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Redeeming a Painful Past: St. Patrick, African Americans, and Slavery

Jemar Tisby
It’s hard to tease fact from fantasy when it comes to St. Patrick.  So as I was researching the life of Patrick I was astonished to find that he had been a slave.  Not only had he been a slave, but he later returned to the land of his captivity to evangelize his enslavers!

The Life of Patrick

Debate remains about the exact birth date of Patrick, but most historians agree he ministered in the latter half of the 5th century A.D.  He was not Irish by birth.  Instead he was born in the Roman province of Britain.  During his mid-teens a band of raiders pillaged his hometown and kidnapped him.  The marauders sold Patrick into slavery in Ireland where he herded pigs and other animals.

[pullquote]But Patrick’s physical enslavement led to his spiritual liberation.[/pullquote]  Although he had been exposed to the Gospel growing up (his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest) it was during the countless hours of solitude tending the animals that Patrick surrendered his life to Christ.  In his Confessions, Patrick writes, “The Lord opened the understanding of my unbelief, that, late as it was, I might remember my faults and turn to the Lord my God with all my heart.”

Patrick remained a slave for six years until he heard the voice of God telling him to make his escape.  Patrick walked 200 miles to a port and boarded a ship back home. He was soon reunited with his family, and it was there God gave him a Macedonian call back to Ireland.  One night he heard a voice saying, “Please, holy boy, come and walk among us again.”

After many delays, Patrick returned to Ireland, the land of his captivity, and began one of the most effective missionary campaigns in history.  He baptized thousands of rough, Irish pagans, and planted hundreds of churches.  In so doing, he changed the course of Irish religious history and remains one of the foremost missionaries Christ has ever called.

[pullquote position=”right”]Patrick used his history as a slave to become a more effective minister of the Gospel. [/pullquote] In a similar way, African Americans can use their painful history in America to become more impactful ambassadors for Christ.

Patrick’s life demonstrates that a crushing past can help you become a more effective minister of the Gospel in at least three ways.

A Heart that Understands the Other

First, Patrick’s experience as a slave helped him understand “the other.”  Even though his enslavers may have learned little about him, Patrick absorbed the culture of his captors.  He learned Irish culture, language, music tastes, style of dress, core concerns, and religious beliefs.  So when the Lord called Patrick to proclaim the Gospel among the Irish, he was well-prepared for the task because he understood the people.

African Americans, too, have the privilege of understanding the other.  Slaves had to conform to the culture of their masters in order to survive.  Once the slaves were freed, they were still minorities in a majority culture dominated by Whites.  African Americans have had to learn the customs and values of people unlike themselves in order to get accepted to college, earn jobs, make social connections and otherwise maneuver in America.

[pullquote]The ability to see through the lens of another people is one advantage that a painful experience can give.[/pullquote]  The powerless must learn how to interact with the powerful.  This gives the person with less power more experience with viewing situations from another’s perspective and translating truth in a way people different from them can understand.

An Unexplainable Love

Second, the kind of love Patrick had for his enslavers can only be explained by the Gospel.  There is no rational reason why a former slave would go back to the land of his captivity and dedicate the rest of his life to ensuring that he would spend eternity in Heaven with his enslavers.

But the power of the Gospel overcame any bitterness Patrick may have felt toward his captors and moved him to an improbable love for them.  [pullquote position=”right”]Patrick’s heart was broken for the lost just as Christ’s heart is broken for the lost.[/pullquote]  And Patrick’s horrid history with his enslavers did not stop him from forgiving them and proclaiming Christ to them.

The history between African Americans and Whites in America is just as problematic as Patrick’s past with the Irish.  Although it’s been generations since slavery was legal, those who experienced Jim Crow segregation are still living and breathing.  Even in the present day, our nation’s churches remain divided along racial lines.  At times it can seem as if Blacks and Whites may never come together in a meaningful, lasting way.

[pullquote]Yet the Gospel shatters the shackles of the past and unleashes uncommon love for ones enemies.[/pullquote] When the world sees Blacks and Whites worshiping together across racial lines, knowing the history between the two groups, they see a supernatural love that can only be explained by the Good News of Jesus Christ. So one’s painful experiences can actually be an opportunity to bear witness to the hate-halting love of the Savior.

An Ability to Empathize

Third, a former slave or the descendants of slaves often have a perspective that comes from the underside of life.  As a slave Patrick knew what hardship was like.  He probably shivered in the cold under a thin cloak as he herded swine.  His stomach grumbled at the scents of food wafting down to him from the main house.  He, no doubt, prayed as one whose life depended on it.  As long as Patrick remembered that experience he would be able to empathize with others who suffered.  When he proclaimed the Gospel it would have had come laced with the honesty and authenticity of one who has been abased.

African Americans, too, can use their history to empathize with others who suffer.  In this country and around the world there are people who have been pushed to margins of society.  Whether among the lowest caste of people in India or the poorest of the poor in the favelas of Brazil, whole groups of people are living in the midst of tribulation.

[pullquote position=”right”]Many African Americans have an experiential wisdom when it comes to suffering in society.[/pullquote]  As a people, Blacks know the desperation, despair, and doubt that comes with being disenfranchised.  Yet they can also speak of the hope, happiness, and help that comes from a Savior who is powerful enough to redeem their most heinous experiences.


Patrick’s life of missionary service to the people who enslaved him demonstrates how God can use a bitter past to redeem the present and provide a better future.  Like Patrick, African Americans carry a the burden of a distressing history in this country.  Yet these same burdens can be turned into benefits by the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Discussion Question: What experiences does your nation or culture have that can be redeemed to make you a more effective Gospel minister?

2 thoughts on “Redeeming a Painful Past: St. Patrick, African Americans, and Slavery

  1. Anonymous

    I am not African or American, I am that Copper/aka Black Seminole that you left out of your history books purposely. We come in all shades except pale.

  2. Terry

    It is also worth noting that Patrick was also an earlier abolitionist. He wrote “A Letter to The Soldiers of Coroticus” condemning the practice of slave raids.

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