One of the first church historians is Bede, or, as he is also known, the Venerable Bede. What does it mean to be “venerable”? It is a title that is used in Roman Catholicism. It’s applied to holy people who are not quite saints. Bede is not a saint, but he’s not quite average either. He’s venerable. And he was a church historian.
Bede was born in 672, and he died in 735. As a young child, at just age seven, he was placed into an abbey, and he spent the rest of his life in monasteries. As a very intelligent young child, he showed promise, and he mastered languages very quickly. This was at a time when very few people were educated, but he knew Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. He was very capable at teaching and writing. He was even good at singing and writing hymns. All told, he wrote more than sixty books.
One of his books was titled A Book of Hymns, and it was written in several sorts of meter. He wrote a book called A Book of Epigrams in heroic verse. He also wrote Of the Nature of Things and Of the Nature of Time. In that last book, interestingly, he didn’t invent the words anno Domini or the abbreviation AD or the tradition by which we refer to history in terms of Christ, but he used AD so prominently in that book that he’s credited as the one who originated the term.
Of all those sixty books, the one that makes him stand out as an historian is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This history begins in 55 BC with Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, and it goes right up to AD 730. He wrote it from 729 into the early years of the 730s at the request of a king. If a king asks you to write a book, well, you should probably write a book.
In researching the book, he traveled to other monasteries and found important documents. He found the correspondence between Gregory the Great and Augustine. This was not Augustine of Hippo, who wrote The Confessions. This was Britain’s Augustine, Augustine of Canterbury, who was a Christian missionary to Britain. Bede found a correspondence between him and Pope Gregory the Great, and he incorporated it into his book. It was a well-researched, well-documented book covering the history of the church in England.
The book begins with these words: “Britain, an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion, is situated between the north and west, facing, though at a considerable distance, the coasts of Germany, France, and Spain, which form the greatest part of Europe. It extends 800 miles in length towards the north and is 200 miles in breadth, except where several promontories extend further in breadth.” That’s his description of Britain, but he was not primarily interested in describing Britain; he was interested in the church history of this island in the middle of the ocean and how the church came to Britain. If you’d like to read more, you’ll need to track down Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People to learn all about the history of the church in England during those early centuries.
Bede closes this book with a prayer. He says, “And now I beseech Thee, good Jesus, that to whom Thou hast graciously granted sweetly to partake of the words of Thy wisdom and knowledge, Thou wilt also vouchsafe that he may some time or other come to Thee, the Fountain of all wisdom, and always appear before Thy face, who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.”