When, in 1792, William Carey drew up his epochal work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, he gave a sketch of the history of missions. At one point, he distinguished between those missions that sought to expand the dominion of “popery,” usually “by force of arms,” and those that genuinely extended the kingdom of Christ. Among the former he listed the Roman mission of Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus; among the latter it is the name of Patrick that receives the most attention: “The next year (435) Patrick was sent from Scotland to preach to the Irish, who before his time were totally uncivilized, and, some say, cannibals; he however, was useful, and laid the foundations of several churches in Ireland.”
This statement would appear to indicate that the evangelistic success of Patrick, and his spiritual heirs in the Celtic Church, was a source of encouragement to Carey. How much more Carey knew about the historical Patrick is not clear; but he would certainly have been thrilled and inspired by Patrick’s evangelistic zeal and God-centered spirituality.
Patrick’s World and Mission
Patrick was born around 390 AD in a place that was a part of the Roman Empire. With the way Patrick is linked to all things Irish, it is hard to believe that Patrick was not born in Ireland, but he wasn’t! He was born into a Christian home in what is now Wales, or southern Scotland, or possibly even England (to the horror of every loyal Irish patriot). When he was sixteen years of age he was taken captive by Irish pirates and, as a slave, lived in Ireland for the next six years or so. It was there in Ireland that he was converted with, in his words, “all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance.”
When Patrick was in his twenties, he escaped from captivity in Ireland and went back to his home in what had been the Roman province of Britannia. Here he would have stayed, glad as he was to get back to his family and friends. But not long after he got back, he had a dream in which he saw the Irish coming to him, asking him to return to Ireland to presumably share with them the good news about Jesus Christ.
Patrick returned to the north of Ireland in the early 430s, where he stayed for the rest of his life. As he wrote: “I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers, bearing the reproach of my going abroad and many persecutions even unto bonds, and to give my free birth for the benefit of others.”
This text reveals a man who has a deep certainty of the will of God for his life: to live out his days in Ireland so that the Irish might come to know God as he had done. His ministry in Ireland was extremely successful, though he certainly had not evangelized the whole of Ireland by the time of his death, which was around 460 AD.
“All my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance.”
His missionary labors, however, were not without strong opposition, presumably from the Celtic Druids in Ireland. In one section of his Confession he says: “daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity.” Patrick’s response to these dangers reveals the true mettle of the man: “I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty, who rules everywhere, as the prophet says: ‘Cast thy thought upon God, and he shall sustain thee’.”
There was not only external opposition, though. Many of Patrick’s Christian contemporaries in the Western Roman Empire appear to have given little thought to evangelizing their barbarian neighbors. As one scholar, Máire B. de Paor, has noted: “there was seemingly no organized, concerted effort made to go out and convert pagans, beyond the confines of the Western Roman Empire” during the twilight years of Roman rule in the West. Did the Church in the West regard the barbarians as somehow less than human and therefore beyond the pale of evangelism?
Whatever the reason, Patrick’s mission to Ireland stands in splendid isolation. Thus, when Patrick announced his intention in Britain to undertake a mission to the Irish there were those who strongly opposed him: “Many tried to prevent this my mission; they would even talk to each other behind my back and say: ‘Why does this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?’”
Patrick, though, was rightly assured of the correctness of his mission to Ireland. He knew himself called to evangelize Ireland. He had a deep sense of gratitude to God for what the Lord had done for him. “I cannot be silent,” he declared, “about the great benefits and the great grace which the lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by him, to exalt and praise His wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.” Most importantly he had a robust understanding of what Scripture clearly teaches on this matter: the very same texts, passages like Matthew 28:19–20 and Mark 16:15–16, that spoke to William Carey and his friends had spoken to Patrick centuries earlier.
- 10 Things You Should Know about St. Patrick (Michael A. G. Haykin)
- 10 Things You Should Know about Evangelism (J. Mack Stiles)
- The Life and Mission of St. Patrick (Michael A. G. Haykin)