Early Christianity and Europe's Western Isles
How did Christianity first come to Europe's western isles? What happened to the true gospel? Why does that history matter today?
Few understand the amazing religious drama that has played out over the centuries in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Key parts of the story have been lost, forgotten or hidden. But the coming of true Christianity to Europe's western isles is a remarkable story, holding vital lessons for us today.
The true history of Christianity in Europe's western isles also sheds light on a deadly serious contest that is moving toward a climax, involving not only human beings but also powerful spiritual forces. When you discover what happened, you can begin to understand where current events are leading—events that are destined to affect the entire world in the not-too-distant future. If we ignore the lessons of the past, our modern generations will reap dire consequences!
When we begin to explore the history of early Christianity in Europe's western isles, one of the first discoveries we make is that modern scholars' typical assumptions disagree with the clear record of history, as preserved both in the Bible and in secular sources. Richard Fletcher, a historian at the University of York, is typical in his mistaken belief that "the impression given by Luke [in the book of Acts] of an orderly and controlled diffusion… is misleading… it is reasonably clear that Christianity spread east and west both quickly and anarchically, without overt strategy or leadership" (The Conversion of Europe, p. 14). Catholic theologians John Walsh and Thomas Bradley write: "Christianity entered Ireland, presumably in the fourth and fifth centuries, by a slow and unplanned infiltration" (The Story of the Irish Church, p. 1). These assertions by Fletcher, Walsh and Bradley ignore plain facts of Scripture and history.
The Bible reveals that God does not operate in a capricious and haphazard manner. The Apostle Paul wrote: "God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33). To spread the gospel, Jesus called and trained twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16). They were to go first to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and later to the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5–6, 18). Paul was sent to the Gentiles and the children of Israel, while Peter was sent primarily to the Jews—of Judea and also of the "dispersion" (Acts 9:15; Galatians 2:7–8). When Philip preached in Samaria, he coordinated his activities with the headquarters church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:5–14). The Apostle Paul followed this same pattern (Galatians 1:18–19; 2:1–2). The book of Acts shows that God guided the spread of the gospel by supernatural means (Acts 10; 13:1–2; 16:6–10), and that He provided the strategy and leadership that directed the spread of early Christianity.
Later, the Apostle Paul sent preachers and teachers to specific areas: Tychicus to Ephesus, Crescens to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia and Crete (Ephesians 6:21–22; 2 Timothy 4:10; Titus 1:5). This harmonizes with what later histories record about the apostles' organized movements. Early church historian Eusebius wrote: "Thomas… was chosen for Parthia, Andrew for Scythia, John for Asia" (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 3, chap. 1). Cressy, an Oxford graduate and Benedictine monk in the 17th century, wrote that the apostles divided by lot the regions of the world, for preaching the gospel (Church History of Brittany, vol. 4, Bk. 1, chap. 6). Fragmented bits of Church history may lead to the mistaken idea that Christianity spread in a chaotic fashion, but the complete record of the Bible and history reveal something very different.
Regrettably, modern secular scholars often convey an erroneous impression of what can be known about the apostles' travel, and about the arrival of true Christianity in Europe's western isles. Clement, the fourth bishop of the church in Rome, wrote in the late first century that the Apostle Paul, "after preaching in the east and west… taught righteousness to the whole world, and came to the extreme limit of the west" (Epistle to the Corinthians, chap. 5, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9, p. 231). Some think Clement's phrase "the extreme limit of the west" refers to Rome, while others believe it refers to Spain or Britain. Yet any map of the Roman Empire in the first century shows that the Britannic Isles—not Rome or Spain—represent the extremity of the west. Gildas, a sixth century British monk, observed that "the island of Britain lies virtually at the end of the world, towards the west and north-west" (The Ruin of Britain, Bk. 3, chap. 1, Winterbottom, ed., p. 16).
Tertullian, bishop of Carthage in the second century, wrote: "The regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by the Romans [southwest England, Wales and Scotland] have received the religion of Christ" (Def. Fidei, p. 179). Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the early 300s, records that "the apostles passed beyond the ocean to the Isles called the British Isles" (Demonstratio Evangelica, Bk. 3, chap. 5). Eusebius had access to a substantial library at Caesarea, which contained sources that have since been lost. Theodoret, bishop of Cyprus in Syria (circa 430ad) states that "Paul, liberated from his first captivity at Rome, preached the Gospel to the Britons and others in the West… and the Cymry [the Welsh]" (D. Civ. Gracae Off., Bk. 9). Around 300ad, Dorotheous, bishop of Tyre, stated that "Aristobulus, whom Paul saluted [Romans 16:10] was bishop of Britain" and that Simon Zelotes also came to Britain (Synopsis de Apostol., Synops. 9, 23). Gildas says that the coming of Christianity to Britain "happened first, as we know, in the last years of the emperor Tiberius [14–37ad]" (The Ruin of Britain, p. 18). This means that Christianity arrived in Britain no later than 37ad—less than a decade after Christ's crucifixion. Gildas also recognizes the Britons as God's "latter-day Israel" (ibid., p. 28).
