Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
One of the earliest missionaries to the British Isles was St. Ninian. It is unfortunate that a man who deserves a place among the greatest missionaries of the fifth century, has been treated so unfairly by historians. Certainly St. Ninian was as eminent a man as St. Patrick, St. Columba or St. Boniface, yet our leading encyclopaedias and Church histories give these men lengthy notice, while Ninian is given but a few lines, and these are usually incorrect in several respects. Not much has been known in regard to Pictish Christianity until recent years, and even at best there have been historians who have assumed that Celtic Christianity was but a branch of the Latin Church. Religious and racial rivalries have been responsible for some of the misunderstanding. Then we have always had a superficial form of scholarship which assumes that every impulse, whether religious or secular, must of necessity originate in Greece and Rome. Such men, because of their lack of accurate information, look upon the multitude of Celtic peoples, who occupied so large an area of Europe, as mere barbarians.
Little is known of Ninian's boyhood days. He was born on the north shore of the Solway. There is no evidence that he ever visited Rome, for the Celts were not in communion with Rome until centuries later. Certain reference books assure us that Ninian went to Rome and was consecrated bishop, but this is idle speculation, for Latin Christianity was not introduced into Britain until the coming of Augustine of Canterbury 165 years after Ninian's death. The Celts were intensely clannish, and their love of national liberty led them to look with suspicion upon other races; and rivalries existed even among the several branches of the Celtic race itself.
It is quite true that Ninian received his education abroad. He was trained at Logo-Tigiac, the famous school of St. Martin of Tours; and the fact must not be overlooked that St. Martin was not of the Latin Church. He was a Pannonian, and he labored among the Gaulish Celts at a place where Gatian, himself a Gaulish Celt, had spread the teachings of Christianity at the end of the third century. Logo-Tigiac was not, in Ninian's day, a great university with a theological department. Its name, translated literally, means the Bright-White Hut. St. Martin built a modest school of white stone, and grouped about it were the small stone huts in which the men and boys lived. The entire institution was known as a muinntir, which means "family, people, inhabitants or community." It was looked upon as a religious household. These little communities, composed of a teacher and his followers, were common to the Celtic Christians, for the Celts were accustomed to the clan, or "relationship," rather than to the imperial form of government of the Romans.
These little communities were training schools, and when the young men completed their studies, they were sent forth by their teacher as missionaries. In Ninian's case, he was sent back to his home land, and directed by St. Martin of Tours to evangelize his countrymen. He returned to his native Britain about the year 397, or possibly early in 398 A.D., and with a few helpers he at once began to build a muinntir or community of his own. The place is known today as Whithorn, Wigtownshire. As Ninian and his companions were building their missionary center, they learned the sad news of the death of their teacher, St. Martin. Out of respect to his memory they decided to model their community as closely as possible to that of Tours. It became known eventually as Candida Casa, although it is possible that his name originated 298 years after Ninian's death, when most of Galloway was taken by the Angles and made subject to the English crown and the Latin Church.
St. Ninian became the first missionary to the North. He established his colony 166 years before that of St. Columba of Iona, yet by the irony of fate Columba the Gaidheal is known throughout the world, while St. Ninian is practically unknown. Columba was one of the greatest missionaries of the Celtic Church, and he deserves all the praise that has been given him, but in our admiration for his great missionary zeal we dare not overlook St. Ninian.
Ninian came to Pictland as a Celtic Christian to labor among fellow Celts. His speech was so closely akin to that of the Picts that they understood him readily enough. When Columba began his work among the Dalriads, it was necessary for him to speak to them through an interpreter. The territory in which Ninian labored was an extensive one. Until a few years ago Pictland was looked upon as a place of little importance. For this Ptolemy is responsible. Through an error of calculation he described the country that we know today as Scotland as a small peninsula extending eastward into the North Sea, and forming a right angle with England. As a matter of fact Pictland of Alba included much of what we call Scotland, and the territory evangelized by St. Ninian and his followers extended from the Solway Firth, in the southwest of Scotland, to the Shetland and Orkney Islands on the north, and to the 500 islands of the Hebrides on the west. Throughout this territory Ninian and his followers journeyed, and proclaimed, in the words of Ailred, "the truth of the Gospel and the purity of the Christian faith, God working him and 'confirming the Word with signs following'."
