The English Accept Christianity
At Rome, one day, a monk named Gregory saw some white boys offered for sale as slaves. Their bodies were fair, their faces beautiful, and their hair soft and fine. Gregory asked whence they came.
"From Britain," was the answer. "There the people are all fair, like these boys."
Then he asked whether they were Christians, and was told that they were still pagans.
"Alas," said he, "what a pity that lads of such fair faces should lack inward grace." He wished next to know the name of their nation.
"They are called Angles," was the reply.
"They should be called angels, not Angles," said Gregory; "for they have angelic faces. What is the name of their king?"
"Ælla," was the answer.
"Alleluia," said Gregory, making another pun, "the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts."
Gregory was so deeply impressed by the sight of these boys that he wished to go as a missionary to the English. But he had no opportunity then to do so. A few years later he became Pope, that is, head of the Church. He was very learned and pious, and did so much to benefit the church that he is called Gregory the Great. He still remembered the English, and soon sent Augustine, a pious monk of Rome, to preach the Gospel to that people.
Augustine, with forty companions, landed in the English kingdom of Kent in the year 597. The King of Kent had married a Christian princess from Gaul, and was disposed to deal kindly with Augustine. But he received him in the open air, for fear some magic might be used if the meeting were held under a roof. The monks came up in procession, singing, and carrying a silver cross and a picture of Christ.
After listening to the preaching of Augustine, the King said:
"Your words and promises are fair, but they are new to us. I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake the religion which I have so long followed, with the whole English nation. But we will give you favorable entertainment, and we do not forbid you to preach and to gain as many as you can to your religion."
The King gave Augustine and his companions a house to live in, in his capital, Canterbury. He also permitted them to repair an old Christian church there, and to build a monastery. Soon the earnest preaching and holy living of the monks impressed the King and his people, and they became Christians. Thus Canterbury became the oldest of the English churches. When the church was organized a little later for all England, the Archbishop of Canterbury became its head, under the Pope.
Other monks worked as missionaries in different parts of England, but it was nearly a hundred years before all England accepted Christianity. Sometimes, when a kingdom seemed completely converted, a new King would come to the throne who would drive out the Christian priests, destroy the churches, and restore the heathen worship. But the missionaries persevered, and in the end the Christian faith conquered.
At one time the King of Northumberland called his leading men together to discuss the question of accepting Christianity. One of the thegns gave his opinion in these words:
"The life of a man in this world, O King, may be likened to what happens when you are sitting at supper with your thegns, in winter time. A fire is blazing on the hearth, and the hall is warm; but outside the rain and the snow are falling, and the wind is howling. A sparrow comes, and flies through the hall; it enters by one door, and goes out by another. While it is within the hall, it feels not the howling blast; but when the short space of rest is over, it flies out into the storm again, and passes away from our sight. Even so it is with the brief life of man. It appears for a little while; but what precedes it, or what comes after it, we know not at all. Wherefore, if this new teaching can tell us anything of this, let us harken and follow it."
Then the missionary who had come to them, one of Augustine's followers, was allowed to speak. When he was through, the high priest of the pagan religion led the way in destroying the old temples and idols, saying:
"The more diligently I sought after after truth in that worship, the less I found it."
Most of the missionary work in the north of England was done by monks of the old Celtic Christian church, which had existed in Britain before the English came, and which still flourished in Ireland. The Celtic missionaries in England came chiefly from the little island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, where there was a famous monastery.
But these Celtic Christians had been so long shut off from the rest of Europe that their church was different from the Roman Church in some of its customs. They did not recognize the Pope's authority; they kept Easter at a different time; and their priests shaved their heads in a different fashion.
So disputes arose between the Roman missionaries and the Celtic missionaries; and to settle the question of which were right, the King of Northumberland called a meeting at Whitby. The Roman missionaries showed that their time of keeping Easter was that used by all the world, except the Irish and the Britons; and that it was approved by the Pope, who was the successor of St. Peter, the chief of the apostles. Then the King asked the Celtic missionaries:
"Is it true that the keys of heaven were given to Peter by our Lord?"
