Journey to the End of the Earth
A Reformation Pilgrimage to Iona
The isle of my heart, the isle of my love
Instead of a monk’s voice shall be the lowing of cattle,
But before the world comes to an end
Iona shall flourish as before.
“The first thing I am going to do when we get to the island is to kiss the ground.”
He was a young man in his early twenties when Joe uncovered the truth behind an ancient mountain legend. He had heard tales of mysterious rock scribblings hidden in the West Virginia foothills, but after consulting with some of the old-timers in the know, he was determined to search them out for himself. His quest ultimately took him to what the locals mistakenly called “Indian scratchings”.
Dated at more than a thousand years, the scratchings proved to be the Ten Commandments written in the ancient language of the Culdees — a people group dating back to the early days of Celtic Christianity in Scotland. The growth of Culdee Christianity can be attributed in large part as a result of the mission work of a Christian evangelist and teacher named Columba who settled the Island of Iona in 563 AD.
If the scratchings were authentic and the analysis accurate, the logical conclusion was that the same missionaries who once sent a Gospel message throughout the British Isles may have reached the North American continent over a millennium ago.
In the decades that have passed since the discovery of the Ten Commandments scratchings, young Joe has emerged as Dr. Joseph Morecraft, one of Reformed Christianity’s leading scholars of Church history. Now, after the better part of a lifetime dreaming about a visit to Iona, Joe’s dream was about to come true.
Though Iona is not technically the end of the earth, it certainly felt like it to the more than one hundred American pilgrims who came as part of the Vision Forum Ministries 2008 Faith and Freedom Tour, traveling from the United States, across the Atlantic, through England to Scotland, and on this day rose during the early hours of the morning to trek from the Northern Highlands, down through Oban, across the mossy Isle of Mull, to the Ross of Mull where they boarded a ship and sailed to what is perhaps the most important island in the history of Christendom.
It was here that Columba built a Christian religious center and missionary outpost in 563 AD from which the light of the Gospel would shine throughout the world. Here the Bible was preserved, the famous Book of Kells penned, and missionaries were trained. Here a school of theology was created, and a form of church government with plural and equal elders was established. Here missions were launched throughout Great Britain and probably to the remote parts of the world. Here church leaders would take a formal stand against what they saw as the rising tyranny of the “Bishop of Rome.” Here Christians would declare that the Bible, not foreign prelates, would dictate their worship — all of this in the late sixth, seventh, and early eighth century AD.
And all of this came to pass through the work of a dragon-confronting, former warrior-turned preacher named Columba. The great church historian, J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, explained it thus:
It was the Holy Ghost, Columba maintained, that made a servant of God. When the youth of Caledonia assembled around the elders on these savage shores, or in their humble chapel, these ministers of the Lord would say to them: “The Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith. Throw aside all merit of works, and look for salvation to the grace of God alone. Beware of a religion which consists of outward observances: it is better to keep your heart pure before God than to abstain from meats. One alone is your head, Jesus Christ. Bishops and presbyters are equal; they should be the husbands of one wife, and have their children in subjection.”
God used Columba’s passion to fan the flames of evangelism and Gospel reformation. Columba brought the Gospel, but he also brought the law of God which meant that once-heathen nations had to abandon pagan barbarism and embrace principles like the “Law of the Innocents” which was designed to prot ect women and children. Columba brought Christ, and with Christ came Christian culture.
For these reasons, Iona became the spiritual center of the British Isles and the final resting place of kings. In fact, more kings of diverse nations are buried on Iona — on a plot of land no more than a few acres in size — than in any other single location in the world: 48 Scottish kings, 8 Norwegian kings, 4 Irish kings, and a king of France are buried in the graveyard which was once peppered with legions of giant funeral stones bearing the images of Viking-like vessels, knights in armor, and enormous two-handed swords. Time, pilfering, and even archeological recovery efforts (especially in the last two hundred years) have modified the look of the graveyard, but it remains a location of supreme mystery and wonder.
One cannot but help to imagine traveling more than a millennium into the past and standing as an observer to the arrival of great funeral barges on the rocky shores, approaching Columba’s home with royal ceremony and procession as Kenneth I, Donald II, Malcolm I or the famed Macbeth — all kings of the Scots — were laid to rest on the sacred spot where the leaders of the known world hoped to await the Resurrection.
