The Celtic Church in Britain
By David Currie
Primitive Christianity in Britain is best known for the Celts, an Indo-European language group of migrants who spread across Europe and into Britain from Austria. Theses migrants generally settled in Cornwall, the South West of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Important aspects of the life of the Celts reveal that they were the first in Britain to embrace Christianity and that they were intent on following the faith and practise of the primitive Christians of the New Testament who were indeed the foundation peoples of the Christian church. While it is not certain the exact year that Christianity first came to Britain it is confirmed that the original Christian beliefs and practises were maintained well after the Italian mission of Augustine in 597AD.
While some legends state that Jesus Himself came to Britain, it is probably more correct that some of the followers of Jesus made their way to Britain after being driven out of Palestine by hostile Jews. With the occupation of Britain by the Romans, many European and Eastern Christians brought their brand of Christianity to Britain. However early the church was founded in Britain, it is quite clear that it produced some excellent leaders such as Patrick of Ireland, Columba who eventually strengthened the ties of Christendom in Scotland, David of Wales and Aidan of England to name just a few.
Most of the information that is known about the Celtic church in Ireland commences with the age of Patrick. This early leader was born in Kirkpatrick, Scotland in 389 and eventually after a term as slave in Ireland and then in exile on the Continent, he returned to Ireland where he had first been as a slave. He ministered to the spiritual needs of that country in quite a remarkable way. There was some evidence, but not authenticated or thoroughly documented, that Patrick also returned for a short time to Scotland. However, Columba went to Scotland after ministering for some time in Ireland, where he had founded a number of monasteries and churches. He founded the settlement at Iona which has since been one of the most hallowed spots on Scottish soil. During the 7th and 11th centuries, 48 Scottish kings were buried on Iona. Some of their tombstones can be seen today. A second 'Iona' was established by Aidan at the 'Holy Isle of Lindisfarne'. This 'Isle' in north England became a marvellous base for the promulgation of the gospel in England and in parts of the Continent.
Let us now have a look at some of the beliefs of these early Christians who became so prominent around the British Isles,
Both the Old and New Testaments were accepted as the Divine Word to be read and the teachings of which were to be practised. They did not use the Apocrypha which later was included in the Roman Catholic scriptures. The emphasis was on Biblical authority and this led them to a literal application of the great laws of life laid down in Scripture.
An early Celtic church leader, Cassian, encouraged his people to put away all other books, even commentaries and the like, and devote the whole of their reading to the Scriptures. On one occasion, it is recorded that two men, Germanus and an abbot by the name of Nestorus, were talking together. Germanus enquired as to the best way to expel from the mind the notions of pagan authors. Nestorus replied, "Read the Scriptures with the same zeal that you read the heathen books and your thoughts will be pure." What a good example for today as we read the Scriptures.
Ireland became a centre towards a deeper study of the Scriptures. It is recorded that Finnian founded a school at Clonard (now Clonmacnoise) which at one time attracted something like 3,000 students from all over the Continent as well as Britain. They came to study as we read the Scriptures. A 17th century poet, B. Moronus eloquently pictured the trend:
"Now haste Sciambri from the marshy Rhine;
Bohemians now desert their cold north lands;
Avergne and Holland, too, add to the tide,
Forth from Geneva's frowning cliffs they throng;
Helvetia's youth by Rhone and Saone
All these from many lands, by many diverse paths
Rivals in pious zeal, seek Lismore's famous seat."
The attraction of the Scriptures was considerable. This was the same platform upon which Paul and all the apostles stood. 2 Timothy 3:16, 17.
This central doctrine of the Christian faith was taught with great strength. The doctrine of righteousness only through Faith in Christ and not in or through works was taught with clarity. The sinner could claim no other goodness than the goodness of Christ.
Most of the early Celtic churches, included a recitation of the Commandments in their services. Patrick had profound respect for the Ten Commandments and believed that through the grace of Christ it was possible for men to keep all of the law of God. Both Patrick and Columba used in a particular way the first five books of the Scriptures as a basis for much of their preaching.
By belief and practice the Celts were believers in the Ten Commandments. For instance, the seventh day Sabbath of the Commandments was kept in Ireland, England and Scotland as well as Wales. One letter by Colambanus stated, "We are bidden to work on six days, but on the seventh which is the Sabbath, we are restrained from every servile work. Now by the number six the completeness of our work is meant, since it was in six days that the Lord made heaven and earth. Yet on the Sabbath we are forbidden to labour at any servile work, that is sin." The context from which this passage comes reveals that the writer believed that Saturday was the Sabbath. Later, came the Roman influence to keep Sunday, but this is another matter.
In Scotland, many of the Celts observed the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, until the 13th century. It is recorded of David of Wales, that the keeping of the 'Sabbath for him was from sunset to sunset.' He began his 'sabbatic devotion at Friday sunset.' This was the "eve of the Sabbath". Miurchu recorded that "Patrick and Victricius met every seventh day of the week for prayer and spiritual converse." This is scriptural and we would expect a Bible based people to keep the Sabbath.
Let's explore more of the reasons why the Sabbath was celebrated by the Celts and yet came to a position of dishonour by the rest of Britain when they became Christians.
