Tuesday, August 16, 2016

St. Boniface (680-754 AD): Apostle to the Germans by Chris White

St. Boniface is known as the Apostle of Germany and is credited with being one of the most effective missionaries in the history of the church.  Boniface is not without his detractors and some of his evangelistic style seems pretty insensitive by the standards of today, but he was a man of his times with a heart for making Christ known where he was not before and a man of boundless energy when it came to caring for the faithful and organizing a church that would stand the test of time in Northern Europe.

St. Boniface was born in Devonshire England in 680.  Christianity was a relatively new faith in Britain at this time having only been established in south and central England for 90 years.  Boniface’s birth name was Wynfrith (sometimes called Winfred) and he was of a strong Saxon family.  Early in life Wynfrith wanted to become a Benedictine monk but for some time his father was opposed to this calling.  Eventually his father came to support him and Wynfrith enters the monastery in his early twenties and is ordained a priest by age 30.
ruins of monastery in England

Although Wynfrith showed great promise as a scholar, he had a deeper calling welling up within his soul.  He felt duty-bound to return to the land of his ancestors and evangelize them.  His initial missionary trip was to Friesland (what we would call Holland or the Netherlands today) to assist a work among those people that had been going on for several years.  The situation on the ground was quite difficult largely because of political reasons and soon Wynfrith returned to England.  He was not discouraged in the slightest by the lack of fruit he saw in Friesland, but rather stimulated to even greater exertions in the future.
When he returned to England we might not have ever heard of him again.  He was offered the office of Abbot in his monastery which was an office with dignity and privilege.  Most anyone would have considered this God’s promotion of them, but Boniface, true to his character, was restless and looked again towards the mission field.  When he took the next step, Wynfrith would never set foot in England the remainder of his life.

For several centuries the German peoples had been exposed to the Gospel by Celtic and Frankish missionaries.  While they were strong in evangelistic zeal they were often weak in organizational skill. This coupled with the societal chaos in the wake of the tribal invasions from Central Asia pretty much left what churches existed in a weakened and floundering state. 
Boniface preaching to a local ruler

In 718, Wynfrith makes his way to Rome and presents himself to the pope for mission service.  He is given a commission from the papacy to travel beyond the Rhine river and establish the Roman church in Germany.  With the prestige of a papal endorsement behind him,  Boniface was well-received by the local rulers and over the next few years was quite successful in his work of re-building the existing Christian church and evangelizing the pagans.

5 years later (723) Wynfrith returned to Rome and was ordained a bishop.  This gave him the right to oversee the new churches and ordain its ministers.  It is on this occasion of ordination that Wynfrith is given the new name Boniface.  Boniface was the name of a Roman martyr whose feast day was about to happen.  His new name would have been Wynfrith Boniface but he so identified with his role as a bishop and shepherd that from that day forward chose to only go by his new name.

When Boniface returns as the bishop of Germany with the authority of the Pope and then gets a further letter of endorsement from Frankish King Charles Martel that perhaps the most storied moment of his ministry occurs.  
Sacred Grove
While he had been away from Germany, some of Boniface’s new converts in the area of Geismar had fallen back into their old pagan ways of magic and superstition.  The particular temptation and draw in this region was centered in the sacred oak tree of Thor the god of thunder.  Sacred trees have long been part of animist cultures throughout the world (even the Biblical Canaanite culture) but were especially prevalent in Northern Europe which was so heavily forested.  Sacrifices of all kinds were offered to the trees and if a person so much as picked a piece of bark of the tree they would pay for it with their life.

Boniface with cross and hatchet!

Boniface, wanting to ‘root paganism out of the people for good’ came to the sacred tree and to the shock and amazement of everyone took his axe out and chopped it down.  The people expected him to drop dead for touching the sacred oak but instead when all was said and done, he was still standing and the tree was not.  This had a strong effect on the people for they realized Boniface represented the one true God and the tree had no power.  It is said that Boniface used the wood from the sacred tree to build a small chapel dedicated to St. Peter.  

