The people of the Netherlands were Christianised in the seventh and eighth century, later than many other Christian peoples of Europe. The story of the evangelism of these countries is poorly known outside their borders - and with the general godlessness that pervades Europe in recent times, even within their borders. This is a great pity, for it is a story of great saints of exceptional piety, dedication, and wisdom. Their times also offer some lessons to our own.

In this study we will refer to the lands more than to the people within the lands. The times of which we speak were times of great turmoil, of great movements of people, and of ethnogenesis (i.e., the destruction, transformation, and creation of new peoples in response to the times).1 The basic ethnic mix is Frisian, Saxon, and Frankish. However, "countless refugees" have moved to the "tolerant Dutch cities ... over the centuries ... as a result of religious or political pressures." Many people have moved there for purely economic reasons as well.2 For instance, many of the Netherlands inhabitants are sailors, and sailors are highly mobile. (e.g., The Lieuwens are a sailing family and appear out of nowhere in Holland in the early eighteenth century. Research seems to indicate that they came initially from either the Baltic area or Scandinavia.3) The Netherlands have also typically exported many of their tradesmen - to England in the Middle Ages, to Russia at the time of Peter the Great, to America for several hundred years. Thus, even in recent times, the population of the Netherlands has been rather dynamic.

The Roman conquest of the Netherlands began in the first century BC. At that time, the Netherlands were inhabited by Celtic and Germanic peoples. The Roman conquest of Gaul was completed by Julius Caesar in 59-52 BC. It stopped short of the Rhine. Caesar Augustus' attempts to cross the Elbe failed, so the area controlled by the Frisians to the north of the Rhine was never ruled by the Romans.4 However, the Frisians were "more or less tributary to the Romans" from the first through the fifth century.5 Other parts of the Netherlands formed parts of the provinces of Belgica and Germania Inferior.6 Trade across the borders between the Roman parts of the Netherlands and "Free Germany" was not uncommon.7 The Romans allowed the Franks to settle in parts of the Roman Netherlands so that they would protect the borders. They continued this task until the middle of the fifth century when they began moving south. The Roman occupation of parts of the Netherlands ended during the great invasion of Germanic tribes in 406-407.8 However, Frisia was not left alone; rather she was "infiltrated by Angles and Saxons on their way to England," 9 a factor in the kinship their largely Anglo-Saxon missionaries felt toward them which impelled them to seek to work among the Frisians in preference to other pagan peoples.

The Netherlands were largely independent in the early Merovingian period, and the Frisian part was completely independent of Frankish control. During the early sixth century, the rising power of the Frankish nobility (particularly, the family of Pepin II, the Austrasian "mayor of the palace" whose descendants, the Carolingians, replaced the Merovingians - a process that became of some importance in the lives of the missionaries to the Netherlands) began to change this state of affairs. Pepin II defeated the "mayor of the palace" of Neustria (Austrasia contains "the Ardennes and upper Meuse", while Neustria was the "western part of the Frankish Merovingian kingdom") in 687, which allowed him to turn his attention north. In 689, he defeated the Frisian king Radbod near Dorestat. Frankish power and the Franks' Christian faith were resented by the Frisians, who saw the first as a threat to their ancient liberties and the second as a tool of Frankish imperialism.10 Consequently, Radbod was a determined proponent of paganism. Maps of the expansion of the Franks at the expense of their neighbours show why the Frisians feared them.11

The First Missionaries :: Frankish Missionary-Bishops in Belgium

Missionary activities by Frankish bishops educated at the Neustrian court began in earnest with the help of King Dagobert (reigned 623-629 with his father, 629-639 alone). The Frisian kingdom "became increasingly important to the Frankish kingdom because of its vital role in trade and the exchange routes between the Scheldt and the Weser" starting in the reign of Dagobert's father, King Chlothar II (reigned 584-629).12 While the expansion of Frankish power was not a major concern of the missionaries (except inasmuch as it made it easier to work in new lands), it was a major concern of the Frankish kings who aided the missionaries.

St Amandus (d. 659), an Aquitanian, helped establish "monasteries across Flanders, especially at Elnone (later St Amand), Ghent, and Antwerp" (see maps in the appendix for a rough idea of his mission field). King Dagobert was generous to such missionary endeavours, particularly in the form of fiscal (crown) lands.13

St Amandus was "consecrated bishop in 628 without any fixed see, receiving a general commission to preach the faith to the heathen.14 He preached the Gospel in Flanders and among the Slavs in Carinthia." Then, during his banishment by Dagobert (for reproving Dagobert's "scandalous crimes"), he did missionary work among the pagans of Gascony and Navarre.15 Dagobert quickly repented - recalling St Arnandus and throwing himself at the saint's feet and asking for forgiveness. St Amandus then returned to the mission field - this time to the vicinity of Ghent.16

