Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
When I was in elementary school, my family flew to New Hampshire and took a road trip home to Colorado, stopping to see the sights along the way. As we drove through upstate New York, we stumbled across both a town and a mountain called by our last name. We stopped by the town hall to learn some of the history and discovered it had been named after our distant ancestor.
I remember feeling so important as a kid—this place was named after me! Even today, the history we saw there is especially vivid in my mind because I experienced it as my history. The people whose stories we read and whose pictures we saw were my people.
My experience the first time I read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was similar. Bede’s depiction of the process of spreading the gospel to the English people was my history. The stories of Augustine of Canterbury, Bertha, Aidan, Columba, and Caedmon captured my imagination because these men and women shared my love for Christ and his kingdom. Their lives may have looked vastly different from mine, but as children of the same Father, their stories are my family history—on a more significant level than the history of that town in New York. These people are my family by virtue of being part of God’s family.
The monk now known as the Venerable Bede (AD 673–735) was a historian and Bible commentator who lived in Jarrow, England. Though others wrote histories of the spread of the church in Europe and the Middle East, Bede was the first to do the same for the British Isles. The book became popular almost immediately and was read in both Europe and the British Isles throughout the Middle Ages.
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Written in AD 731, Bede’s work opens with a background sketch of Roman Britain’s geography and history. It goes on to tell of the kings and bishops, monks and nuns who helped to develop Anglo-Saxon government and religion during the crucial formative years of the English people. Leo Sherley-Price’s translation brings us an accurate and readable version, in modern English, of a unique historical document. This edition now includes Bede’s Letter to Egbert concerning pastoral care in early Anglo-Saxon England, at the heart of which lay Bede’s denunciation of the false monasteries; and The Death of Bede, an admirable eye-witness account by Cuthbert, monk and later Abbot of Jarrow, both translated by D. H. Farmer.
What’s remarkable about Bede’s history is his ability to vividly convey the stories of individuals. Bede doesn’t simply tell his story by piling up cold dates and names in a heap. Rather, readers of Bede’s history encounter a series of real people whose lives tell the story of the advancement of Christ’s kingdom to Britain.
We read of Bertha, a Christian princess sent to marry the pagan king Ethelbert of Kent. Bertha and her pastor went to a strange place under a strange ruler, but her faithful witness laid the groundwork for missionaries to build upon. Through Bertha’s ministry and the ministry of Augustine of Canterbury, Ethelbert eventually accepted the gospel, and the kingdom of Kent became the first region of the British Isles to welcome churches in their midst. We know very little about Bertha’s life aside from this, but her story reminds us small acts of daily faithfulness matter.
We know very little about Bertha’s life, but her story reminds us small acts of daily faithfulness matter.
Another of the strikingly beautiful stories from Bede’s history is the brief account of the life of Caedmon. Though Caedmon was untrained and his primary work was as a night watchman for the stable, God called him to sing. And sing he did for the glory of God. Through the faithfulness of this simple man, God’s grace was first sung in the language that would eventually become our own. Bede records Caedmon’s last hours:
Having served God with a simple and pure mind, and with tranquil devotion, he left the world and departed to his presence by a tranquil death. His tongue, which had sung so many inspiring verses in praise of his Maker, uttered its last words in his praise as he signed himself with the Cross and commended his soul into his hands. (IV.24)
Bede’s telling of Caedmon’s life provides not only an account of how the first songs came to be written in the English language but also a beautiful example of how we all might use our gifts for God’s glory.
Bede also tells the story of Augustine of Canterbury, the first missionary to Britain, who soon after his arrival requested to be sent home. This honesty about the struggles of a missionary is a welcome reminder that, while our lives look different, the challenges of living faithfully for Christ are the same across centuries. Just like us, these first generations of Christians felt discouraged.
In these stories of Bertha, Caedmon, and Augustine, as well as in the dozens of others Bede includes, I discovered a community of older brothers and sisters who served the Lord long before I did and whose faithfulness the Lord used to bring about his purposes in their world. All of us need mentors, and Bede’s history is filled with beautiful examples of love and service of Christ.
Even more significant for us today than the stories of faithful believers, however, is the way the book bears witness to the work of our faithful God in bringing the gospel to Britain and from there to the entire English-speaking world.
While our lives may look different, the challenges of living faithfully for Christ are the same across centuries.
Time and again, the spread of the gospel is endangered—through wars, through the deaths of leaders, through persecution, or through the sins of believers. After one of these danger points, Bede writes, “But God in his goodness did not utterly abandon the people whom he had chosen; for he remembered them, and sent this nation more worthy preachers of the truth to bring them to the Faith” (I.22). We all need this reminder of God’s goodness as we face the challenges of gospel work in our own lives.
God’s plan will ultimately prevail here and now, just as it did there and then. The beautiful thing about Bede’s history is that, unlike in our own stories, we get to see the end. As we read our family history here, may we find both a group of older brothers and sisters to inspire us to keep on and a reminder of the God who has been faithful to them—and will continue to be faithful to us.