History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Winfrid, the Apostle of the Germans

Before the Roman Empire fell, Christianity had become the religion of the people. The Goths, too, who overwhelmed the Empire, had heard the story of Christ. But many other of the German tribes who still dwelt in their old homes remained heathen. Some too, like the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, who wandered forth, were also heathen, and where they settled they crushed out the religion of peace and gentleness, and instead of the cross they set up again their heathen idols.

But good and wise men were never wanting who were ready and willing to take their lives in their hands, and, unafraid at the thought of death or suffering, go to preach the story of Christ to the wild heathen.

Many were the brave and gentle men who went among the fierce German tribes, but the greatest of them all was Winfrid. Winfrid was an Englishman, and his home was a little Devonshire village. His father and mother were wealthy people of great importance in their own countryside. In those days, when there were no inns, all travellers were made welcome at the great houses of the nobles. And among the travellers who came and went in Winfrid's home there were many wandering priests and monks. And after the evening meal was over they would sit around the board, and in the glowing firelight they would tell of the distant lands they had visited, of the dangers they had run, and of all that they had suffered at the hands of the strange heathen folk, who had never, until they came, heard the story of Christ. And as the little boy listened to those tales a great desire grew up in his heart one day to become a priest, and to wander forth carrying the Good Tidings to heathen folk.

But Winfrid's father was rich, and he hoped that his little son would one day inherit all his wealth and his broad fair lands, and do great deeds in the world. So with all his might he tried to turn Winfrid's heart away from his desire. But it was all in vain, and so Winfrid had his way and he became a monk.

For many years he lived in his monastery, learning all he could of history and poetry as well as Bible knowledge. He became a great preacher, and was looked up to and beloved by all who knew him. But ever in his heart lived the desire to carry the Good Tidings to the heathen.

At last Winfrid had his desire, and he set sail with two monks for the land of Frisia.

They landed safely, but they found that they had come at an evil time. For there was a terrible war going on between the Frisians under their King Radbod and the Franks under Charles the Hammer.

Radbod was a fierce, wild heathen, and he hated Christianity and everything belonging to it. Yet once he nearly allowed himself to be baptized. For the Franks had defeated him, and there seemed little choice left to Radbod, he must die or become a Christian. For in those fierce far-off days the sword and the water of baptism went, as it were, hand in hand.

So Radbod allowed himself to be persuaded. He put off his armour and clothed himself in the white robe of a penitent, and stood before the Bishop ready to be baptized. One foot he dipped in the water, then he paused. He had been told the wonderful story of the love of Christ. He had also been told of heaven and of hell. So now he paused.

"Where are my forefathers?" he asked, turning to the Bishop. "Are they in heaven?"

"No," replied the stern Bishop, "they are in hell, for they were heathen."

"Then," said Radbod fiercely, withdrawing his foot from the water, "then will I never be baptized, for I would rather be with my forefathers than have all the joys of heaven without them."

So Radbod and his people remained heathens, hating the Christians and all their teaching. And now, when Winfrid saw the turmoil of the country, and how it was torn asunder with war and hate, he saw he could do no good, so he turned home again.

But Winfrid did not despair. Soon he set out once more. This time, however, he went first to Rome to receive the blessing of the Pope. Then, full of hope and faith, and having received the new name of Boniface, he crossed the Alps once more, and began his long labours among the heathen Germans, which have earned for him the name of the Apostle of Germany.

His deeds were bold and fearless. In one place there was a huge oak called the Thunder Oak. It was sacred to the god Thor, and because of its great age, its towering height, and mighty girth, it was looked upon with trembling reverence.

But Boniface made up his mind to show the heathen that there was nothing sacred in their tree. So, taking an axe in his hand, with only a few followers behind him, he marched to the spot where it stood.

In sullen wrath the heathen folk crowded round him. They dreaded the awful anger of the god Thor should Boniface insult his tree. They were ready to slay the bold and insolent priest. Yet some strange fear of him held them back. In shuddering awe they waited.

Boniface raised his axe. It fell and fell again and again. Then through the forest a muttering was heard. 'It was the distant rumblings of a storm. Louder and louder it grew, nearer and nearer it came. The heathen folk shrank trembling together. "Truly," they said, "it is the anger of Thor." But, undismayed, Boniface laboured on.

The storm grew ever wilder, the mighty wind roared among the trees, bending their strong stems, snapping their branches. Still Boniface toiled on, half his work done. Then suddenly a terrific blast swept the forest, and, amid the sound of rending timber, with an awful crash the gigantic oak fell to the ground, split asunder. Shrieking in terror, the heathen fled from the spot.

Thor had not avenged himself. Boniface and his followers stood unharmed, and the unknown God had helped them with His wind. So thought the heathen. It seemed to them that the unknown God was stronger than Thor. And when Boniface, cut up the huge oak into planks, and used it for the building of a church, no man hindered him.

And thus the work went on. Sacred groves were hewn down, gods of wood and stone were broken in pieces or burned. Throughout the country crosses were raised, and here and there little churches were built. Even to Frisia the Good Tidings were carried, for Radbod, the fierce enemy of Christianity, died, and Boniface once again turned his thoughts to that dark heathen land.

So for nearly forty years the Apostle of Germany laboured on, journeying far and wide over the land. At length, in the spring of 755, he returned to Frisia. He was grey and bent with age and many labours, and he felt that he had not long to live. But he was content that his end was near, for he knew that he had fought a good fight, and that he had been a good soldier of the Cross.

Old as he was, Boniface was still fearless, and he journeyed now through a land beset with heathen. Many of them, however, listened to his words and were baptized, and a day was arranged when these new converts should be confirmed.

When the day came a great crowd of people was seen coming towards Boniface and his followers. But as they came near, it was seen that this was no peaceful company, but an army of savage warriors, armed with swords and spears.

The followers and servants of Boniface at once made ready to fight. But Boniface gently forbade them. "We may not return evil with evil," he said, "but evil with good. The long-wished-for day is come, and our salvation is near. Be strong in the Lord, and He will free your souls."

Even as he spoke the heathen horde burst upon the little Christian band.

For one moment Boniface saw a sword gleam above his head. Quickly he raised the Bible which he held as if to ward off the blow. The sword descended and, cutting through the Book, gave Boniface his death-stroke. Thus did the Apostle of the Germans meet a martyr's death.