Not Augustine at Canterbury, but devoted Irish Gaels in every valley of the Heptarchy — Aidan, Finan, Colman, Maeldubh,See Footnote 1
Diumaand the others — first carried the evangel of Christian culture to the savage English tribes.
PATRICK in Ireland, Columba in Scotland, and Dinooth in Wales were apostles to a people using the Celtic tongue. Aidan, on the other hand, a disciple of Columba’s Celtic school, was called to be an apostle to a different race — the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. During its six-hundred-year Anglo-Saxon period, the conversion of England stood as a monument to the missionary, zeal of Aidan. The pagans in conquering Britain by the sword had all but destroyed the primitive British Church. Nearly two hundred years later this same evangelical church not connected with Rome, through Aidan and his successors, subdued practically
THE CHARACTER AND EDUCATION OF AIDAN
To the west and north of these seven pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lay the Celtic Christian lands of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland; and to the southeast
across the English Channel was the kingdom of the Franks which was ruled over by papal sovereigns. Aidan came from Iona, which had grown into a well-equipped university.3Scholars of renown filled its chairs of instruction. This fact so impressed Dr. Samuel Johnson, the interesting figure in English literature, that he wrote: “We were now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of
who advocated love, gentleness, and patience in winning the Anglo-Saxons, was chosen. This was the youthful Aidan. The second unusual factor in the case was the remarkable career of Oswald, ruler of the land to which Aidan was called. In early youthOswald knew of the national hatred of his pagan people for the Britons which led to the slaughter of the twelve hundred students.6 He had also witnessed the conversion of his pagan father to the superficial Christianity advocated by Paulinus, a priest sent from Kent. Later the priest fled when, at the death of Oswald’s father, the Northumbrians lapsed into idolatry. Oswald himself was compelled to flee his own land and find an asylum atIona. Then the love of his countrymen for his family revived, and Oswald was summoned to the throne. Paulinus, the Roman bishop, was still alive and near at hand, but Oswald wanted his people in Northumbria to walk in the ways of Columba, so he passed this priest by and sent to Iona for a leader.
ROME’S MISSION TO THE KINGDOM OF KENT
Northumbria was not the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom which, after it had lapsed from Romanism into idolatry, was won to Christ by the Celtic Church. In fact, the history of the whole 1260-year period reveals that it was the Church in the Wilderness in papal lands that helped, by virtue of its competition, to keep Roman Catholicism alive. When it was removed or destroyed in certain areas, the standards of Christianity began quickly tofall. Such was the case in Essex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Kent. To understand this and to follow the great work of Aidan and his successors, consideration should be given to the labors of Augustine and his forty monks who came from Rome to Canterbury in 597. The following instruction from Pope Gregory to Augustine after the latter through the efforts of Bertha, the Catholic wife of the pagan king, Ethelbert, had secured for him and his monks a footing in Kent, is worthy of notice:
At first it was Gregory’s intention, which he intimated, indeed, toKing Ethelbert, to have all the temples of idolatry destroyed; but on maturer reflection, he altered his mind, and dispatched a letter after the abbot Mellitus, in which he declared, that the idol temples, if well built, ought not to be destroyed but, sprinkled with holy water and sanctified by holy relics, should be converted into temples of the living God; so that the people might be more easily induced to assemble in their accustomed places. Moreover, the festivals in honor of the idols, of which the rode people had been deprived, should be replaced by others, either on the anniversaries of the consecration ofSee footnote 7
churches,or on days devoted to the memory of the saints whose relics were deposited in them. On such days, the people should be taught to erect arbors around the churches, in which to celebrate their festive meals, and thus beholden to thank the giver of all good for these temporal gifts. Being thus allowed to indulge in some sensual enjoyments, they could be the more easily led to those which are inward and spiritual.
As to the methods Augustine employed, the following is from
By making a parade of ascetical life, by pretended miracles, and by promises of earthly advantages, they succeeded in converting Ethelbert,See footnote 8
king of the Saxons, who with about ten thousand followers received
baptismin a river at the hands of the missionaries. A firm alliance having been formed between the king and the Roman See, the
missionaries addressed themselves to the far more difficult task of subjecting the British Christians to Rome. When all other means proved unavailing, they persuaded the Saxon king to make an expedition against them. Three thousand of the British Christians were slaughtered on one occasion. For centuries the Christians of the old British type, in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as in various parts of Germany, resisted with all their might the encroachment of Rome, and it is probable that Christianity of this type was never wholly exterminated.
