Irish-Celtic Monastic Missions and the Use of Their Strategy in the 21st Century


Liberty University


A paper submitted to Dr. Ed Smither

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for

the course GLST 597

Liberty Theological Seminary


William McPherson

Lynchburg, Virginia

Sunday, June 30, 2013














            Is it ironic that the very people who defied imperial Rome, also defied Christian Rome? There is little record of any branches of Latin, orthodox Christianity outside of Rome, aside from the Christianity that thrived among a peculiar people known as the Irish Celts. While Christianity was slow to take root in the druidic people of the isles, when it finally flowered it was a wonder to behold. Its fruit became the seed of one the greatest evangelistic movements in the history of the world, on par with the Great Awakenings, the Great Century, and the modern missions movement. The Christianity of the Irish Celts was beautiful, contagious, and fearless; the men and women devoted to the isles were not afraid to be counted among those who have been martyred for Christ.

What led to such an outpouring evangelistic fervor? Why was the evangelization on the isles such a pressing passion? How was it done, where was it centered? It may surprise the reader to learn that this explosion of disciple making came from medieval monasteries. George Hunter in his work, The Celtic Way of Evangelism describes the diversity of the monasteries, “Celtic monastic communities did include some monks and/or nuns who lived disciplined ascetic lives…but Celtic communities were much more diverse than eastern monasteries,” he continues, “They were also populated by priests, teachers, scholars, craftsmen, artists, farmers, families, and children.”[1] There is more discussion to follow, but suffice to say that the monasteries were not dead compounds of lifeless monks.

What is to follow is examination of these monasteries. How were they so effective? What about these monastic communities caused the intensely pagan population of the isles to stop worshiping nature and to start glorifying the God who created nature? A second part of each section will be a discussion of why these things matter; the Celts lived centuries ago, what can they teach to the modern missionary? Bringing the mindsets and methods of Celts into the twenty-first century may not be as difficult as one thinks. Therefore, it is proposed that the effectiveness of Irish Celtic missions was centralized in monasteries that fostered an adventurous spirit of evangelism, and an atmosphere of  biblical learning. All of these parts composed a witness that was irresistible to the people of isles, and it left an indelible mark on the history of Christian missions.



            In his work, St. Patrick, John Bury writes, “In the conversion of this island [Ireland], as elsewhere, captives played the part of missionaries. It will not then amaze us to find, when we reach the fifth century, that men go forth from Ireland to be trained in the Christian theology.”[2] It is the fourth century that will bring Christian captives to the deep Celtic lands of Ireland, but by the fifth century and beyond it is the Celts who reaching out to spiritual captives in other lands.  This missionary fervor eclipsed that of Rome as Ruth Hunter in her book,  From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, points out, “The evangelism of Ireland by Patrick and others resulted in one of the most extraordinary missionary accomplishments of the Middle Ages. It was a missionary venture conducted largely by the Celtic church as compared with the Western Roman church.”[3] From Patrick to those whom Patrick’s faith and legacy discipled, the Celtic church fully embrace the cause and cross of Jesus Christ.

Patrick was a crucial figure in the Christianization of the Celts , but he was not the first Christian to attempt to reach Ireland. Another missionary by the name of Palladius had established a Roman presence on the southern end of Ireland, this met with little results, though  it is heralded by both St. Columbanus and the historian the Venerable Bede.[4] Patrick is by far the man responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland. Patrick made two trips to Ireland, one was a captive of Celtic raids on Britain involuntarily, but the other was a voluntary mission to reach the Celts whom he had first come in contact. As Bruce Shelley in, Church History in Plain Language comments, “He [Patrick] would have gladly remained in England had he not had a dream one night in which the babies of Ireland pleaded with him to come back to their country and tell them about Christ.”[5] There was nothing extraordinary about Patrick, as Stephen Neill informs the reader in his work, A History of Christian Missions, “In his writings Patrick gives the impression of  being a man wholly possessed by the love of Christ, simple, and not highly educated–he seems to have been painfully conscious of his lack of theological competence and fitness for office.”[6]

Patrick may have lacked confidence, but he did not lack courage. In fact, there were many occasions where he found himself face to face with forces that sought to destroy his work. John T. McNeill in The Celtic Churches writes, “Patrick felt very keenly the affection of a pastor for this large flock. An atrocity committed against his converts brings a note of anguish…Patrick treats the raiders and their prince as Christians by profession who have denied their faith by their atrocious deed.”[7] It was very dangerous in the Middle Ages to criticize anyone with power and the army to back them, Patrick’s defiance sets the stage for a fearless Christianity to be birthed on Irish soil; this Christianity would become fearless in taking the Gospel to the most barbarous of peoples on the isles. Patrick gave up safety, comfort, and security to reach the Celts who had enslaved him; he had run away but God had brought him back to bring salvation.

