ST. BONIFACE, (680-754)
A History of Preaching
F. R. Webber

St. Boniface, whose name was originally Wynfrith or Winfrid, was a native of Crediton, near Exeter, Devonshire. He came of an excellent family. Wynfrith was sent to Exeter for his education, and he lived in what is now St. Pancras Lane. Later he studied at Nutcell, near Winchester. While living at Exeter, he heard the sermons of two preaching friars, who described the paganism of Frisia, to which Willibrord, a Northumbrian, had gone in 689. The success of Willibrord among the barbarous Frisians stirred the young Wynfrith. From the top of a high hill north of Exeter he could see the waters of the Channel. There was a low cloud on the horizon, and Wynfrith believed mistakenly that this was continental Europe. He resolved to go to the dark forests which the preaching friars had described, and assist Willibrord in his task of Christianizing the German tribes.

It was not until 716 that his desire was satisfied, and Wynfrith, who had taken the name Boniface at his ordination, set out for Germany. Here he met with bitter disappointment, for the unfriendly attitude of Radbod, the Frisian king, compelled him to return to Devon. The following year he went to Rome, but it was not until 719 that he received a formal commission from Pope Gregory to go to Frisia. Gregory also gave him a letter to Charles Martel, requesting his protection of Boniface. He set out across the Alps and through the forests until he came to Frisia, where he met his fellow countryman Willibrord. Boniface spent three years assisting the older missionary.

In 722, under the protection of Charles Martel, Boniface went to Hesse and Thuringia, preaching, baptizing and overturning idols. At Geismar his attention was called to the great oak of Thor, and he was told that merely to touch it would mean instant death. Boniface borrowed an axe and felled the tree. He was made bishop in 722, and archbishop ten years later. He reorganized the Frankish church, he founded the abbey of Fulda, and various other communities, and he was tireless in his preaching and baptizing. About the year 745 or 748 he was made bishop of Mainz and given general supervision of the Rhineland districts.

In 754 his old interest in Frisia caused him to return to the scene of his early missionary work. He set out, with some 50 companions. Arrangements were made for a great confirmation service, but a group of Frisians who were hostile to Christianity fell upon Boniface and his companions and all were slain at Dockum.

There is no question that Boniface was a preacher of exceptional force, but historians differ sharply as to his motives. Roman Catholic writers describe him as a man of singular zeal, whose only ambition was to win the heathen Germans to Christianity. German Protestant writers usually take the opposite view, declaring that he was a man of worldly ambition, eager to win Germany not for the Saviour but for the pope. Moderate Protestants look upon him as a man of intense missionary zeal, but who had been led to believe that the power of the Gospel alone was not enough; and that a strong organization was needed to hold what had been won. Thus it was that he sought the protection both of the Roman pontiff and of Charles Martel.

No authentic missionary sermons of Boniface seem to have survived. Perhaps fifteen of his sermons exist, but these give no indication that they were preached to the pagan tribes. They were preached, apparently, to men who had already become Christians. The sermons are based upon Scriptural texts, but their treatment is allegorical rather than expository, and they seem to stress loyalty to the outward ordinances and life of the Church, rather than Redemptive Christianity. Boniface was a man of singular courage, with a missionary zeal far beyond the average, and a superb organizer; but it is to be feared that he placed more trust in the power of the Church than in Law and Gospel alone.

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