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Boniface: Frisian Martyr

Author
Category Articles
Date January 17, 2004

It is the 1250th anniversary of the death of Boniface, missionary, preacher, bishop, extender of papal authority and martyr. To understand him one has to know something of another Englishman twenty years older than Boniface who was his inspiration and role model. This man was called Willibrord and was born in the north of England in 658. In 689 he had papal permission to bring the gospel to the Frisians and he served God there for fifty years. Willibrord can be called ‘the apostle of the Dutch’. The most famous incident in his life occurred when he was walking through Zeeland and came upon several people kneeling before a stone idol. Filled with compassion and zeal he joined them interposing himself between them and the figure. The people looked at him in amazement. Then he began to preach to them rebuking them for their folly. “Your gods have eyes but they cannot see, and ears but they cannot hear. Now I shall show you what is right.” Willibrord took up a club and assaulted the idol, succeeding in breaking it in pieces. The people ran away in terror, but a priest of that idol took out a short sword and attacked Willibrord, but the wounds were slight.

This man and his exploits were a source of inspiration to the Christian church in England. News of his labours reached its abbeys and one of the men who heard of Willibrord was Boniface. Let us got a little closer to him. Here are the key personal facts. Summarized in ‘Who’s Who’ fashion, with a few intrusions as we move through them, they are as follows:

“Wynfrith, born near Crediton, Devon in 680; trained in the abbey at Exeter and another in Nursling, in Hampshire; resolved to become a missionary; at 36 years of age joined the 56 year-old Willibrord but before this time Wynfrith’s name was changed to Boniface; war in Frisia resulted in his returning to England so that no missionary work in Holland was done on this occasion; a year later he went to Rome where the Pope commissioned him to preach among the tribes of Germany working in Saxony, Bavaria and Hesse; 745 he was appointed Archbishop of Mainz; monasteries were built, especially at Fulda where before Boniface died 400 monks were working copying Scripture and ministering to the poor; about 747, when he was 67 years of age, Boniface went for a second time to Frisia where his preaching changed the lives of many; there he was martyred.” Such was the man the 1250th anniversary of whose death we are now commemorating.

For what are we to remember Boniface? Perhaps not for the fact that he spread the power of the papacy beyond the Alps. He certainly did this, extending the boundaries of Latin Christendom which had begun to shrink in Spain owing to Muslim conquest. The later Holy Roman Empire could build on the foundations laid by Boniface’s labours.

Boniface is most to be remembered for his single-mindedness in spreading the gospel of his Saviour Jesus Christ. In these politically correct days Boniface’s evangelistic zeal denounces the inroads that pluralism has made into the professing church. Take the most memorable incident in his life. When he was in Hesse he approached the town of Geismar and came upon a oak tree sacred to Thor, the German god of thunder. The people regarded this oak with feelings of awe and reverence. Men and women came and worshipped under this tree. Boniface preached to them on the folly of idols but to no avail, so he recalled what his mentor Willibrord had done when confronted with the same darkness. Boniface obtained a large axe and approached the tree. The people stood watching with consternation and excitement. They expected that when the first blow was struck Thor would strike Boniface dead. Nothing happened the axe cut away and the wind blew and the tree fell. Boniface took the wood, and with his helpers cut it into planks and built a church building. The power of that idol over the people vanished. The priests of Thor lost their hold over the populace. Many accepted the biblical gospel; the Sermon on the Mount of the Lord Jesus Christ was preached to them and the people were taught to memorise the Word of God. There was not an atom of the pluralism which leads to relativism in the mind of this Christian leader. Christ was the only begotten Son of God; the only name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved.

Boniface’s martyrdom in Frisia was again the result of his singular zeal for Jesus Christ. He was to baptize a number of converts outside the village of Murmerwoude. Hearing of this his enemies gathered early in the day and began to stir up hatred again Boniface. His supporters warned him and sought to defend him but Boniface addressed them, “My children, do not fight; let us follow the example of our Lord in Gethsemane. We shall soon see him in his glory. I have longed to see him, and be with him. Let us pray.” They all knelt in prayer and as they did so the mob with blood-curdling yells, fell upon them and killed Boniface and 51 of his companions. He bravely and meekly died in the service of the God he loved whom he believed to be the one living and true Lord.

GEOFF THOMAS

Details of the life of Boniface can be found in S.M. Houghton’s invaluable history of the Christian Church, “Sketches from Church History” (Banner of Truth).

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