AIDAN’S MISSIONARY LABORS
In direct contrast to the method employed by Augustine in Kent stands the manner in which Aidan labored for Northumbria. John Lingard, a defender of the Papacy, writes:
As soon as he had received the episcopal ordination, he repaired to the court of Oswald. His arrival was a subject of general exultationSee footnote 9
; andthe king condescended to explain in Saxon the instructions which the missionary delivered in his native tongue. But the success of Aidan was owingno less to his virtues than to his preaching. The severe austerity of his life, his profound contempt of riches, and his unwearied application to the duties of his profession,won the esteem, while his arguments convinced the understanding of his hearers. Each day the number of proselytesincreased; and, within a few years, the church of Northumbria wasfixed on a solid and permanent foundation.
The character of Aidan was well balanced. In religious fervor he was second to none of the great church leaders. His industry was amazing. He was never idle. In him was that flame of living fire which blazed forth so
gloriously in many of the young missionaries sent from the schools of Patrick and Columba. Of him Bede says:
It was the highest commendation of his doctrine, with all men, that he taught no otherwise than he and his followers had lived; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately among the poor whatever was given him by the kings or rich men of the world. He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity; and wherever in his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if infidels, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, to strengthen them in the faith, and to stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.See footnote 10
The good work spread to the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. What thrilling encouragement this evangelical movement among these pagan neighbors must have given to those of like faith who in Persia and the Far East were laboring for the conversion of the heathen! One medieval historian breaks forth in admiration as he attempts to tell what God had done for King Oswald. He enumerates all the nations — the Britons, the Scots, the Picts, and the English — and the provinces of Britain that were brought underOswald’s dominion.11 Aidan was a man of prayer. He withdrew into his closet and shut the door. On bended
Aidan was also a founder of church schools and training colleges. At the beginning of his ministry, King Oswald assigned to him the island of Lindisfarne. This was situated on the eastern coast of Northumbria near to the capital of the kingdom, but sufficiently off the main thoroughfare to give the proper surroundings to an educational center. Taking Iona as a model, Aidan did for England through this mother college what Columba had done for Scotland. The fields were used to give work to support the students, as well as to furnish the food for faculty and pupils. It was the purpose of the Celtic Church to plant many centers rather than to concentrate numbers and wealth in some ecclesiastical capital. Aidan and his followers limited the buildings to the necessities of the school. Of the location of Lindisfarne and its influence in creating similar institutions, John Lingard says that in all his toil, Aidan kept his eyes fixed on his patron, Columba.14 From Aidan’s first institution, similar training centers were established in the kingdoms of Bernicia, Deira, Mercia, andEast Anglia. Aidan’s work was a triumph for truth. First, paganism was swept away and replaced by
CELTIC CHURCH TRAINING CENTERS
The chief instrument of Aidan’s success was the training school. In naming these evangelical colleges, many writers call them “monasteries,” using the term in its ancient sense. W. M. Hetherington presents as additional proof that the East was the homeland of early British Christianity, that the terms“monk” and “monastery” as used by the ecclesiastical writers of that age did not mean segregated congregations of unmarried men as writers generally now use the expressions. These words meant, rather, that the pupils of the British theological seminaries were married men and were frequently succeeded in their offices and duties by their own sons. This author further claims that wherever the Culdees or Celtic Christians founded new settlements, the presiding officer of the board of directors was chosen by election, not appointed by some foreign superior. “He was
“our monasteries in ancient times were the seminaries of the ministry: being as it were, so many colleges of learned divines, whereunto the people did usually resort for instruction, and from whence the church was wontSee footnote 19
continuallyto be supplied with able ministers.”