He deliberately chose a very difficult mission field. The pagans were so fierce in that area that no other preacher dared face their fury. This inspired him to work among them. He worked very hard for a long time without seeing any visible fruit - during which time he supported himself with manual labour. Furthermore, he was frequently beaten and sometimes thrown into a river. However, his patient labours eventually bore fruit. God allowed him to raise a dead man (a criminal who had been hanged17) to life before the eyes of the people. After that, crowds came to him seeking baptism - and the people destroyed the pagan temples with their own hands. By 633, he had already built several churches. In that year, he founded "two great monasteries in Ghent, both under the protection of St Peter." He built many institutions devoted to God's service in Flanders. One of the most important was the "great abbey of Elnon[e]" which is "nine miles from Tournay."18 (The abbey as well as the nearby town and mineral baths were later renamed St Amand.) A tradition of doubtful authority says he was chosen Bishop of Maastricht in 649, but resigned his see three years later to St Remaclus and returned to mission work. He continued working among the heathen until age eighty-six. Then, broken with infirmities, he returned to Elnone where he served as abbot for four years. He fell asleep in the Lord in 675.19

In the course of St Amandus' labours, he preached in Utrecht and erected a small chapel dedicated to St Martin. After he left for other labours, Dagobert gave the fort at Utrecht to the Bishop of Cologne, Cunibert, on the condition that he would work for the conversion of the Frisians. The see of Cologne, either from indifference or inability, did no missionary work among the Frisians. However, the old grant came up again (about a hundred years later) toward the end of the St Boniface's life - one of the last annoyances he had to face from a troublesome Frankish episcopate in the time leading up to his martyrdom. (The bishop of Cologne tried to take control of the thriving mission under St Eoban whom St Boniface had appointed to the see of Utrecht.)20

Other missionaries to the Netherlands worked out of the areas around Noyon (in modern day northern France) and Tournay (in modern day Belgium) including Acharius, St Eligius, and St Mommolinus.21

St Eligius (c. 590-659) started his career as a goldsmith of considerable skill, impressing King Clotaire II, Dagobert I, and Clovis II with his skill and great honesty. His skill led him to a position of considerable wealth which he used for alms and to ransom slaves, some of whom remained in his service and faithfully helped him throughout his life. (One of them was a Saxon, St Tillo, who became the apostle to the area around Courtrai.22) King Dagobert gave him land for a monastery in Limousin and for a nunnery in Paris. In 641 (early in the reign of Clovis II), he was consecrated Bishop of Noyon and Tournay. The Tournay part of his diocese was mostly pagan. He preached among them and in the areas around Antwerp, Ghent, and Courtrai. The pagans initially wished to harm him, but his consistent acts of Christian charity (e.g., taking care of the sick, protecting the people from oppression, and providing material aid) caused their attitude to change. Many were converted and baptized. He preached every Sunday and feast day. He fell asleep in the Lord on December 1, 659. The queen regent (who shared his concern for slaves - having been carried into captivity from England in her youth - and who highly respected him as a counsellor) wanted to bring his body to her monastery at Chelles, while others sought to bring it to Paris. However, the people of Noyon so strenuously opposed this that his body remained with them.23 St Eligius was "for long the most popular saint of France, and his feast was universal in north-western Europe during the later Middle Ages." He is the patron saint of all kinds of smiths and metal workers. Butler remarked that

St Eligius learned to be a saint while living "in the world" and at court. But for all this he studied to be neither of the world nor withdrawn by the world from religious duties ... St Eligius and many other saints found leisure to converse mostly with Heaven even in courts.24


The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries from England and the Conversion of Friesland

St Wilfrid (634-709) was the first prominent Anglo-Saxon to preach to the Frisians. After St Theodore of Tarsus uncanonically divided St Wilfrid's unwieldy diocese of York into four, he left England to appeal to Rome. His enemies wished to kill him, so he took a route through Fries-land to throw them off his trail25 (an alternative explanation is that the winds were contrary and drove him to Friesland).26 He was received kindly by King Aldgisl. He stayed there during the winter of 678 and the following summer, preaching the Gospel. He was quite successful.27

In the pagans' eyes his doctrine gained strong backing by the fact that his arrival was marked by an unusually large catch of fish. Indeed the year was an abnormally fruitful one for every kind of produce. All this they attributed to the glory of the God whom the holy man was preaching. So his preaching was accepted and that year he baptized all but a few of the chiefs and many thousands of the common people.28

The Frankish Duke Ebroin (the mayor of the palace for the Neustrian King Theodericus) was bribed by St Wilfrid's enemies to harm him. He sent Aldgisl a letter promising a bushel of gold solidi for St Wilfrid either dead or alive. The king had the message read in the hearing of all - including St Wilfrid and the messengers. He then tore it up and burned it, saying that those who break their oaths ought so to be destroyed by God.29 St Wilfrid then went on to Rome and to a long a varied career in England. However, a protégé of his, St Willibrord returned to the Frisian mission.

