The Legacy of St. Patrick: Missionary to His Slave-Masters

The mention of St. Patrick, for most people, conjures images of all things green, from rivers to donuts to shamrocks, and everything between. St. Patrick’s Day parades and parties in many places around the world are often raucous and wild. They are a strange sort of celebration to bear the name of a man whose missionary legacy is worthy of remembrance…

St. Patrick Enslaved

At age 22, he stood on the dock before the boat’s steersman, hoping he could persuade the man to bring him on board. The previous six years had been cruel to the young boy who was abducted by barbarian pirates and made to be a servant in a strange land. Now, the tired British fugitive had escaped his slave-master and hurried under cover to a coastal Irish port.

Getting to the port meant a two-hundred-mile foot race with little to his name and few who would befriend him. But he made it. And now all that stood between him and his freedom was a rough gang of crewman that were reluctant to grant him passage. Were it not for a miraculous last-minute change of heart by the steersman, he would have never boarded his getaway vessel. The crew set sail for the British Isles. Soon he would be home.

Or so he thought.

It was God’s mercy and kindness to Patrick—a freed captive and redeemed sinner—that allowed him to celebrate the redemption of his earthly enemies.

Three days by sea and twenty-eight across uninhabited land left the runaway worn and hungry, although never without faith in the Almighty’s provision. And God did provide. His life, though threatened, was spared through dangers and deprivation, but only before the youth would experience, yet again, forced labor in captivity.

He would spend two months with his new captors until the Lord delivered him to resume his homeward journey. Only after this arduous trek from Ireland to Britain did the boy’s dispirited family finally wrap their arms around the neck of their long-lost son. Hearing his stories of slavery and escape, they mourned his tribulations and promised his safety henceforth.  “Stay with us”, they pleaded with tears, “never again leave our sight!”

But God had other plans for Patrick.

St. Patrick Returns

Not long after his return home, in a dream, Patrick would hear the voices of Irishmen crying from the forested coastlands, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” Upon waking, he was pricked at heart. His newly-revived faith roused deep brokenness for his former captors. Ireland desperately needed the gospel, and who would bring it to them if not he?

Against considerable opposition from family and friends, Patrick left his newfound comforts and gave his life to the cause of gospel advancement among the Irish, who were known for idol worship. Enduring insults from unbelievers, slander from believers, imprisonment and discomfort, he held to his belief that Ireland needed Christ. The very ones who trafficked him in his boyhood, who brought him considerable tribulation, threatened affliction, promised terror, assured imprisonment—it was these for whom his compassion could not die.

And why? Patrick tells us.

  • Because it was these for whom His Savior’s compassions were kindled, saying, “her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (Romans 9:25).
  • It was these of whom his Savior spoke when he said, “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).
  • It was these to whom His Savior commissioned him saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
  • And it was among these that His Savior’s promise would hold fast, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

St. Patrick’s Legacy

After just a few decades, more than a thousand Irish would profess faith, by Patrick’s own reports. But his influence didn’t end with his converts. The zeal and scope of his mission served as a model for his newly-planted Celtic churches. Their desire for and devotion to global gospel advance would lead to the evangelization of the British Isles, Gaul, and Central Europe in the centuries that followed.

I cannot be silent about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity. St. Patrick

Today, we stand on the shoulders of the saints who’ve gone before us. Their story is the preface to our story, and we have much to learn from their faithfulness and trial.

At least three things stand out as lessons we can learn from St. Patrick’s legacy:

  1. People we have every earthly reason to fear should be, because of Christ, the objects of our missionary efforts. By returning to the land of his captivity, Patrick followed the example of Christ, who left the safety of heaven to pursue rebels with hammers and nails in hand. If we believe that Christ’s love is strong enough to compel the chief of sinners and great persecutor of the church to repent, then we are free to run to, and not from, those we fear the most.
  2. People we have every earthly reason to hate should be, because of Christ, the objects of our compassion. “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:44). Patrick’s heart swelled with affection for his enemies, so much so that he was willing to “give even (his) life without hesitation” for them. He had no reason to love them, but that Christ loved them, and he was “greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace.” If God would show sinners like us such love, we have no excuse to hate our enemies.
  3. People who promise persecution should be, because of Christ, the subject of our supplication. “l say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). What often marked Patrick’s prayer life was the realization that God was controlling every situation, even his trials, so that his named might be praised on the earth. He prayed to the God “who kept (him) faithful” through trial to the end “that…among the barbarians (he) might constantly exalt and magnify (God’s) name”. Like Patrick, we should pray that those who persecute us might (even by means of that persecution) receive the joyful gift of the gospel – God’s everlasting promises in Christ.

It was God’s mercy and kindness to Patrick—a freed captive and redeemed sinner—that allowed him to celebrate the redemption of his earthly enemies. He writes,

“I cannot be silent about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by him, to exalt and praise his wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.”

So this St. Patrick’s day, wear your green and pinch each other red, even dance to the tune of Irish bagpipes. But don’t fail to reflect upon the legacy of the early pioneer missionary whose labor advanced the gospel among many of our Western ancestors. How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news (Romans 10:15).


Robert Wells V is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family reside in Virginia where he serves on a team that trains international church-planters. They are currently preparing to a join church-planting team in Central Asia.


Quotes taken from The Confession of St. Patrick and the ESV Bible.


If you’d like to follow St. Patrick’s footsteps into the nations, the trip finder here on the site is a great place to begin. You can also read about other missionaries and their legacies, such as Lottie Moon and Sallie Holmes.