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§ 25. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany.


I. Bonifacius: Epistolae et Sermones, first ed. by Serrarius, Mogunt. 1605, then by Würdtwein, 1790, by Giles, 1842, and in Migne’s Patrol. Tom, 89, pp. 593–801 (together with Vitae, etc.). Jaffe: Monumenta Moguntina. Berol. 1866.

II. Biographies of Bonifacius. The oldest by Willibald, his pupil and companion (in Pertz, Monum. II. 33, and in Migne, l.c. p. 603); by Othlo, a German Benedictine monk of the eleventh cent. (in Migne, p. 634); Letzner (1602); Löffler (1812); Seiters (1845); Cox (1853); J. P. Müller (1870); Hope (1872); Aug. Werner Bonifacius und die Romanisirung Von Mitteleuropa. Leipz., 1875; Pfahler(Regensb. 1880); Otto Fischer (Leipz. 1881); Ebrard: Bonif. der Zerstörer des columbanischen Kirchenthums auf dem Festlande (Gütersloh, 1882; against Fischer and very unjust to B.; see against it Zöpffel in the “Theol. Lit. Zeitg,” 1882, No. 22). Cf. the respective sections in Neander, Gfrörer, Rettberg (II. 307 sqq.)

On the Councils of Bonif see Hefele: Conciliengeschichte, III. 458.


Boniface or Winfried117117    One that wins peace. His Latin name Bonifacius, Benefactor, was probably his monastic name, or given to him by the pope on his second visit to Rome. 723. surpassed all his predecessors on the German mission-field by the extent and result of his labors, and acquired the name of the Apostle of Germany. He was born about 680 from a noble family, at Kirton in Wessex the last stronghold of paganism among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He was brought up in the convent of Nutsal near Winchester, and ordained priest at the age of thirty. He felt it his duty, to christianize those countries from which his Anglo-Saxon forefathers had emigrated. It was a formidable task, requiring a heroic courage and indomitable perseverance.

He sacrificed his splendid prospects at home, crossed the channel, and began his missionary career with two or three companions among the Friesians in the neighborhood of Utrecht in Holland (715). His first attempt was a failure. Ratbod, the king of Friesland, was at war with Charles Martel, and devastated the churches and monasteries which had been founded by the Franks, and by Willibrord.

But far from being discouraged, he was only stimulated to greater exertion. After a brief sojourn in England, where he was offered the dignity of abbot of his convent, he left again his native land, and this time forever. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, was cordially welcomed by Pope Gregory II. and received a general commission to Christianize and romanize central Europe (718). Recrossing the Alps, he visited Bavaria and Thuringia, which had been evangelized in part by the disciples of Columban, but he was coldly received because he represented their Christianity as insufficient, and required submission to Rome. He turned his steps again to Friesland where order had been restored, and assisted Willibrord, archbishop of Utrecht, for three years. In 722 he returned to Thuringia in the wake of Charles Martel’s victorious army and preached to the heathen in Hesse who lived between the Franks and the Saxons, between the middle Rhine and the Elbe. He founded a convent at Amanaburg (Amöneburg) on the river Ohm.