St Willibrord :: Apostle to the Frisians

St Willibrord (c. 658-739) was born in Northumbria. He entered the monastery of Ripon (which was then under St Wilfrid, its founder) before age seven. He came from a pious family - in fact his father is St Wilgis who later became a hermit and founded a small monastery. At age twenty, St Willibrord received his abbot's consent to go to Ireland for more spiritual and intellectual training. He joined Sts Egbert and Wigbert who had previously gone to Ireland.30 St Egbert was anxious to preach in northern Germany and in Frisia, but a vision sent him instead to Iona to convince the monks there to give up the Celtic church calendar that they were using and replace it with the universal church calendar specified at the Council of Nicaea.31 St Wigbert did in fact go to Frisia where "he preached the word of life constantly for two years to the people and their king Radbod; but his great efforts produced no results among his barbaric hearers" - largely due to the opposition of Radbod, that determined promoter of paganism. Consequently, St Wigbert gave up and returned to Ireland. This mission must have ended before 690. St Egbert then trained and sent out a second band of missionaries led either by St Willibrord or St Swithbert.32

St Willibrord left Ireland as part of a band of twelve missionaries to evangelize Frisia in 690.33 By this time conditions had dramatically improved in the southern part of Frisia. Eighteen months previously, Pepin had defeated Radbod - forcing him to cede the southern part of his domain, the whole district between the Meuse and the Rhine and to pay tribute.

The band of missionaries landed at the mouth of the Rhine and proceeded all the way to Utrecht, preaching and teaching as they went. Radbod had temporarily ceased opposing the teaching of Christianity. Then, they went to see Pepin who encouraged them to preach in the newly conquered areas. From there, St Willibrord went to Rome for a blessing on his mission. Pope St Sergius I gave him the appropriate sanctions as well as relics to use in consecrating churches.34

St Swithbert had been appointed bishop for the region (after election by his fellow missionaries) by St Wilfrid, then living in Mercia due to his exile from York. However, Pepin may have disapproved of this election, for St Swithbert soon crossed the Rhine to preach, and Pepin sent St Willibrord to Rome with letters urging that he be consecrated bishop in St Swithbert's place. St Willibrord initially opposed the proposal that he be consecrated a bishop, feeling himself unworthy. However, the pressure of the king and unanimous concurrence of his brethren convinced him that this was God's will. Pope Sergius ordained St Willibrord bishop of the Frisians in St Caecilia's basilica on her feast day, November 22, 695 and renamed him Clement. St Willibrord stayed only fourteen days in Rome. He came back to Utrecht where he restored the church of St Martin which had been built by St Amandus but destroyed by the pagans. He chose Utrecht as the seat of his see and as a base for missionary endeavours. In 698, he founded "the abbey of Echternach on the Sure, in the diocese of Trier" (in modern day Luxembourg), another great missionary base.35

He extended his labors into Radbod's domains of Upper Friesland.

He had the boldness to present himself at the court of Radbod ... Wherever he travelled he proclaimed the Word of God without fear; but though the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. So when the man of God saw that his efforts were of no avail he turned his missionary course towards the fierce tribes of the Danes.36

However, he had no success beyond buying "thirty young Danish boys, whom he instructed, baptized, and brought back with him." On his return, a storm drove him on the Frisian island of Heligoland. This island was considered sacred by the pagan Frisians and Danes to the god Fosite37

whose temples stood there. This place was held by the pagans in such great awe that none of the natives would venture to meddle with any of the cattle that fed there nor with anything else, nor dare they draw water from the spring that bubbled up there except in complete silence ... [St Willibrord] set little store by the superstitious sacredness ascribed to the spot, or by the savage cruelty of the king [Radbod], who was accustomed to condemn violators of the sacred objects to the most cruel death. Willibrord baptized three persons in the fountain in the name of the Blessed Trinity and gave orders that some of the cattle should be slaughtered as food for his company. When the pagans saw this they expected that the strangers would become mad or be struck with sudden death. Noticing, however, that they suffered no harm, the pagans, terror-stricken and astounded, reported to the king what they had witnessed.

