The Period of the Celtic Church

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

Most people assume that the Roman Catholic Church flourished in England, Scotland and Ireland from earliest days until the Reformation. This assumption is based upon the writings of such historians as Gildas, Adamnan, Bede, William of Malmesbury, Ailred of Rievaulx and others. These ancient historians were all men of learning, but the writing of history in their day was not a matter of exact scholarship. The Venerable Bede was perhaps the most eminent of them all, yet he admits that his entire life was spent in the monastery of Jarrow, in the northeastern part of England. He depended upon the monastery library for his sources, and in his day, a library with seven or eight hundred volumes was considered a good one. Bede made every effort to distinguish between true history and mere legend, yet he states things in his history that present-day research is compelled to reject. The early historians whom we have mentioned were all Roman Catholics, or else friends toward the Latin Church. They were all aware that Rome had a powerful rival, the Celtic Church, which had been influential in northern Europe and the British Isles for several centuries. However, human nature being such as it is, one may hardly expect these historians to call attention to the priority of the Celtic Church, nor to expatiate upon its great missionary zeal and its evangelical character.

Later historians depended to a great extent upon the writings of these early scholars. Most of them, through pure speculation, assumed that Christianity must have come to the British Isles in the wake of the conquering legions of Claudius. The evidence for such a supposition is flimsy. There are a few passing references in the writings of the Church Fathers, but these are highly rhetorical, and little can be proved from them except the fact that Christian missionaries found their way into many lands. . . .

So thickly was the true history of the Celtic Church overlaid with legends, annotations and revisions that as recently as half a century ago certain authorities declared that it was a matter of utmost confusion. Today the true facts are known. A group of careful historians have devoted great attention to the subject, and they have purged the true history of the Celtic church from the heavy veneer of legend and confusion that had become attached to it. Old documents were examined, old Celtic dialects were studied critically, and it was soon possible to separate the early writings from later additions made by fabulists, annotators and imaginative writers. Fortunately the Celts have left us hundreds, in fact thousands, of ancient Celtic crosses, ogham stones and various other reminders of their busy lives. Many of these are inscribed stones. The traditional sites of ancient churches have been excavated, and the ruins of great training schools have been identified. As early as the year 1835 the excavations of William Mitchell, Esq., brought to light the ancient church of St. Piran, among the sand dunes of the north Cornish coast. The location of Ninian’s great missionary center, Candida Casa, at Whithorn, is known beyond question, while the church and the other buildings (restored) on the Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, stand as visible reminders of Columba and his community. Old inscribed stones have been deciphered and ancient Celtic manuscripts in the great libraries of Europe have been scrutinized. The subject of Celtic Christianity is no longer a thing of confusion.

In the early Christian centuries the people of the Celtic race occupied a large part of the European continent and the British Isles. This fact has never been questioned, although a certain school of German authorities, relying upon speculation rather than upon a study of existing monuments, advanced the theory years ago that the British Isles were inhabited by a mixed population composed of Angles and Saxons in the South, and Celts and Picts in the North and West. This was not the case until the middle of the fifth century. Britain was solidly Celtic, except for the Roman army of occupation, until about the year 448 A.D., when Vortigern, a Celtic chief, invited the Angles to come and assist him during a period of internal warfare. About the same time other Angles arrived by sea, landing near the mouth of the River Humber on the east coast. The Angles who came to assist Vortigern were allowed to remain, and the relations were friendly. Those who landed on the east coast at the Humber’s mouth came as enemies and remained as invaders. They pushed westward, cutting off the Picts who lived in Alba, which we call Scotland.

Christianity in Britain was due neither to the Roman legions nor to the Teutonic Angles, for both were pagan. There is every reason to believe that St. Hilary of Poitiers, (310-368), a Celt of Gaul, and St. Martin of Tours, (c. 336-400), a Sabarian Christian living in Gaul, deserve more credit than they have received in the past. Both of them belonged to the Celtic Church in the Continent, and both were filled with missionary zeal. Hilary was an evangelical Christian who had employed all of his fiery Celtic eloquence in protesting against the secularism and imperialism of his day. In 356 he was exiled to Phrygia, where he had access to complete Bibles. In his day Bibles were copied laboriously by hand, and fortunate was the man who could possess the Gospels, the Psalms and the writings of Moses. In the East, Hilary found complete Bibles and theological writings of various kinds. He preached vigorously against the theory that the bishops of the Latin Church were custodians of the truth, and he pointed men to the open Bible and to Jesus Christ the only Saviour. He bore witness to “the Word of God in the Scriptures, which alone prescribed belief for Christians, and is the rule for the morals of all men.” Between 361 and 368 A.D. he returned to Poitiers, and at once used his private inheritance in founding a community at Poitiers where he trained young men to go out and preach among their fellow Celts. Hilary himself preached far and wide, and brought many to a knowledge of Christian truth, and he directed the men whom he sent out, two and two, among the people of Gaul.

