For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.

—Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

It was a time of nobility, bloody battles, and pure devotion to God’s call. Europe’s medieval period brought us volumes of the most brilliant and inspirational writing in the literary and historical world. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was written nearly like a diary of England’s Christian history. The text details the era of kingdoms and civilizations, but more importantly it reveals an accurate record of the steady spread of Christianity across Europe against incredible odds. Europe saw a passionate return to education and establishment of schools with King Alfred and Charlemagne at the forefront of the movement.  The Anglo-Saxon people endured invasions and threats from outside and within their lands. Kings made it their noble calling to restore classic writings to a crumbling educational system.

Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People for the benefit of King Ceolwulf, and his purpose was to assist the king in remembering the “doings and sayings of men of the past and famous men of your own nation in particular.”[1] The King wished that his people would deeply know their own history and emulate the faithful who had brought Christianity to England. His stories describe the faithful and martyrs, pagans and kings, tragedy and miracles, all the while weaving the thread of God’s purpose into the fabric of England’s foundation of Christian faith. Bede probably never considered, in writing his History, that he would provide an evangelistic methodology for 21st century apologists.

Our own challenges to successful Christian apologetics today may appear unrelated to the violence waged against the church by Diocletian and Viking hordes, but we are still fighting against the same Enemy.[2] Armaments, soldiers, forts, and battle plans are useless without courage or plan to back them up. Medieval champions like King Alfred the Great and St. Augustine of Canterbury exemplified courage. They recognized and rested in knowing that God had called them to a purpose. Armed with courage, these brave souls brought kingdoms and villages out of paganism.

King Alfred the Great (849 AD – 899 AD) exemplified courage in the face of challenge beginning early in his life. Illiterate until he was twelve years old, his mother told him and his brothers that she would give her book of Saxon poetry to “Whichever of you can soonest learn this volume.”[3] [4]  Alfred not only learned it first, he recited it back to his mother. He took up the challenge without consideration of failure. Alfred’s mother personally encouraged his pursuit of knowledge during his formative years by setting that tone in their home. She built the passion of learning into him. Alfred used that zeal for knowledge to learn Latin and translate classic books from ancient philosophers. He was one of the men who was instrumental in the preservation of information and eventually used those translations to teach priests and monks. A disciple under his mother’s teaching when he was young, he went on to disciple others when he was an adult. Looking at Alfred’s younger years, we learn the importance of good parenting that sets an example of the importance of education and challenges children so that they develop courage.

The boldness that Alfred showed as a young man served him well later in the Battle of Ashdown. Facing a great battle against a heathen army, he assembled King Aethelred’s army while the King remained in his tent, praying to God for blessing and guidance. Alfred “courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army, as he had already designed…he relied upon God’s counsel and trusted to His aid.”[5] King Aethelred demonstrated servant leadership and courage and set an example of faith, humbleness, and dependence on God. Like Alfred and Aethelred, Christian apologists need to face the spiritual battlefield and first rely on prayer and God’s counsel.

King Alfred exhibited courage in the face of personal hardship without giving up on his calling. His kingdoms were constantly under the threat of attack, and he was chronically ill. Still, he attended mass daily, prayed consistently, gave generously to the poor, studied scripture, and translated with an insatiable desire for learning. Alfred won the admiration and loyalty of all by living and exhibiting what he believed, secured with a firm foundation in Christianity. “Many Franks, Frisians, Gauls, heathen Welsh, Irish, and Bretons, noble and simple, submitted voluntarily to his dominion.”[6] Alfred gained the respect of the people in his kingdom, Christian and pagan, by living a life that was marked with Christ. By living what he believed, Alfred provided a strong witness for God. We need to follow his example and become walking testimonies.

King Alfred’s greatest example of courage was his “lifelong commitment to education and literacy.”[7] He lamented that past kings “prospered both with war and with wisdom; and also how zealous the sacred orders were both in teaching and learning…how foreigners came to this land in search of wisdom and instruction, and how we should now have to get them from abroad if we were to have them.”[8] Alfred remembered that in the past, many could read Latin, but now his subjects could only manage reading English text. Taking on the responsibility to bring literacy back, he tells us, “I began, among other various and manifold troubles of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which is called in Latin Pastoralis and in English Sheperd’s Book, sometimes word by word.”[9] How does his work in translation and education of the people show courage? King Alfred personally accepted responsibility for restoring education to his kingdom. He recognized the former glory days when, “Our forefathers, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom and through it they obtained wealth and bequeathed it to us.”[10] He saw the value of the knowledge of learned men from the past and why truth is valuable in every age. Rather than allowing society to become less educated, Alfred translated for the benefit of the church and state. Additionally, he believed in the value of education for the common man. He knew that uneducated masses are easier to influence and control. A courageous and humble king desires an educated public, not one that exists in ignorance. King Alfred the Great didn’t shrink back from a challenge. His courage to educate those in his kingdom made him an effective leader for his people as well as a champion to emulate. As apologists, church leadership should imitate Alfred’s example by placing a priority on education in our Christian faith in order to study for understanding and glorify God.

