By Rex Butler, NOBTS
When Pope Gregory II commissioned the missionary known as Boniface, he said, “You seem to glow with the salvation-bringing fire that the Lord came to send upon the earth” as cited by Mark Galli in 131 Christians Everyone Should Know).
Gregory gave him the name “Boniface” (“doer of good”), a name to which Boniface lived up to by his hard work and impacting preaching in eighth-century Germany.
Boniface was born about 680 A.D. as Wynfrith (or Winfrid) in Wessex in southern England, to Christian parents. His family entertained a number of monks coming to establish Christian institutions in the region, and young Wynfrith was so taken with their way of life that, at the age of five, he determined to dedicate himself to God’s service.
His parents were appalled, for they had different aspirations for their robust, intelligent son than his being shut up in a monastery.
His father both rebuked him violently and tried bribes, but after his father recovered from the plague and credited the prayers of the faithful monks, Wynfrith’s parents gave him their blessing and placed him at the age of 7 in a Benedictine monastery.
Wynfrith started as a boy lector and worked his way up the minor orders of clerical rank.
He demonstrated extraordinary intellect, excelling academically and producing the first Latin grammar in England.
In AD 716, Wynfrith announced his intention to go to Frisia (Holland). Although reluctant to release their scholar, the other monks recognized the honor of sending a missionary from their monastery and supplied him with money and a few companions.
The initial mission to Frisia was a disaster. The missionaries had intended to join the missionary Willibrord. Unfortunately, Radbod, the pagan Frisian king, was at war with Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer), the Christian ruler of the Franks, so Frisia had been laid waste. After only four months, Wynfrith and his companions returned to England.
Wynfrith settled again into his teaching duties, and upon the death of the abbot, might have become the new abbot, but instead he received permission from the bishop of Winchester to resume his missionary endeavors.
The bishop sent him with letters of commendation to Pope Gregory II. Quite taken with Wynfrith, the pope kept him by his side for five months before granting his commission along with his new name, Boniface, in tribute to a bishop of Rome by that name who had died 300 years earlier.
Commissioned to evangelize the Saxons, Boniface first journeyed to Thuringia in central Germany, where he found the church in disarray. Boniface was like a busy bee in an area lacking in preaching and teaching. Realizing that he could minister more effectively with the support of the ruling authority, he went to Frisia, where the Christian ruler Charles Martel was finally in control. The missionary Willibrord also was there, and Boniface became his assistant. After three years, Willibrord desired to ordain Boniface a bishop, but Boniface declined and instead returned to Rome.
In Rome, Gregory himself ordained Boniface as a bishop at large, assigned to all of Germany. Boniface’s two assignments were to instruct those “led astray by the wiles of the devil and now serve idols under the guise of the Christian religion” and to evangelize others, who “have not yet been cleansed by the waters of holy Baptism, but like brute beasts are blind to their Creator” (Gregory II, Letter to the Christians of Germany).
Back in Germany, Boniface confronted the old Saxon gods. In Hesse, cultic worship focused on a giant oak tree, believed to be sacred to Thor (Donar in German, from donner for “thunder”) perhaps due to having been struck by lightning. Boniface assembled the heathen and took an axe to the tree. According to Willibald, “Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above, crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God … the oak burst asunder into four parts [in the shape of a cross]. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle, the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord” (Willibald, Life of St. Boniface). Boniface used pieces of the tree to construct a chapel dedicated to St. Peter.
In 732, the new pope Gregory III added to Boniface’s authority by making him an archbishop over an extended territory that included what is now Germany, France, and the Netherlands. As he set out to reform the churches, Boniface had a reputation as one who was difficult, prickly, and tactless. Yet, his effectiveness was seen in the training of undisciplined bishops, ordinations of like-minded bishops, and the assembling of five councils that adopted regulations for the clergy and established oppositions to heretics. He appealed to his home country for helpers, and dozens of English monks participated in his mission to Germany.
Boniface also played a significant role in Frankish politics in what is now France. In 752, Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, usurped the crown of the token king Childeric the Stupid. In collaboration with Pope Zacharias, Boniface induced Childeric to retreat to a monastery and then anointed Pepin as king. This act had consequences through the end of the century as the alliance between the papacy and the Frankish monarchy protected the papacy from the Lombards until Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800.
Near the end of his life, Boniface desired to return to Frisia, his first mission site, from which, according to Willibald, he had left in body but never in spirit. Before his departure, Boniface confided in Bishop Lull a prediction of his own imminent death. Despite Lull’s pleas, Boniface insisted on leaving and told Lull to provide everything for the journey including a linen sheet in which to wrap his body. Once in Frisia, Boniface set about his work with zeal, destroying pagan worship, building churches, and baptizing thousands of converts.
On Pentecost eve, June 5, 754, he and a group of Frisian converts were attacked by a pagan mob. Boniface exhorted his charges not to resist, but to die a martyr’s death: “Sons, cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good … Fear not them who kill the body, for they cannot slay the soul, which continues to live forever. Rejoice in the Lord, … for without delay He will render to you the reward of eternal bliss and grant you an abode with the angels in His heaven above…. Endure with steadfast mind the sudden, onslaught of death, so that you may be able to reign evermore with Christ” (Willibald, Life of St. Boniface).
Boniface and fifty converts were murdered that day. When those who escaped the slaughter found his body, they discovered that the missionary’s only defense was a copy of Ambrose’s book, The Advantage of Death, which had two deep slashes in its cover. The book is now on display, along with his burial crypt, at Fulda, Germany, in the monastery Boniface founded.
Boniface was nurtured inside a monastery, an institution that often seems to shut out the world, yet he went far beyond the walls of his English monastery into the German frontier. One of the paradoxes of the medieval Christian life is that the missionary impulse was borne and lived out by those who renounced the worldly life through monastic vows – Patrick of Ireland; Augustine of Canterbury; Columba of Iona; Anskar of Scandinavia; Cyril and Methodius of the Slavic people; Raymond Lull of Tunisia; and Boniface, the Apostle to Germany, who “had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived” (Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe).
Rex Butler is Associate Professor of Church History and Patristics at NOBTS.