Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
This article was originally published separately in two parts in February and March of 2018 by Dr. Marshall Foster, Founder of the World History Institute. Dr. Foster is a renowned historian and a member of the IPS Scholars Council. For more information, please visit Marshall’s website at www.worldhistoryinstitute.com where you can download this journal and access other resources.
Patrick of Ireland. Every year on March 17th we celebrate his life. Countless sons have been named after him. Innumerable churches bear his name as well. Parades in his honor march through the streets of great cities. But do we really know him? The truth is, very few people do. So, whether you do or not, permit me to tell his remarkable story…the greatest example in history of a man who won a nation without force of arms and transformed a society from chaos to peace.
Rome—the “eternal city”—had ruled the known world for 600 years. Control had been assured by the short and swift sword of the Roman Legions. But at the dawn of the 5th century, barbarian hordes sacked Rome. In the coming decades other prominent cities throughout Europe were decimated. Entire libraries and the precious documents of three thousand years of antiquity were mindlessly torched. Illiteracy became the norm. Within decades, Rome itself became a ghost town. Once a city of more than a million people, “its population [was] reduced … to about thirty thousand inhabitants sharing with foxes, wild dogs, rats and wolves what was left of its magnificent buildings.”1
In the years that the Empire was collapsing, Patrick was born in a small village along the seacoast in northern Britain—the foremost edge of Roman rule. The Celtic Christians of that region had enjoyed a measure of peace and prosperity for generations. Patrick’s father, a minor nobleman, was a deacon and leader in the local Celtic community. As a young teen Patrick would have enjoyed exploring the cliffs and roaming the beaches near his home.
For centuries, the Roman Legions had protected the Britons from foreign attack. But one day in 400 A.D. the soldiers packed up and sailed away in a futile effort to save Rome. They never returned. Britain was left without any defenses against the wild Scottish Picts to the north and the fierce Viking raiders from Scandinavia. It was with good reason that lands outside the boundaries of the Empire were labeled “Here do be monsters” on Roman maps. And just as fierce and fearsome as the Picts and Vikings were the Irish pirates who specialized in what we would today call “human trafficking.” The youth of Britain were their nearest targets, less than one hundred miles across the Irish Sea. Sixteen-year-old Patrick was a prime prospect for the vicious slavers.
One night, under cover of darkness, the pirates attacked. The carefree lives of Patrick and thousands of British youth were about to change forever. Blowing their battle horns, the raiders swarmed out of dozens of longboats. Bloodthirsty Irish warriors in full battle gear rushed into Patrick’s hamlet. They killed the majority of the villagers but captured the young, the strong and the beautiful in nets and dragged them to the coast. They beat them into submission and threw them into the belly of their ships, like live fish in a bait tank.
After their merciless looting and pillaging the pirates set out to sea and returned to Ireland with their cargo. Of all the captives taken that day, only Patrick was ever heard from again. He wrote, “I was about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people…”2
Patrick arrived beaten, bloody and bound at Larne, the slave traders’ port in northern Ireland. He was sold to a Druid warlord named Miliucc. Miliucc bound Patrick and other captives in chains and force-marched them behind his chariots for the six-day journey back to his fort in the frigid north of Ireland.
When Patrick approached his slave master’s fort he must have been shaken. The Druid obsession with death and human sacrifice surrounded him. Human heads were impaled on the walls of the fort. Human skulls were used as drinking bowls. Warriors hung the shrunken skulls of their enemies from their belts.3
The Irish were kept in constant fear by their Druid priests who demand human sacrifices to their many gods. Patrick likely observed the Druid ritual sacrifice of Beltaine, “the Wicker Man” ceremony. The Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, described this ritual: “[They] use figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame.”4 Caesar said that when the supply of criminals ran out the Druids simply executed the innocent.
For the next six years Patrick was a slave to Miliucc. He lived in the fields with the tyrant’s sheep, fighting off packs of wolves and wild boars on the slopes of Mount Slemish. Patrick explains his condition: “I did not believe in the living God, nor did I so from my childhood, but lived in death and unbelief until I was severely chastised … by hunger and nakedness and that daily.”5
“WITH ALL MY HEART”
Patrick remembered the faith of his family, especially that of his father and grandfather. He continues: “But after I came to Ireland—every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed—the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm.”6
What happened next transformed this boy into a powerful, faith-filled believer and premier visionary of his age. Patrick describes His conversion: “There the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God.”7
After years as a slave, Patrick experienced a vivid dream. He says that the Lord called him to walk two hundred miles to the east where a ship would be waiting to take him to freedom. Patrick followed the Lord’s direction and walked all the way across Ireland as a fugitive without being detected. A ship was there, but the pagan captain at first rejected Patrick’s request to come aboard.
