Lecture 12: Rural Evangelism and Challenging the Norms of Society
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Course: Church History I
... because the heathen were people who lived on the heath, and the heath is the scrub land outside the town so that these are sort of country folk - country bumpkins, you might say - and from in the fourth century the Pagani are identified in this way, people who practice a kind of rustic rural religion. Now some people question whether this is the real origin of the word paganos to describe a non-Christian person. I mean, there are other possible interpretations of the word you sometimes hear, but I think that given the overall context this is one which makes sense, that in fact the country areas had not really been properly evangelized.
One of the things which helped to change this were the barbarian invasions because as the barbarians invaded the western part of the Roman Empire, city life declined. Cities, of course, were easy to attack. They were identifiable targets, and the barbarians who invaded were not themselves city people. I mean, they were nomads and so on and they didn't really live in an urban environment. And so the city and the role of the city gradually declined, and what you find is that after the year 400 in particular but through 400, 500, 600, the big cities of the western part of the Mediterranean gradually shrink. Even Rome which had been a city of a million people in imperial times by about the year 600 or 700 was down to a few thousand. I mean, there was a tremendous emigration out of the cities into the surrounding countryside.
People went to the country to get away from danger. A lot of them, of course, went to places they had maybe land or something like that somewhere, and it was easier for them to escape notice. Particularly wealthy people would go to country areas and so on where they may have had some kind of ancestral contacts or whatever and set themselves up there and hoped to escape the consequences of some of these invasions and so on. The further away you are from public notice the better. And it was this process it appears as much as anything else which helped spread Christianity into the countryside because, of course, people who left the cities took their Christianity with them and planted it in places which up until then had not really heard the gospel, or if they had, they hadn't had any kind of regular ministry because that, of course, is the other problem. I mean, it's all very well to go and preach the gospel across the countryside, but what do you do then? How do you establish churches? How do you find people to man them and so on? This was not an easy task. Especially remember there were no seminaries or anything like that so finding people who were qualified to run a village church, this was not an easy thing to do just to conjure up out of nothing. And so this emigration from the cities to the countryside, this tendency to sort of do this in the fifth and sixth centuries seems to have been one of the major ways in which the countryside became Christianized at a deeper level.
Now, of course, the Christianization of an entire civilization, of an entire culture is not an easy or straightforward thing. I mean, what do you actually do when this kind of thing happens? Once Christianity became the official state religion at the end of the fourth century, there were a lot of people who joined the church or who found themselves in the church really whether they wanted to be or not. It wasn't a clear sort of decision that people took for themselves to join. I mean, it was the state religion. That was what was expected of people to do and so that's what they did. And the kind of people who don't really care, you know, who just want a quiet life and so on and who will adapt to whatever the prevailing winds might be did so, and so you found that the Christian church on the one hand expanded enormously in terms of numbers during this period, but in terms of quality of faith, et cetera, there were an awful lot of people who really didn't know what was going on a lot of the time. And in this situation, the church leaders found themselves faced with challenges which they never thought they would have to deal with and it was a very difficult situation to have to try to manage.
On the one hand, they found that they had to start tackling the law, changing sort of certain legal things which were not compatible with Christianity. I mean, the most obvious area here was the law of matrimony or perhaps more correctly the law of divorce, because in Roman law according to Roman way of thinking, divorce was actually a very easy thing - well, for a man, of course. You must remember women didn't have the choice, but a man who wished to divorce his wife really basically just had to clap three times and kick her out of the house and that was it. It was a very sort of simple procedure as far as that went. You didn't have to sort of prove anything. I mean, if you wanted to get divorced, well, that was it; you got divorced. And the real issue in a divorce was not who did what to who but whether the dowry should be returned or not. And, of course, there were various rules governing that, but if a man was prepared to give the dowry back to his wife's family, fair enough. I mean, it was a business transaction and that was that. And so divorce was actually quite a simple thing in that respect.
Now the Christian church, of course, could not tolerate this because Christian marriage was meant to last for a lifetime. Christian marriage was not seen primarily as a business deal. It was something that was meant to be the foundation of the family - of course, family life, and family life was very important, very central to the life of the church. You see this in the New Testament. It's a completely different perspective on this. But how do you change an entire culture's outlook on this kind of thing, more or less overnight, which is what was required in this way? And this was not, as a I say, a simple or straightforward thing to do but eventually - I mean, and this is making a long story short - but eventually the church found that the only way it could really reform matrimony was by taking it over. And what you find in the early centuries - in the early medieval centuries after the year 500 and so on - is increasingly the church begins to regulate marriage law and to abolish divorce because that was, you know, it went along side this.
