St. Patrick: Reclaiming the Great Missionary

Today most people know St. Patrick for green beer, banishing snakes from Ireland, using shamrocks to teach the Trinity, or his walking stick growing into a living tree. Indeed, none of these legends has anything to do with the real Patrick.

However, the factual accounts of Patrick, missionary to Ireland, are even more compelling than the folklore. Telling the true story of Patrick provides an inspiring lesson in God’s grace and mercy.

While other 1,500-year-old characters in history are difficult to research because too few writings have survived time, Patrick is hard to study because so much has been written about him. The bulk of the writings on Patrick are lore, fiction, and embellishment. In uncovering the real Patrick we must sift through ten fictional accounts of his life to find one factual work.

patrick_shamrock_0From Slave to Evangelist

As a teenager Patrick was kidnapped, taken from his home in southern Britain, and sold into slavery on the island of Ireland. During his six years as a slave he converted to Christianity and earned a reputation as a fervent evangelist. In the dark of the night Patrick escaped his bonds and fled Ireland. Following a long journey home he entered theological training and full-time service to the Lord. God spoke to Patrick in his dreams and told him that he would return to Ireland and serve as a missionary to the people who had kept him in servitude.

In AD 432, 25 years after fleeing Ireland, Patrick returned to the place of his bondage. He did not return with malice in his heart, but as a missionary eager to convert the Irish. Patrick served in regions of Ireland where outsiders had never traveled. While roaming through Ireland he preached to pagans and also instructed Christian believers. Patrick trained Irish helpers and ordained native clergy. He was bringing a new way of life to a violent, war-oriented pagan culture. His work was both groundbreaking and Christ-honoring.

“Daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises,” Patrick wrote while serving in Ireland. “But I fear nothing, because of the promises of heaven.”

Many brutal kings and warlords felt threatened by Patrick’s work. In order to obtain the favor of local leaders and to gain safe passage, Patrick paid penance, or bribes, to authorities. He used the rulers to gain access to their lands just as they used Patrick to gain wealth and favor with Christians. Of the bribes he paid, Patrick proclaimed, “I do not regret this nor do I regard it as enough. I am paying out still and I shall pay out more.”

Missionary Ahead of His Time

In fifth-century Ireland women were a commodity. Selling a daughter or arranging a politically strategic marriage was common and advantageous to a family. Patrick upset the social order by teaching women they had a choice in Christ. As God converted these women to Christianity, some became full-time servants of Christ in the face of strong family opposition. Patrick told women they could be “virgins for Christ” by remaining chaste. This newfound control was appealing to many women, but it angered many men who believed Patrick was taking away their prized possessions.

At the time many scholars regarded Ireland as the end of the earth, or at least the edge of the inhabitable portion of earth. The collapsing Roman Empire supported many beliefs that civilized society was drawing to a close. Politicians and philosophers viewed Ireland as barbaric and untamable. Many Christians did not believe the Irish were worthy of being saved. At that point in history, Patrick truly served as a pioneering missionary to a forgotten people.

Patrick advocated learning among Christians. He promoted the ascetic life and monasticism. The Irish culture did not place great value on literacy or education. Patrick, however, promoted studying the Scriptures as well as reading books written by fathers of the faith.

Recovering the True Patrick

Patrick entered an Ireland full of paganism and idol worship. But just a few short decades after Patrick arrived, a healthy, Christ-honoring church was thriving. The Irish church was so strong that in the centuries to come it would send missionaries to evangelize much of continental Europe. Patrick’s legacy lives on through the countless spiritual grandchildren he left to continue his work.

Patrick lived in a way that brought honor to God. His devotion and resolute obedience offer examples for all followers of Christ. Patrick stood in the face of great challenges and did not falter. His service, his life, and his unwavering commitment to spreading the gospel of Christ are as commendable today as they were in the fifth century.

We as Christians have allowed the modern, secular customs of St. Patrick’s Day to steal away one of the greatest missionaries in Christian history and reduce his memory to leprechauns, green beer, and fictional tales. Let’s take back our beloved servant of Christ and share God’s glory achieved during the life of Patrick the missionary to Ireland. Let’s share the true legacy of this great Christian evangelist.

  • A.E.

    What are the sources for this information?

    • Mike

      Bieler, Ludwig, “The “creeds” of St. Victorinus and St. Patrick.” Theological Studies 9, no. 1, (1948), 123.

      Catholic Information Network, “The Confessio of St. Patrick” Last modified October 17, 2011. (accessed March 31, 2012).

      De Paor, Liam, Saint Patrick’s World: The Christian Culture of Ireland’s Apostolic Age, University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.

      Dowley, Tim, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity, Lion Publishing, 2002.

      Forster, Arthur Haire, “St Patrick in fact and fiction.” Anglican Theological Review (1928)11, no. 1: 29.

      Freeman, Philip, Ireland and the Classical World, University of Texas Press, 2008.

      Freeman, Philip, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.

      O’Rahilly, Thomas F., The Two Patricks: A Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-century, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1981.

      Scott, William Henry, “Celtic culture and the conversion of Ireland.” International Review Of Mission 56, no. 222 (1967), 196

      Scott, William Henry, “St Patrick’s missionary methods.” International Review Of Mission 50, no. 198 (1961), 139.

      Thomas, Charles, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, University of California Press, 1981.

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  • Jeff Danleoni

    ” But just a few short decades after Patrick arrived, a healthy, Christ-honoring church was thriving.”

