I don’t remember there ever being any real significance to St. Patrick’s Day when I was growing up. As a kid, the holiday seemed nothing more than an excuse to use green markers and construction paper and draw rainbows and leprechauns. In college, it was a giant excuse to drink green beer and get massively bombed. It seemed like a conspiracy between elementary school teachers and bars to fill the weeks leading up to Easter with something thematic to keep the masses entertained.
It wasn’t until I was a Christian, by God’s grace, and a History major, that I began to wonder about the man behind the holiday. I was intrigued to find out more about Patrick the man and why he is considered a saint. After reading up on him (did you know he is not an officially canonized saint?) and gaining some perspective on his life and ministry, I was hooked by his example and faith. There is a whole bunch I could share (St. Patrick isn’t ethnically Irish, he was a Roman Brit), but there are two crucial intersection points of his life with slavery that I think offer a timely word for us in the present day.
The first of these intersections came when Patrick was 16. He was snatched by Celtic raiders that had come down from Ireland and was brought back to Ireland to be a slave among the Celtic people. The free Roman citizen Patrick exchanged his normal life for one of servitude herding sheep and tending to pigs. He shared a shack with many other slaves, labored for nothing doing the exhausting job of shepherding sheep, and lived among a terrifyingly ruthless people. While he was a slave, Patrick became a Christian, finding the faith of his father (a Roman Catholic deacon) and mother that he had brushed aside as a younger man. It was during a time of prayer that Patrick, after six years of slavery, heard God speak to him and tell him to escape from slavery. He did so, travelling almost 200 miles to the coast, and found a ship that took him back to his home in Britain.
Patrick’s experience is like a lot of slaves today. Men, women, and children born in countries like India, Thailand, Russia, Peru, Mexico, Uganda, and South Africa. They are taken from their natural homes and shipped to other parts of the world to do manual slave labor (like St. Patrick) or the sex trade and in brothels in cities like Amsterdam, Las Vegas, New York, Rome, Berlin, and many other cities. Patrick would develop a particular righteous anger towards slavery which came from his years as a slave, and this leads to our second intersection in his life.
After Patrick returned home, he felt a burden to return to Ireland to bring the gospel to Ireland and shepherd the existing Christians in Ireland (who were very few). When he returned, he was a missionary to the Irish people and their pastor. It was still a dangerous and tumultuous place and Patrick’s passion for his Irish Christian brothers and sisters and his ire for slavery was kindled against the British King Coroticus. Coroticus was using his power to use the same tactic the Irish had used to kidnap Patrick, except this time Coroticus’ armies were kidnapping Irish and enslaving them. One particular raid led to many of Patrick’s converts were taken away and enslaved by Coroticus and his people. Patrick chastises the British King, who claimed to hold to Christian beliefs, and appeals to the Bible on many occasions to demonstrate to the king that what he is doing is evil:
“You betray the members of Christ as it were into a brothel. What hope have you in God, or anyone who thinks as you do, or converses with you in words of flattery? God will judge. For Scripture says: ‘Not only them that do evil are worthy to be condemned, but they also that consent to them.”
This letter is widely held to be the first published instance of an individual calling out the evils of slavery.
St. Patrick loved the gospel and Jesus Christ, and as a result he abhorred slavery. Through his own experiences that led to his conversion and the experiences of his people after him, Patrick stood for slaves and for their freedom. He is an ancient inspiration for modern-day abolitionists that are seeking the abolition of victims of the global slave trade. Enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day fun, but I am going to use this day to learn a bit more about a man who suffered under slavery and also sought to free those who suffered under the yoke of slavery.