Now it's important to understand that one of the chief motivations which the church had for this was the protection of women. This is not clearly always brought out and particularly today modern women tend to think that the Christian church was anti-female from the start. But compared to what went on in ancient Rome, believe me, what the church was trying to do was actually very good for women because by abolishing divorce it gave women protection. Remember, because women didn't have the right to divorce their husbands. That was not on the cards at all ever. It was the other way round. Women were the victims of men who wanted to divorce them, and so by stopping that, the idea was that women would be protected. Now I know that this is not very consoling if you're a battered wife or something like that, but you have to understand this in the context of the time and the way in which people thought about these things then and see that this was the intention. This is what the church was trying to do.
Another thing which they tried to do and it took a long time to bring this to bear on the culture as well was to insist that matrimony should only take place by free consent of the parties. Now this was not in Roman law. In Roman law the notion of consent to matrimony was unheard of - well, I wouldn't say unheard of but it was not stressed. I mean, of course, if you consented, that was fine. But it wasn't required by any means and, of course, as you know and can imagine at least, in Roman culture, marriages were arranged and arranged for reasons which had absolutely nothing to do with love or mutual attraction or anything like that. I mean, again, it was a business thing and it was seen in that way. It was family alliances and so on, and you just did what your parents told you to do, and that was more or less that. And again the notion of consent was designed originally for the protection of the woman because, of course, a man who married because his parents told him to marry could always divorce. You see what I mean? The man had a way out - a relatively painless way out of this if he was so determined, but the woman did not.
And so, therefore, by insisting that the woman had the right of consent, that a marriage could not take place unless she actually agreed to it, was a major advance for the rights of women because again from the modern point of view you might think, well, it's not a whole lot different but in actual fact, you see, you have to again remember nobody before had ever asked women what they thought one way or the other. I mean, they were just sort of told this is it; you got there. And now suddenly the church says, no, you're not going to marry so-and-so unless you agree to it. And while it may be true that the average 14-year-old girl and so on would hardly say no if pressure was put on her, nevertheless, the option was there. The idea that a woman had a right to say no or had a right to some kind of share in this was a major development in the context of the time, and we mustn't judge this by the fact that it's not the same kind of thing that we have today or that there was sort of advances that come later on; we have to see it in relation to what the prevailing norm was at the time and understand that a lot of people didn't like this idea. They didn't like the notion that a woman should have the right to say no. This was regarded by them as quite wrong and so the church had to sort of stand up for this, and the church did stand up for this which was, as I say, quite an amazing thing in its context.
Another thing, of course, that the church had to deal with was the question of slavery, and while the Christian church was not in a position to abolish slavery, it couldn't abolish slavery for various reasons, but the main reason was that slavery was an economic necessity. It's all very well for us today to say that slavery is a terrible thing, but we can afford to think this because we don't really need labor intensive things. I mean, you can go home and you switch on this and push a button for that and throw something else in something and, presto, it's all washed, cleaned, dried, et cetera. You see what I mean? Your household chores can be done more or less automatically. But remember that before the invention of all these gadgets or whatever, you needed labor to do this sort of thing. I mean, a lot of hands were needed and indeed it's only quite recently even in our society that this has ceased to be the case. I mean, if you go back even a hundred years ago, it was normal for a family to have servants living in the house. I mean, my own grandmother - my mother's mother - went into service. I mean, when she was 13 years old, she went into a family and she worked for this family for quite a long time until she met a man and married him. Many of you could probably tell similar stories or at least you would be able to if you knew that far back in your family what was going on. But, I mean, this I'm talking now about the late 19th century, you know, 1897, 1898, around that sort of time. So it's still almost within living memory that this was the case, and it's only, as I say, the invention of household gadgets which has made this no longer necessary in the way that it was at that time. So we have to remember there's another side to this which is not always clearly understood. I'm not saying slavery's a good thing or that we want to reintroduce it or anything like that. You just have to understand the context, you see, of how difficult it was to undo this particular situation.