In 723 he paid, on invitation, a second visit to Rome, and was consecrated by Gregory II. as a missionary bishop without a diocese (episcopus regionarius). He bound himself on the grave of St. Peter with the most stringent oath of fealty to the Pope similar to that which was imposed on the Italian or suburban bishops.118118    The juramentum of Boniface, which he ever afterwards remembered and observed with painful conscientiousness deserves to be quoted in full, as it contains his whole missionary policy (see Migne, l.c., p. 803):
   “In nomine Domini Dei Salvatoris nostri Jesus Christi, imperante domino Leone Magno imperatore, anno 7 post consulatum ejus, sed et Constantini Magni imperatoris ejus filii anno 4, indictione 6. Promitto ego Bonifacius, Dei gratia episcopus, tibi, beate Petre, apostolorum princeps vicarioque tuo beato Gregorio papae et successoribus ejus, per Patrem et Filium, et Spiritum Sanctum, Trinitatem inseparabilem, et hoc sacratissimum corpus tuum, me omnem fidem et puritatem sanctae fidei catholicae exhibere, et in unitate ejusdem fidei, Deo operante, persistere in quo omnis Christianorum salus esse sine dubio comprobatur, nullo modo me contra unitatem communis et universalis Ecclesiae, quopiam consentire, sed, ut dixi, fidem et puritatem meam atque concursum, tibi et utilitatibus tiae Ecclesiae, cui a Domino Deo potestasligandi solvendique data est, et praedicto vicario tuo atque successoribus ejus, per omnia exhibere. Sed et si cognovero antistites contra instituta antiqua sanctorum patrum conversari, cum eis nullam habere communionem aut conjunctionem; sed magis, si valuero prohibere, prohibeam; si minus, hoc fideliter statim Domino meo apostolico renuntiabo. Quod si, quod absit, contra hujus professionis meae seriem aliquid facere quolibet modo, seu ingenio, vel occasione, tentavero, reus inveniar in aeterno judicio, ultionem Ananiae et Saphirae incurram, qui vorbis etiam de rebus propriis fraudem facere praesumpsit: hoc autem indiculum sacramenti ego Bonifacius exiguus episcopus manu propria, ita ut praescriptum, Deo teste et judice, feci sacramentum, quod et conservare promitto.”

   With all his devotion to the Roman See, Boniface was manly and independent enough to complain in a letter to Pope Zacharias of the scandalous heathen practices in Rome which were reported by travellers and filled the German Christians with prejudice and disobedience to Rome. See the letter in Migne, l.c. p. 746 sqq.

From this time his work assumed a more systematic character in the closest contact with Rome as the centre of Christendom. Fortified with letters of commendation, he attached himself for a short time to the court of Charles Martel, who pushed his schemes of conquest towards the Hessians. Aided by this secular help and the Pope’s spiritual authority, he made rapid progress. By a master stroke of missionary policy he laid the axe to the root of Teutonic heathenism; with his own hand, in the presence of a vast assembly, he cut down the sacred and inviolable oak of the Thunder-God at Geismar (not far from Fritzlar), and built with the planks an oratory or church of St. Peter. His biographer, Willibald, adds that a sudden storm from heaven came to his aid and split the oak in four pieces of equal length. This practical sermon was the death and burial of German mythology. He received from time to time supplies of books, monks and nuns from England. The whole church of England took a deep interest in his work, as we learn from his correspondence. He founded monastic colonies near Erfurt, Fritzlar, Ohrdruf, Bischofsheim, and Homburg. The victory of Charles Martel over the Saracens at Tours (732) checked the westward progress of Islâm and insured the triumph of Christianity in central Europe.

Boniface was raised to the dignity of archbishop (without a see) and papal legate by the new Pope Gregory III. (732), and thus enabled to coerce the refractory bishops.

In 738 he made his third and last pilgrimage to Rome with a great retinue of monks and converts, and received authority to call a synod of bishops in Bavaria and Allemannia. On his return he founded, in concert with Duke Odilo, four Bavarian bishoprics at Salzburg, Freising, Passau, and Ratisbon or Regensburg (739). To these he added in central Germany the sees of Würzburg, Buraburg (near Fritzlar), Erfurt, Eichstädt (742). He held several synods in Mainz and elsewhere for the organization of the churches and the exercise of discipline. The number of his baptized converts till 739 is said to have amounted to many thousands.

In 743 he was installed Archbishop of Mainz or Mayence (Moguntum) in the place of bishop Gervillius (Gewielieb) who was deposed for indulging in sporting propensities and for homicide in battle. His diocese extended from Cologne to Strasburg and even to Coire. He would have preferred Cologne, but the clergy there feared his disciplinary severity. He aided the sons of Charles Martel in reducing the Gallic clergy to obedience, exterminating the Keltic element, and consolidating the union with Rome.

In 744, in a council at Soissons, where twenty-three bishops were present, his most energetic opponents were condemned. In the same year, in the very heart of Germany, he laid the foundation of Fulda, the greatest of his monasteries, which became the Monte Casino of Germany.