Here in this seaport town Patrick faced his moment of greatest danger. In minutes he would be recognized as a fugitive slave. But suddenly, just as Patrick was praying as he walked away from the ship, he heard a voice from the ship, “Come quickly, they’re calling you!… Come on board, we’ll take you on trust.”
They set to sail immediately and endured a harrowing voyage. Then they trudged for 28 days through a part of Gaul (France) that had just been decimated by the rampaging Visogoths who were closing in on Rome. There were few people and only bits of food left in the entire region.
Patrick writes: “… for twenty-eight days we travelled through deserted country. … Hunger overcame us; and the next day the captain said to me: ‘Tell me, Christian: you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again.’”
Patrick answered: “‘Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him … suddenly a herd of pigs appeared in the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them … and fully recovered their strength.”8
Soon after this miracle, Patrick was released to make his own way. Here he may have spent some time at monastery in Gaul and also southern Briton. But after a few years, the future liberator returned to his family in Northwestern Britain. Patrick tells of his happy reunion: “And again after a few years I was in Britain with my kin who received me as a son, and sincerely besought me that … after the great tribulations which I had undergone, I should not leave them and go elsewhere.”9
There was no need ever to put to sea again. Surrounded by his family, in good financial circumstances, Patrick was ready to assume the role for which his birth and upbringing would have prepared him—marriage, a home of his own, children, perhaps a job in the municipality, or an ordination such as had been taken by his father. Magonus Sucatus [Patrick] would never have been heard from again, in this life, or any other.”10
Soon after returning home Patrick experienced several life-changing experiences and visions that would change the course of history. Patrick describes one of his dreams: “In the depth of the night, I saw a man named Victoricus, coming as if from Ireland, with innumerable letters; and I read the heading of [one] letter which read, ‘The Cry of the Irish’, and while I was reading … I heard the voice of those who were beside the wood of Focluth [near where Patrick had been enslaved], near the western sea … they called out: ‘Please, holy youth, come and walk among us again…’ Their cry pierced to my very heart, and I could read no more; and so I awoke.”11
Inexplicably, Patrick’s heart was filled with a love for the Irish people. He spent the next decade or more preparing to go to the Irish with the Good News of Jesus and the whole counsel of God’s Word. Over the next 40 years, Patrick’s influence would shape the fate not only of Ireland but of Europe and the western world.
When Patrick first came to Ireland he had been brutally kidnapped and sold into slavery. He returned to Ireland not as a slave, but as a liberator. This simple event “had the most extraordinary, most far-reaching effect. It changed the face of the nation, and utterly changed the nation’s destiny. The coming of Patrick may be said to have had a [magnificent] effect not on Ireland alone, but upon the world. It was a world event.”12
When He escaped from slavery in Ireland, Patrick made his way back to his home in northern Britain. But he could never forget the desperate condition of the Irish people. His heart longed to help them find God. He was certain that the Lord had called him to be a missionary to Ireland. This belief was strengthened by vivid dreams, one in which the Spirit of the Lord spoke to Patrick: “‘He that laid down His life for you, it is He that speaks in you’; and so I awoke full of joy.”13
In preparation for his mission, Patrick dedicated himself to the study of Scripture. The Bible was the supreme authority and the foundation of Celtic Christian life. Patrick’s short writings are filled with hundreds of biblical references.14
He set sail across the Irish Sea to Ireland along with some Celtic Christian brothers who shared his vision. Patrick had sold his inheritance to fund his own mission. They had no army to protect them or national church to support them. In his autobiography, Confession, Patrick says that he was commissioned for his task by Jesus Christ alone.
Ireland was still filled with druid priests, pagan altars and human sacrifice. For example, the Irish sacrificed prisoners to the war gods and newborns to the harvest gods. Even “the Romans, in their first encounters with these exposed, insane warriors, were shocked and frightened …. They were howling and, it seemed, possessed by demons, so outrageous was their strength … featuring all the terrors of hell itself.”15
Having lived in Ireland as a slave, Patrick knew the language and customs. He knew that he must first reach the kings if he wanted to reach the people. So, Patrick marched directly to the fortresses of the most powerful kings in the land. His was an extremely dangerous mission.
