Who was Columba?
In her book Education, Ellen White writes “With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Saviour might be carried to the whole world!” Her vision was far-reaching in its scope, emphasizing not just the volume of workers that was needed but also their caliber. The work of God needs much more than an army of young workers; it needs an army rightly trained in order to accomplish the task at hand. Columba was a man who had a similar vision, an army of workers, rightly trained, to bring the message of a crucified and risen savior to the British Isles and beyond, spreading as far afield as continental Europe.
It was a big task, especially in the midst of a collective of nations mostly overrun by feuding polytheistic tribes but Columba set his mind to it and accomplished it in the span of his short 75 years on earth. His legacy can be traced in the lives of the thousands of heathen men and women who embraced Jesus as their Savior and King.
Another aspect of Columba’s legacy is found in the interest he took in investing in the lives of countless young men. Not only did he equip them with the necessary life skills to survive and thrive as missionaries in uncharted territories among heathen tribes but he also inspired them with a desire to have a deeper, more authentic relationship with Jesus. Columba also understood the key ingredients of true Christian discipleship; a life of denying self to follow Jesus and a commitment to multiplication.
And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
(2 Timothy 2:2)
Early Years and Education
Columba was born in Donegal in Ireland in 521 A.D. to parents who were of royal stock. Some accounts state that he was in line to the throne of Ireland but chose to relinquish this claim to serve God instead. At birth Columba was given two names; Crimm-Thann, meaning Wolf and Colum, meaning dove. His work as a gospel missionary later in life led to the more frequent use of the second name, Colum. He received his education under the tutelage of the some of the most prominent educators and religious leaders of his time.
Finnan of Clonard is said to have left the deepest impression on his life teaching him to place the authority of Scripture above every other authority and at the foundation of every educational pursuit. Columba was a brilliant scholar and mastered a variety of disciplines that served him well in his missionary endeavors throughout his life.
Ministry in Ireland
When he was 25 he built the church at Derry and planted a training school there in conjunction with the church, he remained here for seven years, using it as a launching pad to plant 300 churches with about 100 of these being missionary training centers as well.
Columba could have devoted himself to the pursuit of anything he chose to do, he was smart enough and well connected enough to do this and succeed but he chose to give his life completely to the work of God. It compels us to ask; what was it about Jesus that drove Columba to make the choices he did? What was it about the truth that drew him in so deeply? Does the truth have the same kind of impact on us?
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
Columba was focused, driven, hardworking, physically strong and mentally agile. While he was at Derry he also undertook the work of preaching, teaching, healing the sick and championing social justice issues on behalf of the poor. At a time when Ireland was a loose collective of warring clans, traveling the length and breadth of the Island, while navigating the political turmoil, was no mean feat but Columba commanded the respect of the various Clan chiefs to such an extent that he could do so unharmed.
He is credited with transcribing 300 copies of the new testament by hand and was also a gifted poet and hymn writer.
Reasons for Choosing Scotland
After spending seven years laboring in Ireland he set his sights on evangelizing Scotland and history attests to the impact he had among the peoples of the island by dubbing him the Apostle to the Picts. Why did he choose Scotland? Three primary reasons come to mind:
- A large part of the island, especially the territory occupied by the Picts was still pagan, which meant it was a vast, untapped mission field.
- 50 years prior his own countrymen and distant relatives of the Dalriadic clan had won part of the western portion of the country. This connection would be a great help in organizing the logistical wherewithal of evangelizing the nation.
- He saw that his missionary endeavors in Scotland could have a wider reach, stretching into England, Ireland, Wales and even the Continent.
Thou, therefore, endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ
(2 Timothy 2:3)
Beginning the Work in Scotland
Columba with 200 companions left Derry and landed in Mull Bay on the shores of Iona in 536 AD. Iona lay within the borders of the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada and the Lord of Mull Bay being one of Columba’s relatives, offered him ownership of the island when he arrived. Iona was a pioneering mission station where everything, from buildings to crops, was raised from scratch by Columba and his companions. These men were simple, humble and hardworking and taking up the challenge before them they built up an efficient, focused and driven mission station on the Island. They clearly understood the work that God has called them to do and they didn’t allow anything to distract them from it, laboring with a singleness of purpose that gave energy to everything they undertook. Meanwhile, Columba not only oversaw the establishment of Iona but also managed to evangelize the neighboring Island of Mull in his spare time, helping to convert many who lived there.
The School at Iona
The curriculum at Iona was a combination of labor and book learning. The students spent much of their time outdoors, cultivating acres of land, planting fruit orchards and gardens for other fresh produce. They cared for animals, harvested grain and did mechanical work in addition to studying. Their study curriculum focused on Greek, Latin literature and the various branches of Science with time for prayer and singing but above all else, the central focus of their education was the study of the Bible and students committed much of the Bible to memory and transcribed copies of the Bible by hand. In many ways Iona was not a monastery, it was a missionary training institute sending out workers for God to all parts of the British Isles and Europe, establishing many other educational outposts.
They did not adopt a system of hierarchical leadership instead the head of each training center was responsible for the operation and management of that center and they each looked to the other for accountability and support.
Columba spent 34 years at Iona and on the 9th of June 597 AD quietly passed to his rest. His successor was one of his ablest disciples, Baithen who continued his work and passed the torch to those who came after carrying forward the work that Columba had begun and by the grace of God seeing many in Scotland converted.
Columba’s most enduring legacy was his vision of building up an army of workers who would take the good news of the gospel wherever God called them. He not only accomplished this mission but he bequeathed it as an inheritance to those he trained, ensuring the forward momentum of the truth in the British Isles long after his death. He didn’t train his followers to embrace a life of “respectable conventionality, a life professedly Christian, yet lacking His self-sacrifice”. As Ellen White writes in Education “Those who reject the privilege of fellowship with Christ in service, reject the only training that imparts a fitness for participation with Him in His glory.”