Boniface: Apostle to the Germans

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

When in the early history of the new dispensation church God was pleased to bring the gospel to Europe, the continent was overrun with many different barbarian tribes which were in darkest paganism and were constantly on the move. They were uncivilized, warlike, worshipers of idols, and perpetually fighting with each other. They were a threat to the Roman Empire and finally destroyed the empire in the West in the fifth century. All the institutions of society in the Roman world were destroyed—except for the church. The church alone remained through all the turmoil and destruction of this terrible time. 

The church was deeply conscious of her missionary calling and without interruption sent out her servants to bring the gospel to these barbarian tribes. It took men of self-sacrifice, of courage, and of conviction to venture into the lonely forests and mountains of Europe to fulfill the command of Christ. The dangers were many, not the least of which was the constant threat of vicious tribes who knew nothing of Christ and who despised all that belonged to Roman culture. 

God was pleased to bring the gospel to these barbarian tribes in such a way that Europe was "Christianized." By this term I mean that the gospel, over the course of many centuries, so entered into the warp and woof of the life of these barbarians that not only were the barbarians brought into the church, but Christianity itself became part and parcel of all the institutions of society. Society as a whole became Christian. The missionary work of the church produced Christian nations. And we in this land are heirs to this heritage. 

This was not, of course, outside Gods purpose. These very Christian nations (of Europe and America) have, over the course of the years, while retaining an external form of Christianity, become Antichrist and will, in Gods time, produce the great beast of Revelation 13. In this way they are separated from "Gog and Magog," the nations on the four comers of the earth who remain in all their history pagan—even though God is pleased to gather His church also from them. 

One of the great missionaries to bring the gospel to the barbarian tribes in Europe was a man by the name of Boniface. He was born in Craediton, near Exeter, in the little Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the land of England, around 675. He was given the name of Winfrith by his parents who belonged to the nobility. Because royal blood coursed through his veins, he had the opportunity to engage in studies, and he received the best education available in his times. In his early years he proved to be an able scholar and soon advanced in his career. He entered a monastery and was busy there until the fortieth year of his life. In the monastery he was teacher, poet, grammarian, and theologian. So great were his grammatical skills that he prepared a Latin grammar for use in the school. It seemed as if a life of leisurely teaching and learning were to be his calling. 

But God called him to other labors. Reports reached the quietness of his monastery of a catastrophe that had taken place in the Lowlands, now Netherlands. A missionary by the name of Willibrord had labored there. This faithful servant of Christ had had some success in his work among the barbarian tribes which inhabited the land on the far west of Europe. But his work had been completely destroyed by a fierce Frisian king named Radbob, who rooted all Christianity out of his lands. 

When these reports reached Winfrith, he determined to travel to the Lowlands to attempt to restore the work. He forsook his life of ease, his home with his parents, and his homeland, to travel to the dark forests and swamps of northwestern Europe to bring the gospel to the fierce Frisian barbarians. With two or three companions, he set sail and soon landed on the coast. But his work met with little success, and he determined to press on into the interior (into what is now Germany) to bring the gospel there. 

Before traveling to Germany, however, he decided that he would attempt to gain the endorsement of the most powerful man in Europe, in the hopes that this would assist him in his missionary enterprise. Traveling first to what is now France, he secured the endorsement of Pepin, the ruler of the Franks, and then went on to Rome to secure the endorsement of the pope.

This latter endeavor was filled with important consequences for his work. In order to understand this, we must know a bit about the currents of history running through Europe at this time. The barbarian tribes themselves were constantly at war in efforts to expand their territories. Among the Franks a strong centralized government was gradually emerging, and the kings of the Franks were attempting to extend their empire into Germany by subduing the Saxons. An endorsement by the king of the Franks would, in the opinion of Boniface, aid him in the work. From another direction, the bishop of Rome was attempting to extend his influence and rule over the whole of Europe, and he saw missionary work as an instrument to accomplish this. Between the Franks and the pope an alliance had been formed which was to last for centuries. Boniface was, therefore, convinced that to receive credentials from both the Frankish king and the pope of Rome would advance his work greatly. 