The story does not end with Patrick; the Irish Celts would become the pioneers in reaching the barbarian peoples of the North. Columba would leave Ireland in order to establish the monastery of Iona to reach the savage Picts. Richard Sharpe in his introduction to Adoman of Iona’s Life of St. Columba calls the founding of Iona, “the central even that determines his historical significance.”[8] He later describes the impact that Columba had on the Picts, “The Picts attributed the conversion of their to St. Columba…yet…the Pictish king expelled the Columban monks from his territory. In some way…their position in Pictland had become a challenge to the ruler.”[9] Columba had daringly entered the territory of depraved pagans, and had a considerable impact on their future as a Christian people.

The central hub for these missionary endeavors was the monastery, but as has been previously mentioned, the monastery was not your typical place of contemplative recluse. These monasteries were borrowed from Eastern Orthodox Christianity and transformed into a Celtic context. Hunter explains, “the parish church model did not really fit ancient Irish life…Patrick’s successors adopted his principle of indigenous Christianity and extended it. The learned about “monasteries” from Eastern Christianity…Then they radically adapted the idea of the monastery to Ireland.”[10]  Hunter describes the method of monastic evangelism in two stages: 1) the multiplication of monastic communities and 2) the sending out of apostolic teams from the monasteries to the settlements.[11] These monasteries would be places where they could fellowship with the local people, minister and engage in conversation with them, and then invite them to believe after a witness has been established. [12] This contrasted heavily with the more conservative Roman formula which was more about presenting the faith than living it out. It took courage for these missionaries to live amongst and beside these war-like and unpredictable people. But had they decided to stay in their ‘safe’ Roman cities and churches, they would have had to come face to face with them anyway, as invaders rather than neighbors.

So what is to be gained from the example of fearless, yet compassionate evangelism that fueled these Irish ‘monks’? Just to be equitable, the Irish were not perfect in their evangelism strategy and Rufus Anderson points out in his article, “The Irish Missions in the Early Ages,” three issues with Celtic evangelism: 1)they did not return an apostolic emphasis on a local, self-governed church, 2) they focused too much on education above all else, and 3) they were not tied to an intimate sending community.[13] However, the local church has always taken on a different form or mold with each passing age; it would be highly arrogant to suppose that the Irish abandoned the local church. The role of education, particularly biblical and classical, in missions and evangelism will be explained in the next section, but here let it be said that education is a massive doorway to Christian faith and understanding. As for the sending community, they were too busy trying to stay alive themselves, for the Roman church was not too eager to fund these wild excursions into barbarian lands; many of these monasteries were on their own.

What can be drawn is that evangelism demands courage and sacrifice; no endeavor worth pursuing has been easy and carefree. While the evangelization of the Irish Celts, and their evangelization of other Celts, was ultimately a success; this success was watered by the blood, sweat, and tears of many martyrs. If the world, with its six-plus billion is to be evangelized, it will require people who are willing to die, to give themselves to God so that God can pour them out on a people. It also means a willingness to confront evil and wickedness no matter who is participating in it and what they have labeled themselves. Patrick’s stand against the prince and his raiders is an example of what Christians need to be willing to do with those who call themselves their brothers and sisters, yet refuse to act and/or believe like children of their Father. This too may lead to losing of one’s life, or at least the loss of one’s reputation.

But rest assured, this kind of fearless evangelism that is tempered with a love for people, has the power to shake entire governments and sending them toppling to the ground. It was this ‘fierce’ evangelism that won over the hearts of the various pagan Celts, and what these Celts used to win over the other northern kingdoms. The pagan world is looking for a church that stands up for justice and righteousness, that cares about the things that they care about. If the evangelical Church would take that opportunity, doors could open for gospel influence. Yet, this means that it may have to make allies of old enemies, and call old friends to account. Such, a fearless and vibrant Christianity can be used by God to change the world, even the world of the 21st century.



            Ralph Winter in his essay, “Two Structures” describes the impact of Celtic monasteries on the world of the Middle Ages, “For all of us who are interested in missions, the shattering of the ‘monks fled the world’ stereotype is even more dramatically and decisively reinforced by the…Celtic monks who did more to reach out to convert Anglo-Saxons than did Augustine’s later mission…more to evangelization of Western Europe…than any other force.”[14] While it is true that these Celtic missionaries were fearless, it is also true that they place I high value on an education in Scripture. It would be this education that would open the door to evangelizing the pagan Celts and ultimately for preserving knowledge through the Dark Ages.

