I was recently able to record a two-part lecture series that covers the basics of Baptist beliefs and history. These were done as prerecorded services at Faith Baptist Church in Decatur, TX, during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have given these lectures a few times and hope that they will be a blessing to others.
Unless you are a student of Baptist History then you may have not run across the theory that Saint Patrick was a Baptist. W.A. Criswell preached an entire sermon about it in 1958 and if you do a Google search you will find many blogs presenting arguments for and against. I would like to give you my opinion.
Who was Patrick?
According to the Confession, Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the 4th or 5th century A.D. He says his father was a “deacon” (Latin diaconum) and his grandfather a “priest” (Latin presbyteri) but that Patrick was not a believer in his youth. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of sixteen and escaped home six years later. He began to study and train for the ministry.
Patrick famously returned to Ireland as a missionary. Details of his work there are fragmentary. The more famous aspects of his ministry you hear today, namely using a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity and banishing snakes from the island, are most certainly legends with no fact behind them.
What impact did Patrick have? In his own words:
“How has this happened in Ireland? Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks [Latin monachi] and virgins of Christ!” – Confession, Paragraph 41
Why Doubt that Patrick was Catholic?
A few reasons:
The first is one of Chronology. The Roman Catholic church was not yet the dominant power that it would become in the coming centuries. A compelling case can be made that the ministry of Patrick was retroactively adopted by Rome.
The second is the Language. Some of the words he used in Latin can have loaded meanings when translated to modern terms. Take the Latin word presbyteri that he uses as the office that his grandfather held. Most scholars seem to translate this as priest but it could be term for an elder or presbyter in the church. If you believe Patrick to be Catholic, you would translate it priest with little thought to other possible meanings. These ecclesiastical terms can have multiple meaning across denominations, traditions, regions, and centuries.
The third is Practice. Patrick seems to have only baptized adult candidates and there are no references to him performing infant baptism. He never speaks of other Catholic hallmarks such as the Eucharist or Confession. Admittedly, there are few things, such as the women who become virgins for Christ (nuns?), that are closer to Catholicism by today’s standards. However the bulk of Patrick’s ministry does not match up well with Catholic practice.
The fourth is Theology. Patrick’s writings we have today do not contain core Catholic teachings. He makes many allusions to Scripture prove that he had an intimate knowledge of the Bible. A couple of quotes that illustrate the Gospel he preached:
“It was there [Ireland] that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance. He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil. He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.” – Confession, Paragraph 2
“These are not my own words which I have put before you in Latin; they are the words of God, and of the apostles and prophets, who have never lied. ‘Anyone who believes will be saved; anyone who does not believe will be condemned’ – God has spoken.” – Epistle, Paragraph 20
So, was Patrick a Baptist?
I personally don’t think so. But I also don’t think he was a Catholic.
The earliest centuries of Christian history or difficult to navigate. We try to categorize people or movements based on modern thought or denominations but that has many shortcomings. Patrick doesn’t fit the mold of Catholicism, but neither does he quite fit the mold of Baptists.
I think its best to let men like Patrick be themselves and speak for themselves. What is evident is that the actions of Patrick radically reshaped the history of Ireland and helped turn its people from paganism to Christianity. From his own testimony it sounds to me like he preached the true Gospel. Therefore, it seems that God greatly used Patrick and that his testimony and missionary example are still relevant today.