Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain

By Douglas Dales

A major study of the development of early English Church from a theological perspective, shedding new light on the early Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

ISBN: 9780227173411


In AD 597 St Augustine arrived at Canterbury to preach the gospel to the heathen English, and in 1997 the fourteen hundredth anniversary of his coming was celebrated by millions of English-speaking Christians around the world. The history of the evangelisation of England and of the Anglo-Saxons’ subsequent missionary expeditions elsewhere is well known, but what has been lacking has been a study of the theological perspective of the early English Church.

Douglas Dales has provided just such a work. Priest, historian and theologian, he succeeds in shedding new light on the theology of the evangelism of the British Isles and the work of missionaries to and from the British Isles in the Western church throughout the period 400-800 AD.

Although the historical value of the literary texts analysed in this book is substantial, this study gives them an inherent theological pre-eminence. This reprinted edition is thus an examination of particular people, and the beliefs they shared with those who remembered them, and who caused these texts to be written.

Through these pages, we discover that the origin of hagiographical literature in this specific area comes from a remote and singular period when the memory of the Roman era and of the church fathers was ever present. It was because of the barbarous condition that the Church faced, that the stream that fought to keep Latin Christian culture alive to nurture monastic education, missionary activity and the ascetic cultivation of sanctity remained hidden.

Topics covered include:

  • Christianity in Roman Britain
  • The Celtic Church
  • The first generation of the Roman mission
  • The church in the north to AD 740 (School of York)
  • The church in the south to AD 740 (Synod of Cloveshoe/Whitby)
  • The Anglo-Saxon missions to Europe in the 8th century

The introduction examines the sources for students of the period and the final chapter offers a theological retrospect. Specialists will find invaluable the book’s able treatment of topics as diverse as ethnic migrations and doctrinal disputes. Both experts and general readers will enjoy the memorable accounts of such figures as Martin of Tours, Columba, and Gregory the Great, ‘apostle of the English’.

Additional information

Dimensions 234 × 156 mm
Pages 208

Trade Information JPOD

About the Author

Douglas Dales is the acclaimed author of Dunstan: Saint and Statesman and Living Through Dying: The Spiritual Experience of Saint Paul. Holding degrees in history and theology, he was a priest in two parishes and is now Chaplain and Head of Religious Studies at Marlborough College.


Foreword by Benedicta Ward

I. Martin

Part 1:
II. Patrick
III. Samson and Gildas
IV. Columba and Columbanus

Part 2:
V. Augustine and Paulinus
VI. Aidan and Cuthbert
VII. Theodore and Wilfred

Part 3:
VIII. Bede
IX. Willibrord and Boniface



Endorsements and Reviews

Here a piece of serious scholarship, sound in both its history and its theology … It is lucidly and carefully presented, with an invaluable bibliography and references … It is valuable at many levels, but above all for the light it throws on missionary theology.

There is a interesting material … A useful tool for students and other academics.
The Friend

Immensely readable.
Catholic Women’s League News

… concentrate on the fascinating lives of missionaries from 400 to 800 to illustrate their thought and motivation. Dales tells his story without controversial arguments, but accessible translations of the primary sources are listed and there is a comprehensive list of modern works. He examines the theology of the early missionaries through critical analysis of their own works, letters and early lives. Not all Dales’ sources are familiar to non-specialists. Some of his subjects are interesting in that they are less well-known.
History Today

Panoramic survey of the early missions to these islands. There is much to appreciate here, not least the bringing together within one volume of this detailed newsreel footage which runs all the way from ‘British Christianity’ to the mainland continental missions of Boniface and Willibrord in the mid-eighth century. In some senses most fascinating in the British period. Dales is able to introduce us to some of the key parameters, both historically and geographically, in this early period. His treatment of the encounter of British and Roman Christianity is sympathetic and discerning. The account remains balanced throughout; the tendency towards a romantic bias or an ecclesiological bias is avoided. Dales is at his best when he is reflecting upon the spirituality and theological emphases of his written sources.
Epwerth Review

… an excellent introduction to the church history of this period. Douglas Dales is well acquainted with the original texts, but he does not merely look at these as providing historical data. Quite properly he emphasises the fact that these texts originally served theological and evangelistic purposes. He has also made use of archaeological and other material where appropriate. … Any who have been inspired by the anniversaries of Columba and Augustine in 1997 to find out more about this period of church history will find this book a very good place to start.
Mark Burkill, in The Churchman

A thoroughly scholarly account which adheres very closely to the primary sources of historical knowledge for the period. … Dales is alive to the interaction of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon dimensions of the faith in the British Isles. In an even-handed and understanding manner, he examines the saints’ motives and methods in proclaiming and living the Gospel story. His assessment of Pope Gregory the Great is first-rate. The saints’ conflicts with rulers, pagans and the forces of nature are very well portrayed, with many lessons ‘by the Way’ for the discerning reader. … The book repays careful study. If you are anxious to find a reliable overview of this foundational period of the Christian faith in the British Isles this is the book for you. There is an excellent bibliography. Mr Dales and Lutterworth Press deserve our congratulations for producing this very useful and reliable volume.
Donald E. Meek, Professor of Celtic, University of Aberdeen, in Scottish Baptist Magazine

A fascinating account.
Publishers Weekly

A clear and agreeable account, informed by much recent scholarship, of the conversion of Britain and Ireland, and the English missions to the Continent. This is history informed by theology, but theology remains in the background. A useful addition to the range of introductory guides to be recommended in that it succeeds in displaying the history of conversion in Britain and Ireland as a continuous story.
English Historical Review

Having published on the 1400th anniversary of the Augustinian mission and the death of Saint Columba, it is useful that he has placed these in a British and European perspective, and presented a hagiographical narrative in a form which is accessible for the general reader.
Ryan Lavelle, in Medieval Life