Missionary Monks

Missionary Monks:

Key Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Missionaries

            According to Ferguson, “before 1100, the missionaries were most often monks, not the ordinary clergy.” (Ferguson 2005, 357). So, the original missionaries were not priests or preachers as one might suspect. They were not professional missionaries in the sense as we define missionaries today either. They were monks.

Early key missionaries were Ninian and Patrick. Later key missionaries include, the Venerable Bebe (673-735), Willibrord (658-739), and Winfrid (673-754) [who was later named, “Boniface.”]

Applicable Monastic Strategies

            These key Celtic and Anglo-Saxon missionaries had the following strategies that we can learn from today. By far, the number one and most important strategy was the proper way one should shave one’s head (tonsure). Just kidding. I would have gone with a Mohawk. I’m not kidding. Anyways… according to Ferguson:

They placed their work under the pope. They worked under the protection of local rulers and with the support of the major domo (House Mayor or Mayor of the Palace-something like ‘prime minister’) of the Frankish kings. They offered a direct challenge to the superstitions of the people whom they sought to impress with the frailty of the pagan gods. They gave simple, practical catechetical instruction. They practiced mass conversion, gathering their converts for baptism at Easter or Pentecost. They organized dioceses with parishes. They instituted auxiliary bishops or revived chorepiscopi (rural bishops). And they established a sprinkling of monasteries that served as anchors for their work. (Ferguson 2005, 362-363).

It’s easy to see and history tells that the monks of this period were bold, friendly, and passionate. They did not sequester themselves up in some idyllic retreat as is portrayed in some Hollywood movies. In fact, they were quite the opposite. One of the tenets to Celtic Christianity for monastic life was, “Each Christian should communicate the gospel to others, so they exhibited considerable mobility. Pilgrimage (or wandering) was a penitential duty.” (Ferguson 2005, 356). Monks saw it was a duty to get out there and do missionary work. They were zealous and caring. Unfortunately, many were martyred for their faith and outreach to hostile pagan societies. They were pacifists as seen in one capitulary drawn from various councils between 742 and 747: all were forbidden to fight or carry weapons (Ferguson 2005, 365).

Also worthy noting: They worked among those they converted. Culturally, their “intellectual life flourished.” (Ferguson 2005, 360). Also, “art found stunning expression in illuminated manuscripts, most spectacular of which are the Lindisfarne Gospels (696-98) and the Book of Kells (c.800, perhaps prepared at Iona).” (Ferguson 2005, 360). Therefore to say that these missionaries were elitist and not cultured would be false. The early missionary monks had many admirable traits, customs, and strategies that the modern church would do well to adopt.


Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2 ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Submitted to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the completion of the course CCHI 520: History of Christianity.