St. Augustine of Canterbury demonstrated courage as he led others through perilous quests and inspired his followers with his example of discipleship. Augustine obediently led his fellow monks into hostile territory to proclaim God’s message. His bravery and willingness to take up a challenge demonstrated his gift of discipleship. He was a Godly example to his fellow monks who nearly backed out of their missionary task that was given to them by God, through Pope Gregory. Augustine was a balance of humility and courage.

Bede introduces Augustine in his book Ecclesiastical History of the English People at the time of Pope Gregory. The Pope “was inspired by God to send his servant Augustine with several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation.”[11]  Demonstrating courage to his brothers, Augustine led them on this mission into a “barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation of whose very language they were ignorant.”[12] Fear of the unknown became stronger than the will to preach the gospel, and they all agreed that this journey was too perilous. They sent Augustine back to Pope Gregory to speak for all of them and petition that they should call off the mission because it was difficult and dangerous. The Pope’s response was written in a letter to the group. Augustine was appointed their abbot, and Pope Gregory’s letter reads, “obey him humbly in all things, remembering that whatever he directs you to do will always be to the good of your souls.”[13] He encourages them to stick to the mission and “do not be deterred by the troubles of the journey or by what men say.”[14] Augustine is put in a leadership position because of his courage, but he also demonstrates discipleship by being a servant leader.

Augustine continued back to Britain with his forty fellow servants to proclaim the Good News to King Ethelbert. He demonstrated courage to follow through with his original mission. The threat hadn’t changed, but he was renewed by encouragement from Pope Gregory.  He sent out interpreters to initiate contact with Ethelbert, but there was no guarantee that they would be either received well or attacked and killed. Eventually, the King “granted them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his realm.”[15] Because of Augustine’s courage to go back and face the unknown, a church was now established in the kingdom. His bravery and obedience to the call to spread the gospel led to the conversion of the King Ethelbert and the establishment of the Christian church in Kent, a key accomplishment in instituting the Christian faith in England. Because of his example, he inspired brave disciples to reflect his commitment to the church. Bede states, “They practiced what they preached, and were willing to endure any hardship, and even to die for the truth which they proclaimed.”[16] This demonstrates quite a change in demeanor from the nervous group who tried to abandon the original mission. Augustine led his brothers by courageous example and secured Christianity in a pagan area. He can inspire modern day Christians to be bold and follow God’s direction, even against what may seem like impossible odds.

Christian apologists need to embody boldness when sharing the faith. Like Alfred, we need to not only recognize the course of action to take, we need to take that first step in bold obedience. Missionaries today follow Augustine’s example. Whether we are missionaries in a foreign land, not knowing the native language beyond the basics, or in our own neighborhood, we take the chance that our message will fall on deaf ears. How do we have an apologetic-style conversation with someone who doesn’t understand our language or is disinterested in the message? Augustine and his companions faced this dilemma. It would be very easy to pack up and head home to a safe place. Pope Gregory was firm in his resolve to complete the tasks that the Lord sets before him.  His leadership and Augustine’s discipleship paved the way to a Christian kingdom We must also demonstrate a spirit of discipleship, giving other Christians a courageous example to follow.

The Lord commands us to be courageous! Scripture is filled with moments when God instructed his people to go forth into the unknown, promising that He would be with them. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”[17] Augustine knew scripture and was assured that God was by his side as he approached a pagan nation. He would fulfill God’s call to “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.”[18]  Likewise, King Alfred followed God’s mandate for courage in the face of peril. We see a parallel in the actions of Alfred reflected in the words of the apostle Paul. Paul wrote, “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”[19]  Bede records that Alfred “courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army, as he had already designed, for, although the king had not yet arrived, he relied upon God’s counsel and trusted to His aid.”[20]  King Alfred knew that his brother, Aethelred, was praying for God’s help at the same time that he commanded his troops to fight the heathen army. He embodied courage by trusting in God’s purpose.