Scholars in previous centuries did accept these early reports as trustworthy accounts of history. James Ussher, Archbishop of Ireland and one of the greatest scholars of the 17th century, presented considerable evidence that James, Simon Zelotes, Simon Peter, the Apostle Paul and others brought Christianity to Europe's western isles in the first century (The Whole Works of James Ussher, vol. 5, chap. 1, Erlington). Robert Parsons, an English Jesuit and Oxford scholar, asserted in his 17th century work The Three Conversions of England that the apostles first brought Christianity to the island, and that "the Christian religion began in Britain within fifty years of Christ's Ascension" (p. 14). Modern scholars are ignoring the evidence when they claim that the spread of Christianity to Europe's western isles "left no narrative trace" and that it has been "lost beyond recovery."
But what happened to the true gospel, which the Apostles brought to Europe's western isles in the first century? How do the above-mentioned reports jibe with widely accepted traditions that Patrick converted the Irish in the fifth century, and that Augustine brought Christianity to England in the seventh century?
On these points, reputable scholars make some surprising admissions. Irish Catholic historians relate that "traditionally… Saint Patrick has been credited with converting the entire Irish race from paganism in the very short period between 432 and 461… however, we have to admit that there were certainly Christians in Ireland before Patrick arrived… and that the saint worked as an evangelist only in part of the island [the north]" (Walsh and Bradley, p. 1). Irish writer Liam de Paor wrote that "Ireland was not converted by one man [Patrick]… it may be that Christianity reached the west country [of Britain] and the southern Irish sea virtually independent of the Roman system, at a very early date… centuries before Patrick" (Paor, pp. 21, 23). There are traditions that the Apostle James preached the gospel in Ireland before returning to Jerusalem, where he was martyred (see MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, p. 103). Indeed, many historical sources confirm that the apostles brought true Christianity to Ireland four centuries before Patrick's visit. The story that Patrick was the first to bring Christianity to Ireland is a fable!
Traditions surrounding Augustine also look very different when we know the facts of history. Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk living in northeast England in the 700s, wrote what has been called the primary sourcebook for this period: The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Bede was a highly respected scholar, but he has also been called a "medieval spin doctor" because he tended to gloss over subjects that did not fit the story he was telling. As a Saxon, he glorified the Saxons and put down the Britons. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of Roman Catholicism. He writes nothing of the apostles coming to Britain and Ireland, only briefly mentions Christians preceding Augustine in early Britain, and instead focuses on Augustine as if he were the "bringer of the true faith" to the English nation.
However, when we read Bede's account carefully, it becomes obvious that British bishops already functioning on the island would have nothing to do with Augustine or the religion he represented! They would not accept the Roman Catholic observance of Easter, or their method of baptism, or the notion that Rome could give Augustine the authority to become Archbishop of England. Augustine told the British bishops: "You act in many particulars contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal church" (Bede, Bk. 2, chap. 2). Bede describes what he calls the "errors of the Britons" and writes that the "Scots in no way differ from the Britons in their behavior" (ibid., chap. 4). Describing why the Scottish bishops, at a confrontation at Witby in 664ad, refused to adopt the Roman Easter, Bede reports that these bishops followed an ancient practice—"the same which St. John the Evangelist, the disciple of our Lord, with all the churches over which he presided, is recorded to have observed" (ibid., chap. 25).
Bede's account reveals that the Scottish bishops were actually observing the biblical Passover (at the beginning of Nisan 14, shortly after sunset) and Days of Unleavened Bread (see Leviticus 23:4–8). Bede countered the Scots' appeal to scriptural practice and apostolic tradition with a reference to then-current customs of the Roman Church, and with ridicule that "the Picts and the Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the world… oppose all the rest of the universe" (ibid., Bk. 2, chap. 25). Yet this same battle had raged several centuries earlier in Asia Minor, when a Roman bishop had excommunicated the followers of John (called Quartodecimans) for observing the Passover on Nisan 14 instead of the Roman Easter. Following the confrontation at Whitby, the remnants of apostolic Christianity retreated to Scotland, Wales and southwest England, while the Saxons and eventually more Britons embraced Roman Catholicism. In Europe's western isles, the original teachings of Christianity were pushed aside by a different gospel emanating from Rome.
But why has the truth about the first arrival of Christianity in Europe's western isles—and the fate of the true gospel there—been obscured and forgotten? Why are so many clear historical records brushed aside? There are a number of reasons. The Bible reveals that true Christianity is in a struggle with evil spiritual forces: Satan, his demons and whomever they can influence (Ephesians 6:10–12). Secular historians and liberal theologians do not take this spiritual dimension seriously, yet it explains much of what has happened to the true gospel. Satan, as the adversary of God (Isaiah 14:12–15), has sought to disrupt and derail God's plan from the very beginning. Satan was behind the efforts to kill Jesus and end His ministry (Matthew 2:1–18; Matthew 26:1–5; John 8:37–44; John 13:2). Satan also attempts to subvert true Christianity by promoting the spread of heretical and subtly misleading ideas (see Acts 20:29–30; 2 Peter 2:1–3).