At the outset, and until his own missionaries could be trained, it appears that Ninian had to seek help from the communities of Celtic Britons who dwelt south of the Wall of Antonine, as well as from St. Comgall's missionaries at Bangor in Ulster. The importance of St. Ninian's labors may be realized from the descriptions given us by Archibald B. Scott, in his several works on Ninian and the Pictish Church. Not only does he mention many places where Ninian worked, but by means of outline maps he locates the centers established by St. Ninian and his immediate followers.
Later missionaries have underestimated the great work of Ninian and other Celtic missionaries because they failed to establish a form of Church government with which the Latin Church was familiar. It is quite true that the Celtic method of evangelization differed from that of Rome. The Latin Church, perhaps without realizing it, built up a system of religious government that recalls the civil government. In the secular world, the local community was subject to the State, and the State in turn to the Emperor and his staff. In the Latin Church the local congregations were subject to their bishops and archbishops, and these in turn were subject to the tituli and the Pope. The Celts knew nothing of such forms of government, for their form of organization was tribal. It was but natural that their method of religious work should follow forms with which they were familiar. Thus it was that a chain of religious "families" should come into being, each such muinntir the center of missionary activity, and with no such things as bishops, archbishops, cardinals or popes.
The Pictish Church was succeeded by the Gaidhealic Church, and this was absorbed eventually by the Roman Church. Later historians, either because they did not understand the distinctive church life among the Picts, or in some cases in order to present their own Church in as favorable a manner as possible, described the work of St. Ninian in a most inaccurate manner. They declare that he placed bishops over dioceses, and built up a hierarchy that was wholly unknown among the Celts of his time. The clannish spirit among his people would not have accepted such a system, neither would their intense love of racial liberty have accepted the jurisdiction of men of other countries and races. Ailred, who wrote an account of Ninian's life, was not a careful scholar, and his biography contains not only absurd anachronisms, but examples of garbled history as well. The story of Ninian's life was told by later historians who did not hesitate to attribute to his work a form or organization that did not exist until centuries after his death.
The fame of St. Ninian as a preacher rests upon statements of his biographers, who declare that he proclaimed the Gospel in its purity. It is certain that he possessed a manuscript of at least the Gospels and the Psalms, for it was he who brought the St. Martin's Gospel from Tours to Candida Casa. In some accounts this manuscript is described merely as the Gospels, again the Gospels and Psalms are mentioned, while in the Kalendar of Cashiel it is said to have included the Mosaic Law as well. It was the manuscript known as St. Martin's Gospel that was owned later by St. Finbar, who took it to Ireland where it was copied by Columba. Since Ninian brought this manuscript to Britain, it would lend weight to the statement of Ailred his biographer that Ninian proclaimed "the truth of the Gospel and the purity of the Christian faith." That he must have done this in a persuasive manner is attested by the fact that many religious centers were established as results of his preaching. Archibald B. Scott, in his Pictish Nation, its People and its Church, mentions nineteen such centers that have been identified with certainty. These were not congregations in the modern sense, but each one was a muinntir, or missionary center, made up of a spiritual family, and from whence missionary activity went forth.
Both Ailred and Bede speak of Ninian's ability as a preacher, and there is every indication that preaching, as a method of making known the Gospel, was held in high esteem by the Pictish Church. Later writers of the rival Gaidhealic Church give but grudging credit to him, but it must not be forgotten that the Gaidheals, in their writings, sought to further their own prestige, and made it appear that their own missionaries Christianized Britain. Their historians could not ignore St. Ninian entirely, but they passed lightly over his extensive work as though it were a matter of slight importance. Early accounts of Ninian's life were written, but these were edited and amended by later scribes, and their alterations and marginal notes were often merest speculation, and in some cases deliberate garbling of the truth.
Much scholarly work has been done in recent years, and in no respect have Ninian and his followers suffered. He was a great missionary, an influential preacher, and the true pioneer in the northern parts of the British Isles. The Pictish Church was in full communion with the Christian Church of Celtic Gaul, which was centered in Tours. At the time of the barbarian invasions, when communication with Gaul was cut off for a century and a half, it was Ninian's Candida Casa that became the center of the Brito-Celtic Church.
To say that five centuries of darkness came over the Christian Church during the barbarian invasions and the centuries that followed, is sheer nonsense. The influence of the Latin Church was greatly restricted, but it was precisely then that the Celtic Church flourished in the British Isles, and sent forth a multitude of missionaries. Literally hundreds of place-names exist to this day as silent witness to the labors of these tireless men.
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