The monasteries were built around education; the Irish Celts believed that spreading the Gospel effectively required careful learning. These monasteries were different from their Roman and Greek counterparts in two ways: 1) they accepted all kinds of people and 2) they accepted all kinds of ideas.[15] Thomas Cahill writes, “Once they had learned to read the Gospels and the other books of the Holy Bible, the lives of the martyrs am ascetics, and the sermons and commentaries of the fathers of the church, they began to devour all of the old Greek and Latin pagan literature.”[16] There was no limits to the scholarly reading the these Celtic monks, and their pupils were willing to do; but first, they concentrated on Scripture.

Pierre Riche in his essay, “Spirituality in Celtic and Germanic Society,” discusses the spiritual learning of the monks, “In the beginning the monks were not intellectuals, but since they had to read the Bible and celebrate the liturgy in Latin they applied themselves very soon to the study of this foreign language and were led to copy and learn the Latin grammarians and texts coming from the Continent,” he continues, “In order to nurture their spirituality, they meditated on the Bible, beginning with the Psalter, which was the fundamental book of readings in Celtic lands as it was in the Mediterranean world.”[17] By necessity, the Celtic monks rigorously studied the Latin texts so that they could understand and translate the faith to the pagans they were trying to reach. Peter Brown attests to this zeal, “From the beginning of their missions abroad…the Irish monks had taken their scholarship and their books with them…in the Irish continental monasteries during later centuries.”[18]

This education began from childhood, many of these children became missionaries to other groups, as C.H. Lawrence demonstrates, “Children brought up in the monastery were taught to copy texts in the distinctive half-uncial script that was transmitted by the Irish missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England…and many other monastic colonies on the Continent.”[19] This clearly taught Celtic children the importance of the Gospel and its transmission to the pagans outside of the monasteries. This impressed even the monasteries’ harshest critics, as Hunter informs the reader, “Yet Bede recognized the orthodox theology of the Celtic Christian leaders, and he was profoundly impressed, and moved by the character and credibility of the Celtic saints, and by their empathy for the populations they reached.”[20]

This focusing on higher education gave these monasteries opportunities to witness to the people desiring higher education as McNeill explains, “It was the monasteries that provided the opportunity for a higher education long cherished in Ireland. The vigorous new monastic communities soon far outclassed in significance the pre-Christian institutions.”[21] Earlier, he describes how the monastic system of education was modeled after these pre-Christian institutions, “In the druidic schools the successful completion of a twelve-year period of disciplined study earned the rank or degree of Ollam, signalizing the highest attainment in learning….In Ireland…the druidic culture was never destroyed by force.”[22] Cahill talks of how the Irish considered their work a baptism of education, “Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act,” he continues, “in a world where the old literate civilizations were sinking fast beneath successive waves of barbarism, the white Gospel page, shining in all the little oratories in Ireland, acted as a pledge: the lonely darkness had been turned into light and the lonely virtue of courage…had been transformed into hope.”[23]

It is this indigenous teaching strategy that allowed the Celtic monasteries to be so effective; had the monasteries been completely Roman, they would have been foreign to the pagans of the isles. Hunter observes, “Celtic Christianity took an imaginative approach to communicating to communicate the Gospel mystery to the ‘barbarians.’ They tapped their own imaginations for fresh ways to communicate the good news, and they engaged the imaginations of pre-Christian seekers.”[24] This imagination was sorely lacking in the Latin dominated church that was suspicious of everything that was barbarous or even classical. This insistence upon Latin uniformity hurt the church in many pagan places, especially in northern Europe.  The Celtic missionaries were much more prepared to reach these peoples, for they had learned to apply the Gospel in their own contexts. Ted Olsen explains how the Irish Celts saw spirituality in everything, “Even the less-holy places were laid out with regard to spiritual importance…the monastery’s walls wander all over the rocks. Inside the enclosure was a garden, a graveyard, two chapels, and six rocky ‘beehive’ cells that still stand.”[25]

This love for simple beauty and the glory of creation led to the creation of illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. On the former Peter Brown writes, “The sources in its illustration and decoration seem to be many…Where and how all of these traditions and influences came together…poses a problem that still remains to be fully solved.”[26] The Book of Kells being of many different streams of culture is not surprising if one considers the strategy and training of the Irish monks to incorporate the Gospel, and to do so beautifully. Concerning the Lindisfarne Gospels, Michelle Brown also sees a variety of influences, “On balance, I favour Lindisfarne as the most likely venue for such a fusion of influences in the making of a major manuscript which, by the very nature of the care and resources lavished upon its production, is likely to have been planned as a cult object.”[27] These text are examples of the Irish Celts attempting to use their love of beauty and accuracy, to create translations of Scripture that would continue to inspire and enlighten through the ages. This was no sour Jerome, this was a living expression of the Gospel, by a people deeply completely touched by its message.

