This series of columns bears the title “Defending the Faith,” and I’ve now written roughly 250 of these mini-essays setting forth what I regard as reasons to believe in God, and specifically in the God disclosed by Christianity, and, most specifically, in the God revealed through Mormon Christianity, which I (with many others) hold to be a restoration of profound, long-lost truths.
Occasionally, though, I’ve written about how to introduce others to the claims of Mormon Christian theism, and how to advocate and defend those claims; it’s a subject that I consider vitally important and to which I’ve given considerable thought over several decades.
I recently read a small book titled “The Holy Island of Lindisfarne,” by Rev. Canon David Adam, who served as Anglican vicar of that religiously and historically significant place for 13 years.
Located just off the Northumbrian (northeastern) coast of England, Lindisfarne is the place from which, in the seventh century, St. Aidan evangelized among the pagan Britons for his Celtic form of Christianity and his successor St. Cuthbert served as a hugely influential bishop. It’s also where, in the early eighth century, shortly after Cuthbert’s death, the famous Lindisfarne Gospels — which rank among the earliest works of English art and are considered some of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the medieval era — were created.
When Aidan came to Northumbria in A.D. 634 from the monastic island of Iona, off the western coast of today’s Scotland, he came at the invitation of the Northumbrian king, Oswald. Nonetheless, he decided very quickly that he would not stay at the royal castle of Bamburgh. He didn’t want to be too closely connected to the aristocracy or to live too near the worldly lifestyle of the court and the castle’s garrison.
Moreover, in contrast to the early bishops of England with whom many were already familiar, he chose not to ride on horseback when he made his priestly and missionary journeys about the area. He didn’t want to be above the common people but to be on their level. So he walked. And when offerings of money were given to him, he would offer it to others or use it to purchase slaves and set them free.
In describing St. Aidan, the Rev. Adam draws an explicit contrast between the first impression that Aidan made on the people of Northumbria and that made by St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. ca. A.D. 604), who is often regarded as the father of the Christian church in England — and who shouldn’t be confused with the great Latin bishop and writer St. Augustine of Hippo (d. A.D. 430).
The question in St. Augustine’s time was whether the Christians who already existed in England should give up their local customs and conform to the rules of the bishop of Rome, the pope. That is what Augustine had been sent from Rome to demand of them.
The local bishops were undecided. So a wise hermit counseled them that, “If Augustine is meek and lowly in heart, it shows that he bears the yoke of Christ himself, and offers it to you. But if he is haughty and unbending, then he is not of God and we should not listen to him.”
But how, the bishops asked, would they be able to determine clearly whether he was meek and lowly or haughty and unbending?
In answer, the hermit advised them to permit Augustine and his party to arrive at their meeting place before they did. “Then if he rises to meet you when you approach rest assured that he is a servant of Christ, but if he ignores you and does not rise, since you are in the majority, do not comply with his demands.”
As it happened, Augustine was determined to demonstrate his power and authority as a representative of Rome, so he remained seated and didn’t rise to greet the British bishops when they arrived. It was, Rev. Adam writes, a trivial thing, but Augustine’s display of disrespect for the English bishops, who had been part of the country since long before his arrival, substantially hindered the cause of Christianity among the Britons in those early years.
“By this,” taught Jesus, “shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). “The deeds you do,” St. Francis of Assisi reportedly taught, “may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.