Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | March 17, 2013

Saint Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus Condemning the Slave Trade

Carlow Cathedral St Patrick Preaching to the Kings 2009 09 03

On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought it made sense to link to and quote a bit from a letter that Patrick wrote when he was a missionary archbishop in Ireland. A British strongman named Coroticus had led a raid on Ireland, killing many of the Irish and carrying others off in slavery back to Britain. Among those killed and enslaved were some Irish Christians that Patrick had confirmed the previous day.

When Patrick heard about the raid, he was furious. He sent one of his priests to negotiate with the slavers for the release of the captives, but apparently the slavers laughed at Patrick’s envoy. Patrick then wrote a letter, nominally addressed to “the soldiers of Coroticus,” but intended to reach the bishops, potentates, and common Christian people of Britain. (Uncertainty surrounds just about every fact in Patrick’s life, including dates, but a date of around AD 450 for this letter would be plausible.)

Down through the centuries, Patrick’s controlled rage fairly jumps off the page:

The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men. At once I sent a good priest with a letter. I could trust him, for I had taught him from his boyhood. He went, accompanied by other priests, to see if we might claw something back from all the looting, most important, the baptized captives whom they had seized. Yet all they did was to laugh in our faces at the mere mention of their prisoners. Because of all this, I am at a loss to know whether to weep more for those they killed or those that are captured: or indeed for these men themselves whom the devil has taken fast for his slaves….

Because of this, let every God-fearing man mark well that to me they are outcasts: cast out also by Christ my God, whose ambassador I am. Patricides, they are, yes and fratricides, no better than ravening wolves devouring God’s own people like a loaf of bread….

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Part of the letter was written with the intent of moving the bishops and other churchmen of Britain to socially isolate Coroticus and those who had raided with him:

Accordingly, I beseech especially you “holy and humble in heart,” that it is unlawful to flatter men like these, nor should you eat or drink in their company, neither should anyone feel any obligation to receive alms from such men; not until the time comes when they do penances so harsh that their tears pour out to God, and that they agree to free those servants of God and the baptized handmaids of Christ. For these did he die, for them was he crucified.

In the United States in the early Nineteenth Century, several years before the Civil War, the evangelist preacher Charles Finney barred slaveholders from receiving communion because slavery was not simply a sin but a sin beyond the pale, and he would not break bread and share fellowship with unrepentant slavers. (H/T: Dennis Sanders.) Patrick was an early link in a chain that leads to Finney and the Christian abolitionists of North America. When we look at ancient sources, the silence or acceptance regarding slavery seems depressingly universal, a broad darkness. In that darkness, Patrick’s letter is an early and lonely light. He truly was a voice crying out in the wilderness, practically alone.

So here’s to Saint Patrick, archbishop, missionary, visionary, one of the first to raise his voice against the international slave trade.

Image Credit: (1) St. Patrick Preaching to the Kings, stained glass window in Carlow Cathedral, Carlow, Ireland; photo by Andreas F. Borchert, September 2009, used under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 DE license; Source: Wikimedia Commons; (2) Detail of statue of St. Patrick, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, El Paso, Texas; photo by “Lyricmac,” August 2007, used under a Creative Commons CC-BY-2.5 license; Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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