And again realizing this, it is remarkable that the church tried to insist that no Christian could be enslaved, so that if a person was a slave already and became a Christian, well, that was one thing. But you couldn't take a Christian and make a slave of him. This was, of course, taken from the Old Testament because Jews were not allowed to enslave fellow Jews according to the Old Testament law, and this principle was taken over by the Christian church with the result that - in Europe at least - slavery in the ancient sense of the word gradually died out, that as it came to the point where there were no non-Christians left - at least when I say "non-Christian," I mean people who were not baptized - as the supply of non-Christians dried up. So the opportunity to enslave people dried up as well and after a couple of hundred years, slavery as the ancient world had understood it disappeared.
Now this did not mean to say that there was a class-free society all of a sudden emerging, of course not. But the people who were at the bottom of the pile - the serfs, as we call them (the English word "serf" is actually from the Latin word serwus which means slave in Latin) - but a serf was not a slave in the sense that we understand this because a serf was tied to the land and so on. I mean, he was a tenant - well, tenant is the wrong word too, but I mean they were tied to the land in a certain way but they were not chattel. They were not objects who could be bought and sold. This kind of thing was stopped at a very early time and so gradually the institution of slavery as it was understood died out.
Now the only way though that slavery continued - and, of course, remember this is where economic necessity comes in. I mean, there were some people who say, look, I can't run my business unless I have slaves. I can't. Who's going to work down the mines? Who's going to row the ships? Who's going to do all these things? Somebody has to be a slave. Okay. Where are we going to get them from? The only way you could get them was to get them from parts of the world beyond the frontiers of the Christian church, and so what you begin to find is that the people in the Mediterranean world are having to go outside the Roman Empire, either to the north to Germany and so on or to the east to get people who are not Christian, who have not heard the gospel or anything like that and enslave them.
Now again you may think this is a pretty awful thing to do but you can see this is the down side or this is the other side of the church's insistence that you cannot enslave Christians and the economic side of it sort of kicks in, in a different way. But it's important to understand this because you find, for example, in the sixth century that there were slave raids going on in northern Europe. People from the north were being taken to Italy and Spain and so on and sold in the slave markets in Rome, and this gave rise as a very famous story of Gregory the Great who later became Pope Gregory the Great in Rome, who was walking in the slave market of Rome one day and saw these blond, blue-eyed boys who were being sold as slaves and he'd never seen anybody like that before. And he said, "Where do they come from?" and he was told that they were Angles and he said not Angles but angels because of the way they looked. He was so impressed by the way they looked, and the story goes, of course, it was from there that Gregory got the inspiration to go and send a mission to the land of the Angles in order to evangelize them in order to preach the gospel so that they would be converted. Now that is a legend, of course, but it may or may not be true, but it nevertheless reveals an interesting fact which is that the Angles could be taken to Rome and sold as slaves because they were not Christians. And, of course, as soon as they became Christians, that trade had to stop. And it was at a later period that they went to Eastern Europe - what is now Eastern Europe - and got the Slavic people before they were converted - the Poles and the Czechs and the Russians and so on - and brought them into the Mediterranean world and enslaved them. And this is why our English word slave now actually is Slav. It's the same word. Because it got fixed in the consciousness of people at this point that somebody who was a slave was a Slav coming from the east, from a non-Christian, non-converted area.
And, of course, you can see the same principle at work in modern times because modern slavery, that is, from the 16th century onwards, was only possible outside Europe. I mean, in the 16th century, 17th century the Spaniards, the Portuguese and so on could not enslave each other. Spaniards couldn't enslave Frenchmen or Germans or whatever because these were supposedly Christian, and the only way you could have slaves was by going to countries or places like Africa and so on which were decreed to be non-Christian and taking people from there and enslaving them because they came from outside the sphere of the Christian church at that time. And so this is, of course, one of the features that is remarkable in modern slavery. Now I'm not saying - please don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying this was a good thing or anything like that. But it's interesting to see that the origin of this, the reason why this was the case was not because of any - nothing to do with racial prejudice or anything like that. It was because the Christian church tried to insist that one Christian must not enslave another, and so this is what led to this way of doing things at a later time. So again try to see this from the way in which it began not the way in which it ended up, which of course was a whole other thing, but if you look at it from the beginning, you can see how this developed.
