This post is an incredible story that ends with a less-than-happy ending. This is a story that many people do not know, but it truly worth retelling. This is the third post in a series looking at Christian leaders who did not give up in the midst of significant challenges. The person of interest in this post is one who people could say, “He shouldn’t have tried again because it didn’t end well for him.” However, I’ll let you make up your mind on whether this person should have tried again.
Winfrid was born to a well-to-do Anglo-Saxon Christian family in Wessex, England in the late 7th century. He trained in the monastic tradition and became a priest. I’m getting a head of myself here, but its helpful to know that later on during his work, Pope Gregory II renamed Winfrid, Boniface—and thus most people know this individual as St. Boniface. I will continue to refer to him as Boniface. Boniface was sent to Frisia, where he worked with a missionary who had been trying to spread the gospel among the Frisian people. Frisia is an area making up modern day Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. To make a long story short, Boniface faced significant challenges in Frisia and some would say he failed his first mission.
After leaving Frisia and returning to England, Boniface went to Rome to see the pope and was sent to lead missionary efforts in Germany. Boniface was very successful at reaching the German people east of the Rhine River. There’s an incredible story of a sacred oak tree in which the Germans revered the pagan god Thor. In an attempt to help the German people see that Thor was not real, he began chopping down the oak tree. The German people believed that chopping down this sacred oak would bring lightning from the heavens and strike him dead. As he was chopping down the tree, a strong wind came and pushed the tree over. When the people saw this and realized that Boniface had not been struck by lightning, they decided to open their hearts to Christianity. He then used the wood to build a church.
Boniface continued to have great missional success throughout Germany. He would start many churches, baptize many people, and later be appointed the archbishop of Germany. He formed a friendship with the Carolingians (the family of Charles Martel and later Charlemagne). In an attempt to reach out to Frisia again, Boniface returned. After having great success in Germany, it only made sense for him to try to share the gospel with the Frisians again. This time, he had built a relationship with the Carolingians, and last time he had done work in Frisia, the Frisians were at war with the Carolingians making it difficult to share the gospel.
Boniface and his colleagues had shared the gospel with many people, who also received the message. On one tragic day, Boniface was surrounded by robbers. In a desire to defend Boniface and themselves, his colleagues began reaching for their weapons. Boniface swiftly replied: “Cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good, but to overcome evil by good” (p. 135, Soldiers of Christ, T.F.X. Noble & T. Head).
The words Boniface shared were powerful. Unfortunately, he was martyred as a result to the conflict. However, I believe that his example continues on to this day. He may have failed in Frisia the first time, but I think he had a great victory in Frisia the second time. The gospel was preached and he died as Christ did, without fighting back.
This was not a happy ending, but I ask: “Was it worth it for Boniface to return to Frisia?” I think the answer might be yes. He could have given up after his first mission in Frisia and never reached the thousands of Germans. But he chose to continue his mission and had great success for the kingdom of God. He returned to Frisia because he had a heart broken for those people and a desire to have them experience the gospel. While the story didn’t end well, we can still be inspired by the great testimony of his work and commitment to the kingdom of God.
Bonus Fact: This is slightly off topic, but it’s a fun cultural fact that relates to missiology. The closest similar language to English today is Frisian Dutch. The Old Anglo-Saxon language would have been very similar to the language of the Frisians, meaning that Boniface had a significant advantage on reaching the Frisians.