In 753 he named Lull or Lullus his successor at Mainz. Laying aside his dignities, he became once more an humble missionary, and returned with about fifty devoted followers to the field of the baffled labors of his youth among the Friesians, where a reaction in favor of heathenism had taken place since the death of Willibrord. He planted his tents on the banks of the river Borne near Dockum (between Franecker and Groningen), waiting for a large number of converts to be confirmed. But, instead of that, he was assailed and slain, with his companions, by armed pagans. He met the martyr’s death with calmness and resignation, June 5, 754 or 755. His bones were deposited first at Utrecht, then at Mainz, and at last in Fulda. Soon after his death, an English Synod chose him, together with Pope Gregory and Augustin, patron of the English church. In 1875 Pope Pius IX. directed the Catholics of Germany and England to invoke especially the aid of St. Boniface in the distress of modern times.

The works of Boniface are epistles and sermons. The former refer to his missionary labors and policy, the latter exhibit his theological views and practical piety. Fifteen short sermons are preserved, addressed not to heathen, but to Christian converts; they reveal therefore not so much his missionary as his edifying activity. They are without Scripture text, and are either festal discourses explaining the history of salvation, especially the fall and redemption of man, or catechetical expositions of Christian doctrine and duty. We give as a characteristic specimen of the latter, the fifteenth sermon, on the renunciation of the devil in baptism:


Sermon XV.


“I. Listen, my brethren, and consider well what you have solemnly renounced in your baptism. You have renounced the devil and all his works, and all his pomp. But what are the works of the devil? They are pride, idolatry, envy, murder, calumny, lying, perjury, hatred, fornication, adultery, every kind of lewdness, theft, false witness, robbery, gluttony, drunkenness, Slander, fight, malice, philters, incantations, lots, belief in witches and were-wolves, abortion, disobedience to the Master, amulets. These and other such evil things are the works of the devil, all of which you have forsworn by your baptism, as the apostle says: Whosoever doeth such things deserves death, and shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven. But as we believe that, by the mercy of God, you will renounce all these things, with heart and hand, in order to become fit for grace, I admonish you, my dearest brethren, to remember what you have promised Almighty God.

II. For, first, you have promised to believe in Almighty God, and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, one almighty God in perfect trinity.

III. And these are the commandments which you shall keep and fulfil: to love God, whom you profess, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourselves; for on these commandments hang the whole law and the prophets. Be patient, have mercy, be benevolent, chaste, pure. Teach your sons to fear God; teach your whole family to do so. Make peace where you go, and let him who sits in court; give a just verdict and take no presents, for presents make even a wise man blind.

IV. Keep the Sabbath and go to church-to pray, but not to prattle. Give alms according to your power, for alms extinguish sins as water does fire. Show hospitality to travelers, visit the sick, take care of widows and orphans, pay your tithes to the church, and do to nobody what you would not have done to yourself. Fear God above all. Let the servants be obedient to their masters, and the masters just to their servants. Cling to the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, and communicate them to your own children and to those whose baptismal sponsors you are. Keep the fast, love what is right, stand up against the devil, and partake from time to time of the Lord’s Supper. Such are the works which God commands you to do and fulfil.

V. Believe in the advent of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the judgment of all men. For then the impious shall be separated from the just, the one for the everlasting fire, the others for the eternal life. Then begins a life with God without death, a light without shadows, a health without sickness, a plenty without hunger, a happiness without fear, a joy with no misgivings. Then comes the eternal glory, in which the just shall shine like suns, for no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, no heart has ever dreamed, of all that which God has prepared for those whom he loves.

VI. I also remind you, my beloved brethren, that the birth-day of our Lord is approaching, in order that you may abstain from all that is worldly or lewd or impure or bad. Spit out all malice and hatred and envy; it is poison to your heart. Keep chaste even with respect to your own wives. Clothe yourselves with good works. Give alms to the poor who belong to Christ; invite them often to your feasts. Keep peace with all, and make peace between those who are at discord. If, with the aid of Christ, you will truly fulfil these commands, then in this life you can with confidence approach the altar of God, and in the next you shall partake of the everlasting bliss.”119119    In Migne, l.c., p. 870. A German translation in Cruel, Geschichte der deutschen Predigt im Mittelalter (1879), p. 14.


