Guest Post by John Morrison, PhD
While “a young man, almost a beardless boy,” Patrick (c. 389-c.461) was abducted from his father’s villa in Britain by a band of Irish raiders who would sell him as a slave in their native land. While enslaved, Patrick would come to faith in Christ, and he would eventually escape back to his home in Britain. However, he would not stay home. He returned to the land of his captivity to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and through his missionary efforts, the gospel would gain a foothold in Ireland.
The life of Patrick exemplifies what the Apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Cor 1:3-5, CSB). The Lord used the sufferings Patrick endured to draw him to faith in Christ, and it was these same sufferings that the Lord used to prepare Patrick to proclaim the glories of his grace.
Early Life and Capture
Patrick was born into the upper echelon of Romano-British society and likely lived along the western coast of Britain. The Romans had been in Britain for over three centuries by Patrick’s day, so while he and his family were British, their culture was heavily Romanized.
Through soldiers and merchants, the Christian faith had come to the British Isles. While little is known about the church in Britain before Patrick’s day, it seems to have made significant inroads. In fact, Patrick says that his grandfather Potitus had been a priest in the church and that his father Calpornius was a deacon. Whatever the faith of his forbearers, Christianity had little effect on Patrick in his early years. He says of this time that he “did not know the true God.”
At age 16, Patrick’s life would radically change. Raiders from Ireland tore him away from his family, wealth, and privilege and took him to be a slave on their home island.
Captivity, Conversion, and Call
Patrick found himself enslaved in a foreign land, far removed from the only life he had known and with no prospect of ever going home again. In the midst of this suffering, the Lord called him to faith in Christ. Patrick recounts, “There the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.”
Patrick labored in slavery for six years until he was able to escape and make his way some 200 miles to the coast of Ireland. From there, he coaxed a ship’s captain into allowing him to board, and he eventually made his way back to his home.
However, he would not stay home. Patrick could not keep silent about God’s grace to him in Christ: “I ought to shout in gratitude to the Lord for his great favors in this world and for ever.” After a few years back with his family, Patrick had a series of dreams filled with people from Ireland beckoning him to return to the land of his captivity. He would go. He would go back to the place where he had been enslaved, back to the people who had violently stolen him from his family.
Mission to Ireland
In the pagan context of ancient Ireland, Patrick proclaimed a distinctively Trinitarian faith. His was no generic god, but he preached the God of the Bible who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saving faith, according to Patrick is faith in our Triune God:
“For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning, in whom all things began, whose are all things, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, who manifestly always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time in the spirit with the Father, indescribably begotten before all things, and all things visible and invisible were made by him. He was made man, conquered death and was received into Heaven, to the Father who gave him all power over every name in Heaven and on Earth and in Hell, so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe. And we look to his imminent coming again, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to each according to his deeds. And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, the gift and pledge of immortality, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons of God and co-heirs of Christ who is revealed, and we worship one God in the Trinity of holy name.”
Patrick’s return to Ireland was not without its hardships. “Daily,” he relates, “I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery.” On twelve separate occasions, he was almost killed, but he explains “I fear nothing because of the promises of heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of the Almighty God, who reigns everywhere.”
Through Patrick’s bold proclamation and the Lord’s grace, the gospel would advance in Ireland. From the Celtic Church, Patrick’s missionary legacy would continue as men like Columba (c. 521-597), Columbanus (c.543-615), and Aidan (d. 651) went out proclaiming the grace of Christ throughout the British Isles and Gaul.
Lessons from Patrick
Our God wastes nothing. The Lord used Patrick’s suffering to prepare him to proclaim the gospel to the Irish. Three lessons stand out from how God used Patrick’s enslavement for his good and for the good of those who would hear his message:
Patrick came to saving faith while in captivity. The Lord used this horrible time in his life to awaken him to his need for Christ, and it was the comfort he received from Christ that he passed on to others.
It was also while enslaved in Ireland that Patrick learned the language, the people, and the culture of that land, which would allow him to minister more effectively upon his return.
Finally, the hardships of slavery prepared him for the hardships of his missionary work. Patrick suffered much and repeatedly faced death as he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ in Ireland.
All quotations are from The Confession of St. Patrick (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.pdf). For more on Patrick, see Michael A. G. Haykin’s Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact (https://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Ireland-Life-Impact-Biography/dp/178191303X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518522509&sr=8-1&keywords=patrick+of+ireland).
John D. Morrison (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) leads the Gospel Training Center at Lakewood Baptist Church (http://www.lakewoodlife.org/gtc).