Who was St Boniface?


So - Who was St Boniface?

Well, he was a great Englishman - yet hardly anyone in this country has heard of him, even though he was our Patron Saint for 300 years. It's very different abroad where he is still the Patron Saint of both Germany and the Netherlands. A historian has written of him: "Everything which has developed afterwards (in Germany) in the realm of politics, the church and spirituality, is established on the foundation laid by Boniface, whose tomb should be more sacred for us than the tombs of the patriarchs were for the Jews, because he is truly the spiritual father of our people. Boniface has given us, as well as our successors, more than any of our great emperors and kings has been able to contribute." Quite some tribute, that!

Boniface was born at Crediton in Devon in 675 and baptised with the name Wynfrith. The name means "Friend of Peace", possibly because his father was a Saxon and his mother British, to show that the two peoples had come together. He entered a monastery at Nursling [near Southampton] and became a monk and a priest. He found in his heart a burning passion for foreign mission. Finally his abbot let him leave, and in 716 he set out for the land of the Frisians (in the Netherlands, where the black and white cows come from!). Another English Missionary, Willibrord from Northumbria (where Vicars called Wallace and lay-readers called Martin come from!) had already preached the Gospel there for several years. But wars and the hatred of the pagans were big obstacles for the young Wynfrith. Some months later, having failed, he returned to his monastery in England, to devote two more years to preparation for his apostolic work. (Isn't it encouraging to know that even a great saint failed at first, but did not give up?)

After failing in his mission to Frisia, and after two years of further preparation, in 718 Wynfrith once again left his monastery, this time for good. He would never return to England. So he set off for Rome to ask the leader of the world-wide church for his commissioning and blessing. On 14 May 719 he threw himself at the feet of Pope Gregory II, who gave him the new name "Boniface". He then crossed the Alps and embarked on 35 years of missionary work in various parts of Germany, as well as a return visit to Frisia. In 722 he was consecrated by the Pope as Bishop of the whole of Germany to the east of the Rhine.

On his return to Germany as Bishop, Boniface decided to tackle the heathen superstitions head-on. At a place called Geismar in front of hostile tribesmen he chopped down a sacred Oak Tree, where they worshipped Thor, the god of thunder (after whom our Thursday is named), and laid the foundations of a flourishing new church there. (This event is depicted in the banner at the front of our church as well as outside over the main door). He went on to plant many new churches and monasteries, and to re-organise the existing ones so that they were more effective Christian communities and properly "equipped for mission". After six years, the Pope made him Archbishop of all Germany, based at Mainz.

As well as expanding and growing the churches in Germany, Boniface was equally concerned to ensure that the political authorities and rulers became firmly committed to Christianity. He crowned Pepin as King of all the "Franks" (the people of France and Germany), whose son Charlemagne was to become the first "Holy Roman Emperor" - a title which continued for the following 1,000 years. Boniface was constantly travelling around, encouraging churches, appointing good leaders, and negotiating with politicians. His journeys and letters show his energy and spirituality. Many of his fellow-workers came from his native England. Whenever tired, he withdrew to the new abbey he had founded at Fulda (in central Germany) for rest and refreshment. But even in his late 70s he was not prepared to put his feet up for long!

At the age of nearly 80, when most Archbishops would retire or concentrate on their books (and Boniface was devoted to reading), he had other ideas. He still wanted to take the gospel to Frisia, where his first efforts had failed nearly 40 years earlier. So he set off with 52 companions on an evangelistic mission. At Pentecost, on 5 June 755 near the modern town of Dokkum in the Netherlands, they were all massacred by heathen brigands. Boniface was himself struck down by a sword which pierced the bible he had raised to shield his head (see this depicted in our banner and above the church entrance). As requested in his Will, his body was taken back to the monastery he had founded at Fulda, in central Germany, where a magnificent Cathedral now encloses his tomb, and where all the Roman Catholic Bishops of Germany hold their meetings every year.

So - Who was St Boniface?

A great Englishman who devoted his whole life to the service of God

A great missionary to other lands, where the gospel had hardly been heard

A great planter, encourager and reformer of churches and Christian communities

Someone committed to Christians working together in unity, within the structures of church authority, so that their witness would be effective

A great leader himself, and a great trainer and selector of good leaders to follow him

Someone who wanted the whole of society to be Christian, and so worked hard to influence the political authorities and ensure their support for the church and Christian values

A man of persistence, who if he failed simply prepared himself better and then went for it again

A man of courage, who was still prepared to risk his life by leading a mission into a dangerous area, long past the age when most archbishops would have put their feet up

St Boniface and the Christmas Tree

According to tradition, when he chopped down the pagan Thor's Oak at Geismar, Boniface claimed a tiny fir tree growing in its roots as the new Christian symbol. He told the heathen tribes:
- "This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households.
- Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light.
- Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."
So the fir tree became a sign of Christ amongst the German peoples, and eventually it became a world-wide symbol of Christmas.

From a letter of St Boniface

"In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a ship pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship, but to keep her on course".

A Prayer of St Boniface

Eternal God, the refuge and help of all your children, we praise you for all you have given us, for all you have done for us, for all that you are to us. In our weakness , you are our strength, in our darkness, you are light, in our sorrow you are comfort and peace We cannot number your blessings, we cannot declare your love: For all your blessings we bless you. May we live as in your presence, and love the things that you love, and serve you in our daily lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thanks go to Robert Stand for compiling this history. © 2002-2016 St Boniface Church, Quinton.

For a complete record of all the Bonifaces throughout the ages, we recommend Martin Teitsma's excellent page at http://www.boniface.demon.nl/boniface.htm

© St Boniface Church, 2002-2018. Go back to St B's homepage.

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