Our rich medieval Christian heritage in England provides a foundation for effective evangelism today. Fortunately, we have The Venerable Bede, who completed his book in 731 A.D., to thank for recording this history so that apologists can apply it to their own efforts to minister and proclaim Christ to the unsaved. Other men like Charlemagne during the 8th century and King Alfred the Great deeply valued literacy and the knowledge from past centuries. “The end of the eighth century saw an important renewal of scholarly activity, associated with Charlemagne (Charles the Great) and his court.”[21]  Charlemagne formed monastic schools to promote clerical education and gathered the best scholars in Europe. At approximately the same time, King Alfred, greatly concerned with clerical illiteracy, also made it his personal goal to educate the educators—the priests and monks who no longer understood Latin. “This meant that books, basic textbooks, had to be made available to them in their own first language, Old English.”[22] Note that the recording of the Christian heritage of England by Bede, the contributions of the Charlemagne and his edict for the formation of monastic schools, and King Alfred’s focus on the restoration of literacy as well as his own writings provided a written, sweeping story of the effective spread of Christianity in Europe. C. S. Lewis summed up the medieval love of “bringing huge masses of heterogeneous material into unity,” exemplified in the passionate gathering, recording, and translating that occurred at this time.[23] “They are bookish.”[24] These classical works offer insight into the medieval-era Christian mind. What better way to learn the successes and struggles of the early evangelists than by studying their own words?

What can the modern apologist gather from the writings of these great men? The groundswell at this time from recording scripture and classical books, as well as histories of the saints, was responsible for some of the success of the spread of the Gospel throughout Europe. Bede, Charlemagne, and King Alfred ushered in a new era of writing and restoring the story of the church fathers and, in the case of Abbess Hilda, the mothers who bravely paved the way by example for current apologists and missionaries. The medieval Anglo-Saxon Christian faced difficulties in the mission field, including difficult and extensive travel, basic needs for survival, shelter, and language issues. They were not always welcomed with enthusiasm by the pagans. But in 500 A.D. or 2000 A.D., Christians face the same Enemy. That won’t change until the Lord returns, so we look to what worked for our heroes of the faith in the past and apply those principles today.

Two important points can be learned from Paulinus as he speaks to King Edwin about the gospel. The king admits that “it was his will as well as his duty to accept the Faith that Paulinus taught but said that he must still discuss the matter with his principal advisers and friends so that, if they were in agreement with him they might all be cleansed together in Christ the Fount of Life. Paulinus agreed.”[25] An important point to remember is that not everyone who hears the gospel will immediately pray to receive Christ. Some hearers are also thinkers who need to sort out the idea in counsel with their peers. Paulinus stepped back and invited the discussion. Coifi, Edwin’s chief priest, uses logic to note that if their gods “had any power, they would surely have favoured myself, who have been more zealous in their service.”[26]  Coifi notes that his gods are ineffectual and that Paulinus has made a good apologetic and logical argument for the Christian faith. This opened the door to a moment of brilliant creative apologetics from one of the king’s chief men on the council. He illustrates Paulinus’ message with a story comparing their present, tangible life with “that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall”[27] This beautiful story shows the advisor incorporating imaginative storytelling, a familiar tradition of medieval culture, to help the king understand the idea of eternity. He uses a brief glimpse of the sparrow which represents momentary life on the Lord’s timeline. Paulinus has brought them a faith that explains what they don’t understand; nobody can see or understand the complete journey of the sparrow, only the portion of the life spent on earth. This story gives a concise explanation of a complicated idea. Modern day apologists can connect imagination with stories as well, and effectively communicate ideas about the faith.

Personal relationships are another approach to evangelizing. A good relationship and shared conversation demonstrates to the non-believer that what they think really matters. Shoving facts and tracts at someone instead of taking the time to engage with them kills the apologetics conversation. We have an example of an influential relationship in the friendship of King Oswy and King Sigbert. Oswy brought the East Saxons back to the Christian faith, but their King Sigbert was not a believer. Oswy used reason with his friend when they talked about “how gods made by man’s handiwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone” and also explained that “God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes”[28] [29] and that He will eventually judge the world. The key was “King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced.”[30]  After his conversion, King Sigbert went on to convert his people to Christ. By having a relationship with his unbelieving friend, Osway converted Sigbert and made a disciple as well. Apologists can never overestimate the timeless value of sincere relationships with unbelievers.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History includes several testimonies of miracles. Many Christians today give their personal testimonies as a way of reaching the listener and making a connection. The medieval Christians shared their stories of miracles for the same reason. Bede tells us, “In the above battle in which King Elfwin was killed, a remarkable thing occurred, which I should not fail to mention, since it will further the salvation of many.”[31] He believed that true examples of divine help were important to bringing people to Christ, and he shared many first-hand accounts of miracles credited to God.

Many examples of personal testimony are listed in History. Bede relates the story of Imma, a captive from war. The nobleman who held him could not keep him shackled. After he ransomed himself, Imma returned home and told his brother of his experience. “His chains had been loosed at the times when Mass was being said on his behalf.”[32] Imma shared his testimony with others, and they were “inspired to greater faith and devotion and gave themselves to prayer, almsgiving, and offering the Holy Sacrifice to God for the deliverance of their friends.”[33] Bede also shares the story of the miraculous healing of Heribald, who fell from his horse, resulting in broken bones and a cracked skull, Bishop John healed his near-fatal wounds with prayer.[34] Heribald recounts, “Having laid his hand on my head and blessed me, he went back to his prayers. On his return after a short while, he found me sitting up and well enough to talk.”[35]  God is in the business of miracles, and they are not limited to centuries in the past. Many Christians have a story to share about healing, protection, and blessing. We should follow Bede’s example and share them as evangelism for the glory of God.

