Since St. Augustine of Canterbury was our saint last week, let us turn to another missionary saint, St. Boniface (675-754), the Apostle of Frisia and Germany (so, I guess, emphatically not of the Dutch?).
One of the notable realities of the Anglo-Saxon Church was its missionary enterprise. The English were a people who came to Christ in the 600’s, and by the end of that century they were sending out missionaries themselves. Saint Cuthbert is remembered not only as a monk and hermit but as a missionary. He engaged in the work of evangelism amongst the unsaved English. St. Boniface is amongst the body of English missionaries, but unlike Cuthbert his mission was a sending out to the pagan world on the Continent.
He was born in Devon (whence the Hoskins hail!) of free, land-owning peasants and received his education amongst the monasteries at Exeter and Nursling. He became a monk, producing England’s first Latin primer (an achievement not to be passed over) and writing poems and acrostics. When he was thirty years of age, he was ordained priest, and his knowledge of the Scriptures was used by the Spirit to bring him success in preaching and teaching. This skill at preaching and teaching made him known beyond the monastery walls, and King Ina of Wessex and his synod sent him as their envoy to Archbishop Burchard of Canterbury.
Boniface could have continued his ecclesiastical career in England. He would probably have been able to write a number of clever books and commentaries and preach to many more Christian souls if he had. He may have gotten a nice, comfortable English bishopric. He would certainly have become an abbot. Instead, he followed the call to mission and crossed over to Frisia, following the footsteps of Sts. Wilfrid and Willibrord. There he met with much opposition from militant pagans and was forced to return to Nursling in England.
In 717, he refused to accept his election as abbot of this monastery but set off the next year to Rome. There he went to Pope Gregory II for a definite mission for preaching and was given Bavaria and Hesse. On his way, hearing things were less volatile in Frisia, he spent three years with the aging Willibrord, assisting with his mission there. Only then did he go on to Hesse.
The Pope ordained him bishop and gave him a letter to Charles Martel (victor at Tours and grandfather of Charlemagne). Charles Martel gave Boniface his protection, and the English monk proceeded to evangelise Hesse. His zeal in Hesse is best remembered in the story of the sacred oak at Geismar. He took an axe to it and felled it. The pagan gods neither protected the people of Geismar and the oak nor did they avenge its felling. This demonstration, reminiscent of Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal, was instrumental in the conversion of many.
St. Boniface moved his mission on to Thuringia where he continued preaching and making disciples for Christ. As St. Boniface made disciples, he also made monasteries. These were populated by English monks and nuns and served as centres of Christianity and civilisation. This was a typical approach for the time, and it strikes me as a very clever use for the monks, incorporating them into Christ’s Kingdom-growing mission and its frontlines.
Pope Gregory III made him archbishop in 732, enabling him to consecrate bishops in that part of Germany beyond the Rhine. In 738, a new mission field opened amongst the Saxons of Westphalia when Charles Martel defeated them. Boniface tried to recruit prayers and support from the Anglo-Saxons in England, given their common ancestry; but this mission field soon became closed when the Franks lost it, remaining closed to Christian missionaries until Charlemagne conquered it and forced the locals to convert by the sword.
During his career as archbishop, St. Boniface recruited more missionaries to join him, held synods and councils amongst the newly-converted German Christians, and sought reform in the Church in France following Charles Martel’s death in 741, curtailing such abuses as simony and vacant bishoprics, and establishing the Benedictine Rule as the standard for all Carolingian monasteries.
Many of Boniface’s decrees regarding the Frankish church went unenforced, especially following the accession of Pippin the Short, who engaged in many of the same bad practices as Charles Martel. Boniface was getting on in years and left these matters to younger minds, retiring instead to Frisia where his missionary efforts had begun. In these last years, he not only re-evangelised parts where paganism had had a resurgence, but pushed the Christian mission into new places.
One day, while awaiting some converts to come for their confirmation at the River Borne, a band of angry pagans attacked at killed Bishop Boniface and his companions. So ended his activity in the evangelism of the Frisians and the workings of the Church in the Early Middle Ages. His feast day is today.
May his example of missionary zeal and reform spur all of us onward to bring more disciples into the Kingdom of God regardless of the cost, for such will cost our whole lives, whether bands of pagans kill us by the side of a river or not.
I owe the bulk of this information to David Hugh Farmer’s The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. The opinions and certain connections with the wider mediaeval church, however, are all mine; so is the photo.