The king was roused to intense fury and had a mind to avenge on the priest of the living God the insults which had been offered to his deities. For three whole days he cast lots three times every day to find out who would die; but as the true God protected his own servants, the lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor upon any of his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr's crown. The holy man was then summoned before the king and severely upbraided for having violated the king's sanctuary and offered insult to his god. With unruffled calmness the preacher of the Gospel replied:

"The object of your worship, O King, is not a god but a devil, and he holds you ensnared in rank falsehood in order that he may deliver your soul to eternal fire. For there is no God but one, who created heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them; and those who worship Him in true faith will possess eternal life. As His servant I call upon you this day to renounce the empty and inveterate errors to which your forebears have given their assent and to believe in the one almighty God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins, so that, forsaking all wickedness and unrighteousness, you may henceforth live as a new man in temperance, justice and holiness. If you do this you will enjoy everlasting glory with God and His saints; but if you spurn me, who set before you the way of life, be assured that with the devil whom you obey you will suffer unending punishment and the flames of hell." At this the king was astonished and replied: "It is clear to me that my threats leave you unmoved and that your words are as uncompromising as you deeds." But although he would not believe the preaching of the truth, he sent back Willibrord with all honour to [Pepin].38

After leaving Heligoland, he went to the Frisian island of Walcheren where his "charity and patience made considerable conquests to the Christian religion there, and he established several churches." He destroyed an idol there, and was attacked by an outraged pagan priest who attempted to kill him with a sword. However, he was miraculously spared. His "companions rushed forward to kill the wicked man for his audacity. The man of God good naturedly delivered the culprit from their hands and allowed him to go free. The same day, however, he was seized and possessed by the devil and three days later ended his wretched life in misery." God protected his servant, though he refused to protect himself. He then returned to Utrecht in safety.39

In 714, he baptized Charles Martel's son Pepin the Short (the future king of the Franks). On December 14, 714, Pepin died, and a monumental struggle for control of the Frankish domain began shortly. The civil war lasted roughly five years and ended with Charles Martel as the victor.40

In 716, during the Frankish civil war, Radbod regained the parts of Frisia he had lost about twenty-eight years before, during the Frankish civil war. Radbod undid much of St Willibrord's work - destroying churches, killing missionaries, and inducing many to apostatize. St Willibrord was forced to retire to Echternach until Radbod's death in 719. After Radbod's death, he was able to preach throughout Frisia where he "attempted to bring into the Church by baptism the people who had recently been won by the sword." In 720, St Boniface joined him, and helped him for three years.41

The results of this work, so close to [their] heart[s], were swift and spontaneous. The divine light illumined their hearts, the sovereignty of Duke Charles [Martel] over the Frisians was established, the word of truth was blazoned abroad, the voice of preachers filled the land, and the venerable Willibrord with his fellow-missionaries propagated the Gospel.42

When Charles became the mayor of the palace, he directed that the revenues of his castle in Utrecht be made over to St Willibrord's monastery in Utrecht.43

St Willibrord continued with his work until reaching a great age, although he spent the last few years in retirement at Echternach (his place of retreat throughout his career). He fell asleep in the Lord on November 7, 739. He was succeeded as abbot by Aldberct.44 Butler offers the following assessment of his contributions,

By the prayers and labours of this apostle and his colleagues the faith was planted in many parts of Holland, Zealand, and the Netherlands, whither St Amandus and St Lebwin had never penetrated; and the Frisians, till then a rough and barbarous people, became more civilized and virtuous. He is commonly called the Apostle of the Frisians, a title to which he has every claim; but it must not be lost sight of that in the earlier days of the mission St Swithbert also played a very considerable part and seems in some degree to have been its leader. And the Frisians, like other nations, were not converted with the speed and in the numbers that mediæval hagiographers would have us believe.

He was extremely careful about whom he ordained or baptized in order to protect the mission from scandal, a trait much to be commended. As we shall see in the overlapping career of St Boniface, such precautions were extremely necessary in those days - and, given the similarity of our situation in many ways to that of those days, in ours as well.

St Boniface

St Boniface (680-754) was probably born at Crediton in Devonshire. He was baptized Winfrid. About age five, he decided that he wished to enter the monastic life, being inspired by preaching monks who had visited his family. He was a good monk, and a brilliant scholar - he was made the director of the school at the abbey of Nursling. Over time, the kinship he felt for his pagan relatives in northern Europe led him to wish to undertake a missionary trip to Friesland. His abbot reluctantly agreed after considerable persuasion. He landed at Doerstadt in the spring of 716. However, King Radbod was at war with Charles Martel. St Willibrord had been obliged to leave Friesland for his monastery of Echternach. St Boniface consequently used his time to examine the situation and to speak to King Radbod. Having assessed the situation, he realized the futility of staying and returned home in the autumn. His monastic brothers were overjoyed to have him back. They tried to force him to stay by electing him abbot on the death of Abbot Winbert. He refused. In 718, he left for Rome, carrying letters of commendation from Bishop Daniel of Winchester. He was well received by Pope Gregory II, who kept him there for a year, and then sent him forth with a general commission to preach God's word to the heathen. Gregory II also renamed him Boniface.45

Shortly after leaving for Germany, he heard that Radbod was dead. He then returned to his original mission in Friesland where he aided St Willibrord for three years. St Willibrord tried to make him his coadjutor and successor, but St Boniface declined - insisting that his commission had been a general one and that he was not authorized to accept any fixed see. He also felt that he was too young. He returned to Germany where he worked both on Christianising both the pagans and the nearly-pagan Christian population. His work went so well that he was summoned to Rome and consecrated a regional bishop with no fixed see, but a general jurisdiction over Germany on St Andrew's Day, 722.46