    Curious. Would that be the same “healthy” church that views Mary as Co-Redeemer, justification by works, the denies Mary had other children, that believes the Pope is the infallible representative of God, and the church that persecuted Protestants?

    I’d love to see a post on a true Christian evangelist instead.

    • Seth Dralle

      Mary as co-redeemer and the infallibility of the bishop of Rome (ex cathedra) are rather late Roman dogmas. It’s unlikely that Patrick would have held to those, or even the church in Ireland at the time.

      • Michael Snow

        Exactly. Most Christians don’t know much about the history of their own church, let alone that of others.

      • Bond West

        Hi there, Jeff – In addition to what Seth has already pointed out, I’ll add this: it’s kind of debatable whether or not we ought to consider Patrick a Roman Catholic at all. Some would people would make the case that the early Irish Church was really sort of its own separate institution until roughly the time of the Synod of Whitby – whether you agree with that interpretation or not is up to you, of course.

        By the way, Mike – great article! Thanks for posting it!

    • Chad

      I’d recommend you read a little Schaff but I think you’ve got everything figured out.

    • Philippa

      I’d love to see a post on a true Christian evangelist instead.

      Were it not for Patrick and those other great Celtic saints, the gospel would never have been preached to the pagan Celtic tribes of Britain. Our debt to them is immense.

    • Ryan

      You’ve never actually read the catechism of the Catholic church, have you? I mean the concept of Mary as co-redeemer is not and has never been taught by the Catholic church. There are some Catholics who believe in it, but if we’re going to start stringing up denominations based on some of their fringe beliefs then I feel like Catholicism is going to be in much better shape than a lot of evangelical traditions…

  • Daniel

    Good post. Any recommendations for further reading?

    • Mike

      Hey Daniel…check out the bibliography above, but if I could recommend one book it would be St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography by Philip Freeman.

      • Bob C

        Freeman’s biography is perhaps the best, based on primary source documents–among them, the ancient Book of Armagh (Trinity College, Dublin) which contains the oldest surviving copy of the Patrick’s Confession. This biography contains the author’s translation (from latin) of the Confession along with two letters by Patrick–by themselves worth the price! Here is how Patrick’s Confession begins: “I am Patrick–a sinner–the most unsophisticated and unworthy among all the faithful of God. Indeed, to many I am the most despised” (from Freeman).

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  • An Normand

    Mike, I had read St Patrick was a Roman. Did he become Roman after being a slave in Ireland?

    • Philippa

      No, he was Romano-British. The Romans had already been in Britain for 400 years and many of them had of course mingled with the native Britons, who were at that time made up of many different Celtic tribes.

      The English did not yet exist as a race. They are descended from the Angles, Jutes and Saxons who were already invading Britain as the Roman Empire collapsed and the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century.

      One theory is that Patrick might have come from what is now southern Wales (although Wales did not exist as a nation in the fifth century).

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  • Walt W.

    A worthwhile and interesting read. The shamrock in his hand reminds me of my favorite quote attributed to him. Holding up a shamrock he said: “Is this one leaf or three? If one leaf, why are there three lobes of equal size? If three leaves, why is there just one stem? If you cannot explain so simple a mystery as the shamrock, how can you hope to understand one so profound as the Holy Trinity?” (This is not to say, of course, that the Trinity is a matter of mindless belief!)

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  • Michael Snow

    “He was bringing a new way of life to a violent, war-oriented pagan culture.”

    Let us allow Charles Spurgeon to do the same for us Americans.

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  • Church History Timelines

    “But I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever has deigned to accept this document, composed in Ireland by Patrick the sinner, an unlearned man, that none should ever say that it was my ignorance that accomplished any small thing which I did or showed in accordance with God’s will; but let it be believed, that it was the gift of God.”

    Saint Patrick’s Confession

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  • Ellen

    It’s sad to me that the author felt the need to sanitize St. Patrick’s life of anything too Catholic. The same people who are unaware or misinformed about his life are the ones often perpetuating the the myths surrounding the divide between the Catholic Church and the 20,000+ Protestant ones. Why not delve further in and explain the pertinent church history and tell why you reject it?

    • Michael Snow

      Huh? This is the 5th Century! The Great Schism was 500 years away. Yes, learn some church history.

  • Ellen

    Yes, Mr. Snow, that is my point. This early church period is pre-schism but more accurate wording has been omitted. For example, to say that he received theological training and became a missionary nicely avoids saying he studied under a priest and became a priest and a bishop. And as far as the questions raises here about church dogmas, the early church held many beliefs long before they became dogma. Regarding being saved by works, as one questioned here, St. Patrick fought against it as do Catholics. We merely don’t add “alone” to the belief in need for faith.
    I truly mean no disrespect. I pray all go back to early church and move forward from there. We could all learn from one another.

    • Ryan

      I would agree with you. While the article isn’t bad, it does certainly seem to whitewash most of the early church (i.e. Catholic) trappings. I certainly understand why the authour did it – those elements would draw attention away from the story that is being told and the point that he is trying to get across. However, at the same time, this does sometimes lead to a an inaccurate understanding of history – how many people end up under the assumption that the theology and practices of the early church were nearly identical to contemporary evangelicalism?

  • Michelle

    Thank you for the article, it was informative. I also appreciate you citing where the information came from. History is a good teacher. I am a little surprised that the statement “God spoke to Patrick in his dreams,” was allowed or even written because a lot of those on this site, writing or reading, would be opposed to that. Without being a crazy wild or prophetic person which yes, wild perhaps but not crazy or claiming anything else just this is interesting.