The St. Patrick of the Germans

The St. Patrick of the Germans March 17, 2021

We often think of missionaries as emissaries from the West to non-Western lands such as Africa or Asia.  But the Western lands also came to faith through the work of missionaries.  All nations did, with the exception of the Jews.

The most famous of the missionaries to European countries is St. Patrick, who brought the Gospel to Ireland and whose day it is today.

But there were many others who are also worth remembering, but who don’t currently rate being honored with by parades, corn-beef and cabbage, green beer, and wearing green-colored clothing.

Another Englishman who went to evangelize European pagans was St. Boniface, who brought the gospel to Germany.  Here is an account of his most famous exploit, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

To show the heathens how utterly powerless were the gods in whom they placed their confidence, Boniface felled the oak sacred to the thunder-god Thor, at Geismar, near Fritzlar. He had a chapel built out of the wood and dedicated it to the prince of the Apostles. The heathens were astonished that no thunderbolt from the hand of Thor destroyed the offender, and many were converted. The fall of this oak marked the fall of heathenism.

Here is a fuller account of the tree-cutting, which some relate to the German-originated custom of the Christmas tree, from Willibald’s Life of St. Boniface, written shortly after it happened (and Latinizing the name of the thunder god to “Jupiter”):

Now at that time many of the Hessians, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things.

With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by.

At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle.

St. Boniface, like many of those other missionaries to the Europeans, was martyred, killed, along with 52 of his travelling companions, by a band of Frisian bandits.  Boniface was said to have held a book of the Gospels over his head, using it as a shield against the axes and swords of his murderers.

The bandits broke into the chests that were in the wagons and were flabbergasted to find not gold or silver, but just manuscripts and more books.  The bandits destroyed most of them, but some survived, including the Ragyndrudis Codex, a collection of religious writings that can still be seen in Fulda, Germany, whose pages have deep cuts, as if by an axe.

St. Boniface’s day of commemoration is June 5, but St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to think of him.  We Lutherans, some of whom are descendants of those tree-worshiping Hessians, should honor him this summer, not with the trappings of German nationalism, but maybe by drinking regular-colored beer made according to the German purity law.  Or maybe cutting down some trees.


Illustration:  “Saint Boniface Felling Donar’s Oak,” photographed by Bernhard Rode – Self-photographed, Public Domain,

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