Medieval Christianity included evangelizing by song. The miraculous story of Caedmon, which is included in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, testifies to the power of God to bless the least likely person, making them an instrument of testimony. Caedmon was visited by a man in his dream and blessed with the ability to compose and sing songs and keep “in his memory all that he learned, and like one of the clean animals chewing the cud, turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful renderings turned his instructors into auditors.”[36] His gift of singing and composition was a wonderful example of connecting faith and art to glorify God. Caedmon composed songs on the “blessings and judgements of God, by which he sought to turn his hearers from delight in wickedness and to inspire them to love and do good.”[37] His simple compositions could be memorized by nearly anyone, even listeners who couldn’t read. What a wonderful evangelical tool for spreading the gospel. For centuries, Christians have incorporated song and verse as a way to present the gospel. Along with the old hymns, we have contemporary Christian music that appeals to a certain audience that may not be reached in another manner. We can follow Caedmon’s example to be a creative light shining on those around us.

In his letter on the death of Bede, Cuthbert shares a grounding perspective for any Christian, medieval or 21st century. Cuthbert writes, “He often sang the sentence of St. Paul the Apostle, saying: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ as well as many other words of Scripture, with which he admonished us from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time about our last hours.”[38] This idea is also found in The Rule of St. Benedict, Rule 4. “Fear the Day of Judgement and be terrified of hell. Long for eternal life with all your spiritual desire. Each day remind yourself of your mortality”[39] The Christians in the early medieval era lived with that idea in mind. They faced danger and hardships that we can’t imagine, even the threat of death; however, that didn’t prevent them from sharing the gospel with pagans. They were familiar with death because it was part of the progression of life. They weren’t mastered by the fear of it. The monks, nuns, and those who were called by God to a life of service and evangelism placed their faith in God minute-by-minute and praised him, even in extreme trials. A precarious life keeps your focus on eternity. Our current-day missionaries are familiar with these challenges, but today’s average Christian can lose sight of the importance of living daily for Christ.

Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation to record the historical development of early Europe and that of Christianity.  If we study the manner in which Anglo-Saxon Christians spread the gospel to the pagan people, we see that the methods they used from centuries ago are compatible with evangelizing today. Our mission is the same, and we are called by God to be bold. We can find our inspiration from Paul, in his letter to the Galatians. He went forth into unknown and dangerous territory to do his Father’s work. Paul wrote, “But when He who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”[40]  Similar to Paul’s narrative in the Bible, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History also reads as an accounting of evangelism and the presence of God by our medieval forefathers, who show us humility, courage, character, all strengthened by the supernatural presence of God. The medieval heroes exemplify the qualities that we need to embody today as we continue to tell the story of mercy and salvation.

Citation Information

Annie Nardone, “The Venerable Bede: Following the Medieval Christian Footpath,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 251-272.

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[1] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 41.

[2] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Sherly-Price (London: Penguin Group, 1990), 51.

[3] Asser, The Life of King Alfred,” in The Anglo-Saxon World — An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 213.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 214.

[6] Asser, “The Life of King Alfred,” in The Anglo-Saxon World — An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 215.

[7] Dr. Holly Ordway, “Why Medieval Culture Matters” (lecture, Houston Baptist University, August 28, 2017).

[8] Asser, “The Life of King Alfred,” 218.

[9] King Alfred, “Preface to St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care,” in The Anglo-Saxon World — An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 220.

[10] King Alfred, “Preface to St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care,” in The Anglo-Saxon World — An Anthology, 219.

[11] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 72.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 76.

[16] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 76.

[17] Deuteronomy 31:6 (ESV).

[18] Joshua 1:6 (ESV).

[19] Philippians 1:19-20 (ESV).

[20] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 214.

[21] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 194.

[22] Kevin Crossley-Holland, “Example and Exhortation,” in The Anglo-Saxon World — An Anthology, 209.

[23] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 10.

[24] Ibid., 11.

[25] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 129.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 129.

[28] Ibid., 178.

[29] Ibid., 178-179.

[30] Ibid., 179.

[31] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 241.

[32] Ibid., 242.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 273.

[35] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 274.

[36] Ibid., 249.

[37] Ibid., 250.

[38] Cuthbert, “Cuthbert’s Letter on the Illness and Death of the Venerable Bede, the Priest,” in Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. D. H. Farmer (London: Penguin Group, 1990), 358.

[39] St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Caroline White (London: Penguin Group, 2008), 18.

[40] Galatians 1:15-17 (ESV).