Peter Gadsden

A sixth century Christian Missionary

Columba was the son of Fedhlimidh a member of an Irish ruling family, and so was a man of noble birth. He was born in Co. Donegal on December 7th 521AD some fifty-six years after the death of the Apostle to Ireland Patrick and was baptised at Tulach-Dubhglaise (Temple Douglas). His education started early when he was sent to the monastic school of Bishop Finlan of Clonard. Here he became quite a celebrity for his learning and also for his religious zeal. He was eventually ordained by Bishop Etcen of Clonfad and was made Abbot of Durrogh.

His zeal for the work of God did not diminish and many churches and monastic foundations in Ireland resulted from his endeavours. It is said of him "that he valued the cross of Christ more than the royal blood that flowed through his veins." These monasteries were far removed from the later popish houses that have the same name. They were basically centres of mission, missionary training and evangelism. The
buildings comprised a timber church and a few rough wattle buildings, were used for accommodation. One building was set aside for eating and another for the entertainment of strangers. They were enclosed by a ram art outside of which buildings would be found for the storage of grain and the housing of cattle.

The rules of these monasteries were obedience, humility and chastity as is clearly outlined in God's Word. The daily tasks included reading and writing along with the manual labour necessary to maintain buildings and provide food. Daily devotions consisted of morning and evening prayers. The men were skilled writers and illuminators of books, some of the books written by Columba himself still remain, for example The Book of Kells and The Book of Durrow. The main task of these centres however was that of missionary work by taking the gospel of Christ into the highways and bye-ways, in obedience to the Lord's command.


Little if anything works in isolation and so it is in the case of Columba. In order to understand him we need to look briefly at his predecessor Patrick. Patrick was born about the year 385AD into a British family named Succat. His father was a deacon of the church at Bannavern, a simple and pious man. Undoubtedly Patrick came under the preaching of the gospel and his parents would have sought all within their power to bring him to a saving knowledge of Christ. He was however too fond of pleasure and made little response to the Word of God.

It was only after Irish pirates had taken him and two of his sisters captive and sold them as slaves in Ireland that the lessons he had heard at his parents feet became reality. So it was that in Ireland far from home, he turned to Christ, repented of his sin and was born again, by the Holy Spirit. His testimony is that "I was sixteen years old and knew not the true God: but in that strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and although late, I called my sins to mind, and was converted with my whole heart to the Lord my God, who regarded my Iow estate, had pity on my youth and ignorance and consoled me as a father consoles his children." His trust and faith in the Scriptures can be readily seen
In his own words "The words are not mine, but of God and the apostles and the prophets, who have never lied which I have set forth in Latin. He that believeth not shall be damned. God hath spoken." Patrick like all the other Celtic missionaries "diligently followed whatever pure and devout customs that they learned from the prophets, the gospels and the writings of the Apostles" states J H Merle d'Aubigne.

After many adventures, Patrick returned home only to feel the call to return to Ireland, this time not as a slave to men but as a slave to Christ, taking to that people the wonderful message of God's redeeming grace and mercy. Just prior to his return to Ireland, a Briton by the name of Pelagius, began teaching a strange doctrine, a doctrine that denied original sin and advocated free-will, maintaining that if man used all the powers of his nature he could attain perfection. Now although there is no record of this doctrine being preached by him in Britain, it was soon known on these shores. The reason this is mentioned, is because the British church refused according to the historian Bede to accept this "perverse doctrine and to blaspheme the grace of Jesus Christ." Whilst not adhering to the stricter doctrine of Augustine of Hippo, the British church believed that an inward spiritual change was required, one that divine power alone could accomplish, yet they also seemed to have the idea that at some point an element of natural strength was needed. Nevertheless, evangelical truth was the main thrust of the British church's doctrine.

Prior to Patrick's return to Ireland, a monk by the name of Palladius, who had been sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine to carry out missionary work retired reporting the failure of his mission. Patrick saw this as a great opportunity to fulfil his desire to evangelise the land with the gospel of Christ. It is falsely claimed by Rome that Patrick was consecrated bishop by Celestine but it is certain that he received his consecration at the hands of the bishops of Gaul, men of like mind, Celtic believers. In 432AD he sailed with twelve companions to Ireland and for thirty-three years ministered the Word of Life to the people, establishing churches, centres of education, civilisation and evangelism. Converts from paganism were established in their new faith by the teaching of sound scriptural doctrines. For many years after his home-call the Irish churches flourished, preaching the gospel. They were bastions of the true faith, and it was from one such church that Columba, this great man of God was to emerge.


The influence of the evangelical teaching of these churches unquestionably left a sound evangelicaI mark on the heart and soul of Columba, giving him a zeal that has so impressed historians that some place him in the first rank after the apostles. Having established many churches in Ireland, the eyes of Columba turned to the mainland. Fables and legends abound as to the reasons he undertook this arduous mission. Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains he was mightily used of the Lord to bring many souls to salvation.