Bonifacius combined the zeal and devotion of a missionary with worldly prudence and a rare genius for organization and administration. He was no profound scholar, but a practical statesman and a strict disciplinarian. He was not a theologian, but an ecclesiastic, and would have made a good Pope. He selected the best situations for his bishoprics and monasteries, and his far-sighted policy has been confirmed by history. He was a man of unblemished character and untiring energy. He was incessantly active, preaching, traveling, presiding over Synods, deciding perplexing questions about heathen customs and trivial ceremonies. He wrought no miracles, such as were usually expected from a missionary in those days. His disciple and biographer apologizes for this defect, and appeals as an offset to the invisible cures of souls which he performed.120120    Othlo, Vita Bonif., c. 26 (Migne, l.c. fol. 664).

The weak spot in his character is the bigotry and intolerance which he displayed in his controversy with the independent missionaries of the French and Scotch-Irish schools who had done the pioneer work before him. He reaped the fruits of their labors, and destroyed their further usefulness, which he might have secured by a liberal Christian policy. He hated every feature of individuality and national independence in matters of the church. To him true Christianity was identical with Romanism, and he made Germany as loyal to the Pope as was his native England. He served under four Popes, Gregory II., Gregory III., Zacharias, and Stephen, and they could not have had a more devoted and faithful agent. Those who labored without papal authority were to him dangerous hirelings, thieves and robbers who climbed up some other way. He denounced them as false prophets, seducers of the people, idolaters and adulterers (because they were married and defended clerical marriage).121121    The description he gives of their immorality, must be taken with considerable deduction. In Ep. 49 to Pope Zacharias (a. d.742) in Migne, l.c., p. 745, he speaks of deacons, priests and bishops hostile to Rome, as being guilty of habitual drunkenness, concubinage, and even polygamy. I will only quote what he says of the bishops: ”Et inveniuntur quidem inter eos episcopi, qui, licet dicant se fornicarios vel adulteros non esse, sed sunt ebriosi, et injuriosi, vel venatores, et qui pugnant in exercitu armati, et effundunt propria manu sanguinem hominum, sive paganorum, sive Christianorum.” He encountered from them a most determined opposition, especially in Bavaria. In connection with his servile Romanism is his pedantic legalism and ceremonialism. His epistles and sermons show a considerable knowledge of the Bible, but also a contracted legalistic spirit. He has much to say about matters of outward conformity to Roman authority and usages and about small questions of casuistry, such as whether it was right to eat horse flesh, rabbits, storks, meat offered to idols, to marry a widow after standing god-father to her son, how often the sign of the cross should be made in preaching. In his strength and his weakness, his loyalty, to Rome, and in the importance of the work he accomplished, he resembled Augustin, the Roman apostle of his Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

Boniface succeeded by indomitable perseverance, and his work survived him. This must be his vindication. In judging of him we should remember that the controversy between him and his French and Scotch-Irish opponents was not a controversy between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism (which was not yet born), but between organized Catholicism or Romanism and independent Catholicism. Mediaeval Christianity was very weak, and required for its self-preservation a strong central power and legal discipline. It is doubtful whether in the barbarous condition of those times, and amid the commotions of almost constant civil wars, the independent and scattered labors of the anti-Roman missionaries could have survived as well and made as strong an impression upon the German nation as a consolidated Christianity with a common centre of unity, and authority.

Roman unity was better than undisciplined independency, but it was itself only a preparatory school for the self-governing freedom of manhood.

After Boniface had nearly completed his work, a political revolution took place in France which gave it outward support. Pepin, the major domus of the corrupt Merovingian dynasty, overthrew it with the aid of Pope Zacharias, who for his conquest of the troublesome Lombards rewarded him with the royal crown of France (753). Fifty years afterwards this political alliance of France and Germany with the Italian papacy was completed by Charlemagne and Leo III., and lasted for many centuries. Rome had the enchantment of distance, the prestige of power and culture, and promised to furnish the strongest support to new and weak churches. Rome was also the connecting link between mediaeval and ancient civilization, and transmitted to the barbarian races the treasures of classical literature which in due time led to the revival of letters and to the Protestant Reformation.



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