“It is no exaggeration to say, that since the days of the great Apostle to the Gentiles no missionary of the Gospel has been more eminent in labors, in perils, in self-devotion, and in that tenacity yet elasticity of purpose, which never loses sight of its aim, even while compelled to approach it by some other route than that which it proposed to itself originally — than Winfrid, known in the annals of Christendom as Boniface, ‘the Apostle of (the Netherlands and) Germany’” (William Smith and Henry Wace, eds., A Dictionary of Christian Biography New York: AMS Press, 1967, vol. 1, p. 327).
This moving verdict cannot but leave a lasting impression upon all thoughtful readers. Frankly, it should electrify them. But who is this Boniface? What earned him this verdict? What turned him into the man he was? And, last but not least, what should the church do with his legacy?
Born in the 670s in Britain and preoccupied at a surprisingly early age with things eternal, Boniface pleaded for, and finally received, permission from his reluctant father to enter a monastery and surrender himself to a life of service in God’s kingdom. During the monastic preparation for his life’s task, he learned unquestioning obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors, was inflamed with love for Christ, proved to be a zealous student of Scripture, became a devoted disciple in the school of prayer, grew rapidly in purposeful holiness, proved to be a powerful Gospel preacher, and was ordained a priest at the age of thirty. But, above all, the monastery, a hotbed of evangelistic fervor, imbued him with lasting evangelistic zeal.
His ministry can be divided in three phases, framed by his initial missionary foray (716) into the Netherlands (Frisia), and his final foray (754), possibly as an octogenarian, into the same geographical area. His first foray was unsuccessful because of a war that raged between Radbod, king of the Frisians, who sought to devastate every possible church and monastery, and Charles Martel, king of the Franks. His final foray culminated in a martyr’s death, the crowning piece of a remarkable life, characterized by an enormous spiritual drive, a fearless ardor, a tireless vigor, and an indomitable perseverance. He distinguished himself from the start as a passionate missionary, and eventually evolved into an exceptional organizer, a superb administrator, and a polished statesman. He dedicated all his gifts and talents to the indefatigable pursuit of his grand twofold vision, namely, to Christianize all of pagan Europe and to forge the converts into a powerful, effective, and influential church under the unifying and authoritative umbrella of the bishop of Rome.
In his first phase (718–722) he was commissioned by Gregory II to labor as missionary priest in Thuringia (south-central Germany) and Frisia. In Thuringia he encountered a mixture of Christianity and heathenism as well as moral laxity. Although he enjoyed some success, he experienced resistance from an independent-minded clergy in control of already established churches. This and the death of Radbod prompted him to return to Frisia where he labored for three years. He saw many pagans converted. This time the ecclesiastical authorities were with him, and even offered him a bishopric. But his missionary heart did not allow him to accept this, so eager was he to move into new fields of evangelistic endeavor.
In the second phase (722–742), under the protection of Charles Martel and deputized by Gregory II as missionary bishop, he concentrated first on Hessia (north-central Germany) and then on Thuringia. His success in Hessia immortalized him as one who “surpassed all his predecessors in the extent and results of his ministry,” and so, “more than any other individual became God’s instrument to carry Christianity” into Germany. The events that struck the telling blow against mythological paganism and made his ministry soar were, first, the courageous-and-strategic felling of an extraordinary oak tree that, dedicated to the worship of the thunder-god Thor, was regarded as sacred and inviolable, and, second, the use of its wood to erect a chapel to the glory of Christ. To the native population Thor’s “lack of response” established the authority of the Christian God and His ecclesiastical apostle. This led to thousands of conversions, and constitutes the beginning of the nation-wide Christianization of Germany. What characterized his Thuringia ministry, following his commission by Gregory III as missionary archbishop to give him expanded authority, was the founding of a vast network of dedicated churches, functioning dioceses, disciplined monasteries, and flourishing schools. With a combination of gentle grace and disciplinary intolerance he incessantly preached against pagan worship, doctrinal heresies, moral impurity, and independent catholicism, and sought to eradicate them, armed with a love for the Scriptures and a zeal for the church, as well as organizing prowess and administrative ability.
In the third phase (744–753), under the protection of Pepin, son of Charles Martel, and commissioned as Archbishop of Mainz by the pope to give him regional jurisdiction, he expanded his ministry into Bavaria (south Germany) and France. In Bavaria he continued to display his genius for ecclesiastical organization and administration, and in France his indomitable zeal for personal and ecclesiastical reform.
At the end, not interested to depart from this earthly scene quietly, he died as he had lived, a soldier of Christ. Seeking to destroy pagan worship and save pagan souls, he incurred the wrath of the objects of his love and zeal. He and his comrades refused to defend themselves and were slaughtered. Ironically, his murderers, facing Boniface’s God and his many loyal friends, soon recognized their spiritual and societal dead-end street in apparently heartfelt repentance. They became followers of Christ and members of His church. Thus, Boniface accomplished by his death what eluded him during his life.
This leaves us with the last two questions posed at the beginning of this article: What made Boniface the man he was? and what is his legacy? Neither question is too difficult to answer with the assistance of Scripture, his letters, and the testimonies of history.
All the accolades that have been, and can be, assigned to him, such as his purposeful godliness, his inexpressible joy, his unswerving praise of God, his indomitable zeal, his indefatigable labors, his sacrificial self-exertion, often in the midst of difficult times, appear to reflect revival glory (Ps. 85), with its source in the cross and resurrection of Christ, its agent in the Spirit of Christ, and its first grand demonstration in Acts 2. Throughout his ministry Boniface thirsted for, and displayed, the Pentecostal resurrection power that was eager to embrace both the suffering that comes when preaching the Gospel and the conformity to a fruit-bearing death that Jesus Himself left behind as blueprint for his disciples, and so for the church universal (John 12:24; Phil. 3:10; Col. 1:24). Couple this abundant Spirit power with a sacrificial love and a seemingly unfailing discernment in handling people and situations fearlessly and effectively (2 Tim. 1:7), and the contours of “the Apostle of the Netherlands and Germany” begin to emerge. In joyful surrender he committed himself to a monastery as the customary boot camp of the Christian faith. He soon found his missionary niche, and with unwavering devotion stayed the course from the beginning through the middle to the end of his life. In the beginning he endangered his life and ventured into a war zone with the Gospel. In the middle he risked his life and felled an oaken idol in the authority of the Gospel. At the end he surrendered his life and was martyred for the sake of the Gospel. These three instances basically tell his story.
But now, his legacy. It would be unconscionable to require all Christians to emulate gifts God showers upon specific individuals, such as a genius for organization and administration. However, it would be equally unconscionable not to present as binding upon every individual what God requires from all Christians. In the footsteps of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, Boniface wholeheartedly embraced as God’s norm the twofold blueprint that Christ left the church: suffering and death in Him and life in His people (2 Cor. 4:12). If the church merely celebrates Boniface as an extraordinary phenomenon, it misses the point. Only if he manages to electrify the church, and only if the church embraces him and his life as exemplifying God’s desires for revival, and only if we confess as culpable and shameful everything that falls short of this, can we hope to enjoy a similarly indispensable type of ministry, whether in what seems to be a virtually dead (Muslim) Middle East, a mostly dead (secularized) Europe, or a dying (humanistic) America. Frankly, the message of history in general and Boniface in particular is crystal clear. Unless the church, in the footsteps of Boniface, is eager to suffer and die, and by word and example urges all its children at an early age to follow suit, rather than to give them only reluctant permission to do so under extraordinary circumstances, the church is bound to suffer and face near death at the hands of the world.