His next thirty-two years were spent in tirelessly building up the church in Germany, and in reforming the Frankish church which was then in a very bad way. It had been ailing badly before Charles Martel - the bishoprics being fought over by regional great families. However, Charles Martel made the situation far worse - stealing the property of the churches and, what was worse appointing his cronies as bishops, godless men but loyal. Simony was rife. One bishop even fought a battle and personally killed the slayer of his father. In the course of his labours, he had to fight heretical bishops and clergymen, self-ordained bishops, "New Age" style holy men, clergy who performed both pagan sacrifice and the Christian mysteries. He arranged the first Frankish synods in over eighty years to help purify the Frankish church. He also inspired many Anglo-Saxon missionaries to come over to help in the evangelisation effort, the best of Anglo-Saxon monasticism, who helped him build churches and monasteries - thereby greatly raising the cultural level of many areas.47 It is a thrilling career, but not directly connected to the Church in the Netherlands during these years, so I will refrain from going into more detail other than a story of St Boniface known to every Dutchman (and believed by many falsely to have taken place in the Netherlands - myself included until I began my research).

The event actually took place on the summit of Mount Gudenberg at Geismar, near Fritzlar in Germany.48 Many Hessians had converted to Christianity. However, some continued secretly and some openly to continue various pagan practices, while others

forsook all the profane practices of heathenism. With the counsel and advice of the latter persons, Boniface in their presence attempted to cut down, at the place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called by the pagans of olden times the Oak of Jupiter. 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 (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathen who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon the holy bishop took counsel with the brethren, built a chapel from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to St Peter the Apostle.49

In 753, at age roughly seventy-three, he laid down his archbishopric of Mainz, leaving it to his successor, St Lull. He decided to return to his original mission among the Frisians who were relapsing into paganism again after the death of St Willibrord (in 739). He knew that he would likely die on this trip - he told Lull to pack a shroud with the books, which caused St Lull to weep. At Utrecht, he was joined by St Eoban whom he had appointed to that see.50 Their initial work was among the lapsed in the previously evangelised parts of Friesland. In spring of 754, they crossed the lake that then divided Friesland into two parts into the "wholly unevangelised tribes of North-East Friesland." The work was initially quite successful, and many were baptized. They were to be confirmed on Pentecost (June 5, 754). However, as St Boniface and his thirty companions including St Eoban waited,

a vast number of foes armed with spears and shields rushed into the camp brandishing their weapons. In the twinkling of an eye the attendants sprang from the camp to meet them and snatched up arms here and there to defend the holy band of martyrs (for that is what they were to be) against the insensate fury of the mob [either of irate pagans or of thieves]. But the man of God, hearing the shouts and the onrush of the rabble, straightway called the clergy to his side, and collecting together the relics of the saints, which he always carried with him, came out of his tent. At once he reproved the attendants and forbade them to continue the conflict, saying: "Sons, cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for evil but to overcome evil by good. The hour to which we have long looked forward is near and the day of our release is at hand. Take comfort in the Lord and endure with gladness the suffering He has mercifully ordained. Put your trust in Him and He will grant deliverance to your souls." [Then, he encouraged his clergy to not fear those who can only kill the body, but rather to trust in God.] Whilst with these words he was encouraging his disciples to accept the crown of martyrdom, the frenzied mob of heathens rushed suddenly upon them with swords and every kind of warlike weapon, staining their bodies with their precious blood.51

The murderers thought they would find gold and silver. In reality, the booty they carried off contained books and relics and wine. Before opening the boxes, they drank the wine and began to fight over the treasure (which they had not yet seen). Most of them were killed in the dispute over the booty. The survivors then opened the chests and found books. Disgusted, they "littered the fields with the books they found, throwing some into reedy mashes, hiding away others in widely different places." However, a long time later, they were found "unharmed and intact" and returned to the monastery St Boniface built in Fulda, and where he had instructed that he be buried. Their punishment was not long in coming.

For it was the will of the omnipotent Creator and Saviour of the world that He should be avenged on His enemies; and in His mercy and compassion He demanded a penalty for the sacred blood shed on His behalf. Deeply moved by the recent act of wicked savagery, He deigned to show the wrath He had concealed so long against the worshippers of idols. As the unhappy tidings of the martyr's death spread rapidly from village to village throughout the whole province and the Christians learned of their fate, a large avenging force, composed of warriors ready to take speedy retribution, was gathered together and rushed swiftly to their neighbours' frontiers. The heathens, unable to withstand the onslaught of the Christians, immediately took to flight and were slaughtered in great numbers. In their flight they lost their lives, their household goods and their children ... As a result , the pagans round about, dismayed at their recent misfortune and seeking to avoid everlasting punishment, opened their minds and hearts to the glory of the faith. Struck with terror at the visitation of God's vengeance, they embraced after Boniface's death the teaching which they had rejected whilst he still lived.52

King Pepin initially demanded that St Boniface's body be left in Utrecht. However, a miraculous ringing of the bell of the church convinced the inhabitants of Utrecht to give up the relics. The people of Mainz also insisted on keeping his body, but a deacon's vision persuaded them to allow St Boniface's body to leave Mainz as well, and he was buried at Fulda as he had instructed.