Columba, has been described by Edward L Cutts, in his book Turning Points of English Church History as "a remarkable man: of princely birth, tall, athletic, powerful, of ruddy and joyous countenance: ... an eminent teacher in all the learning of his time, a guide of deep spiritual devotion " In the year 562AD or 563AD, historians cannot agree as to the exact date, Columba set sail with twelve companions on a Currach covered with hides, when he was forty-two years of age. The missionaries landed on the Isle of Hy, now Latinized to Iona. on Whit-Sunday 565AD. It is highly improbable that they were at sea all that time. In fact it is known that lona was given to this missionary band. One record claims that it was given by King Connell, a relative of Columba, with the sole purpose of establishing a religious settlement there. Bede however says that it was the son of Meilochon, who was the most powerful king of the day and ruler over the Picts, who, in the ninth year of his reign, was converted to Christ, through the words and example of Columba and his men. Their object again being to construct a religious settlement. Whatever be the tree record, Columba was a kinsman, for sixty years before, a chieftain of the house of Eirc, head of the Irish Dalraida, had crossed the water, and with a band of followers founded the kingdom of British Dalraida or Scotia. The name Scot belonged in the first instant to the inhabitants of Ireland and was carried by the Irish into northern Britain. From here the objective was to evangelise the people of the nation.

Columba, despite the many legends that have sprung up around him, was a man of like passions as ourselves. He like all of us, wrestled against human weakness and sin. He
spent much time in prayer, writing, transcribing the scriptures, and teaching as well as preaching the gospel. He was a man who put into practice the biblical injunction "to redeem the time" He sought only the glory of God and spared no effort in this cause. According to Merle d' Aubigne Columba was "indefatigable he went from house to house, and from kingdom to kingdom" A school of theoIogy was established on Iona, at which the Word of God was studied. Through this a large number came to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Many of these converts in turn went out fired with a missionary zeal to win others for Christ. It was not Iong before the little island of lona became known as "the light of the western world." A lighthouse amid the darkness of the times.
Shortly before his death in 597AD Columba said of Iona "To this place, little and poor though it be, there shall come great honour, not only from Scottish kings and people, but from barbarous and foreign nations, and from the saints of other Churches also." None can dispute the truth of those words. For many years the kings of Scotland were crowned by Columba and his successors.


Whilst it is true, this Christian community on Iona, had rules by which to live and conduct their daily affairs, as well as religious ordinances. They did not look to these for matters of eternal life. This is a refreshing thing to know considering that, at this time, sacerdotalism was beginning to encroach into the church. Columba being a Bible man, believed that it was the Holy Spirit, who made a servant of God, not forms or practices.
To the young people who would come to him for instruction, he would, according to Merle d' Aubigne say "The Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith. Throw aside all merit of works, and look for salvation to the grace of God alone. Beware of a religion which consists of outward observances: it is better to keep your heart pure before God than to abstain from meats. One alone is your head, Jesus Christ. Bishops and presbyters are equal: they should be the husbands of one wife, and have their children in subjection." This very clearly shows the man's biblical perspective and evangelical position. He was practising the great truths, later to become the watch words of the sixteenth century Reformation, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia and Sola Christus.

It should be said that the British church, and this would include the community of Christians on Iona, was not ignorant of the erroneous teachings that were infiltrating her. There was no lack of communication between Europe and Britain. Several British bishops had attended the church councils that had taken place in Europe. They would not have been unaware of such errors as those of offering prayers for the dead, the veneration of saints, the daily celebration of the mass, the exaltation of Mary and the use of the term Mother of God, Just to mention a few of the growing number of errors coming from Rome. The Christians on Iona did not have any part in them and papal supremacy was unknown. Here the light of the true gospel shone clearly and undimmed amid the superstitions and idolatry that was growing elsewhere.

Some historians claim that Christianity was in serious decline in Britain, just prior to the commissioning of Augustine by Pope Gregory in 597AD, but this is manifestly false. Under men like Columba and the Iona community true biblical Christianity was strong, virulent and healthy. These men were also responsible for establishing the Christian Church at Lindisfarne, but that Is another story. Such was the evangelical fervour and
Missionary zeal generated by the Iona Christians that, not being content to minister the Word in the British Isles, Columbanus, not to be confused with the now ageing, Columba, "feeling in his heart the burning fire which the Lord had kindled upon earth," set out to preach the true gospel in Europe. This missionary tour commenced in the very same year
that Gregory ascended to the papal throne, and seven years before his delegation headed by Augustine arrived on British soil. "Thus" says d' Aubigne "was Britain faithful in
planting the standard of Christ in the heart of Europe."

0ne mission field however was left virtually untouched and it was this that opened the door to the corrupt form of Christianity being practised by Rome. The pagan Saxons who now inhabited the southern part of England, refused the gospel of Christ despite several attempts to reach them. Britons considered them as enemies of God and man, and would shudder as they pronounced their name, the zeal and resolve that had hitherto characterised the British missionaries faltered here. It was therefore left to Augustine, with the corrupt form of Christianity he brought, to convert these pagans to Romanism and establish a beachhead for that church in these fair realms, a fact that the British people have regretted ever since. Apart from this, it can be said that the work of Columba was far greater and more successful than that accomplished by Augustine.

Dr P J Gadsden


The Reformation In England by J H Merle d'Aubigne
Illustrated Notes on English Church History by C A Lane Waymarks in Church History by W Bright
The Battle of the Celtic Church by P Trumper
A Dictionary of Christian Biography by H Wace & W C Piercy History of the Christian Church by P Schaff
Bedes Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation
Turning Points of English Church History by E L Cutts