And when they admitted this, the King said:
"If Peter is the doorkeeper, I will never contradict him, but will obey his decrees in all things, lest when I come to the gates of heaven they should not open for me."
From this time forward the English church followed the Roman customs, and after a time the Celtic churches began to do likewise. Thus the Church in the British Isles became united, and was brought into closer connection with the rest of the world.
Soon the need was seen of a better organization of the Church in England. The whole land was divided into two "provinces," over each of which was placed an archbishop, one with his cathedral church at Canterbury, the other at York. Under each archbishop were a number of bishops, each with his cathedral church, and each in charge of a certain district called a "diocese." Each diocese was divided into "parishes," and for each parish there was provided a parish priest, who conducted the services of the parish church and looked after the welfare of its people.
Within a century and a half after the coming of Augustine, the English church was one of the best organized and most noted in Christendom. Learning flourished, and missionaries went to the continent to aid in spreading Christianity among the Germans of the old country, who were still heathen.
The most famous of these English missionaries was St. Boniface. He twice made the long journey to Rome; and with the support of the Pope, and of the King of the Franks, who now ruled Gaul, he restored the Gallic church, and organized that of Germany. Everywhere he brought the Church into close dependence upon the Pope. In 755, he went to Frisia, on the borders of the North Sea, and was there slain by the heathen Frisians. Thus he found the crown of martyrdom, which he eagerly sought.
Most of these early missionaries were monks. They lived according to a set of rules drawn up by St. Benedict, a famous Italian monk of the sixth century; and everywhere that they went, they established monasteries.
On joining a monastery, a man took three vows—that he would obey his superiors, that he would never own any property, and that he would never marry. These were called the vows of "poverty," "chastity," and "obedience." Each monastery was defended by a wall, within which were the "cloister," the kitchen, the church, and other buildings. The "cloister" was the covered passageway which inclosed the inner court; about it were the monks' "dormitory" where they slept, and the "refectory" where they ate their meals.
The monks were required to attend religious services at midnight, and seven times during the day, beginning at daybreak. Certain hours of the day were set aside for work with the hands, and others for reading and meditation. The monks dressed in coarse woolen gowns, generally black; and they slept on hard beds, and ate the plainest food. About the monasteries were lands which the monks cultivated. They drained marshes, cleared forests, and improved poor lands, so that the monasteries became models of agriculture for all the country. Besides this, they gave alms to the poor, and sheltered travelers.
The rule of St. Benedict required each monk to give part of his time to study, and so the monks gathered libraries and taught schools. There were no printed books, and some of the monks spent their days in copying "manuscript" books by hand. Whoever wished to become a scholar was obliged to become a monk, or at least to attend a monastery school. Some of the greatest scholars in Europe were found in the English monasteries, and when the emperor Charlemagne wished to establish schools in his kingdom, he called to his court one of these English monks.
The most famous of these monks in England was Bede, to whom we owe much of our knowledge of these times. He entered the monastery of Jarrow, at the mouth of the river Tyne, when he was only nine years old; and he lived there the rest of his life—for over fifty years. He learned all that any schools of that day could teach him. He did his share of the labor of the monastery, but found time also to teach in the school, and to write many books in Latin, which was then the language of educated men. Most of his books were explanations of the Scriptures, and have been lost; but he wrote an Ecclesiastical History of England which has been carefully preserved, and which is now almost the only record we have of the earliest days of English rule.
One of Bede's pupils tells us of the last days of his master's life, when he knew that death must come within a few days. In spite of pain, Bede was cheerful, and continued his literary work. On the last day the boy, who was writing what Bede dictated to him said:
"Most dear master, there is still one chapter wanting. Do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?"
Bede answered: "It is no trouble. Take your pen, and write fast."
They worked all morning and half the afternoon. Then Bede stopped to divide among his fellow monks such little things as he possessed. Then he talked with them a while, and bade them farewell. At last the boy said:
"Dear master, there is yet one sentence not written."
He answered: "Write quickly."
Soon the boy said: "The sentence is now written."
Bede replied: "It is well, you have said the truth. It is ended."
"And thus, sitting on the pavement of his little cell, singing, 'Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,' when he had named the Holy Ghost he breathed his last, and so departed to the heavenly kingdom."