1. The early Christian church first attracted the attention of many Jews who became converts. In this way the earliest church was from among the Jews. These Jews did not keep the Sabbath because they were Jews, but in honour of creation and in obedience to the fourth commandment.
2. Gnosticism and Mithraism soon raised tensions in Christian thinking. Most Gnostics "celebrated the Sunday of every week, not on account of its reference to the Resurrection of Christ, for that would have been inconsistent with their Docetism, but as the day consecrated to the sun, which was in fact their Christ." (A. Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church II, p 194) G. L. Laing (Survivals of Roman Religion p 148) continues in this vein "Our observance of Sunday as the Lord's day is apparently derived from Mithraism. The argument that has sometimes been used against this claim, namely that Sunday was chosen because of the resurrection on that day, is not well supported. Many historians support the view that in the Roman Empire where anti-Semitism did not exist, then Christians continued keeping the seventh day Sabbath.
3. The Celts did not face anti-Semitism in Britain. They were on the periphery of the Roman Empire. So for some centuries thy remained Sabbath keepers without very much opposition. Sabbath keeping in Scotland outlived that in Ireland. Particularly with the missionary movements which spread out from the Island of Iona as well as from the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne which was a little south of the Scottish border.
There is no record of Patrick saying anything about Sunday meetings or worship on that day. However, centuries after his death, folk stories were perpetuated about Patrick's Sunday keeping activities in order to encourage the Irish to keep the Sunday as the Sabbath. But even these sometimes refer to a special significance that Patrick attached to the Sabbath. In the "Hymn in Praise of St. Patrick," an Angel is talking to Patrick. "Thou shalt have out of (Hell's) pains seven every Thursday and twelve every Saturday".
David of Wales was another Celtic leader. Of Him it is recorded, "From the even of the Sabbath, until the light shines in the first hour, after the break of day on the Sabbath they employ themselves in watchings, prayers and genuflections except one hour after morning service on the Sabbath;" The 'eve of the Sabbath' was Friday sunset. The Sabbath was held to be a day of blessing in Wales as well as in Ireland and other Celtic lands.
Traces of Sabbath observance in th Faroe Islands and Iceland have been found according to O.A. Anderson in his Monumenta Historica Norvegiae, p 89. In this work, he discusses that the earliest inhabitants adhered to Judaism. This is no doubt a clear reference to their Sabbath keeping. In fact it is known that the missionary minded Celts spread out from Iona in the Hebrides, and from Lindisfarne, not only to the Continent of Europe but to the harsher climes of Iceland and the Faroes.
It is quite possible that the memory of David of Wales and his Sabbath keeping lingered on and with a keen interest in Bible Study, many of the Welsh again emerged as Sabbath keepers in the 17th and 18th Centuries. (NB Bryan W. Ball. "The Seventh-Day Men" p 223-244.) There was a significant emergence of Sabbath observance in many parts of Britain at this period of history.
It is most interesting that more than a century earlier Finland was a great concern to King Gustavus 1 Vasa of Sweden, who ruled Finland. He sent off an epistle to the Finns urging them to stop keeping the Sabbath and instead put their energies into Sunday observance. It was his successor King Gustavus 2 Adolphus (1594-1632), who actually invoked the death penalty against Sabbath keepers. However, Norlin in his work, Sevneska Kyrkans Historia states that several persons "readily gave their life rather than change their opinions." The Lutheran bishop L.A. Anjou wrote, "This zeal for Saturday-keeping continued for a long time."
It is clear that as the Scriptures were read with great interest at this time - people were once again to "Remember the Sabbath of the Lord" rather than a day that was introduced by Constantine and later emperors of Rome.
Today we have the challenge of keeping the Sabbath as the Lord intended in spite of materialism and secularism. The Secular world is indeed often attracted to a day that brings rest from the pressures of life and can be a day of peace and joy. This could be one of the greatest challenges of modern Sabbath keepers. Herald again the day that God gave to man and blest it in a way that no other day has been blest! If God hallowed it, rested on it and blest it, it must have significance for every age and particularly the current age.
Let us notice one or two other beliefs adhered to by the Celts in the British Isles.
Baptism was by immersion and the glossator saw in it a symbolic fulfilment of Christ's death and burial and resurrection. "When we pass under baptism, it is the likeness of His burial and death to us." This is a commentary on Romans 6: 1-6. Patrick taught that before baptism a person must be taught and then after baptism the teaching must continue. Matthew 28:19, 20. Over and over again, one can see the strong adherence to the original Biblical teachings by the Celts.
When Augustine led his Italian band from Italy to Britain he also practised baptism, but there was a difference to the method used by the Celts. In 601, at his request, the king of Kent drove 10,000 to the sea and had them baptised at sword point. No wonder so much paganism came into the Christian church. People accepted Christianity under pressure rather than through conversion.
Patrick said, "We look for His coming soon as the Judge of the quick and the dead." The final event in the last days on earth was believed to be the Second Advent of Christ. Their ardent prayers generally included the soon coming of the Saviour, whom they expected to come in glory and receive His people unto Himself.
The impressive story of the Celts help us today to understand just how far we may have strayed from the original Christian church. Their belief and practice was scriptural and supported by Christians worldwide. God still wants His people to live according to His Word.
Reader friend of mine, trust in God, read His Word and follow its teaching and you will not only know His truth but be abundantly blest.