Aiden was born around 590 AD in Ireland and from a young age was a part of the training school at Iona. He was called by God to take the gospel to the Anglo-Saxon tribes of the British Heptarchy. The Heptarchy was a collective of seven kingdoms ruled by the Anglo-Saxons for 600 years and was made up of the kingdoms of Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Kent.
While he was a student at Iona, Aiden was exposed to different people and cultures from all over the then known world. Iona was a haven of refuge and rest to many travelers who passed through the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada and these visitors shared their stories with the many young students at the university there. Among these visitors were fugitives and slaves from the kingdoms of the British Heptarchy and it was from them that Aiden would have learned about the social and religious life of these kingdoms.
Aiden’s call to evangelize Northumbria and the surrounding nations began with the death of Aethelfrith King of Bernicia. Aethelfrith was the father of Oswald, who would later become king of the united nations of Deira and Bernicia, consolidated under the name of Northumbria. Upon the death of Aethelfirth, an exiled member of the kingdom of Deira came to the throne and Oswald and his brother fled to the north and found refuge in the kingdom of Dalriada, spending much of their time on the island of Iona at the university there. It was here that Oswald was converted to Christianity and when, after the battle at Heavenfield against Cadwallon ap Cadfan King of Gwynedd, he took back the throne of Northumbria, Iona was still close to his heart.
Once he had established his rule over the kingdom, Oswald sent messages to Iona asking them to send a missionary to evangelize the kingdom of Northumbria. Interestingly Oswald’s father Aethelfrith had already been evangelized by Paulinus, the Catholic bishop of Kent, but after Aethlefirths death the kingdom had lapsed back into paganism. Oswald passed over Paulius and looked to the missionaries at Iona to bring the gospel back to his kingdom.
The first student that was sent struggled against the challenges that faced him in a decidedly pagan field of labor populated by rough and warlike Anglo-Saxon warriors. He returned to Iona unwilling to go back to Northumbria and it was at this point that Aiden stepped into the gap and took up the work. Upon his arrival at the court of Oswald, Aiden was granted the island of Lindisfarne to establish a missionary center and here, using the work at Iona as a blueprint, he built up a missionary training school focused on evangelizing the Kingdoms of the Pagan Anglo-Saxons with true Bible religion.
In her book “The Ministry of Healing” Ellen White writes “There is an eloquence far more powerful than the eloquence of words in the quiet, consistent life of a pure, true Christian. What a man is, has more influence than what he says.” Aiden’s life fits this description in every respect. He was a man of deep piety who spent countless hours on his knees in quiet communion with God and yet he was also a man of energetic action, pouring out his life for the blessing and benefit of those around him.
He spent much of his time traveling throughout Northumbria and neighboring kingdoms taking the gospel with him wherever he went. He was deeply invested in the work he engaged in and it consumed him to the exclusion of all else. Not only did he preach the gospel but he spent time ministering to the needs of the poor and championing the cause of Slaves. He preached the gospel to princes and paupers alike and his life had as much, if not more, of a convincing influence than his words.
“It is our own character and experience that determine our influence upon others.” Ellen White continues in “The Ministry of Healing”, “ In order to convince others of the power of Christ’s grace, we must know its power in our own hearts and lives. The gospel we present for the saving of souls must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved” The life of Aiden had such a powerful, transformative influence on the people around him, testifying to the fact that the gospel that he preached for the saving of other men’s souls was the gospel by which his own soul was saved.
When Augustine came to Kent in 597 armed with Catholicism and orders from Pope Gregory to proselytize Kent, his modus operandi was to lull people into a state of almost unconscious submission. He and his monks didn’t destroy the pagan temples of the Saxons, instead, they just sprinkled some holy water over them baptizing them, idols and all, as part of the Holy Roman Church. The Saxons were encouraged to worship the true God in their pagan temples and to exchange their polytheism for the worship of saints, which essentially was the worship of the same gods under different names. This form of Baptised paganism drew Ethelbert of Kent in and the entire kingdom of Kent submitted to another form of the same religion they had embraced all along. In direct contrast to this was the method used by Aiden in Northumbria and other places.
The first thing he did was to establish a training school where students could come from all quarters of the kingdom to be trained in the study of the scriptures.
His own life was a living example of the kind of spiritual experience such study would produce. He didn’t water down the truth but presented it to his hearers in such a way that drew them to embrace it and incorporate it into their daily lives. The social fabric of Northumbria was deeply influenced by the work at Lindisfarne because the lives of the people, that were the threads of that fabric, were transformed by that same work.
In his book “What’s wrong with the world”, G.K. Chesterton writes “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult; and left untried”. To the Augustinian monks it was easier to baptize paganism than attempt its conversion but to Aiden, it was far more satisfying to convert paganism by the power of primitive godliness than to sanctify it by the sprinkling of water. To Aiden, the Christian ideal had been tried and found to be all it claimed to be and this was the secret of his success.
Aiden labored for 17 years and was succeeded by Finnan who was succeeded by Coleman. The focus of the Celtic Church in England was not to centralize their work in a single ecclesiastical capital but to be a diffusive influence throughout the Kingdoms of the Heptarchy by planting numerous mission stations wherever they had a missionary presence.
The most definitive thing about Aiden was the powerful influence he exerted over the lives of all who came into contact with him. He had an authentic experience with Jesus and it showed in every area of his life, challenging everyone around him to not only long for something more but to also pursue it, wholeheartedly.