One of the most promising pupils who attended Hilary’s school at Poitiers was a young man named Martin. He had been born in Pannonia, and is often said to have been of Roman parentage. It is more probable that his parents were Celts living in Hungary, for we find Martin preaching to the Celts with great acceptance, and educating others to preach among the Celts. Hilary gave him a building in which to train his missionary preachers, and Martin named it Logo-Tigiac, or “the bright white house.” These schools of Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours were based upon the methods of Basil and the Eastern Church and not upon Rome. Hilary is remembered as the writer of the Te Deum and other Christian hymns, while Martin of Tours looms large in Church History because of his memorable defense of the Nicene Creed against the Arian heresy. Men often overlook the fact that these two men were Celtic Christians and not Latin, and that their greatest fame lies in the fact that they gave to the Christian Church in western and northern lands a remarkable system of education. Their schools were not monasteries, but muinntir as they called them, meaning “family,” “relations,” etc., where young men were trained not to withdraw from the evil world, but to go out and face it, preaching the truths of Christianity and seeking to evangelize the pagan people.

To the muinntir of St. Martin of Tours came a bright young Briton from what is now known as Scotland. His name was Ninian. After completing his studies at Tours, Martin sent him back to his own country to win it for the Christian Church. Ninian was a young man of admirable qualities, and St. Martin loved him as though he were his own son. It was a memorable day in the year 397 A.D. when Ninian returned to Pictland with a few companions who had been persuaded to assist him in the evangelization of the British Isles. In was memorable, for it marks the beginning of written history of Christianity in Britain. Prior to that date everything is pure legend, and if Christianity existed in the British Isles its founders did not leave so much as an altar slab to prove that it existed before the coming of Ninian. Undoubtedly there were Christian missionaries who preached here and there, but not one of them left lasting evidence of his labors until Ninian and his friends landed on the southwestern coast of what is now Scotland, and at Whithorn, near Ninian’s home, founded Candida Casa which became one of the most important training centers of the Celtic Church. While they were building their chapel and school and circle of huts, word came, telling them of the death of their beloved teacher, St. Martin of Tours. This was in the year 400 A.D. Thus it was that they gave their training center the name of the “bright white hut.”

Ninian and his pupils not only preached throughout Pictland, but some of their number went among the people of Ireland and paved the way for St. Patrick. Ninian’s training center continued to send out men long after his death, and one of these was St. Finbar. He went to Ireland and established a school of his own at Maghbile in Ulster. This in turn became the parent institution of the most important training school of Bangor of the Ards in Ulster, which sent its missioners not only throughout Britain, but to many parts of Continental Europe, where they founded various training schools, among which were the celebrated institutions at St. Gall in Switzerland and Bobbio in the Apennines.

The great Celtic Church was known in the latter part of the third century when a Celtic missionary named Gatian was laboring with success among the Celts of Gaul. Its great strongholds were developed among the Picts of Alba (Scotland) and among the Irish Picts, whom the earliest historians call the Scots, but who were really Irish. Long before the Latin Church became dominant in Britain we find three branches of the Celtic Church at work: the Brito-Picts with their parent institution at Candida Casa, the Irish Picts with their most important center at Bangor in Ulster, and the Church of the Gaidheals, with its chief training school on the Isle of Iona, off the western Scottish coast. The Brito-Picts and Iro-Picts were friendly and assisted one another. The Gaidheals were not in communion with the other two groups. However, all three of them were possessed of great missionary zeal, and each of the original training centers had lesser centers as affiliated institutions, and all of these in turn had a chain of muinntir or communities of missionaries who carried on an active program of expansion. These Celts proclaimed the Gospel throughout the British Isles, from Cornwall in the southwest to the Shetland Isles in the far north. They were strongly established when St. Augustine of Canterbury came to southeast Britain in 597 A.D., with instructions from the Roman pontiff to evangelize the Angles who had settled in the southeastern part of the British Isles and who had established themselves in the northern parts of England as well.

For several centuries the Celtic Church and the Latin Church labored side by side, each with its own distinctive doctrines and form of church government. The Celts were a clannish people and they not only held aloof from the newcomers from Rome, but they declined to conform to Rome in certain matters of doctrine, in their manner of worship and in their forms of church administration. As time went on, Rome endeavored to persuade the Celtic Church to conform to the ways of the Latin Church, but it was not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. that Rome won her major victory in causing the Celts to adopt the date of Easter as observed in the Latin Church. This was 267 years after St. Ninian had introduced Celtic Christianity into Britain. It was not until the year 1109 A.D. that the last strongholds of the Celtic Church finally yielded to Rome, after an eventful history of 712 years of missionary expansion. . . .

Celtic Christianity had an important part in the Christianization of Northern Europe and the British Isles. It is incorrect to say that Goths, Vandals, Huns, Lombards and Vikings extinguished the light of the Gospel and created five or more centuries of darkness in Europe. While these invaders did much to hinder the work of the Latin Church, yet it was precisely at this period that the Celtic Christians kept the light of Christianity burning in northern lands.