When most Americans think of St. Patrick’s Day, they probably either think of the legend of Patrick driving out all the snakes from Ireland or they think about all the drinking and partying that takes place on this day. This is likely just as true for Christians as for non-Christians. As a church historian and an American of partly Irish descent, I think this is a shame. When believers think about Patrick of Ireland (389–461), they should think about gospel advance. Early Celtic Christianity was a Great Commission movement.
The story of Patrick’s life is the stuff of legends, except most of it is almost certainly true. He was born in a Christian family in the Roman province of Britain, captured by Irish pirates as a teenager, and sold into slavery in Ireland. He worked as a pig farmer for six years, living a mostly isolated existence among the swine. Patrick was converted as he meditated on Scripture verses he had learned as a child. He became convinced God was leading him to flee his captivity, so he escaped to France and became a monk. He was eventually reunited with his parents in Britain.
If this were where Patrick’s story ended, it would be remarkable enough. However, he received a vision of an Irishman asking Patrick to return to the land of his former captivity to proclaim Christ. Patrick referred to this as his “Macedonian call,” referencing Paul’s vision in Acts 16:9. After a time of preparation in a British monastery, Patrick returned to Ireland in 432. Though already an older man according to the customs of his era, Patrick spent the next three decades making disciples on the Emerald Isle.
Fifth-century Ireland was dominated by druidism, a pagan religion that affirmed a strange combination of mysticism, a belief in magic, and an emphasis on intellectual pursuit. In countering druidism, Patrick’s approach to evangelism included many facets. First, he sought to prove God was greater than the druid deities by performing miracles that authenticated the gospel message. (Many modern Christians are nervous when they hear about miracles, but many of the most famous missionaries in the early church were also miracle-workers.) The druids responded by persecuting Patrick fiercely; he claims that he was nearly killed on twelve different occasions.
Patrick also attempted to build bridges with leading figures in Irish culture. He shared the gospel with an Irish chieftain, and though the chieftain did not convert, Patrick persuaded him to grant religious toleration for Christians. This brought an end to most of the persecution against Patrick and his converts. When Patrick entered a new region, he would attempt to convert local leaders to the faith in hopes that the prestige of their position would convince commoners to convert as well.
Every historian and missionary knows that this sort of strategy has often opened the door to nominal conversions and semi-pagan church members. This is exactly what was happening in much of continental Europe during this same period, as entire Germanic tribes were converting to Catholicism due to conquest or out of a sense of loyalty to their newly Christian leaders. But the final facet of Patrick’s evangelism strategy went a long way toward softening the threat of nominal conversions: Patrick emphasized rigorous discipleship of all converts.
Patrick’s converts were required to learn the Scriptures and were instructed in Christian doctrine and morality. They were taught to share their faith with unbelievers, often as part of teams that formed the nuclei of new church plants. They were expected to embrace a pious lifestyle or be disciplined by the church. In fact, Patrick pioneered a new practice to encourage believers to mortify their sins and pursue godliness: private confession to a priest. The medieval Roman Catholic Church later adopted this practice in the thirteenth century. Patrick’s methods proved successful; over a thirty-year period Patrick and his protégés evangelized most of Ireland, planted 200 churches and baptized 100,000 new converts.
Patrick was a monk, so it should not be surprising that he established monasteries all over Ireland. One of the disciplines practiced by the monks in Irish monasteries was to copy the writings of classical antiquity. Because the Germanic “barbarians” never conquered Ireland during this medieval era, the Irish collections of ancient Greek and Christian writings played a crucial role in the preservation of Western culture. This fascinating story is told by Thomas Cahill in his bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995).
Like their famous founder, the Irish monasteries also focused upon spreading the gospel. In fact, Irish monasteries were mission-training centers that equipped monks to evangelize, plant churches, and establish new monasteries. Numerous missionary monks were commissioned to spread the gospel to other lands, most famously Columba (521–597), who established a monastery on the island of Iona and evangelized Scotland. Because of Columba’s influence, early Scottish Christianity shared a common Great Commission DNA with Irish Christianity.
Patrick and the Celtic Christian movement he launched have much to teach modern evangelicals. Their emphasis was on making disciples rather than merely winning converts. Celtic Christians emphasized personal holiness and equipped every believer to share his or her faith. They valued the importance of Christ-centered education and ministry training. Much like contemporary missional evangelicals, Celtic priests understood their culture to be a mission field and churches (and monasteries) to be centers of missional activity. Patrick and his followers were Great Commission Christians.
As North America and the rest of the West becomes increasingly post-Christian and even anti-Christian, early Celtic Christianity serves as a key historical role model for us as we seek to proclaim Christ in our own context. On this St. Patrick’s Day, do not think first of four-leaf clovers, parades celebrating Irish-American heritage, or pinching your friends who are not wearing green. Think of a slave-turned-missionary who longed to make disciples of all people—including those who had once enslaved him.
If you want to read more about Patrick’s approach to evangelism, check out George Hunter’s Celtic Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Abingdon, 1990). Also, be sure to check out the forthcoming popular biography of Patrick by my friend Michael Haykin, titled Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus, 2014).