Monks too heavenly minded to be any earthly good? Hardly. Meet the globe-trotting, pagan-busting Boniface


So you think medieval monks just sat in their cloisters, doing without stuff and looking pious? Check out Boniface (680 – 754):

The Pagan-Buster
How a brilliant monk laid the groundwork for Christian Europe
By Chris Armstrong

“Irony” seems a concept invented for such a situation as this: The man historian Christopher Dawson once called the most influential Englishman who ever lived is the patron saint of … Germany.

And, as journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto has recently reminded us, the 60th anniversary of D-Day is also the 1250th anniversary of this man’s death.

There is one more layer of seeming irony in this story of the man who evangelized Germany and set the stage for Western Christendom: he was a monk.

Before we get to the man himself, we should think about this fact. Every modern person knows that monks lived out their lives in cloistered irrelevancy, too busy with the inward pursuit of holiness to do much to change the course of history—right? Wrong, of course. Thomas Cahill has busted that myth with his paean to Irish monasticism, How the Irish Saved Civilization. But it lives on, perpetuated by Hollywood and Madison Ave.

In fact, in the centuries that followed the fall of Rome to the barbarian tribes, it was the monks who did most to convert the conquerors to the religion of the conquered. Monastics were used by Gregory the Great (540-604) and the Roman Christians. The most famous of these was the “apostle to England,” Augustine of Canterbury, who missionized England in 597-604/5. And Celtic—that is, Irish—monks did much to bring the Christian faith to the European continent. The star here was Willibrord, who led a highly successful mission in the area of modern-day Belgium and Holland from 690 on.

Typically, a cluster of 10 or 12 pioneer monk-missionaries would come to a new—and thoroughly pagan—area, set up a church, bring people into the fellowship, teach, and train leaders. During their mission, they would plant crops, acquire herds, and live as normal citizens. But once the church was well established in that area, they would move on to the next place.

These were well-disciplined groups, rotated regularly, and closely bound to the other communities of their order and the mother house. They were supported, prayed for, financially benefited by their brotherhood back home.

They preached in the vernacular. And in environments of age-old, entrenched native religions, they made blunt, unflattering comparisons to Christianity of specific elements of Paganism. Willibrord, for instance, might preach: “It is not God that you worship but the Devil, who has deceived you O king into the vilest error. There is no God but the one God. …”

No one exemplified the courage and commitment of these “shock troops” of early Christian Europe better than St. Boniface, our English patron saint of Germany.

A colleague of Willibrord, Boniface lived from 680 to 754. Born with the name Wynfrith, in south Devon, he was given to God by his father when the latter recovered miraculously from a serious illness. At age five, Wynfrith entered a monastery at Exeter.

The boy soon showed himself both brilliant and spiritually mature. He rose quickly through the ranks and could have become abbot of an English monastery. But the missionary spirit burned within him, and he led a party of monks to Frisia (today a province in the north of Holland), where Willibrord had begun the work of evangelization. This, in John Fines’s picturesque phrase, was “a dank land, dissected by waterways and haunted by mists.”

This mission, however, was cut short. Radbod, the Frisian king, was brutally re-imposing paganism on this area. So Wynfrith went to Rome in 718, where Pope Gregory II gave him the name “Boniface” (one who utters good), and sent him on a mission to the North. An 8th-century life of Boniface tells the story:

“The saint was sent by the pope to make a report on the savage peoples of Germany. The purpose of this was to discover whether their untutored hearts and minds were ready to receive the divine Word. … In Thuringia, … by preaching the Gospel and turning their minds away from evil towards a life of virtue and the observance of canonical decrees he reproved, admonished and instructed to the best of his ability the priests and the elders, some of whom devoted themselves to the true worship of Almighty God. …”

Then Radbod died, and under the sponsorship of Charles Martel, Boniface and his group returned to Frisia. There, the king’s death “permitted [Boniface] to scatter abroad the seed of Christian teaching and to feed with wholesome doctrine those who had been famished by pagan superstition. The divine light illumined their hearts, the sovereignty of duke Charles [Martel] over the Frisians was established, the word of truth was blazoned abroad, [and] the voice of the preachers filled the land.”

