Who Was St. Boniface?

June 10, 2024

The man we know as St. Boniface, apostle to the Germans, was born in Wessex, England around AD 680. At an early age, Wynfrith (his given name) joined a monastery at Nursling. He was an excellent student and desired to become a “pilgrim for Christ.” When he was nearly 40 years old, with a missionary zeal to reach the lost, Wynfrith set sail in 716 for Frisia, the coastal region along the North Sea that today overlaps parts of the Netherlands and Germany. Unfortunately, when he arrived, the Frisians were in revolt against Frankish rule, thus preventing the would-be missionary from establishing his ministry and forcing him to return home.

Two years later, Wynfrith made another attempt to settle among the Frisians. This time he acquired a letter of introduction from his bishop (and mentor and friend), Daniel of Winchester, so that he might travel to Rome and seek an audience with the pope. Nothing seems to have come from this initial visit, but in May 719 Wynfrith received a formal commission from Pope Gregory II to evangelize the heathens. It was at this same time that Wynfrith received his new name: Boniface.

From 719 to 722, Boniface worked among the Frisians with the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord. Willibrord wanted the English monk to stay as an associate bishop, but Boniface had other plans. In 722, Boniface was consecrated a bishop by Gregory II and given a far-reaching papal commission to preach the gospel to the peoples east of the Rhine. In 723, Boniface visited the Frankish court and was taken under the protection of the Frankish ruler, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”). Having secured the protection of Charles, and with an assortment of official papal letters addressed to local chieftains, Boniface set out for the lands of Thuringia and Hesse in east-central Germany. This would be Boniface’s mission field for the next fifteen years.

Over the course of his long life, working throughout the Frankish kingdom, Boniface’s ministry was multifaceted. Although he hoped to evangelize rank pagans, most of his work was institutional, political, and pastoral. He corresponded with Christian leaders, managed disagreements (some of his own making), followed up with the already converted, and helped to establish numerous monasteries (most famously, the Fulda monastery founded by his disciple, Saint Sturm, in 744). From The Letters of Saint Boniface and from Willibald’s The Life of Saint Boniface (c. 768), we get a picture of a man full of zeal, full of action, and often full of frustration. He was perpetually bothered by the lax Christian standards among the Franks, while at the same time recognizing that he had no hope for successful ministry without the political support and defense of the Frankish court. Boniface spent most of his decades in Germany preaching, baptizing, and doing the slow work of teaching the people a more rigorous and more orthodox form of Christianity.

In 753, Boniface, now in his 70s, set off once more for the coastal region of Frisia. Throughout the fall, the winter, and into the following spring, Boniface and his followers labored hard to convert and baptize the Frisians. On June 5, 754, while the party was camped on the coast of Frisia—well beyond the protection of the Frankish royal power—Boniface and his men were attacked by marauders from the sea. No doubt, these were the sort of vagabonds who often targeted monks and missionaries as easy prey, loaded with loot and light on weaponry. Despite Boniface’s attempts to defend the group using a large manuscript book as a shield, the elderly bishop (by this time the archbishop of Mainz) and his companions were cruelly murdered. His body was carried by monks to the monastery at Fulda, where he was buried. The disfigured book Boniface used as shield (now known as the Ragyndrudis Codex) was brought back as well. Boniface was hailed as a martyr, and his memory as the apostle of Germany was cherished throughout Christendom.

Felling the Oak of Thor

If Boniface is known today, it is chiefly for the occasion early in his ministry (723 or 724) when he chopped down a sacred tree in front of the pagans in Hesse. For some, Boniface wielding his axe against the Oak of Thor is the example of how we ought to confront the enemies of Christ in our day and how we ought to defiantly tear down the cultural strongholds around us. Since this one incident in the life of Boniface has become its own meme—replete with trees, axes, woodchippers, and the like—it is worth looking at this dramatic event in some detail.

Here is the whole story, as Willibald tells it in his biography:

After Boniface by long and devious [i.e., clandestine] ways had visited the territories of great peoples, he came to the aforesaid prince of the Franks, and was received by him with veneration. He delivered to Duke Charles the letters of the above mentioned Roman bishop and of the apostolic see, and, subject to his lordship and patronage, returned, with the consent of Duke Charles, to the land of the Hessians where before he had tarried.

Now at that time many of the Hessians, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things.

With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere [or Geismar], while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter [the Latin rendering of Thor]. And when the strength of his steadfast heart had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were most earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a divine blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious dispensation  of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by.

At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree a wooden oratory [i.e., a chapel], and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle.

No doubt, this is a dramatic story, and we ought to be inspired by Boniface’s courage. But before we conclude that maximum confrontation is always the best option for cultural engagement in the post-Christian West, we should consider two salient factors often overlooked in this story and underappreciated in the wider ministry of Boniface.

Not Alone

The first factor we must not overlook is that Boniface did not undertake this act of cultural confrontation alone. The story is sometimes told as if Boniface went swashbuckling into the Teutonic Forest ready to meet the pagans head on and chop down their sacred trees. But notice that according to Willibald, Boniface was surrounded by many Christians. Some of these Christians were weak, and some were syncretistic. But some were of “sounder minds” and “abandoned all the profanations of heathenism.” It was in consultation with these well-grounded Christians that Boniface decided to topple the Oak of Thor. Boniface’s action was bold, but it was not foolhardy. He sought the counsel of others and must have concluded there was a reasonable chance that his boldness would do more than just make the pagans angry.