Another variation on this story has Boniface not chopping but preaching.  As he preaches the Gospel at the site of the oak, a huge gust of wind comes and blows the tree down splitting it conveniently into four pieces.  However this happened, it is representative of many instances where Boniface destroyed pagan temples, sacred rocks, and trees so that the people would truly believe that there was no spiritual power in the object which in turn paved the way for his message.   It was certainly not a culturally sensitive policy to be sure, but it was effective and often resulted in mass conversions.
At some point Boniface abandoned this “power encounter” approach and took a more philosophical approach with people asking questions about their local gods and what they believed and then would teach them about Christianity.  People often saw this as a superior message coming from a greater culture and would convert.  For Boniface, if the people renounced their pagan beliefs and confessed faith in Christ, he would prepare them for baptism.

Boniface baptizing new Christian
But the great missionary evangelist has more than a good message and a winning presentation.  He also has a plan for establishing church communities and building local leaders so that when he leaves the work will be self-sustaining.  Boniface’s plan was to establish monasteries.  It may seem odd from our modern perspective today, but in the early Middle Ages, the monastery was the closest thing to a university there was.  The men and women who lived there were taught to read, taught the scriptures, and learned and developed practical and useful knowledge for the entire world.  The perfect example of this is how monks advanced agriculture through crop rotation and the development of plow harnesses for animals.  This could only happen in a monastery at the time because its environment of security and efficiency allowed the leisure necessary for innovation and advanced thinking.
Boniface would recruit men and women monks from England to start monasteries in Germany and then as German people became Christians some of their number would be invited to join the monastery, become educated, and then would serve as leaders for the growing church in their nation.  The greatest and largest monastery was at Fulda which is said to be in Germany what the Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino is to Italy.

In 747 AD,  Boniface again is recalled to Rome and is made the Archbishop and spiritual leader of the German people by the pope.  This empowers him to organize the church into many different dioceses (church districts) and appoint bishops to oversee them.  Boniface himself was a stickler that holding high office in the church was not a call to privilege (as some in his day saw it), but a call to service.  He would remind those under him that the Lord Jesus Himself washed the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper.  Whenever he received a gift from one of his subordinate bishops, Boniface would send a gift in return and it was always the same: a hand towel for washing feet.

At this point Boniface is poised to end his life in Germany serving the church with distinction as archbishop. But shortly after his 70th birthday, he resigns his high office to return to his calling as a missionary.  His choice?  Boniface returns to Friesland, the place of his first missionary effort to give it another try.  In this, Boniface shows that as a Christians you are never too old to take on another challenge or assignment from the Lord.

The second mission in Friesland proved to be a very fruitful period for Boniface.  He had a large team of people helping him and thousands were baptized and again the church was expanding there.  Unfortunately in June of 754 AD, while Boniface and 50 of his assistants were encamped at Dockum on the river Borne preparing for a mass baptism, they were attacked and killed by a gang of robbers thinking they had a large sum of money to take.
Martyrdom of Boniface

Tragic as this was, the gospel had taken root and by the end of the 8th century paganism in Friesland had almost completely been replaced with Christianity.

To sum up, Boniface is considered one of the most powerful influences on the future history of Western Europe.  Not only were the Teutonic tribes who occupied most of the land we know as present day Germany evangelized, but by connecting them with the Catholic church there was a great transference of the seed of ancient Roman culture into a world that was at one time barbaric and superstitious.  This seed when fully germinated (or should I say “German-ated”) would later develop into an even greater movement of Christianity centuries later with the Protestant Reformation which would change the face of Western Civilization forever.

“Boniface”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)

“Boniface”  Dictionary of Christian Biography  Michael Walsh ed.  (Collegeville : Liturgical Press, 2001)

“Boniface”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino gen. ed. (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2014)

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through the Centuries : A History of the Christian Church.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1981)

Cohn-Sherbok, Lavinia.  Who’s Who in Christianity.  (London : Routledge, 1998)

Curtis, A. Kenneth,  J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Peterson.  The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History.  (Grand Rapids : Fleming Revell Publishing, 1998)

Ferguson, Everett.  Church History : From Christ to the Pre-Reformation Vol. 1  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013)

Frazer, James George, Sir.  The Golden Bough.  New York : Macmillan, 1922; Bartleby.com, 2000.  www.barltleby.com/196/. April 13, 2015.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  A History of Christianity Vol. 1  (New York : Harper and Row, 1975)

McManners, John.  The Oxford History of Christianity.  (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. IV.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1910)

Tucker, Ruth A.  From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya : A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1983)