Samples of the Fruit of the Missionary Work :: Ascetics, Bishops, and Missionaries to the Old Saxons

These are by no means an exhaustive collection of saints associated with the Netherlands. Missionary work continued from Utrecht even though its see was vacant for twelve years and it was cared for by the priest St Gregory, who fulfilled a bishop's duties after the murder of Sts Boniface and Eoban.53 St Lebuin felt a calling to the Saxons, and went to St Gregory for advice. St Gregory aided him. Christians built him oratories on both banks of the river Ijssel "at a place called Wilp" (in modern Netherlands) which he initially used as his base for preaching among the Saxons.54 He built a church in Deventer, but it was burned down about 773, and he died about the same time. St Liudgar, a Frisian educated at York, rebuilt the church and recovered St Lebuin's relics. He worked in Utrecht and in Dokkum before beginning a very successful missionary career among the Saxons.55

St Willehad, another Anglo-Saxon missionary preached in Dokkum and Utrecht starting about 765 before becoming Bishop to the Saxons.56 Intriguingly, one of King Radbod's great-grandsons is St Radbod (d. 918), Bishop of Utrecht, renowned for never eating meat after being elected bishop (and becoming a monk, since all his predecessors of the see had been monks). He is also known for his kindness to the poor. He removed his see to Deventer due to a Danish invasion and died there in peace.57

Lessons from the Missionaries

The circus-like religious world of St Boniface reminds us of our own. We Christians are faced both with non-Christian religions and with a bizarre collection of semi-Christian sects. Our task with the first is to show them the way to the truth. Our task with the second is to provide "words of spiritual exhortation, recalling them to the true way of knowledge and the light of understanding which for the greater part they [have] lost through the perversity of their teachers."58 To do this is no easy task - we must avoid both extremes of being noncommittal or of being obnoxious. Rather, we must find the proper balance as St Boniface did, of whom it was said,

Zeal and vigour made him forceful, but gentleness and love made him mild. Accordingly he exhorted and reproved with equal impartiality the rich and powerful, the freemen and the slaves, neither flattering or fawning upon the rich nor oppressing and browbeating the freemen and slaves, but, in the words of the Apostle, he became all things to all men that he might gain all.59

How did these missionaries succeed in Christianising whole peoples within a few generations? First, they were men of great faith and total dedication, choosing exile (no furlough for most of them) for the love of Christ, willing to face martyrdom - which many in fact experienced. However, not only were they willing to die, they were unwilling to kill - leaving justice in God's hand - as the examples of Sts Willibrord and Boniface so vividly demonstrate show. That does not mean coercion had no part in the conversion process - the Frankish state was not shy about the use of the sword. However, the missionaries rejected it for themselves, because men of God must not be men of the sword (as Christ told the Apostle Peter). Coercion will produce only a formal "conversion," it cannot change the heart. Only example and Grace can do that.

The example of the missionaries was one of great kindness in many practical ways - helping the unfortunate (e.g., St Eligius). Kindness was mentioned in several of the saints' lives as important in the conversion process. Paganism had little to offer the weak. Even Julian the Apostate grudgingly admired the Christian kindness and philanthropy to the down-trodden. The modern paganism of the cult of self-fulfilment is similarly heartless. Kindness is a key to helping people see that the Gospel really is Good News in more ways than one.

Part of this kindness was a strong moral code that did not flinch from reproving even royal patrons for their sins or from working to rid the Church of clerics of poor morals, both tasks which made the missionaries' lives harder. However, it is a greater thing to be respected than to be loved - far more important in guiding people to the Truth that is Christ. However, firmness must be married to softer forms of kindness or it will repel at least as much as it attracts - people must be able to see over time that firmness too is a form of love.

Miracles and trials of power (e.g., felling the oak, baptizing in sacred springs) were also important. People have always been attracted to power and traditionally miracles have frequently accompanied new missions, since there the faith is fervent. St Patrick's trials of power with the Druids where he demonstrated empirically the superior power of Christ to the Druid gods was crucial in the evangelisation of Ireland, for instance. So, too, in the conversion of the Netherlands, miracles play an important role. The lives of the saints contain many examples of miracles. In the Western world, where Christianity is worn down by worldliness and despised as impotent, holiness and examples of God's power are needed. We must demonstrate that Christ is greater than all the crystals, channellers, and New Age gurus out there - and to do this, we must beg Christ to "increase our faith" till our faith is at least the size of a grain of mustard seed.

