The Apostle of Germany
Winfrid, or Wynfrith as he is also known, was an Englishman that some people claim to have been the most successful Christian missionary that ever lived. He was born in Crediton in Devon somewhere round about 675AD. He became a monk at Exeter, and later transferred to Nursling, near Southampton, where he held the position of Master of the Monastic School. When he reached the age of 30 he was ordained priest. Ten years later he went abroad.
Missionary work had just started in Frisia, near the present border between the Netherlands and Germany. When Winfrid heard of this he felt that he wanted to partake in this venture, so he obtained his abbot's permission to join the enterprise. Unfortunately he had a wasted journey. When he got there he found that the area had been taken over by a local pagan prince who wanted nothing to do with Christianity. Since there was nothing he could do about it he returned to Nursling, only to find that the monks wanted to make him their abbot.Winfrid didn't feel up to this task, so he politely declined and went to Rome instead. Pope Gregory II was quite pleased to see him. He welcomed Winfrid warmly, and commissioned him for missionary work in Germany, giving him the name 'Boniface'.
A missionary base had already been established in the Netherlands by Willibrord, a monk from Northumbria. Boniface worked from this for three years before he turned south to the German state of Hesse. This had been partly converted to Christianity, but pagan worship was still practised there. He had quite a success there, so much so that the Pope summoned him to Rome and made him 'Bishop for All Germany East of the Rhine'. On his return to Germany he came across an oak tree which was being worshipped by the pagans because they believed it to be the abode of Thor, the God of Thunder. (By the way, the Scandinavians thought Thor lived in a huge palace called Bilskirnir as befits a son of Odin.) Anyway, Boniface bravely felled this oak tree and used the timber to build a chapel. This act raised him up in the esteem of the local populace, and many more were converted to Christianity.
Boniface was now becoming well known in Europe, and many helpers came out from his home country of Wessex to join him. He was so dedicated to his cause that by 739 he had founded bishoprics for Hesse and Thurungia, and had refounded another for Bavaria. As a reward for all his work he was made Archbishop of Mainz. This gave him authority over the Church throughout Germany, but after a few years he resigned and, though now over 70, he went back to the north to resume his work as a missionary bishop. But on June 7, 754AD, while he was waiting on the banks of a river near Dokkum for the arrival of some Christian converts who were due to meet him there, his party was attacked by a band of pagans, and he and his 52 companions were massacred. It would seem that the motive for the attack was robbery rather than religion, and Boniface became a martyr by accident.
During his life, Boniface wrote many letters to the Archbishop of Winchester, many of which have been preserved. These show him to be a notable scholar and preacher. He was also an efficient organiser, a fact which enabled him to re-organise the whole Christian Church in Germany. Not for nothing is he known as the "Apostle of Germany".
page last updated 31 JANUARY 2002