Faulty human reasoning also played a role in obscuring the true gospel. The Bible explains, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12). Over the centuries, some thought it reasonable to let former pagans continue their favorite religious practices, as long as they did so in a different spirit, because this might help them accept "Christianity." This is why the pagan celebrations of Christmas, Easter, saints' days, as well as their image worship and prayers for the dead, were endorsed by the Roman church. Yet the Bible actually condemns these practices (see Exodus 20:1–7; Deuteronomy 12:29–32; Jeremiah 10:1–5). As such customs were grafted into the church, true Christianity was eventually displaced by pagan practices.
Human prejudice also played a part in obscuring the truth. After the first-century Jewish revolt against Roman authority, religious practices that appeared Jewish—Sabbath observance, keeping the biblical Holy Days and following biblical dietary laws—became objects of scorn and revulsion, even though they were practiced by Jesus, His disciples and the early Church (see Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2; 18:21). It took centuries of determined effort to stamp out these teachings, as we see from the Quartodeciman controversies in Asia Minor and England. Today, scholars are quick to use Archbishop Ussher's incorrect calculation that the Earth was created in 4004bc as an excuse to ridicule and discredit his other writings, including his sound history which collected evidence showing how the apostles brought the gospel to Europe's western isles in the first century.
There is another reason why the truths about the first arrival of Christianity in the West, and about true Apostolic Christianity, have been obscured and forgotten. As historian Fletcher deftly observes, "history is written by the winners" (Fletcher, p. 75). He explains that in the theological disputes that raged over the centuries, individuals or groups who wound up on the losing side—whether right or wrong—were "systematically vilified, their writings hunted down and destroyed" (ibid.)—which is exactly what happened in Britain and Ireland. The British bishops who opposed Augustine and the teachings of the Roman church were labeled "perfidious [treacherous] men" and hundreds were murdered (Bede, Bk. 2, chap. 2). Today, Bede's biased history is widely available in English, yet Ussher's text—long recognized as "the most exact account" of the planting of Christianity in Britain—is found almost exclusively in Latin, if it can be found at all. It is no wonder that fundamental truths have been forgotten.
We can learn important lessons from the epic struggle that occurred in Europe's western isles. True Christianity spread westward for a reason. The Apostles traveled to the isles in the sea because Jesus commissioned them to go to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6). The Anglo-Saxon-Celtic peoples are Israelites who, over many centuries, migrated from their ancient homeland in the Middle East to these islands, where they inherited specific blessings promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (for more on this vital key to prophecy, please request our free booklet, The United States and Great Britain in Prophecy).
However, with those blessings came God-given responsibilities and warnings! God chose the Israelites to be examples of a way of life that other nations would notice and want to follow (Deuteronomy 4:1–10). The Israelites were to teach their children God's way of life, and were not to compromise any of His instructions. They were warned not to forget God, nor His laws and instructions, lest they reap serious consequences (Deuteronomy 4:15–28). Yet the modern descendants of ancient Israel have for the most part forgotten the truth, and have chosen to believe in fables (2 Timothy 4:4). In recent decades, secular scholars have tended to dismiss what history records and what the Bible reveals. Instead, they obscure the truth of history and promote misleading ideas about how Christianity came to Europe's western isles (2 Peter 2:1–3; 3:1–9). As a result, the peoples of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales simply do not know the truth about their own identity and their own history!
Corrupted by pagan ideas, and cut off from a sound biblical base, it is no wonder that organized religion in Britain and Ireland—as in many other Israelite countries—is floundering and in decline. Most today have forgotten—or do not even know—the true God, and are turning to substitutes in the occult or the "cult of self." The British, especially, have lost their God-given sense of mission, and are pursuing personal pleasures. The United States and Britain, instead of protecting and proclaiming the truth of God to the world, are consuming and exporting the corrupting values of violence, greed and licentious sex through the media and personal example. In doing so, they are fulfilling Moses' ancient prophecies that "after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands" (Deuteronomy 31:29).
Unless we drastically change our present course, we will reap the results of our hedonistic behavior. Long ago, God warned the people of Israel: "If you do not obey Me… I will even appoint terror over you… I will set my face against you… I will break the pride of your power… I will bring a sword against you… I will lay your cities waste… the Lord will scatter you among the peoples… where the Lord will drive you… in the latter days" (Leviticus 26:14–33; Deuteronomy 4:23–30).
These prophecies are even more sobering because they are dual. Not only did they apply to ancient Israel; they also apply to ancient Israel's descendants today—found in major part among the British-descended nations of the world.
The lessons of history and the prophecies of the Bible are not just details about the past; they are vitally relevant to our times today. Before it is too late, we need to rediscover what has been lost, obscured and forgotten. Jesus Christ came preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God; for our own good and the good of our nations, we need to obey His command to "repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14–15).