Mission of Augustine, and Introduction of Christianity

Book 2, Chapter 1, 449 AD to 597 AD – Introduction of Christianity – Continued

Among these, one of the most memorable was the introduction of Christianity among the Saxons of Kent by Augustine, who was sent in 597 by Pope Gregory the Great, accompanied by forty monks, to Ethelbert, king of Kent. This king had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of the king of Paris, and had agreed to allow her the free exercise of her religion, a circumstance favourable to the commencement of Augustine’s mission. It has before been remarked that the claims advanced by most ecclesiastical historians for the existence of an early British church, must, for lack of conclusive evidence, be treated as a figment, very beautiful, but very unreal.

Divested of the polemical passions which have been excited in connexion with the subject, alike on the part of Romanists and of Protestants, the question of how Christianity was first introduced into Britain, cannot be satisfactorily answered, and on a calm judicial survey, the less that is said about a British church during the first five centuries of the Christian era, in the modern acceptation of the term church, the better for all parties. That there were individual Christians, even at the Roman period is not improbable, that there were missionary bishops in some parts of the island in the early part of the fourth century, and perhaps even in the latter part of the third, may be admitted, if the statements of Tertullian and St. Jerome be not rhetorical embellishments, and if the lists of the members of the councils of Arles and of Nice, be correct, and not the compilation of a much later period, but to conclude that the country was full of bishops, priests, monks, and churches, as if there had been a complete hierarchy, is an assumption utterly gratuitous and unfounded.

The Christianity which existed in the country , to whatever extent it prevailed, was not of the most orthodox description, for both Arius and Pelagius, are said to have been largely followed, although great care must be exercised in accepting these general statements. It is not at all unlikely that the old Druidism acted very powerfully, whatever may have been the character or, the extent of the Christianity adopted. One thing is most strange, and even inexplicable, if the supposition of some zealous partisans of the British church theory be true, that no effort was made by these British Christians for the conversion of the Saxons for one hundred and fifty years after their arrival in the country, but the Saxons appear to have remained in the darkest ignorance upon all Christian doctrines until the arrival of Augustine and his band. Nor is this startling difficulty removed by the mot very clear guess that the national hatred of the Saxons by the Britons caused them to remain silent during all that time.

Then, with regard to the native bishops in Wales with whom Augustine is said to have had a conference, and whom he denounced because of their different reckoning of Easter, and because of their wearing the tonsure in a different form (matters, not of doctrine, but merely of ritual) they may have been missionaries originally from Scotland or Ireland, in both of which countries the gospel had been long before preached. From the island of Iona, under the fostering care of the Culdee church, numerous evangelists had gone forth to enlighten not their own country only, but also distant and dangerous heathen nations. Notwithstanding the high respect properly felt for great names, such as Stilling fleet, Usher, Collier, Fuller and other ecclesiastical historians, a strict regard to truth and to the force of evidence, does not allow of the popular and pretty theory of a primitive British church being admitted, until decisive testimony can be found, clearer and less fragmentary than that upon which the theory has hitherto been made to rest.

In connexion with the promulgation of Christianity in this country by Augustine, a circumstance is recorded, which does credit to the heart of Gregory, who had turned his attention towards our island before he had reached the papacy.

It was then the practice of Europe to make use of slaves, and to buy and sell them, and this traffic was carried on, even in the western capital of the Christian church. As Gregory was passing one day through the market at Rome, the white skins, the flowing locks, and beautiful countenances of some youths who were standing there for sale, attracted his notice, and interested him. To his inquiries from what country they had been brought, the answer was, from Britain, whose inhabitants were all of that fair complexion. Were they Pagans or Christians? Was his next question: a proof not only of his ignorance of the state of England, but also, that, up to that time, it had occupied no part of his attention. But thus brought as it were to a personal knowledge of it by these few representatives of its inhabitants, he exclaimed, on hearing that they were still idolaters, with a deep sigh: “What a pity that such a beauteous frontispiece should possess a mind so void of internal graces!”