Another thing which again you have to try to understand in this way is what to do with all the pagan temples that are lying around. You see, all of a sudden paganism is abolished. The Christian church is made the legal religion but there's all sorts of shrines, temples, altars, et cetera, and what do you do with them? Well, of course, some of them were torn down, smashed up and so on. But after a while or not a very long while, Christians began to say, well, this is silly. Why should we tear down pagan temples and so on? We might as well just turn them into churches. And this is what they did. The most famous example of this is the Parthenon in Athens. The Parthenon which, of course, as the name parthenos in Greek means virgin - the Parthenon was devoted to the virgin goddess Athena who is the patroness goddess of Athens. When it became a Christian church, it was kind of re-baptized as the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I mean, obviously, there's a sort of correspondence across like this. And this was true again all across the Mediterranean world. And today if you go to any of these places and you look in the old cathedrals or old churches and so on, you'll often find that in the basement - the crypt as it's called - there will be ruins of some pre-Christian temple or something which was there originally on the site, and Christianity sort of came along and basically took over the site and turned it into a place of Christian worship, a kind of baptized paganism, as you might say.
Now needless to say, at the time of the reformation, there was a lot of reaction against this, but because people realized that in baptizing paganism rather too much paganism had survived. It wasn't as easy or simple a thing as you might imagine, and they were very critical of this and they tried to do what they could to get rid of it, get rid of the surviving elements of this, and this is all very understandable. But if you go back to the beginning and realize that the Christian church at that time was trying to handle a very difficult situation, trying to deal with something where there was no obvious solution and taking it over and sort of turning it into something which could be used for good purposes rather than for bad purposes seemed to them to be the best way to go about it. Now you may disagree with that and so on but at least try to appreciate that this was very often what they were trying to do. And, of course, the cult of the saints in the Middle Ages and so on developed really as a kind of substitute for the pagan gods to a large extent, that whereas you had a pagan god who was patron of travelers and another one who was patron of hospitals and another one who was patron of schools and all this, this kind of patronage got transferred to various saints. Saint So-And-So looks after this and Saint Somebody Else looks after that. It's a kind of transfer of emotional attachment, you might say, from one to another. And this was a way at trying at least to get people to think along Christian lines rather than along pagan lines.
Now this didn't work entirely, as I say, but you can see the dilemma that the church found itself in if you realize that what happened to traditional paganism was that traditional paganism was driven underground. It didn't disappear entirely. I mean, the outward manifestations of it may have disappeared but a lot of it was driven underground to become what we think of today as superstition, the occult, and all that sort of thing. I mean, in the ancient world there were no witches. There were witches in ancient Israel, but that's a special case. There were no witches in ancient Rome. Why not? Because witchcraft was regarded as okay. I mean, looking at the entrails of a horse or something like that was part of the official state religion in Rome. I mean, astrology was officially recognized. It's only when this kind of thing was thrown out that it became unacceptable, officially unacceptable, that it developed into what we think of as witchcraft. But I don't have to tell you, I mean, even after centuries of preaching of the gospel, of centuries of rationalism, of centuries of scientific development, et cetera, et cetera, you don't have to go very far even around here before you find people who are all too ready to read your palm or look at a crystal ball or something like this and tell you your future. I mean, horoscopes and all the rest of it, totally irrational things, are nevertheless still quite popular, far more popular than we are prepared to admit very often, although they're not officially acceptable. I mean, they're not things that you would find on public display in the courthouse or whatever. But they are things which go on very much in a sort of semi-occult way. I mean, the word "occult" means hidden, and so it's sort of there on the side and an awful lot of people are attracted by this kind of thing even now.
So when you see the power of this and the persistence of this in a society, you have to try to see that the early church for all its faults was in fact trying to deal with this. They were trying to get to grips with something that they knew to be wrong and they felt that the best way to do this was to commandeer it as far as possible, to take charge of it, control it, regulate it, and so on, and turn it into something that at least appears to be Christian rather than allow it to carry on in some kind of non-Christian or anti-Christian kind of way. So that's the way they tackled it as far as they could. And again, whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, at least appreciate that that was the difficulty they faced and the way that they went about it.
There were still, of course, a lot of Christians who were not satisfied. They felt that the legalization of Christianity and then the official establishment of Christianity in the fourth century was a compromise with the world, which may have been inevitable in the circumstances. They weren't saying that the church could have avoided this particularly but nevertheless was inconsistent with the true gospel and that in order to maintain the gospel as they understood it – the purity of the spiritual message of Christ – they felt that they had to withdraw from the world. And it's very interesting to note that this phenomenon of withdrawal from the world begins to manifest itself about the same time as large scale conversions to Christianity appear, that is to say, around the year 250, in that time, as the gospel suddenly starts taking off in villages and places like this, so you get the first appearance of people who are not satisfied with this, people who think there's compromise at work, people who think that the church is no longer the pure establishment that they've imagined it ought to be and who withdrew into the desert. And this is a phenomenon again which we can measure most of all, first of all, in Egypt, and in fact it seems to have started in Egypt, that people left Alexandria in particular - but anywhere really - and went off into the desert which was not very far away and lived in caves and so on and practiced things like fasting and all-night vigils and what-have-you in order to do spiritual warfare with the devil.
