In William Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopedia, a catalog of Baptist doctrines, organizations and individuals, there is a surprising entry under the letter P: “Patrick, Saint, the Apostle of Ireland.”
Perhaps more surprising is that Cathcart, a 19th-century Baptist historian, was not alone in claiming Patrick for the Baptist tradition. Pastor W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas and pastor Wayne Dehoney then of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Tenn. – both of whom went on to become Southern Baptist Convention presidents – were among the 19th- and 20th- century Baptists to argue the namesake of St. Patrick’s Day espoused Baptist principles some 1,200 years before Englishman John Smyth founded what is commonly regarded as the first Baptist congregation.
Two contemporary Baptist historians said that Patrick was not, in fact, a nascent Baptist, but those who sought to claim him as one rightly noted the error of associating him with the modern Roman Catholic Church.
“There is a romance about [Patrick],” said Michael Haykin a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who has written a book about Patrick. “During the 19th century, with the rise of Landmarkism, there was a desire to claim as many people as Baptists as possible. In some respects, Patrick falls easily into that [classification]. He was almost definitely baptizing people by immersion. But he was almost definitely not a congregationalist – which we would view as central to being a Baptist.”
Landmarkism was a Baptist movement that began in the 1800s and espoused, among other beliefs, the idea that an unbroken succession of baptistic churches has existed since the time of Jesus, said James Patterson, University Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University. Though not all 18th- and 19th-century Baptists were Landmarkists, their concept of unbroken succession gained broader acceptance and helped fuel the effort to identify as many “Baptists” as possible dating back to New Testament times, including Patrick.
Born in the late 300s in Roman-controlled Britain, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at age 16 and trusted Christ for salvation during his captivity, according to his autobiographical work Confession. God’s providential guidance led to his escape after six years, and several years later he returned to Ireland as a missionary, seeing thousands of former pagans commit their lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Thanks to Patrick’s influence, the Irish Christians – known as the Celtic Church – led the way in evangelizing Europe for a hundred years following his death in the mid to late fifth century.
When Baptist William Carey launched the modern missions movement in the early 19th century by setting out for India, he cited Patrick’s work in the British Isles as one of his inspirations, according to Haykin’s book Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact.
Later that same century, Cathcart and Canadian Baptist pioneer William Fraser were among those to argue explicitly that Patrick was a Baptist.
As Cathcart put it in his 1894 book “The Ancient British and Irish Churches Including the Life and Labors of St. Patrick,” “It is a little remarkable that this grand old believer in sovereign grace, in full salvation in the blood of the Lamb, and in the immersion of believers, should give his name to popish churches, where his gospel is denounced, and his Baptist brethren, with whose doctrines his writings are in singular agreement, are branded with heretical infamy.”
Cathcart’s argument led Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal to editorialize in 1894 under editor Edgar Folk, “He proves, beyond a doubt, that Saint Patrick was a Baptist missionary.”
In the 1950s, Criswell’s sermon “St. Patrick Was a Baptist Preacher” made similar arguments, as did New York pastor John Wimbish’s sermon “St. Patrick Was a Baptist.” When Dehoney preached a sermon in 1960 during his pastorate at First Baptist Jackson titled “St. Patrick Was a Baptist Preacher,” an advertisement in the Jackson Sun newspaper noted, “This is a special message for every Irishman, for every Baptist, for every seeker after truth.”
Haykin and Patterson agreed with the claim of Cathcart, Criswell, Dehoney and others that Patrick was not a Roman Catholic in the modern sense. He has been wrongly remembered since the Middle Ages, they said, as a missionary sent by the bishop of Rome, who later become known as the pope.
“The argument that he was a missionary sent out by Rome is tenuous,” Haykin said. “A number of the standard features of Roman Catholic piety and theology are just completely absent. There is no mention of Mary. There is no mention of the mass.”
Haykin added that Patrick did not appeal to a commission from Rome when opponents challenged the legitimacy of his mission – a logical appeal had he been a representative of the developing church hierarchy.
If Patrick was connected to Rome, Patterson said, it was only “in a more general way because they didn’t have the hierarchy in place at that time. In fact, I think one could argue the papacy as we know it wasn’t really fully in place at that point.
“There were bishops,” Patterson continued, “and I think he probably, as far as we can tell, would have supported the idea of bishops. But Catholicism in his age was very different. … He was Catholic, but in the context of his own times.”
Patrick, Patterson said, was not “a closet Baptist,” though Baptists are justified in admiring his missionary zeal.
“It’s one thing to admire someone because of their missionary spirit and maybe even some of their strategies,” he said. “It’s another thing to say, ‘Well, that makes them an evangelical or a Baptist.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)