The trials of power are closely related to the Christianising of anything good (or merely not bad) in the pre-Christian religion. Baptizing in sacred springs was not new to St Willibrord - the early Celtic Church did the same. Building churches in former sacred groves and converting pagan temples into churches was a technique that had previously been used in many places (e.g., the Roman Empire after St Constantine, Anglo-Saxon England, Ireland). Making the transition as simple as possible is important. St Gregory the Great's letter to St Augustine of Canterbury had made just this point.

It is also to be remembered that the missionaries represented a superior form of culture. We too must strive to do just that. In an age of scepticism and relativism, we must incarnate eternal truths. In an age of purposelessness, we must show hope. In an age of decadence in the arts, we must show what beauty really is. In an age of sexual libertinism and the consequent disease of body and soul, we must show the beauty both of the virginal life and of Christian marriage. In a violent culture, we must show the beauty of Christian love. We have the tools to show forth a superior educational, aesthetic, and moral culture than does the dominant culture. We must now find the will to wield the tools, for the cost will be very high.

While the missionaries refused to be the lackeys of kings, they worked with them where possible. We too must avoid unnecessary confrontation, while being willing to fight where necessary. The law cannot make men good, but it can encourage certain good acts to a minor extent and discourage many bad acts to a much greater extent. Working with lawmakers can help produce a climate where it is easier to help people see a better way than the one propounded by the dominant culture (e.g., it is easier to teach teenagers about chastity if birth control is not encouraged and made available routinely in school).

The missionaries also laid great stress on unity. The Celtic missionaries who preceded the Anglo-Saxons had converted many individuals. However, their institutions lacked staying power when the charismatic leader died. Their institutions often ended up in the control of powerful local interests after the founder could no longer protect them. Hence, unity (which offers protection against the co-opting spiritual institutions for private gain) is crucial. Also, unity requires submission to proper authorities, since without regular oversight, the purity of doctrine preached tends to deteriorate (e.g., the many semi-Christian, self-appointed bishops and priests that St Boniface had to deal with). However, the missionaries were also very charismatic - and charisma is necessary to maintain the institutions of unity in a healthy form. Both charisma and unity are necessary; however, charisma must be made to serve the purposes of unity.

The missionaries are inspiring characters whose lives and approach we need to study and emulate. May God give us the strength to fulfil this task!

by Daniel Lieuwen

First published in Orthodox Life No 4, 2000

Footnotes ::

1) Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 56-75.

2) J[oseph] M. Lu[cker] and J[ohannesl P. A. G[ruijters], "Netherlands, The," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed.

3) The Lieuwen Homepage, Unpublished genealogical material described in private communication with Kaudo and Francis Lieuwen.

4) C. v[an] d[e] K[ieft], H[erbert] Ro[wen], and J. C[harles] Verlinden, "Netherlands, History of", Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed.

5) "Frisians," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia, 1977 ed.

6) C. v[an] d[e] K[ieft], et al.

7) Ibid. Geary, pp. 3-4.

8) C. v[an] d[e] K[ieft], et al. Geary, pp. 3, 4, 78-80.

9) "Frisians".

10) C. v[an] d[e] K[ieft], et al.

11) G[abriel] Fo[urnier], "Merovingian and Carolingian Age", Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed. Geary, pp. 2, 150. They are included in the Appendix.

12) Geary, pp. 151, 178.

13) Geary, p. 177.

14) Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston, S.J. (London: Burnes Oats & Washbourne, 1930), II, 91, 92. A pattern we will see repeated with other missionary saints to the Netherlands, particularly St Boniface.

15) Ibid., p. 92. The exiled bishop using the time of his exile to preach to the pagans is a pattern we will see repeated by St Wilfrid.

16) Ibid., 91, 92.

17) T. J. Campbell, "St Amandus," The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 ed. On the New Advent Catholic Supersite on the World-Wide-Web. Transcribed by Christine J. Murray. Butler II, 92.

18) Tournay is in modern day Belgium. From the map in Geary, p. 150 (see appendix), St Amand must be in modern day northern France a few miles from the Belgian border. See also my hand drawn map containing the modern borders in the appendix. That map is based was produced by combining features of two other maps. J[oseph] M. Lu[ckerl and J[ohannesl P. A. G[ruijters]. Ar[thur J. M.] D[oucy], "Belgium," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed.

19) Butler, II, 92. Other saints associated with Maastricht include St Lambert and his successor St Hubert, both who served as bishop of Utrecht, and St Aldegundis, a nun who received the veil from St Amandus and founded the famous Benedictine abbey of Mauberge for nuns. Herbert Thurston. "St Aldegundis," The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 ed. Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler. C. F. Wemyss Brown. "St Hubert," The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 ed. Transcribed by H. Jon Thomas. Both found on the New Advent Catholic Supersite on the World-Wide-Web.