Now the inspiration for this seems to have come from the Bible. It may not be the way you read your Bible, but if you look at the Bible, you will see that this was not an uncommon thing in biblical times provided you interpret the Bible in a certain way. For instance, Moses - you see, when he had to run away from Egypt. Where did he go? He went into the desert and lived there for forty years, and it was in the desert that he had an encounter with God at the burning bush. Later on you get Elijah, of course. Elijah has a run-in with Jezebel and so on, and she's after me. What do you do? And so what does Elijah do? Well, Elijah runs off to Mount Sinai and in the wind and the storm and all the rest of it in the desert, suddenly the calm comes and God says go back; there's 7,000 who have not yet bowed the knee to Baal and so on. But it's in the desert that Elijah has his encounter with God. John the Baptist, of course, spent his ministry in the desert or at least in a wilderness place by the river Jordan. Jesus went into the desert in order to be tempted of the devil. And this was, of course, the beginning of his ministry. The apostle Paul spent three years in the desert after he was converted. I mean, this was his seminary training really. Well, you think about it. We don't read the Bible like this. But what was he doing for three years in Arabia that he was kind of planning, preparing and all the rest of it.
But the idea of going off into the desert to have an encounter with God is something which was taken from the Bible. This is the important point. You see, people saw this in the scriptures. And, of course, if you lived in Egypt or Syria or somewhere like that, the desert was never very far away. That's the other important thing to remember. It's not as if you had to go a million miles in order to realize this dream. I mean, you just basically had to walk ten miles or so out of the city and you were in sand dunes or whatever almost before you knew what was happening, so it wasn't necessarily distancing one's self in that way. But the life of the desert, the life of the solitary person in the desert becomes a kind of ideal for a very small minority, of course, of people who are wanting to be serious about their spirituality.
Now it might have stayed that way and never really gone anywhere had it not been for Athanasius because Athanasius in his struggle against Arias and the Arians - one of the things which he did which is not always properly appreciated is that he emphasized very strongly the spiritual value of this kind of withdrawal from the world, this kind of living in the desert, and in particular he focused on the monk Antony, the man Antony whom he had known who went off to the desert sometime in the middle of the third century who was supposed to have lived to the great age of 105 and who became a kind of model for Athanasius of how to do battle with the devil and spiritual forces of evil by fasting and praying and so on and living in this very primitive way.
Athanasius wrote a life of Antony. He wrote his biography and this biography became a best seller, and it's really through that as much as anything else that the idea of going off to the desert to do this kind of thing caught on like wildfire in the course of the fourth century. Now the legacy of this, of course, can be seen in the vocabulary which was used to describe these people. The Greek word monahos which, of course, has come into English as "monk" means in Greek "someone who is on their own" - monos. Someone who is lonely, solitary is the word. This word monahos – solitary – and that's what a monk originally was: somebody who went off into the desert and lived on their own in order to sort of do battle with the devil in this particular way.
Another word is this eremites, from the Greek word eremos, which incidentally is feminine in case you're wondering. Eremos which is a desert and an eremites, somebody who lives in the desert, but in English a hermit. The English word "hermit" actually comes from eremites. It's the same word. And hermits and monks were the same thing basically initially. All right? Sort of this idea.
Now, as I say, in the fourth century, this became a fad. I mean, it caught on big time. People sort of went to the desert in droves. And, of course, this rather complicates the problem as you can imagine. There's nothing like going to live on a desert island but then when 3,000 other people turn up on the same desert island, a rather different dynamic is at work. And so in the course of the fourth century, monasticism gradually begins to change its character at least to some extent. What you begin to get are people who no longer live entirely on their own but who live in community, the development of monastic communities and of rules to govern the way in which people live in these monastic communities.
