Long before the warring Germanic tribes swooped down across the frozen Rhine, the Roman Empire was crumbling from within. It hardly defended itself against waves of brutal invasions. With the empire’s fall, the violent tribesmen carelessly destroyed many of the classical works of antiquity and learning from the Greco-Roman era.
Thousands of miles north in Britain, a 16-year-old boy named Patrick was kidnapped in 389 A.D. by Irish raiders and sold as a slave in Ireland. For six years, he tended sheep in the hills of Ireland, spending most days praying and meditating.
In a dream one night, he saw Jesus telling him to get up and go to the sea because his ship was waiting. When he awoke, Patrick risked death by leaving his life of slavery and heading toward the coast. About 200 miles later, he found and boarded a ship headed for his homeland. Once there, he entered seminary and later church ministry. A few years later, he had a divine vision that motivated him to become a missionary to those who had enslaved him.
So in 433 A.D., he returned to a barbaric Irish society that only spoke the language of war, where it was common practice to hang the skulls of decapitated opponents on one’s waist. Into this setting he shared his faith in Christ for 60 years. Through his consistent preaching and love, innumerable townspeople, Irish warriors and druid priests became Christians. They laid down their swords and began leading productive, peaceable lives.
From Patrick, who was later named a saint, flowed a movement of Irish missionaries who took the gospel back to Europe, which had been ransacked by decades of barbarian feuds. Because these Irish monks valued education, they built monasteries wherever they traveled in which to teach scriptural truth. Also, they salvaged what remained of classical ancient works like the Iliad, Plato’s writings and whatever they could find. These believers shared the gospel with barbarians, taught them to read and later established centers of learning—universities—in which to teach the Bible.
Historian Thomas Cahill says the Irish saved Western civilization because of the faithfulness of this man, Saint Patrick, and his successors. Were it not for their devotion to biblical truth and classical learning, Europe might still be a land of illiteracy and brutality today. All of Western civilization owes an enormous debt to Patrick. And that is why we celebrate the date of his death on March 17.
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