20) Godfrey Kurth, Saint Boniface, trans. Rt. Rev. Victor Day, ed. Rev. Francis S. Betten, S.J. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1935), pp. 146, 147. Geary p. 178.

21) Geary, p 177. Note that spellings vary from reference work to reference work. For names of saints, I have generally followed Butler.

22) Courtrai is about 25 miles northwest of Tournay in modern day Belgium.

23) There was a dispute over the body of St Boniface later as well.

24) Butler, XII, 3-8. Note the similarity to the description of the father of St Gregory Palamas.

25) Eddius Stephanus, "Life of Wilfrid," in The Age of Bede, trans. J. F. Webb, ed. D. H. Farmer (New York: Viking Penguin, 1988), pp. 131, 132.

26) Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), p. 309.

27) Butler, X, 167-1 71.

28) Eddius Stephanus, p. 132.

29) Ibid., p. 133. Bede, p. 309. Butler, X, p. 171.

30) Alcuin, "The Life of St Willibrord", in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, trans. and ed. C. H. Talbot (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1954), pp. 3-6.

31) Bede, pp. 147, 283.

32) Bede, pp. 281-284. Butler, III, 6. Butler, XI, 85-86. Butler's life of St Swithbert puts St Willibrord in charge, while his life of St Willibrord seems to indicate the opposite. St Swithbert helped evangelise modern day northern Belgium and southern Netherlands as well as in the area near Düsseldorf. He is greatly venerated in Holland and Cologne and the areas of his labours.

33) Note that St Columba left Ireland to evangelise Scotland with twelve companions. St Columban, similarly, also took twelve companions when he left Ireland for the re-evangelisation of the continent.

34) Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Norah Leeson (London: Burns Oats & Washbourne, 1931), III, 6-7.

35) "Willibrord, Saint," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia, 1977 ed. Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater (London: Burns Oats & Washbourne, 1937), XI, 84-85. Alcuin, p. 8.

36) Alcuin, p. 9.

37) Butler, XI, 85. "Willibrord, Saint." Alcuin, pp. 9-10.

38) Alcuin, pp. 10-11.

39) Alcuin, p. 13. Butler, XI, 86.

40) Butler XI, 86. Geary, pp. 199, 200. See also Geary, pp. 200-218 for the devastating impact of the power struggle on the integrity of the Frankish Church - the impact of which will be briefly touched upon in the career of St Boniface.

41) Alcuin, p. 12. Butler XI, 86.

42) Willibald, p. 40. The close connection between the Gospel and the Frankish state shows why the independent King Radbod so feared the Gospel as a threat to his power.

43) Butler, XI, 86.

44) Alcuin, p. 21.

45) Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Norah Leeson (London: Burns Oats & Washbourne, 1931), VI, 58-59. Willibald, p. 35.

46) Ibid., 59-60.

47) Ibid., 60-62.

48) Ibid., 60. This story is of considerable personal interest to me, since St Boniface is the only Dutch saint I ever learned about in Calvinist Sunday school, and the three things I remember from that class were his missionary work, his cutting down the oak, and his martyrdom.

49) Willibald. "The Life of St Boniface", in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, trans. and ed. C. H. Talbot (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1954), pp. 45-46.

50) Apparently not long before since Werm was probably Bishop of Utrecht from 741-753 according to a footnote by C. H. Talbot, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, trans. and ed. C. H. Talbot (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1954), p. 120.

51) Willibald, p. 56-57.

52) Ibid., pp. 57-58.

53) John Cyril Sladden. Boniface of Devon: Apostle of Germany (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1980), p. 233 informs us that Aluberht, an Englishman sent back for training to York, was consecrated bishop in 766. He performed "episcopal functions for Gregory although not appointed diocesan bishop." However, Neale claims that he was in fact consecrated bishop of Utrecht in his defence of the Old Catholics. See Rev. J. M. Neale. A HISTORY of the So-Called Jansenist CHURCH OF HOLLAND with A Sketch of its Early Annals, and some account of the BROTHERS OF THE COMMON LIFE. (Oxford: John Henry and James Parker, 1858). Found on the World-Wide-Web at

54) Anonymous. "The Life of St Lebuin", in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, trans. and ed. C. H. Talbot (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1954), pp. 45-46.

55) Ibid., p. 233. Sladden, p. 233.

56) Butler, XI, 98.

57) Butler, XI, 340. Note that his ascetic practices were similar to those of Christian monks of the East - although Western monks have traditionally eaten meat, nearly all Eastern monks throughout history have refrained.

58) Willibald, p. 40.

59) Willibald, p. 32 describing St Boniface's teaching style in England.

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