Now some of the greatest names in the early church history are associated with this development, and this is something that we tend to forget. But Basil of Caesarea, for example, who lived from about 329 to 379, was the first person that we know of to actually sit down and write a rule book for how to live together under a monastic discipline. So, I mean, he is at the origin of what is known as coenobitic monasticism. This is a rather odd word but it comes from Greek koinobion, common life. Koinos bios, you see, common life. And so coenobitic monasticism, if you ever come across this word, means what we think of today as living in a monastery, in other words, groups of people living together in a monastery. The other kind - the hermit type of monastery - there's a word for that. That's called idiorrhythmic: idio meaning individual self and rhythmic, of course, rhythm, doing it at your own pace, in other words. And these two words you'll come across in books and people don't always know what they mean. But idiorrhythmic means basically hermit-like, solitary life, and coenobitic is living in community. So Basil was a promoter of this. Augustine - Augustine of Hippo - was another one who established a monastic community and wrote a rule book for it and was very much in favor of this kind of life.
Again odd as it may seem, the development of monasticism provided an outlet for women because women could also form monastic communities and live in this kind of way which had not previously been possible. And so here again you see a means by which gifted women – or, well, just any women, really – if they didn't want to conform to the expectations of the society of the time could escape from this by entering a monastic community and by forming a monastic community. Now again from the modern point of view this may not seem to be much of an option. But remember the context with which you are dealing. You see, the notion of a woman or of a group of women doing anything on their own was unheard of at this time. I mean, Jesus, for example, could not have wandered around Palestine with twelve women. I mean, there wouldn't have been twelve women willing to do that. There wouldn't have been twelve women allowed to do that. You see what I'm saying? This was just not done in ancient times. And again, this is not a question of like it or not; I mean, it's just a fact. It didn't happen. And so the growth of monasticism, odd though it may appear at first sight, was also the growth of a means for women to express themselves and to have a personality of their own and a life of their own, which previously had not been available.
And it's actually quite remarkable that in this monastic world it wasn't all men, and it was never thought of as being all men, that women could also do this more or less on the same conditions as men. Men were expected to give up their secular life, go off and live together in community, and so on, and practice a sort of disciplined life and disciplined existence. Women were expected to do exactly the same thing, so there was an equality between male and female in the monastic world which simply did not exist anywhere else. And the monks justified their behavior, they justified all this by saying that they were the first fruits of the kingdom of Heaven, that they were a witness on earth of what life in Heaven would be like, where there would be no giving or taking in marriage and no sort of bargaining and bartering and all that kind of thing, but it would be a life of pure contemplation of God and so on, and this is what the monastery tried to achieve.
Now, of course, the monastic life as it developed fell far short of this. I mean, it would be a big mistake to imagine monasteries as some kind of Heaven on earth. They were not and they are not. The ones that survive to the present time, I mean, one mustn't make this mistake because living in community is not an easy thing to do. It never has been an easy thing to do, and to imagine that you achieve perfection in this way is - well, all I can suggest is you go and live in one for a little while and you'll soon see what actually happens. It's not by any means as wonderful as it may sound or look from the outside.
However, that's not the point that we're trying to emphasize right now. The point I'm trying to emphasize right now is that this was an attempt. It was seen in this way. And, of course, in the centuries of the early development of monasticism, monks and nuns – but to a lesser extent initially, the female side developed more later – but certainly monks in the early years were also very important evangelists because they were the Lord's army in a way. The monastery was a kind of barracks. That's where they lived but they could be sent out to spread across the countryside and to preach and teach and evangelize. And this is what many of them did, so that the spread of the gospel in the fifth century and sixth century was to an uncommonly large degree dependent on the sacrificial self-giving of these monastic people, the monks and so on, many of whom would go and establish themselves in remote areas and set up communities there and, of course, attract people to them and so on and from there sort of send out and reach out to other people. And so this was an important thing to bear in mind, the development of this kind of Christianity at that particular stage.
Now again, as I say, we who live in the modern world tend to see the downside of all of this. We tend to think that this is not the way we should go and so on, but it's wrong, I think, for us to judge the fourth century, the fifth century, and the people of that time by the standards which we would apply today. Again we have to see it from their point of view and remember that for many of these people they were trying to get away from what they saw as a compromised church, as a worldly church, into a more spiritual kind of life, and if their choice would be rather different from your choice in this respect, I mean, that's fine, but try to remember their motive at the beginning.