Furthermore, the learned Joseph Bingham takes considerable pains to prove by past authorities that “monk” and“monastery” originally had different meanings from those usually given to the words now.20 Soon after the establishment of Lindisfarne, Aidan founded Melrose on the Tweed River as a second training field. Although for centuries since then the shadows have daily crept across the vacant fields where once stood this Columban college, yet splendid memorials still remain to show its noble contribution to civilization. 21
WHITBY AS A TRAINING CENTER
Another such institute, probably the most famous of all Columbanspiritual headquarters in England, was Whitby in the kingdom of Northumbria. Two celebrated names — Hilda and Caedmon — are connected with this history-making center. Whitby is remembered particularly because of the celebrated abbess Hilda. She was of royal descent, and from the age of thirteen was well known for her piety
The grace of the Lord made use of a simple custom in one of these training centers to bring forth a leader. It seems that at certain entertainments a harp would be passed around from one individual to another and each was expected to compose an impromptu poem and play the harp in accompaniment. Caedmon, being a simple cowherd, felt so deeply his inferiority that one night when the harp was passed to him he refused to make an attempt, and retired to the stable where he had charge of the cattle. It seemed that a man appeared to him in his sleep and greeted him, saying, “Sing, Caedmon, some song to me.” He answered that he could not, and it was because of this that he had left the feast. The visitor answered him, “However, you will sing to me.” “What shall I sing?” asked the humble youth. “The beginning of created things,” commanded the voice
Immediately he began to sing and compose to the praise of God. When this was reported, Hilda, always seeking for gifts among her students, requested him to relate the dream and repeat the words he had heard. Bede says, “They all concluded, that heavenly grace had been conferred upon him by our Lord.”The students of the abbey delighted themselves in exercising the gift they had discovered in Caedmon. They gave him passages from the HolyScriptures which, when translated into English, he immediately converted into harmonious verse and sweetly repeated to his masters. Bede writes:
He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the Land of Promise, with many other histories from Holy Writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and His ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments, by which He endeavored to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions.See footnote 24
The sermons wrought into verse by Caedmon captured the hearts of England. Caedmon loved sacred subjects. Composed in the people’s language, these elevating themes could be sung by all circles. For the first
THE EAST SAXONS
From the kingdom of
Austin [Augustine] has had the honor of converting the English, when inSee footnote 25
the main the progress he made was not very considerable.‘Tis true he preached to the Saxons of Kent, as Mellitus did to those of Essex, and that with good success
….Augustine in the height of his success, for which he is so greatly honored, established but two bishops only, Justus at Rochester (in his own Kent), and Mellitus at London, though the pope had expressly ordered him to settle bishops wherever there should be occasion ….This is clear evidence, that the progress ascribed to him was not so considerable as Gregory imagines ….It is therefore surprisingly strange that the conversion of the English should be ascribed to Augustine, rather than to Aidan, to Finan, to Colman, to Cedd, to Diuma, and the other Scotch monks, who undoubtedly labored much more abundantly than he. But here lies the case .Theselast had not their orders from Rome, and therefore must not be allowed any share in the glory of the work.
The historian Henry Soames writes upon the same theme:
Only two counties, therefore, north of the Thames… were ever under Roman superintendence during their transition from paganism to Christianity, and these two were largely indebted to domestic [Scottish] zeal for their conversion. Every other county, from London to Edinburgh, has the full gratification of pointing to the ancient church of Britain as its nursing mother in Christ’s holy faith.See footnote 26
THE CHURCH IN KENT, WESSEX, EAST ANGLIA, AND SUSSEX
What now should be said of the four other kingdoms — Kent, East Anglia, Sussex, and Wessex? Kent, being the kingdom in the southeastern part of the island and farthest away from the missionary advance of the Scots, had early been entered by Augustine. The Christianity which prevailed in this province, therefore, was of the papal type. Wessex,
“It is no exaggeration to say that, with the exception of Kent and Sussex, the whole English race received the foundation of their faith from Celtic missionaries, and even in Sussex it is known that Irish missionaries were at work before the arrival of Wilfrid.”28 As the celebrated Count de Montalembert, French Catholic scholar wrote, “Northumbrian Christianity spread over the southern kingdoms.”See footnote 26
At the death of Finan, Colman was chosen as his successor to lead the Celtic Church. Bede says that he was sent from Scotland.30 Colman came to preach the word of God to the English nation.31 The Scots sent him to Lindisfarne, therefore his consecration and his field of labor were identical with those of Aidan and Finan — the kingdom of Northumbria. Since,
however, at that time Oswy, king of Northumbria, was a leader among other kingdoms of England, Colman would naturally be a leader of leaders
intrigues of the Roman Catholic queen ofOswy succeeded. When Colman had been in
question was in nowise the real point at issue, the Roman divines heaped derision on the great Columba as Wilfrid shouted:
As for you and your companions, you certainly sin, in having heard the decrees of the apostolic see and of the universal church, you refuse to follow them; for though your fathers were holy, do you think their small number, in a corner of the remotest island, is to be preferred before the universal church of Christ? And if that Columba of yours was a holy man and powerful in miracles, yet,could he be preferred before the most blessed prince of the apostles, to whom our Lord said, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against itSee footnote 35
; andto thee I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven?”
