What Evangelicals Can Learn from Saint Patrick

by Russell D. Moore

To our shame, most evangelical Protestants tend to think of Saint Patrick as a leprechaun. As we watch the annual drunken parades and pop-culture consumerism of the March holiday, no one could seem more removed from biblical Christianity than Patrick. And yet, Patrick’s life was closer to a revival meeting than to a shamrock-decorated drinking party named in his honor.

In his volume, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, Philip Freeman, a professor of classics at Washington University in St. Louis, lays out a compelling portrait of Patrick, the theologian-evangelist. In accomplishing this, Freeman attempts to reconstruct Patrick’s cultural milieu—that of a world that had “ended” with the fall of Rome in 410 A.D. This collapse of Roman power had unleashed savagery in the British Isles, as thieves and slave-traders were unhinged from the restraining power of Caesar’s sword. Patrick’s ministry was shaped by this new world, not least of which by Patrick’s capture and escape from slavery.

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Freeman helpfully retells Patrick’s conversion story, one of a mocking young hedonist to a repentant evangelist. The story sounds remarkably similar to that of Augustine—and, in the most significant of ways, both mirror the first-century conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Freeman helpfully reconstructs the context of local religion as a “business relationship” in which sacrifice to pagan gods was seen as a transaction for the material prosperity of the worshippers. Against this, Patrick’s conversion to Christianity was noticed quickly, when his prayers of devotion—then almost always articulated out loud—were overheard by his neighbors.

The rest of the narrative demonstrates the ways in which Patrick carried the Christian mission into the frontiers of the British Isles—confronting a hostile culture and institutionalized heresy along the way…

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