Now I say all of this because monasticism in particular was going to play a very important role in the evangelization of northern Europe. The north of Europe had been left out of the Christian church in Roman times because it lay beyond the frontier of the Roman Empire. The only exception to this – and it was a partial exception – was Roman Britain because Roman Britain which covered the territory of what is now England and Wales – this part, I mean, not Scotland, not Ireland – because it was part of the Roman Empire, experienced the same kind of development as the rest of the empire. And so in the fourth century when Constantine came along and so on, Roman Britain went through the same process as the rest of Western Europe or the Roman part anyhow at this time of receiving Christianity as the official religion. The difference, however, was that very shortly after this the Roman armies were withdrawn from Britain. They had to leave because they were needed for the defense of Rome against the barbarians and so on, and the British people were left on their own to organize themselves as best they could for the future.
Now remarkably they seem to have been able to do this, at least for a couple of generations. We don't know much about it, but Roman Britain did not collapse overnight. It somehow managed to carry on some kind of government and administration and, of course, it was officially Christian. But it faced two enemies. It faced enemies from the west, Irish people who were beginning to expand and to invade Britain in the western coasts and so on, and from the east, Germanic tribes – Angles and Saxons and people like that – who were coming across the North Sea and raiding and then eventually settling along the eastern shore. Today, of course, we know that it was this eastern invasion which was going to be decisive because the Germanic tribes who invaded Britain eventually settled there, eventually took over the country, and turned it into a different country, into the land of England – the land of the Angles, and so it became a Germanic country which it had not previously been. So we tend to think that that's what happened in the sort of longer term of history, and of course it's true if you look at the long term. But if you lived in the fifth century, if you were alive at that time, you might not have seen it that way because although these people were coming across here in dribs and drabs and they were settling along the east coast, initially, their impact was not all that great. The impact from the west seems to have been more serious because people in Ireland who were called by the Romans "Scoti" - that was their name, the Scoti - began to settle in large numbers in the north here, turning the northern part of Britain into Scotland because the Scots came from Ireland originally. I mean, that was their origin. So they were immigrating in large numbers this way at this time and much more noticeably and were raiding and invading the western coast of Roman Britain as well at different times. There's evidence that they were quite a danger along this area.
In one of these raids they picked up somewhere around here – we don't know exactly where – they picked up at least one young British person whom they took back to Ireland and enslaved in Ireland. This was Patrick, the man that we call Patrick, who was a slave in Ireland apparently for a number of years and eventually either escaped or bought his freedom or something. Anyway, he got his freedom, went back to Britain where he had come from, got some kind of theological education, got himself ordained, and went back to Ireland as a missionary because, of course, in the time that he'd been there he had learned the language and he was able to minister to the people in that way.
Now Patrick was probably not the first Christian missionary in Ireland. There are various theories about who these first missionaries were and where they came from. Some people think they came up from Spain and so on, and that may well be the case. We simply don't know. There's a lot that is unknown about this period. However, whatever the truth of the matter is, Patrick was certainly the man that later generations credited with the evangelization of Ireland. What stands out in his ministry was the technique which he employed. There were no towns in Ireland. Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, so there was no civilization of any kind. There was no organization, nothing like that. Patrick had to bring it with him by setting up what is in effect a monastic community. And so what develops in Ireland is a church which for the first time is monastic at its root. In other words, if you think of the monasteries as a kind of base camp, missionary compound, and out of there you start to minister to the various tribes and so on around, this is how Ireland was largely evangelized. And this became characteristic of the evangelistic method used by the Irish church, or the Celtic church as we now often call it. It was in this way that descendants of the Irish evangelists – the original ones – moved from Ireland to Scotland. I mean, this again was a natural progression because remember that at this time the people living in the western part of Scotland were in fact Irish. I mean, they had emigrated from there, and so you get Columba, for instance, who went from here, from Derry to Iona, which is only just over here – I mean, not very far at all – and set up a monastic community there, and from Iona, which is a little island off the west of Scotland, evangelized the whole of Scotland and gradually began penetrating down into what is now England.
By that time, of course, the Germanic invaders from the east had settled in the eastern part of what is now England and had gradually begun the process of taking the country over. And so Columbus sailed from Derry to Iona I think in the year 568, something like that. Maybe that was the year he died. I don't remember but around that time. And at this time also about nine years later in 577 the Anglo-Saxons fought the decisive battle against the British people who were living in Britain at that time and basically scattered them, drove them into the west into what is now Wales and to the north as well, and took over the main part of the country so that the definitive settlement, if you like, of Anglo-Saxon tribes in what is now England – what was Roman Britain – was occurring at roughly the same time.