Immediately the king broke in: “Is it true, Colman, that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord?” When Colman replied in the affirmative, endeavoring at the same time to show the fallacy and weakness of using the incident of the keys as a basis for church supremacy, his remarks were considered
THE FOUR CENTURIES FOLLOWING WHITBY
Some have asked why Colman and his accompanying workers immediately left for the island of Iona. How could he have done otherwise? If he had rallied his forces to fight the king and the foreign priests, such a plan might have torn down the church organization which had been so ably built up by Aidan and Finan. He remembered that when the first fierce persecutions fell upon the infant church in Jerusalem the apostles left the
“During the four dark centuries that followed the Council of Whitby, the northward extension of the Roman Church was checked by racial warfare and pagan invasions which built up additional barriers between the north and the south.”See footnote 37
In the providence of God, Colman’s departure could not have been better timed. The Papacy was not permitted a widespread enjoyment of her questionable victory at the Council of Whitby, as many historians have stated. Before Wilfrid and his successors could accomplish the destruction of the Celtic Church, the design for which he had been trained at Rome, the Danes swept down upon England bringing with them a new flood of paganism. However, when the leaders of the British Church had departed, the representatives of Romanism immediately seized the spiritual overlordship of the realm. The year following Whitby, Pope Vitalian wrote a letter toKing Oswy concerning the appointment of an archbishop for Canterbury, in which he said, “By the protecting hand of God you have been converted to the true and apostolic faith.” Pope Vitalian told the king that he would root out the enemy tares.38 He further promised to send the relics of the apostles Peter and Paul along with the letter. Not long afterward, the king’s son, Alchfrid, discovered and banished the Scottish sect.39 This injustice was inflicted by King Alchfrid upon the Scottish believers with the approbation of his father,
During the four hundred years from Whitby to the Norman
THE PAPACY AND WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR
The Papacy favored the conquest of England by William of Normandy.40There were three reasons for this. The Danes in conquering Anglo-Saxon England (c. A.D. 820) were imbued with such a pagan background that Rome could never expect a strong ascendancy through them even though in later years they had leanings toward that faith. This might even have meant a victory for the ancient Celtic Church which had
already shown itself spiritually able to win both Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Therefore, the Papacy welcomed the hour when a strong Norman leader in France had an apparent claim to the throne of England. In the second place, somethinghad to be done to break the power of the Celtic Church, particularly inScotland and Ireland. Finally, it was necessary to have a new race uponwhich to build. The Normans, whose fatherland was France, were livingunder the leadership of the people whom the pope had entitled “the eldestdaughter of the church.” They had enthusiasm for the political combinationof colorful superstition, a tyrannical caste system, and regal pomp. If theNormans could lay an iron hand upon Saxon and Danish England, thewhole of the British Isles might be brought fully under the papal flag. When William of Normandy landed in England in 1066 with his warriors, the Danish king, Harold, had just been called to fight in the north a terrific battle with a rebellious rival. Obliged to move south by forced marches tomeet the Norman invaders, his wearied army drew up on the heights ofHastings. But it could not withstand the invaders, and the battle was wonby the Normans. The victory at Hastings brought new leadership for the Roman Church inEngland. A powerful reorganization of English life, customs, andinstitutions followed. Nevertheless, three hundred years passed before
FOOTNOTES / SOURCES
- Fitzpatrick, Ireland and the Foundations of Europe, p. 14.
- Soames, The Anglo-Saxon Church, pp. 57, 58.
- Lloyd, “Historical Account of Church Government,” quoted inStillingfleet, The Antiquities of the British Churches, vol. 2, pp. 157,158.
- Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, vol. 3, p. 147, note.
- Fitzpatrick, Ireland and the Foundations of Europe, pp. 26, 154
- See the author’s discussion in Chapter 6, entitled, “Dinooth and the Church in Wales.”
- Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church, vol. 3, p.15.
- Newman, A Manual of Church History, vol. 1, p. 411.
- Lingard, The Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church, vol. 1, pp. 27, 28.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 3, ch. 5.
- Ibid., b. 3, ch. 6.
- Latourette, The Thousand Years of Uncertainty, p. 57.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 3, ch. 17.
- Lingard, The Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church, vol. 1, p. 155.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 3, ch. 26.
- Meissner, The Celtic Church in England, p. 4.
- Hulme, A History of the British People, p. 33.
- Hetherington, History of the Church of Scotland, vol. 1, pp. 11, 12.
- Ussher, The Whole Works, vol. 4, p. 297.
- Bingham, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, b. 7, ch. 2, sec. 6.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 4, ch. 27.
- Ibid., b. 4, ch. 23.
- Quoted in M’Clintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, art. “Hilda.”
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 4, ch. 24.
- Thoyras, History of England, vol. 1, p. 69.
- Soames, The Anglo-Saxon Church, pp. 58, 59.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 3, ch. 19.
- Meissner, The Celtic Church in England, p. 4.
- Montalembert, Monks of the West, vol. 4, p. 88.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, b. 3, ch. 25.
- Ibid., b. 4, ch. 4.
- Green, A Handbook of Church History, p. 433.