
Although the time there, spent in loneliness and grief, was a time of suffering, it gave him a knowledge of the Irish language then used, and it instilled within his heart a love for these crude and heathenish people among whom he was forced to live.
After six years of captivity, he escaped from his master and, after a perilous journey over land and sea, arrived safely in Britain.2 He speaks of his captivity as an interruption of his education, which he now pursued with some diligence.
He could not escape, however, the thoughts of the Irish from whom he had fled. He considered the Ireland in which he was a slave to be as far west as one was able to go, and on the very edge of the world. In his Letter to Coroticus he declared that he had been “predestinated to preach the Gospel even to the ends of the earth.” He promised never to leave the people whom the Lord had “purchased in the farthest ends of the earth.” Referring to Matthew 28:19, 20, he “sees his work as culminating the expansion of the Faith begun by the Apostles, to be followed by the coming of the end. He gives thanks to God, who heard his prayer, so that…’in the last days’ he undertook ‘such a holy and wonderful work, imitating those who were sent to preach the Gospel for a testimony to all nations before the end of the world…. The Gospel has been preached to where there is nobody beyond.”‘ 3
It was this burning desire to bring the gospel to the Irish which probably accounts for the dream which he claims to have had in which he saw a man who handed him some letters which included the plea: “Holy boy, we are asking you to come home and walk among us again.”
He considered this to be a call from God. To this end he entered the ministry of the church and was ordained bishop and apostle to Ireland in 432. He spent the next thirty years of his life working in the land of his captivity. He found an Ireland “untouched by the Roman culture that had helped to mold the British society into which Patrick was born. The Irish had no towns; their primary social order was the tribe, or extended family. They raised cattle, lived in wattle-and-turf houses, and repaired to forts, mostly wooden, during raids and wars. Their lives were full of superstition and magic presided over by Druid priests who were Christianity’s chief Irish opponents.” 4
It was difficult labor, filled with danger and hardship. His opponents were many and the people totally pagan. Yet the Lord was pleased to bless this work, and thousands were brought to the faith. Most of his work was done in Northern Ireland, that part of the island which is now called Ulster. The center of his labors was Armagh, and from it the gospel I spread.
In his Confessions he writes:
I am greatly a debtor to God, who has bestowed his grace so largely upon me, that multitudes were born again to God through me. The Irish, who never had the knowledge of God and worshipped only idols and unclean things, have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called sons of God. 5
While undoubtedly his work was blessed richly by God, many strange traditions and stories have been woven into his life. He is said to have converted all the Irish chieftains and bards. He is supposed to have founded between 365 and 700 churches and consecrated 3,000 priests. Even miracles were ascribed to him: it is claimed that he healed the blind, raised nine persons from death, and expelled all the snakes and frogs in the island. But he himself makes no such claims. They are part of Romish mythology.
Nevertheless, his writings give evidence of the fact that he was a dedicated and humble child of God. A certain sweetness of character shines through his writings, and a humility is evident in them which is unmistakable. He never was a highly educated man, and he often bemoaned his lack of education. In fact, he was hesitant to write-anything because his Latin was so inferior. But that very lack of education gave him a directness of speech which, even today, is moving. It was without affectation that he began his letter to Coroticum, “I Patrick, a sinner, very badly educated….” This letter, in which he speaks much of his calling and faith, was written to a certain king in Britain who, while professing to be a Christian, had captured many young boys and girls in Ireland; The letter was written to excommunicate King Coroticum until he repented and made restitution for his evil deed.
Patrick established a Christianity in Ireland which was a far cry from the Christianity of Roman Catholicism. It was orthodox and biblical, the Bible being Patrick’s only book. It was a Christianity that was completely independent of Rome and the influence of Rome’s bishops. In fact, it was several centuries later that Rome finally succeeded in bringing the Irish Church under her papal rule. It was the beginning of the church in Ireland which continues to the present—although only through great struggle and persecution.
The date of Patrick’s death is not known. But he died peacefully somewhere between 461 and 493. He died a faithful servant of the Lord and was buried in an unknown grave in the Ireland which he loved.
He was one of many such brave men who sacrificed all to bring the light of the gospel into the dark regions of paganism where only idolatry and superstition ruled. He is a noble figure in the annuls of the church’s missionary calling, and is an inspiration to all those who are called by God to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.
1. Quoted from Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian church, Vol. IV, “Medieval Christianity.” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing co., 1950, p. 49.
2. There is some question about whether the ship on which he took sail landed again in Britain or on the coast of Gaul (now France). Church historians are divided on the question, and there seems to be no way to settle it.
3. The quotations are from John T. McNiell, The Celtic Churches; University of Chicago Press, 1974, p. 59.
4. Quoted from Great Leaders of the Christian Church. ed. bv John D. Woodbridge. Moody Press, 1988; p. 96.
5. Quoted from Schaff, op. cit., p. 46.