Disembarking the barge that dropped us on shore, we set foot on Iona. It felt like a beach landing as the door of the vessel opened up like a Higgins Craft at Normandy. But, for this arrival, there was no one to greet us but the gulls and the occasional bleating of sheep in the distance. So we journeyed up an old path to the first of the island’s ancient stone structures.
First, with cane in hand, and later pushed by a wheeled chair, Dr. Morecraft made his way, always surrounded by a regiment of young men hopeful to glean historical pearls from the lips of the great patriarch or to see him kiss his beloved Iona.
Reaching over to the first of a series of “Gilgal” stones, Dr. Joe Morecraft offered a lifetime’s worth of thanks as he knew best — he kissed it!
As every Scot knows, Iona is a wee island no more than three and a half miles in length and one in breadth. The sound which separates Iona from the Ross of Mull is a mile itself. A traveler to Iona in 1850 described it thus:
The greater part of the island consists of a labyrinth of craggy rocks intersected by ravines with patches of heathery pasture and boggy soil. The south and west of the coast is a bold, rugged cliff of granite, worn into innumerable fissures and caves by the incessant action of the waves of the Atlantic which scarcely ever cease to roar and dash themselves over the rocky barrier.
Today, one hundred and twenty souls live on the island, along with quite a few sheep. You can walk toward the interior for the better part of a mile down an old path and pass the rustic habitation of a 93-year-old man who sells home-grown honey for one quid a bottle. He sells the Ionan honey using a “trust-box”, leaving it in a container where the typical landlubbers mailbox would be kept. A half a mile further, his nearest neighbor uses a similar trust-box to sell the occasional tourist samples of the famous Ionan marble, noted for its beautiful green and white patterns.
Back by the landing, at a spot called Martyrs’ Bay, there is a charming local restaurant where they serve a first rate Scotch pie, and, of course, Iron Brew, the national soft drink of Scotland. The restaurant is yards from the spot where sixty-eight Christians were murdered in 806 AD by plundering Vikings. Not far from there is an sometimes-open, inconspicuous little stone building that is home to a small, but first-rate antiquarian book shop that specializes in the Christian history of Iona and ancient paganism. (Warning: Do not enter this shop unless you are prepared to spend at least an hour or two uncovering the mysteries and glories of unusual old books.)
But apart from these few signs of the modern world, Iona feels exactly as one expects it should: quiet, forbidding, ancient, sacred, and largely un-peopled.
Before Columba, Iona was an island of pagan priests called Druids, and before the Druids — well, we just don’t know. What we do know is that Christianity probably did reach the British Isles as a whole before the end of the first century, thanks in part to the Roman Empire. By the second century, Christianity had definitely made inroads into this region, as D’Aubigne explained:
It is certain that the tidings of the Son of Man, crucified and raised again during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, later spread through these islands more rapidly than the dominion of the emperors, and that before the end of the second century, many churches worshipped Christ beyond the walls of [H]adrian.
It was about A.D. 200 that Tertullian wrote: “Parts of Britain which were unconquerable and unapproachable by the Roman armies yielded…to Christ.”
But if there was any Christian history to the Island of Iona before the arrival of Columba in 563, it has been lost to the ravages of time. For all intents and purposes, Ionan history begins with Columba.
But today, the original buildings of Columba are gone. The oldest structure on the island is not its most iconic feature, the Abbey built around 1200, but the older Chapel of Oran, adjacent to the graveyard of the kings.
At the Chapel of Oran, Dr. Morecraft and I speak to the group for the first time since landing at Iona. We will be joined by historian Bill Potter and later by balladeer, Charlie Zahm, who will present a concert of historical and sacred songs in the Abbey.
But there at Oran’s Chapel, the story begins to unfold: It is a tale of Picts, Vikings, Druids and Christians, and of a courageous missionary who confronted dragons in the name of the Messiah. It is the story of intense theological conflict between proto-Protestants and the leadership of the Roman Church. It is the chronicle of a remarkable group of Christians called the Culdees who will preserve the simple Gospel message for centuries in providential preparation of a great reformation of Church and state to take place a thousand years after Columba. And it is the story of how courage and Gospel hope launched a thousand ships and changed the world.