In 721 Boniface went to the German province of Hesse, where there were Christians, but many unconverted as well. That same 8th-century Life of Boniface relates a famous “power encounter,” reminiscent of Elijah’s challenge to the priests of Baal, that epitomizes the clash between Christianity and paganism in old Europe:

“Now many of the Hessians who at that time had acknowledged the Catholic faith were confirmed by the grace of the Holy Spirit and received the laying-on of hands. But others, not yet strong in the spirit, refused to accept the pure teachings of the Church in their entirety.

“Moreover, some continued secretly, others openly, to offer sacrifices to trees and springs, to inspect the entrails of victims; some practiced divination, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries, auspices and other sacrificial rites; whilst others, of a more reasonable character, forsook all the profane practices of heathenism and committed none of these crimes.

“With the counsel and advice of the latter persons, Boniface in their presence attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called by the pagans of olden times the Oak of Jupiter.

“Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above, crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length.

“At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon the holy bishop took counsel with the brethren, built an oratory from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to St. Peter the Apostle.

“By this means the report of his preaching reached far-off lands so that within a short space of time his fame resounded throughout the greater part of Europe. From Britain an exceedingly large number of holy men came to his aid. … Working in widely scattered groups among the people of Hesse and Thuringia, they preached the Word of God in the country districts and villages. The number of Hessians and Thuringians who received the sacraments of the faith was enormous and many thousands of them were baptized.”

Of course, this single event did not really end all “cursing in the hearts” of the Pagans. John Fines, in Who’s Who in the Middle Ages, gives us a sense of the courage required to profess the Gospel in that pagan land: “The monasteries [Boniface] set up were like castles in an alien land, and his converts often went in fear of their lives.” Nonetheless, says Fines, “crowds of scholars and missionaries” came from England to join Boniface in his work.

Nor was all of these missionaries’ work of the “power encounter” variety. Letters still exist from the Bishop of Winchester, who wrote to Boniface about how to argue the “heathen” out of their pagan beliefs. Fines paraphrases one such argument: “Don’t argue about the genealogies of their gods. Accept that they were born like men, and so must be men; if they still doubt, ask them where their gods lived before the creation of the universe—that will stump them; if they claim that the universe has always been there, ask them how the gods came to rule it.”

Boniface continued, in the monastic tradition, to study as best he could in a wild land with no access to such libraries as the fine one then being developed at the English see of York. Fines relates, “He would write again and again to English libraries and to Rome to get his materials and check his references. A slow business, but what joy when a parcel of books finally did arrive!”

By 739 Boniface, a brilliant administrator as well as a scholar and missionary, became head of the Roman church’s whole missionary enterprise. He took a hand in the reformation of the Frankish (french) church and laid the groundwork for Charlemagne’s era of Christian religious reform.

At last in 753, Boniface turned back to the mission to Frisia. There, as Fines tells it, “he had great success, christening converts in their thousands, and encamped for the winter with the sense of satisfaction of one who has returned to his oldest love.” The following year he began again, with much the same success. But this was soon to be cut short when “his little band was attacked by a crowd of angry pagans.”

“He refused to allow his followers to show the least sign of resistance, as always conscious of the missionary’s prime task of setting an example, and, perhaps, moved by the desire for a martyr’s crowning.

“The pagans cut him and his 53 followers to pieces, and leaving the dead scattered around the fields, hurried off with their booty. They carried away Boniface’s heavy chests, and finally set them down; but before they could be opened, a great quarrel sprang up about the division of the loot. A mad struggle ensued, culminating in the survival of the fittest few, and finally the chests were burst open. Instead of silver and gold, they found books, which they flung aside in fury, sure that at the bottom they would find riches: but each and every chest contained books—the library that Boniface had begged, steadily, book by book, throughout his long and weary life. In their rage they scattered the manuscripts, swinging madly at them with their swords, and of the three that were rescued for the library at Fulda (where Boniface himself was finally buried, according to his wish), one is almost completely cut through.”

Fines concludes that Boniface’s chief characteristics were courage and affection for his people. “He loved people as a missionary should, but very rarely do we find a missionary with such depth of affection as his.” Yet when necessary, he did not hesitate to reprove archbishops, kings, and even the pope. “He was a muscular Christian who loved and was beloved but he was not soft.”

Today we can pray that the people who go out to spread the gospel on new frontiers would be as loving and courageous as Boniface. Specifically, we can ask that Western missionaries will build bridges between their compatriots and the evangelized people groups just as Boniface did between his English fellows and the converts of Frisia.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today.

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