The Adoption of Christianity by the Irish and Anglo-Saxons: The Creation of Two Different Christian Societies

The Adoption of Christianity by the Irish and Anglo-Saxons: The Creation of Two Different Christian Societies

By Thomas Martz, Towson University

Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol. 2 (2011)

Abstract: From the Celts to the Anglo-Saxons, nomadic tribes of Europe fostered pagan beliefs. Today, few records exist to explain these faiths because of their roots in oral tradition and a demise of animistic traditions brought about by the adaptation of a new conviction. The Christian faith spread across the continent stretching across the English Channel into present day Ireland and United Kingdom. Unlike other periods in history, the conversion to Christianity among the Celts and Anglo-Saxons occurred quickly. In order to understand this cultural shift, we must consider those people responsible for it. Mainly, we must ask what tactics missionaries used to spread the faith to the pagan people. Led by accredited religious figures such as St. Patrick and St. Augustine, lofty boasts about a universal faith allowed Christianity to supplant the widespread pagan beliefs. The missionaries also used certain devices to spread the faith including, but not limited to, the conversion of kings before peasants and the incorporation of certain pagan rituals into Christian practices. Both of these strategies eased the people’s transition to the new beliefs. Without the success of these missionaries, the Anglo-Saxons and Celts might not have adapted writing and certain values, which would have resulted in a significantly different world than we know today.

Introduction: During the third century BCE, the Celtic empire reached its maximum expansion, stretching across the European continent. Driven to Ireland by Germanic tribes and the escalating Roman Empire, the Irish tribes became isolated from the mainland while the Roman Empire continued to expand to the edges of England. Eventually, the Anglo-Saxons supplanted the Roman culture when the Germanic tribes began their European dispersion. Even though Roman Christianity dominated the continent, the Irish and Anglo-Saxon clans practiced pagan religions. As a result, the Irish and Anglo-Saxons were visited by Roman missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith. The process of Christianization took on a very different form between the two groups: while the more centralized Anglo-Saxon society adopted Roman customs along with Christian tenets, the Irish clan structure was less conducive to the adaptation to Roman life. The adoption of Christianity was unique in Ireland because some followed the lead of St. Patrick in mixing Christian beliefs with local custom. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxons found it more politically and economically expedient to adopt Roman customs as presented by St. Augustine. In the end, it was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Roman Christianity that incorporated the British Isles within the religious, political, and economic structures of European Christendom.

Click here to read this article from the Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal

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