The legendary story of Patrick’s confrontation with the high king of Tara portrays Patrick’s courage as he faced these terrors of hell. It was “on Slane Hill near Tara, a few miles northwest of Dublin, that Patrick is said to have defied a royal edict by kindling a bonfire on Easter Eve. Tara’s high king Logaire [Leary] had decreed that no one might light a fire there, before Logaire himself did so to mark the pagan spring festival.”16
The king was enraged over Patrick’s brash defiance. He sent his troops to capture Patrick but there was no need. The man of faith walked calmly into the presence of the king, his wife, the court and his warriors with shields and spears in hand. They thought the druids would overwhelm Patrick. But the missionary’s power from God proved to be far greater. “He preached Christ to the assembly and won to his Master the queen and several prominent members of the court. And, though [the king’s] pagan faith was unshaken, he was so far won by the man Patrick that he gave him the freedom of his realm to preach the new faith where and to whom he would.”17
Patrick traveled from king to king throughout Ireland. The Irish had survived invasions by competing warlords, Vikings or Picts rushing in with swords drawn on the attack. But Patrick, armed only with the Scriptures and his love for the Irish, amazed them with a bravery above all others. He saw thousands and then tens of thousands become passionate believers in Christ.
Before long Patrick was speaking to vast open-air audiences. He spoke of, “his King’s kingdom, telling them of the infinite love of his King for all of them, of His yearning desire to have them know Him, and to enter into and enjoy the kingdom… whose pleasures, and whose riches and whose bliss, infinitely exceeded all that the mind of man had ever before conceived … how the bearded warrior throngs, and even the eager youths there must have been impressed, inspired, fired and melted; how the wild ones must have felt themselves tamed; and the haughty humbled….”18
Patrick’s was a message of hope given with deep-felt compassion. “The Irish would have said, here is a story that answers our deepest needs—and answers them in a way so good that we could never even dared dream of it. We can put away our knives and abandon our altars … These are no longer required…God does not hate us; He loves us.”19
History records that Patrick and his disciples laid the foundations of Western Civilization. Following the Scriptures, Patrick became the greatest liberator of his age. His authority and wisdom came from the loving laws of the Bible and the teachings of His Savior. He was first an evangelist, the bearer of the Good News, the Gospel. He knew that only God could transform the Irish and bring them from darkness to light.
But Patrick also knew that faith would not last long in a nation whose laws were not aligned with the laws of the Creator. Personal devotion and civil reformation had to go hand in hand. “Wherever Patrick went and established a church, he left an old Celtic law book, Liber ex Lege Moisi (Book of the Law of Moses) along with the books of the Gospel.” The Liber begins with the Ten Commandments and continues with thirty-five passages from the books of Moses.20
In addition, Patrick called together some of the greatest Irish legal scholars and Christian leaders who brought the civil laws of Ireland into conformity with the loving, impartial laws of Scripture. The monumental result was called the Senchus Mor.21
DANGERS AND RISKS
Patrick traveled Ireland for thirty years along primitive horse trails, aware that he might be killed at any time. He writes, “Daily, I expect murder, fraud or captivity, or whatever it may be; but 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.”22
There were no cities with inns or homes to greet these strangers. There were only farms and fortresses with competing bands of warriors. There were about one hundred of these chieftains or “kings”. Most only had power over small groups of rural families and a band of terrorist-like warriors. Thousands of years of pagan idol worship had kept the Irish in a violent, terrifying culture of death. Many people from this culture had vested interests in killing the new faith and its messengers.
Patrick speaks of being kidnapped or ambushed at least twelve times. “The merciful God often freed me from slavery and from twelve dangers in which my life was at stake—not to mention numerous plots … God is my witness, who knows all things even before they come to pass, as He used to forewarn even me … of many things by a divine message.” Patrick says, “I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers…I am prepared to give even my life without hesitation and most gladly for His name, and it is there that I wish to spend it until I die.”23
Not only royalty but children, women, and slaves were drawn to Patrick and his mission. The young left pillaging with the sword and turned to serving Christ and helping Patrick transformed the island nation.