These Anglo-Saxons were pagans. They were not Christian. There were, of course, Christians around but the Christians who were around were either slaves or wives that they had stolen or this kind of thing. Well, I mean, they were sort of typical. Their modern descendants play football for Alabama but you know you can just imagine the sort of people you're dealing with. But there would be this sort of thing, you see, under the surface, but officially legally they were not Christian. However, what we start to see at this point is another thing which was going on in this period which is interesting and that is the tendency of barbarian kings to marry Christian wives. Why this was the case is hard to say, but partly it was a recognition that Roman civilization and culture was of a higher level and it was a way in a sense of ingratiating themselves, a way of sort of adjusting to a higher level of civilization which they recognized. I mean, they understood this. They realized that there was something here which they wanted, a sort of higher culture and so on. And so you tend to get this phenomenon that Christian women marry barbarian kings, and this is what happened in England. England was divided at this time into several kingdoms. There wasn't just one united country.
But down in the southeast in the part nearest to the European continent, in the kingdom of Kent, the king there married a Christian woman from Germany or, well, from France – what is now France, Germany, Belgium, somewhere like that – who came over and who insisted that she had the right to practice her own religion, that she was not going to become a pagan. She wanted to practice Christianity, and the king, of course, allowed her to do this as part of the marriage contract. It's easier for pagans to put up with this because being polytheists and so on it's hard for them to say no, you can't, because different gods are equally valid in the pagan way of thinking. So that's what happened.
Quite what happened after that is lost in legend now, but what is certain is that in the year 597 while this woman was still very much alive and active in Kent, a mission arrived from Rome headed up by a man called Augustine who was not Augustine of Hippo – a different Augustine – sent by Gregory, the Pope in Rome, the one who had seen the slaves in the market so many years before supposedly, to preach the gospel. And in a remarkably short space of time, and I'll tell you we know exactly what happened, Augustine arrived on the 26th of May in 597, and on Christmas Day of that year he baptized 10,000 of the king's warriors in the River Medway. Now that is pretty swift work. I mean, 10,000 converts in seven months? There's no doubt that this is a fact. I mean, we know he arrived on that day and we know he baptized 10,000 men on Christmas Day in the river that time. What, of course, is questionable and where we ask the question is, was it that simple? Did Augustine arrive in England in May of 597, found not a single Christian anywhere, and then by a sort of combination of luck and charisma and all that sort of thing in the space of six months suddenly make 10,000 converts? The likelihood of this, let's face it, is not great. And so the probability is that other evangelists' work of some kind had been going on. There had been more preparation for this than is now visible to history. You see what I mean?
Why is it not visible to us today? Well, of course, it’s not visible to us today because it was in the interests of people like Augustine and his followers to present the story as a miracle. I mean, that made them look good. And this is what you’re dealing with, you see, very often in this kind of thing, and it’s only stupid modern people who are readily identifiable in the United States because they are interested in Celtic spirituality who fall for this kind of thing. You need to have a health warning put on all this sort. There’s this book which came out, and I actually saw somebody reading it the other day and I was horrified, called “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” This is total rubbish. There are books of this kind floating around. There’s another one which just came out the other day – was it Malachi McCourt’s “History of Ireland” which carries on the same sort of way, and it’s all this kind of semi-mythical Celtic this and that which was going on supposedly in the sixth century and seventh century. I wouldn’t say it was invented in late 20th century America. That would be putting it too strongly. It was mostly invented in 11th and 12th century monasteries in Ireland and Britain by people who wanted to look good.
And you have to realize this because, of course, the most famous invention of all was the whole story of King Arthur. I mean, who was King Arthur? There may be some historical figure behind this but the notion that King Arthur was some great Christian ruler surrounded by people like Queen Guinevere and Lancelot and the Lady of the Lake and other social misfits of this kind – I mean, this is total rubbish. It was all invented by people who wanted, well, basically, to make their ancestors look good. Patrick got attributed with having chased the snakes out of Ireland. Well, again, a completely stupid thing to say but invented later on by people who needed a couple of miracles and so along they came.
The trouble is, sadly, that our historical knowledge of this period is corrupted by the fact that very often this is the kind of material which has survived to describe it. There’s very little else and so sorting out the fact from the fiction is extremely difficult and particularly when the fiction gets publicized as so-called Celtic spirituality. Don’t touch it would be my advice. It’s not serious and it’s hard to say this but it’s something one has to say because the truth is the first casualty of this kind of thing. I mean, what happened was remarkable enough. I’m not trying to say that it wasn’t remarkable in many ways, but let’s not dress it up in pure fiction. Let’s see if we can get to the facts behind it.
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