The man we know as St. Patrick was born around 389 AD in England. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest.
The Roman Empire was still in titular control of Britain, but their demoralized armies were unable to protect the island from Irish invaders. Farms were pillaged and teenagers enslaved. Patrick was taken at age sixteen. An Irish farmer bought him as a slave and put him to work tending sheep.
Somehow Patrick came to personal faith in Christ in the midst of his tribulations. He later wrote, “The Lord opened to me a sense of my unbelief, that I might be converted with all my heart unto the Lord.”
Patrick received a vision from God when he was twenty-two, a clear signal to run from Ireland for his home. Risking his life, he was able to evade his captors and return to his family. But his heart was heavy for the spiritual condition of his Irish captors.
Following another vision, Patrick devoted himself for seven years to Bible study, then he returned to Ireland as a missionary. The Irish were almost completely without Christ, worshiping the elements and spirits in trees and stones and engaging in magic and even human sacrifice.
Patrick got to work.
When his career was done, he had established some two hundred churches in Ireland and led more than one hundred thousand people to faith in Christ, despite more than a dozen attempts on his life. He is today the patron saint of Ireland. His death on March 17, 461 is remembered each year as St. Patrick’s Day.
However, there’s even more to his story.
In the following century, Irish Christians who were spiritual descendants of St. Patrick’s ministry sailed back to Britain, where they evangelized the heathen who had overrun the country. They established monasteries and copied books being destroyed elsewhere.
According to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, these men “single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent.”
You could make the argument that St. Patrick deserves to be on anyone’s top-ten list of all-time most influential Christians. But you’d have a hard time getting Patrick to agree.
In his Confessions, Patrick wrote, “I am greatly a debtor to God, who has bestowed his grace so largely upon me, that multitudes were born again to God through me. The Irish, who had never had the knowledge of God and worshiped only idols and unclean things, have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called sons of God.”
He closed his memoirs by explaining the secret to his history-changing ministry:
“Do you judge, and let it be most firmly believed, that it was the gift of God. And this is my Confession, before I shall die.”