Aidan is however most famous for his missionary work. Aidan worked many miles every day, going from house to house and talking “to any whomsoever he saw, whether rich or poor, and call upon them, if infidels, to receive the mystery of the faith, or, if they were believers, strengthen them in the faith, and stir them up by words and actions to giving of alms and the performance of good works.” Probably, walking allowed him more time with the people.
Thanks to the literary mastery of the Venerable Bede, the history of the Christianization of England is filled with memorable stories of valiant kings, praying queens, and wonder-working saints. But it’s also studded with lesser-known characters who simply persisted day after day in spreading the gospel. One of these is Aidan of Lindisfarne.
A Field White to Harvest
Christianity first arrived in England, as in other parts of the known world, through the personal testimony of Christian travelers, merchants, and soldiers. This work of personal evangelization was so effective that, in the second century, Tertullian could say that Christianity had reached even “the haunts of the Britons – inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.”
Yet, as in other nations, Christianity in Britain spread slowly, often mixed with traditional religions and recent heresies. The main impetus for the establishment of missions in that region came from Pope Gregory the Great. According to Bede, Gregory was so struck by the looks of some Anglo-Saxon slave boys that he determined (with a famous play-on-words) that the Angles looked like angels, therefore fitting “to be coheirs with the angels m heaven.”
Following the common practice of evangelizing rulers (who could mandate the observance of Christianity in their regions), in 596 Gregory sent a first team of missionaries, led by Augustine of Canterbury, to Kent, where King Ethelberg had already been primed by his Merovingian wife Bertha.
Faced with the pope’s exhortation to accept Christianity, Ethelberg shared the same concerns of most kings of his day: Is the Christian God really the only true God? If so, will my people accept my conversion or rise against me for exchanging the security of our traditional religion for a gospel that, although good, is still news?
Many kings replied yes to the first question after some personal victories in battle. Ethelbert, instead, observed the missionaries until their message and example and the reception of his own people allowed him to answer affirmatively to both questions.
The conversion of other British kings followed. Ethelbert influenced King Edwin of Northumbria by giving him his daughter Ethelburga in marriage. Edwin accepted Christianity in 628 but, when he died in battle five years later, his kingdom reverted into paganism.
This is where Aidan came in. He was an Irish monk living in a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona – a man, according to Bede, “of singular gentleness, piety, and moderation.” Founded in 563 by Columbanus, the monastery had been a lively center of Christianity. In the early days of Edwin’s rule, it had also become a refuge for the royal brothers Oswald and Oswiu, who did the safest thing for most noblemen in line for the throne – they fled from a king who might choose to eliminate competition.
During their twenty years at the monastery, the brothers were converted to Christianity. Then, after Edwin died, Oswald returned to Northumbria to take over the throne. Seeing how quickly the people were returning to their idols, Oswald asked the monastery in Iona to send him a missionary to bring back the gospel message.