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Spiritual Heir

When, in 1792, William Carey drew up his epochal work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, he gave a sketch of the history of missions. At one point, he distinguished between those missions that sought to expand the dominion of “popery,” usually “by force of arms,” and those that genuinely extended the kingdom of Christ. Among the former he listed the Roman mission of Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus; among the latter it is the name of Patrick that receives the most attention: “The next year (435) Patrick was sent from Scotland to preach to the Irish, who before his time were totally uncivilized, and, some say, cannibals; he however, was useful, and laid the foundations of several churches in Ireland.”

This statement would appear to indicate that the evangelistic success of Patrick, and his spiritual heirs in the Celtic Church, was a source of encouragement to Carey. How much more Carey knew about the historical Patrick is not clear; but he would certainly have been thrilled and inspired by Patrick’s evangelistic zeal and God-centered spirituality.

Patrick’s World and Mission

Patrick was born around 390 AD in a place that was a part of the Roman Empire. With the way Patrick is linked to all things Irish, it is hard to believe that Patrick was not born in Ireland, but he wasn’t! He was born into a Christian home in what is now Wales, or southern Scotland, or possibly even England (to the horror of every loyal Irish patriot). When he was sixteen years of age he was taken captive by Irish pirates and, as a slave, lived in Ireland for the next six years or so. It was there in Ireland that he was converted with, in his words, “all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance.”

When Patrick was in his twenties, he escaped from captivity in Ireland and went back to his home in what had been the Roman province of Britannia. Here he would have stayed, glad as he was to get back to his family and friends. But not long after he got back, he had a dream in which he saw the Irish coming to him, asking him to return to Ireland to presumably share with them the good news about Jesus Christ.

Patrick returned to the north of Ireland in the early 430s, where he stayed for the rest of his life. As he wrote: “I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers, bearing the reproach of my going abroad and many persecutions even unto bonds, and to give my free birth for the benefit of others.”

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