Tribute to a missionary pioneer

June 7, 2004

ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE missionary careers of the Middle Ages was ended by a brutal act of violence exactly 1250 years this week. On June 5, 754, in the Friesian town of Dokkum, close to Holland’s northern coast, a mob attacked and massacred an English Benedictine monk called Wynfrith and his fifty-plus travelling companions.

Better known as Saint Boniface, the almost-seventy-year-old monk restrained his fellow-travellers from fighting in self-defense, urging them to ‘follow the example of our Lord in Gethsemene, whom we shall soon see in his glory.’ He led his followers in prayer as the mob began to attack, and held his Bible over his head against the sword-blows. I have seen that ancient book – or one being passed off as the real thing – in the St Catherine’s Convent Museum in Utrecht, complete with sword slash cutting deep into the pages.

Boniface’s last living pose has been literally set in stone by a now-famous statue in Dokkum, the focal point for many pilgrims this year. Inscribed on the statue are the words: Hic Bonifatio lumenvitae extortum DCCLIV, hic frisiae evangelii lumen exortum. Roughly translated: here the light of Boniface’s life was extinguished in 754; here the light of the Gospel shone among the Frisians.

Some have called Boniface the greatest missionary of the medieval era, and as having had more influence on the German peoples than any other Englishman who has ever lived. But for many protestants especially, Boniface belongs to that long, dark period from Paul to Luther where nothing really important seemed to have happened. Many tend to skip the ‘Dark Ages’, with all its papal political intrigues and power struggles, the crusades and the inquisition, relic worship and selling of indulgences, and move on quickly to the recovery of Reformation Truth.

But let’s spare a thought this week for the man who pioneered the Christian faith among the Germanic peoples and who also prepared the way for remarkable reform of both church and education among the Franks. Perhaps we can detect in the work of this man the very beginnings of a Christian influence on the Germanic-Franco axis central to so many European Union developments in recent years.

For seven centuries before Luther ever approached the Wittenberg Door, 95 theses in one hand, hammer in the other, Christian truth had been introduced to his German forebears by this Anglo-Saxon monk born and baptised as Wynfrith in Wessex, England, in 675. As a six-year-old, he entered a monastery to be raised, educated and initiated into the Benedictine order. After years of study, Wynfrith was 30 years old when he crossed the Channel in 716 to bring the gospel to the Friesians and Franks, and to his distant Saxon cousins. His own pagan forebears had come across from Saxony in today’s Germany to the British Isles after the Romans had left. They had in time received the Christian story from the north by Irish and Scottish Celtic believers, and through Catholic emissaries from Rome. The resulting Anglo-Saxon Christianity mixed elements of Roman order and discipline with Celtic mission passion.

Wynfrith had gone to help his fellow Anglo-Saxon, Willibrord, 20 years his senior, in his work among the Friesians, based in Utrecht. Unsettled conditions of war forced Wynfrith back home across the channel, where he was made abbot of Nutshalling in Exeter, his childhood monastery. But Wynfrith’s heart lay in missions. Within a year he had appointed a successor and by 718 was again off to the continent. This time he travelled firstly to Rome, where Pope Gregory II commissioned him for his work among the unreached northern Europeans east of the Rhine, and renamed him Boniface, after a fourth-century Roman martyr.

His strategy was to establish monastic communities in target districts, engage in preaching and confrontation with pagan beliefs, baptise and nurture new believers and plant congregations. A Benedictine monastery was founded in 722 at Hesse, the first of many others, and he worked until 740 among the Germanic peoples east of the Rhine, criss-crossing the territory with apostolic zeal. Boniface organised his converts into parishes, dioceses and eventually bishoprics, laying the ecclesiastical framework for the church to come.

One of Boniface’s innovative strategies was to release the mission potential cloistered away in England’s convents by sending for nuns to answer to the call of missions among Germanic peasant girls. Hundreds answered to Boniface’s challenge which set a precedent for mobilising women missionaries.

Boniface then turned his attention to the Franks further west, and worked to reform both church and education, essentially preparing for the later revival of education under Charlemagne and another Anglo-Saxon monk, Alcuin of York.

As with many other medieval ‘saints’, stories and legends have accumulated around the figure of Boniface, some of which are more believable than others. One tells of his arrival in Geismar where a huge oak tree was dedicated to the god Wodan. The germanic townfolk believed the oak tree was a ‘manifestation of the world controlled by the gods’. Boniface believed in power encounters, and told the horrified onlookers that he planned to chop the tree down to demonstrate that his God was greater than theirs. Watching no doubt from a distance, awaiting a bolt of lightning from the heavens to fry this arrogant Englishman, the villagers were amazed to see nothing come out of the sky other than a strong gust of wind which toppled the tree to the ground. The villagers, so the legend goes, recovered from their shock and awe to help to chop the tree up into planks to build a chapel to the God of Boniface right there on the spot, where they worshipped for the rest of their lives. (Picture of a sunset right here).

A less likely story is that of the stone breadrolls. While travelling through Friesland, Boniface and his companions passed a house where they smelt freshly-baked bread. They were tired and hungry, so they knocked on the door and asked the housewife if she had any bread the house. She said she had none. When Boniface asked what was in the oven, she said she was baking stones. Whereupon the monk replied, “May all that is in the oven turn into stone.” Lo and behold, all the bread instantly turned into stone! To prove the truth of this story, you can visit the Boniface Chapel in Dokkum and see one of these stone breadrolls with your own eyes. Really!

In 754, Boniface headed back to Friesland. In the vicinity of Dokkum, near the village of Murmerwoude (Damwoude today), he prepared to baptise a large number of converts. But the violence of that early morning on June 5th thwarted those plans. And so indeed the lifelight of the Apostle to the Germans was extinguished. But through his work and that of his successors, the destiny of the Germanic tribes had been changed forever.

Yet another legend claims that the descendents of the murderers of Mermerwoude would be recognisable by two marks: the men would have a white lock of hair on their necks, while the women would be doomed to have a bald patch on their heads.

The story is also told that when monks retrieved the body of Boniface and brought it to its final resting place in Utrecht Cathedral, they were unable to lift the body. Boniface did not want to lie in rest in Utrecht. They took the body by ship to Mainz. There the body could also not be lifted. Later they took the body on to Fulda, Boniface’s favourite monastery in the centre of Germany today; at last they could raise his body for burial in the place where he had always said he wanted to be buried.

What may be truer than these stories is that Boniface was the last significant missionary to be sent out from England for over one thousand years.

And that’s worth pondering on.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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