 The name of their nation being mentioned to him as the Angles, his ear caught the verbal coincidence. The benevolent wish for their improvement darted into his mind, and he expressed his own feelings, and excited those of his auditors by remarking: “It suits them well: they have angel faces, and ought to be coheirs of the angels in heaven.” A purer philanthropy perhaps never breathed from the human heart, than in these sudden effusions of Gregory’s. That their provincial country ‘Deira, should resemble the words De ira, seemed to his simple mind to imply that they ought to be plucked from the wrath of God, and when he heard that their king’s name was called Ella, the consonance of its sound with the idea then floating in his mind, completed the impression of the whole scene. His full enthusiasm burst out. “Hallelujah! The praise of the creating Deity must be sung in these regions.” This secession of verbal coincidences affected his mind with a permanent impression. He went to the then pope, and prayed him to send some missionaries to convert the English nation, and offered himself for the service. His petition was refused, but the project never left his benevolent mind, till he was himself enabled to accomplish it.

Not long after he succeeded to the popedom, he selected Augustine, then prior of the convent of St. Andrew’s in Rome, to be the head of a mission to Britain, but ere he and his associates had traversed Gaul on their way to the island, faint heartedness seized some of them, and at their urgent solicitation Augustine returned to Rome and begged to be excused the difficult task. Gregory was a man of extraordinary decision and strength of mind, and would not be turned from his purpose. His advice and expostulations with Augustine prevailed, and by him he sent a sharp rebuke to the other members of the mission, who thereupon continued their journey and at length arrived at Canterbury, which was afterwards assigned to them as a residence.

Their preaching was attended with marvellous results, so far as nominal converts were concerned, the king and ten thousand of his subjects submitting to the initiatory rite of baptism. Seven years after (A.D. 604) the king of Essex, nephew to Ethelbert, followed his example, and shortly after, Redwald, king of East Anglia, did the same. In both cases, great numbers of the people made a profession of Christianity and were baptized, and a bishop was appointed to each kingdom, and in both there was a speedy relapse, for on the death of the king of Essex his sons endeavoured to re-establish the ancient idolatry, and the bishop had to flee for his life, and in East Anglia, Redwald sought to compromise matters by placing a Christian altar in the temple of Woden, while even in Kent, on the death of Ethelbert, his son and successor Eadbald, took for a partner his late father’s young and second wife, to the great scandal of Laurentius, who had become bishop on the death of Augustine in 604.

As Eadbald disregarded the bishop’s remonstrance’s, and seemed determined on maintaining the connexion with his young and handsome stepmother, Laurentius prepared to quit the country, or professed to be about to do so, but first had recourse to an artifice, according to one of the chronicles, in which numberless tales of the kind are to be met with. Laurentius suddenly appeared before the king with his shoulders bare and bloody, as from a severe flagellation, and represented that St. Peter had appeared to him the night before and had thus punished him for his intention to leave the country, ordering him to make one more appeal to the king.

So cleverly did the bishop work upon Eadbald’s superstition and fear, that he begged him not to go, and promised to conform to the bishop’s wishes. Such relapses as these were not uncommon among the newly baptized heathen of those times, whose Christianity was only superficial, generally adopted at the command of a chief, and as readily abandoned when he changed his mind or, rather, when it suited his convenience or caprice. Yet the mere presence of a body of priests exerted a good moral influence, the effects of which were afterward apparent, for at that early time the priesthood was tolerably free from the vices and corruptions which subsequently disgraced them, and of which particulars will be furnished in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 1, The Saxons

Invasions by Picts and Scots

Fables and Traditions of the Period

Contemporaneous Accounts of Them

Divided State of British Tribes

Origin of the Saxons and Derivation of the Name

Chapter 1, The Saxon Kingdoms

Their Character Habits and Leaders

Successive Landings and Formation of States

The Saxon Kingdoms

Chapter 1, Introduction of Christianity

Mission of Augustine and Introduction of Christianity

Social Condition at the Transition Period


Categories: Book 2

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