So, how does the creativity and spiritual education of Celts help in today’s missionary endeavors? It needs to be noted that many of the tactics and practice of Celtic missionaries are increasingly being practiced in world missions. For centuries, the more Roman model of missionary work held sway, even amongst Protestants. However, through the efforts of missiologists like Lesslie Newbigin, Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, and others, the approach of contextualizing the message of the Gospel has become incredibly popular and has seen some considerable results.

Still, there is an openness that Celts had to learning that evangelicals still do not have, particularly in areas where they have to reevaluate a traditional view of biblical interpretation. While there are Christian schools, these schools tend to function as sanctuaries from the world rather than missionary agents. Engaging in active scholarship, discerning what is essential beliefs and being flexible in understanding others, is something that evangelicals need to learn in order to engage the media, cultural, and educated elites who tend to control especially Western society. Until evangelicals are willing to bring their traditional interpretations to bear with evidence on issues outside of Christ, then they will continue to struggle to reach the intelligent in society.

Evangelicals also need to be more appreciative of other methods of Gospel communication other than lecture-style preaching. While preaching is important, and has its place, it is not the only way to communicate the Gospel. The Celts appreciated and used beautiful, everyday place and objects demonstrate the glory of God. While images cannot replace the Scripture, they can help to illuminate ideas in ways that spoken word simply cannot hope to achieve. Also, by attracting  the artists, musicians, and other culture shapers, doors will be open to the vast majority of people that otherwise would not be reached.



            Celtic monastic missions have had indelible impact on the history of the world. Christianity owes the Celts a debt of gratitude for preserving its history, otherwise it would be Islam-dom rather Christendom that has influenced the world for over a thousand years. The courage and the creativity of Celts allowed them to be all things to all people, and as a result some the most barbarous, violent tribes of northern Europe where eventually Christianized. While it can be argued that Christianization is not the same as evangelization, the Celts brought the Gospel with them in word, deed, and colorful manuscripts.

The Celts leave a legacy of determination, but not a bull-headed determination; it is a humble, passionate determination to reach the people God had called them to reach. This is what led many of them to abandon Ireland for worlds unknown. Even though their monasteries were sanctuaries, they were far from safe. With the willingness to risk comes innovation, and that innovation is what has the power to bring the Gospel to new people groups. My the 21st century church continue to be bold, courageous, and daring in how it creatively brings the good news of Christ to the ends of the earth.










Adomnán of Iona. Life of St. Columba. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.: Penguin Classics, 1995.


Anderson, Rufus. “The Irish Missions in the Early Ages.” Biblia Sacra 25, no. 98 (1868): 347-      64.

Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2003.


Brown, Peter. The Book of Kells: Forty-Eight Pages and Details in Color from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf, 1980.


Bury, J.B. St. Patrick: the Life and World of Ireland’s Saint. Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010.


Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: the Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (the Hinges of History). New York: Anchor, 1996. Kindle Ed.


Charles-Edwards, T.M. Early Christian Ireland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hunter III, George G. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West– Again. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000.


Lawrence, C.H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. London: Longman, 1984.


McGinn, Bernard, John Meyendorf, and Jean Leclercq, eds. Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century. Vol. 1, Origins to the Twelfth Century. New York:                Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.


McNeill, John T. The Celtic Churches: a History A.d. 200 to 1200. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1974.


Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Olsen, Ted. Christianity and the Celts. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2003.


Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: a Biographical History of Christian Missions.       2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of   Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996.

Winter, Ralph and Stephen Hawthorne. eds. Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: a Reader. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2008.


                [1] George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West– Again (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 28.


                [2] J.B. Bury, St. Patrick: the Life and World of Ireland’s Saint (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010), 12.

[3] Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: a Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 40.


                [4] T.M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 182.


                [5] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 156.

[6] Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 50.

[7] John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches: a History A.D. 200 to 1200 (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1974), 65.


                [8] Adomnán of Iona, Life of St. Columba (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.: Penguin Classics, 1995), 12.

[9] Ibid.

                [10] Hunter, 27.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid., 53.

[13] Rufus Anderson, “The Irish Missions in the Early Ages,” Biblia Sacra 25, no. 98 (1868): 361.

                [14] Ralph Winter and Stephen Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: a Reader (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2008), 247.


                [15] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: the Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor, 1996), Loc. 2174. Kindle Ed.


                [16] Ibid., Loc. 2182

                [17] Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorf, and Jean Leclercq, eds., Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, vol. 1, Origins to the Twelfth Century (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 166.


                [18] Peter Brown, The Book of Kells: Forty-Eight Pages and Details in Color from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin, 1st American ed. (New York: Knopf, 1980), 31.


[19] C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (London: Longman, 1984), 41.


                [20] Hunter, 66.

                [21] McNeill, 74.

[22] Ibid., 73.

[23] Cahill, Loc. 2263.

[24] Hunter, 70.

                [25] Ted Olsen, Christianity and the Celts (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2003), 85.


[26] Peter Brown, 7.

[27] P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2003), 396.



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