Along the same lines, we should note that Boniface only ventured out among the Hessians once he had secured the protection of Charles Martel. True, there were likely no police officers of the Frankish court on the scene to make sure Boniface got out of Geismar unscathed. Boniface was taking a risk in cutting down their pagan emblem. But the protection of the Frankish court was a vital aspect of Boniface’s mission work. His letters to and from various secular and church officials bear this out. In a letter to Bishop Daniel from the 740s, Boniface admits, “Without the support of the Frankish prince I can neither govern the members of the Church nor defend the priests, clerks, monks, and maids of God; nor can I, without orders from him and the fear inspired by him, prevent the pagan rites and the sacrilegious worship of idols in Germany.” Boniface needed Charles and other local Frankish officials to protect his ministry if it was going to succeed. 

Although Boniface was often frustrated by the lack of Christian integrity and sincerity he saw in Frankish rulers, he also knew he was dependent upon their legal, political, and military support. Boniface could successfully chop down the oak tree in Geismar because out-and-out pagans were likely not the majority in that area and because Boniface had the support of the pope in Rome and the protection of the ruling elites in the region. 

It also helped that God showed up with a miracle.

Not Common

The second salient factor to consider is that most of Boniface’s ministry was much less dramatic and much less confrontational. In his introduction to The Letters of Saint Boniface, medieval scholar Thomas F. X. Noble observes, “Spectacular events, like hacking down the oak of Geismar, appear very rarely. Missionaries were not intentionally provocative. They aimed to teach by word and example. That example was important [i.e., the fact that examples were important] to them may help to explain Boniface’s constant attention to clerical morality.” Boniface’s ministry focused more on ordinary means than extraordinary confrontations.

The story of Boniface and the oak tree is worth remembering and retelling. But a single dramatic event does not a comprehensive approach to ministry make (as if Augustine opening his Bible at random established the truest and best evangelism technique). Most of the time, Boniface tried to avoid offense, unless necessary on account of the gospel. Around the same time as the felling of Thor’s Oak, Bishop Daniel wrote Boniface a letter in which he suggests how “you may most readily overcome the resistance of those uncivilized people.” Daniel advised Boniface, “Do not begin by arguing with them about the origin of their gods.” Boniface, he insisted, would be better able to counter their claims after he let them talk awhile. Daniel also instructed Boniface that one of the best apologies for the Christian faith was to point how much more prosperous and more civilized the Christians were. 

For Bishop Daniel and for his friend Boniface, cultural confrontation was about persuasion more than provocation. Here is how Daniel summarizes his counsel in an especially famous paragraph:

These and many similar things which it would take long to enumerate you ought to put before them, not offensively or so as to anger them, but calmly and with great moderation. At intervals you should compare their superstitions with our Christian doctrines, touching upon them from the flank, as it were, so that the pagans, thrown into confusion rather than angered, may be ashamed of their absurd ideas and may understand that their infamous ceremonies and fables are well known to us.

In other words: stay calm, don’t be obnoxious, become acquainted with their own ideas, and show them how Christian doctrine is better and more coherent. That’s the approach Boniface’s mentor in England wanted him to take. And by and large, it’s the way that Boniface—the student-scholar turned missionary-bishop—conducted his ministry.


Although the example of Boniface mobilized generations of missionaries throughout the Middle Ages, Richard Fletcher points out that “Boniface actually spent little of his life working among the out-and-out heathen.” The first half of his career was in England as a student, teacher, and scholar. Then over the second half of his career, living among the Franks, Boniface worked mainly as a reformer of the marginally converted and as a builder of ecclesiastical institutions. He reinforced Roman loyalties and Roman order; he re-Christianized the nominally Christian; he reformed and revitalized the Frankish churches. “These were colossal achievements,” Fletcher argues, “but they were not those that Boniface himself would have wished to be remembered by.”

And yet, remember him we should. 

Boniface lived a remarkable life (accomplishing much for the gospel) and died a triumphant martyr’s death. It would fall to later generations to convert the heathen peoples of Germany, but the memory of Boniface inspired those efforts. We might say his principal work was reformation and revitalization. He was constantly enmeshed in organizational questions and issues of power-politics. Nevertheless, Boniface bore witness to Christ wherever he could—even at the cost of his life. 

In the end, for as much as Boniface is chiefly remembered for his axe, it was the many decades of sharing the gospel, discipling Christians, building monasteries and bishoprics, cultivating personal holiness, navigating conflict, and keeping his hand to the plow that made Boniface successful. That is the option Boniface chose for his life and ministry, and that is the option open to all of us.

For Further Study

Willibald, The Life of Saint Boniface, trans. George W. Robinson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916).

The Letters of Saint Boniface, trans. Ephraim Emerton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 204–213.

Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 276–278.

Peter Heather, Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2023), 240–253.

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Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, North Carolina and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

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