Having received commendation from the pope, Boniface became a loyal son of the church who fought with great energy to advance the cause of the papacy in Europe. He would tolerate no opposition to the church of Rome whatsoever. This involved him in struggles with other missionaries who had come to the continent from England and who wanted to establish a church far more independent from Rome than anything either the pope or Boniface wanted. These Scottish and Irish missionaries became Boniface's opponents. 

Germany itself was still under the sway of barbarianism. Some missionary work had been done there, but the constant wars between the tribes and the general paganism and superstition of the people had resulted in an almost complete destruction of earlier missionary work. 

Into these streams and currents of life Boniface set out to preach the gospel. He had a rare gift for preaching and soon established churches and monasteries in many different locations as thousands were turned to the church by his labors. The most famous monastery which he erected was in Fulda, where eventually he was also buried. He met with fierce opposition, and his life was constantly threatened. 

Perhaps his greatest victory was scored early in his labors in Germany. The Saxons venerated a large oak tree as the sacred tree of their god Thor, the god of thunder. The people not only worshiped the huge and solid tree, but held their tribal meetings under the "divine" protection of its branches. When Boniface saw that the oak was an obstacle to his work and that it was a barrier to the reception of the gospel, he took an axe and in the presence of a quivering throng of idol-worshipers, began to hack away at its trunk. While the gasping people were convinced that Thor would come in judgment upon this presumptuous missionary, the tree was felled without any interference from the heathen idol. Legend has it that a powerful wind from a thunderstorm arose as Boniface was chopping and assisted him by blowing the tree down and splitting the oak into four pieces of wood of equal length. At any rate, Boniface boldly used the wood of the oak to construct a chapel in the area for the worship of God. 

As his success among the Saxons increased, he rose in the estimation of the pope, who appointed him bishop in 722 and archbishop in 732. In the meantime, he applied his not inconsiderable abilities to the organization of the churches in Saxony and to the rooting out of evils. He traveled and preached, presided at Synods called to rectify abuses, and settled disputes. He was unsparing in his labors to root out the superstition and immorality which plagued these peoples, and he was totally intolerant of the Scottish and Irish missionaries who wished to labor with him, but who were not, in his judgment, as loyal to the church of Rome as they ought to be. He extirpated pagan customs, set rules for life, and punished heretics and wicked men. 

When he was an old man, the tug of the Lowlands came once again and he resolved to return to the place of his earlier failures. He traveled there in 754 taking his shroud with him, apparently aware of the fact that in the Lowlands he would die and be buried. Here he labored with some success in the brakes and swamps of what is now Friesland in the Netherlands. But his work was early cut off. The enemies of the faith were aware of his work and determined to destroy it. While he was near the village of Dockum to baptize a number of converts, a part of the fierce Frisians fell upon the company. While the Christians wanted to resist and protect their leader, he admonished them: "My children, do not fight; let us follow the example of our Lord in Gethsemane. We shall soon see him in his glory. I have longed to see him, and to be with him. Let us pray." As they knelt in prayer, the mob, yelling and shrieking, fell upon them and killed Boniface and 51 of the people. He died on June 5, 754. 

We would surely want to criticize Boniface for his strenuous efforts to establish churches loyal to the papacy, and he must be criticized for this. Yet he was a faithful preacher of the gospel and was willing to live a life of hardship and self-denial in the cause of missions. In the course of his work he had himself defined his labors: "Let us die for the holy laws of our fathers. Let us not be dumb dogs, silent spectators, hirelings who flee from the world, but faithful shepherds, watchful for the flock of Christ. Let us preach the whole counsel of God to the high and to the low, to the rich and to the poor, to every rank and age, whether in season or out of season, as far as God gives us strength."

Boniface was surely an example of that mixture of holiness and weakness which characterizes all Gods servants. One of his biographers says of him that "He had a restless, unsteady, complex nature, dangerously wracked by the black homours of despair, and he was extremely self-effacing and timid; although (he) accomplished an immense work, it was done almost reluctantly and without his ever having had the slightest desire to push himself to the forefront. The superior interests of the Church alone guided him, but when they were in play this timid man was carried away by his enthusiasm, and his boldness knew no bounds...." 

Today a statue stands in the Frisian city of Dockum commemorating his work. The Netherlands became not only Christian but, after the Reformation, the cradle of the Reformed faith.

God uses weakest means to fulfill His will.

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