St Patrick: The man and the myth

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The lives of truly great people in history often become shrouded in legends. Legend has it that when snakes attacked St Patrick he miraculously drove all the snakes of Ireland into the sea, which is the reason why there are no snakes there today.1 Legend also suggests that Patrick would thrust his walking stick into the ground while he was preaching and, in one particular place, the people took so long to be converted that the stick grew leaves and became a tree.


Why Patrick matters

Patrick became convinced that God was calling him to win the pagan and barbaric land of Ireland for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

However, for Seventh-day Adventists, Patrick is also significant—considered to be a great, heroic figure among the commandment-keeping (and Sabbath-keeping) missionaries who evangelised the British Isles. So how much is true of what we know about St Patrick? Scholars agree that most of it is mixed up with legends and confused by later traditions.2 

But we can know something about Patrick’s life because we have two letters that he actually wrote, and one of them is a short autobiography.3 So here are some facts that are not legends. Did you know that Patrick wasn’t even Irish? He was probably born in England.4 And did you know that Patrick was the first person in history to speak out directly against slavery? 

Patrick the teenager

Patrick was born in the late fourth century. It was a dark age—it was the time just after the fall of the Roman Empire; some years before the barbarian tribes of the Vandals and the Visigoths had sacked the city of Rome. In faraway northern Britain, 16-year-old Patrick was captured by slavers and sold in pagan Ireland.

Although it seems that he had been raised in a Christian home, at the time of his capture he had not yet taken that important step of developing his own personal relationship with God. In fact he seems to have been rather rebellious against the religion of his family.

As a teenage slave he was forced to be a cattle herder in what was then the savage wilderness of Ireland for six years. Patrick describes how he suffered cold and hunger. His days were filled with loneliness and desolation. And so he describes in his autobiography how he began to spend his days and nights in prayer; he prayed in the forests and on the mountains, in the snow and in the rain. It was so cold, he says, that he only survived because the Spirit of God began to burn within him; at that lowest point of his life, a flame for God had been kindled that would change the destiny of nations.

A dramatic escape

Eventually Patrick managed to dramatically escape from his cruel captors, and he journeyed 320 kilometres on foot until he found a ship that was able to take him back home. His family were, of course, overjoyed at his return, and for a while he settled back into normal life; that was until one night when he dreamt that he heard the voice of the Irish people calling him. Patrick became convinced that God was calling him to win the pagan and barbaric land of Ireland for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Remember that this was in an age where there were no cars, mobile phones or internet. I am almost certain that when Patrick shared his harebrained scheme of going to Ireland with the leaders of his church, they advised him to accept some counsel from wiser heads. His parents begged him not to go, but Patrick threw himself into study and preparation and then he sailed back to Ireland. He was probably still in his 20s.

Light in the land of darkness

Patrick had set himself some incredible goals: firstly to win to Christ those among whom he had been a slave and, secondly, to convert Tara, the capital of Ireland. So he headed first to County Antrim, in north-west Ireland, to fearlessly share the Gospel with his former slavemasters. Although he failed to convert his former master, the master’s household was won for Jesus. He continued on his quest, and for the rest of his life Patrick travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, preached to kings and princes, and to shepherds and slaves, and to whomever would hear him.

Against all odds, Patrick’s mission met with amazing success. He writes that he baptised many thousands of people. He also established missionary training colleges throughout the land; the most famous ones were at Bangor, Clonmacnoise, Clonard, and Armagh.

When his mission ended with his death more than 50 years later, the Gospel had been firmly planted through the land of the Irish, including in the capital Tara. The missionary training colleges that Patrick established trained thousands upon thousands of people who spread the Gospel throughout the British Isles, and later into mainland Europe itself. These colleges were beacons of knowledge, whose influence spread throughout Europe; in fact, the author Thomas Cahill credits Patrick and the Christianity that he implanted in Ireland as having saved western civilisation, by preserving the learning of ancient Greece and Rome.5 

Which church did Patrick belong to?

What was the nature of the Christianity that Patrick planted in Ireland? Within the Roman Catholic tradition he was canonised as a saint; this tradition says that he studied in France and was ordained a priest, and that he later became the first Bishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland. However, Patrick’s letters reveal no affiliation with or even knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, centuries would pass after his death before he was even mentioned by any Roman Catholic writer. Furthermore, we know that the great Celtic Church, of which Patrick was a part, arose in independence from the authority of Roma, maintained its independence for many centuries, and struggled until it lost it in the 11th and 12th centuries.6 

Patrick’s autobiography clearly shows that he believed in salvation by faith in Jesus and that he also upheld the sacredness of the Ten Commandments. We know that the Celtic Church observed the seventh day of the week as the biblical Sabbath.7 Patrick’s autobiography also shows us that he believed in the resurrection of the body at the second coming of Jesus. He was part of that faithful number of believers whom God has always had in this world—His remnant.

His legacy for us

Patrick is an example for every Christian, in every age and whatever our circumstance may be. It’s not just his incredible achievements, it’s his character. Patrick knew what it meant to call Jesus “Lord”. When you read his autobiography what stands out is his humility. Patrick calls himself an “obviously unlearned sinner”, and he begs that if anyone finds anything worthy in what he has done, “to accept and truly believe that it [is] the gift of God”.8 

An ordinary man; an extraordinary God. An amazing life that changed the course of history.   

1. The reality is that there probably never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with!

2. E A Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick? (Suffolk, UK; New York: 1985), xi ff.

3. Called the Confession of Saint Patrick.

4. Others also suggest Scotland or Wales.

5. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), 101–119.  

6. Leslie Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain (Brushton, New York: Teach, 1972), 17–28.

7. Hardinge, Celtic Church, 75–90.

8. The Confession of Saint Patrick, 62.
 


Eliezer Gonzalez writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland, where he lives with his wife, Ana, and their two children. He has a PhD in early Christian history.