Together with his strengths as a church builder, lawmaker and defender of widows and orphans, Patrick was a spiritual man who communed with the Almighty. He was a man totally committed to applying God’s Word to every area of life. His strength as a man —his passion, his fierce anger against tyrants—together with his humility towards God were irresistible to the Irish people. “More surely did these qualities win the Irish Celt when they found in him combined the terror of a warrior with the tenderness of a woman; the ferocity of a tiger, with the gentleness of a lamb.” 24
Patrick saw individuals, then thousands of people, then hundreds of thousands converted. He taught the Irish to become a literate, intelligent people who would create the earliest and greatest learning centers and colleges of the Middle Ages. In the next thirty years Patrick and his disciples founded over 700 churches where once there had been only walled fortresses of bloodthirsty warlords. The scope of Patrick’s accomplishments and faith is best understood when we observe the changes that he and his disciples brought to the world in the coming centuries.
STANDING AGAINST SLAVERY
He was the first leader of a gentile nation to call for the end of the pagan practice of kidnapping and slavery. “Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and inter tribal warfare, decreased.”25
Patrick taught the former Irish pirates to respect the sanctity of life and the biblical laws that require “equal justice for all.” Unfortunately, northern Britain had been overrun by petty kings after the Roman Legions withdrew to Rome. One of these kings, Coroticus, was sending his soldiers to kill or kidnap and enslave thousands of Patrick’s young converts in Ireland.
Patrick sent a delegation to the court of Coroticus hoping to ransom the captives. His men were shunned and sent home. Patrick was furious and penned an open letter to British Christians. His letter condemned Coroticus’ evil works. Patrick mourns as he writes, “Patricide! fratricide! ravening wolves eating up the people of the Lord as it were bread!” Patrick, as only a former slave could do, warns Coroticus of his coming torment and “unquenchable fire” unless he repents and releases the innocent Irish captives.26
Patrick writes, “Where, then, will Coroticus with his criminals, rebels against Christ, where will they see themselves, they who distribute baptized women as prizes—for a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment? …May God inspire them sometime to recover their senses for God, repenting, however late, their heinous deeds—murderers of the brethren of the Lord!—and to set free the baptized women whom they took captive …”27
“The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century.”28
By the time of Patrick’s passing on March 17, c. 460 A.D. the foundations were laid for Ireland to become the first Christian nation outside of the Roman Empire. The committed disciples of Patrick spent lifetimes copying the Scriptures and the classics of antiquity, saving the great literature of the ancient world, especially the Bible. The Irish had been pagan barbarians and pirates only a generation before. The Irish believers now came bringing Bibles and books to the largely pagan peoples of Europe. “Without the Irish … the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one—a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.”29
Ireland’s world outreach began with Columba, Ireland’s greatest hero next to Patrick. Columba went to Scotland in 563, founding a mission on the island of Iona and converting the Scots. Then in the 7th century the Irish and Scottish missionaries brought biblical Christianity to the pagan Angles and Saxons who had settled in England. Then they spread faith, literacy, the rule of law to the pagan lands of Gaul (France), Germany and beyond. They became the major catalyst for the transformation of Europe.
Patrick was a giant of the faith. Like the heroes of Hebrews Chapter eleven, he “by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouth of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong…” Patrick followed the biblical plan for reaching and liberating any nation. The God who was with Patrick is with us. May we believe God and work for the transformation of entire nations, including our own.
— Dr. Marshall Foster
1. Ted Byfield, The Christians: Darkness Descends, (Friezens Corp. 2003), pgs. 117-118
2. Patrick, Confession, Ludwig Bieler, translator, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
3. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, (Random House, New York, 1995), pg. 136
4. Ted Byfield, The Christians: Pinch of Incense, (Friezens Corp. 2003), Pg. 146
5. Patrick, Confession
10. Paul Gallico, The Steadfast Man, (Doubleday, New York, 1958), pg. 42
11. Patrick, Confession
12. MacManus, Seumas, The Story of the Irish Race (Devin-Adair, 1921) p. 109
13. Patrick’s Confession, para. 42.
14. Hardinge, Leslie, The Celtic Church in Britain (Random House, 1995) p. 29, 202.
15. Cahill, Thomas, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Random House, 1995) p. 82 – 83.
16. Ted Byfield, ed., The Christians; Darkness Descends (Christian History Project, 2004), p. 244.
17. MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, p. 115
18. Ibid, p. 116.
19. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 142.
20. Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain, p. 209 – 216.
21. MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, p. 133.
22. Patrick’s Confession, para. 91
23. Ibid para. 57, 60.
24. MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, p. 125
25. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 110.
26. Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus, Para. 5.
27. Ibid, para. 20, 22.
28. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 114
29. Ibid, p.3