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During the nineteenth-century potato famine in Ireland, my great-grandfather, Charles Sproul, fled his native land to seek refuge in America. He left his thatched roof and mud floor cottage in a northern Ireland village and made his way barefoot to Dublin — to the wharf from which he sailed to New York. After registering as an immigrant at Ellis Island, he made his way west to Pittsburgh, where a large colony of Scots-Irish people had settled. They were drawn to that site by the industrial steel mills led by the Scot, Andrew Carnegie.
My great-grandfather died in Pittsburgh in 1910, but not until he instilled a profound love for the tradition and yore of Ireland in his sons and grandsons. Thirty years ago, one of my cousins made a pilgrimage to north Ireland to seek his roots in the town from which our great-grandfather came. As he inquired about the whereabouts of any Sprouls, he was told by an elderly gentleman that the last surviving member of our family had perished when he stumbled on his way home from the local pub in a profound state of inebriation. He fell into a canal and drowned.
This leaves us with the stereotype of the Irish as hard-drinking, two-fisted men, who consider bricks to be “Irish confetti.” This caricature of the Irish, however, obscures some very important dimensions of Irish history. In the eighth century, missionary settlers to Ireland were very important to the Christianization of the British Isles that had been inhabited largely by pagans and barbarians. The monasteries in Ireland were noted for their devotion to scholarship, for copying biblical texts, and especially for adorning the biblical texts with magnificent illuminations. Their passion for scholarship and art quickly spread to Great Britain where the codification of ancient law was established, which has made an impact even on our land to this day.
One of the most important scholars of this period was a man called Bede, known as the “Venerable.” He resided in England and is considered to be the first great European historian. The Irish also produced a masterpiece that combined scholarship and beauty in the famous Book of Kells.
But it was in the second part of the eighth century that the great impetus for a revival of scholarship took place. It was under the reign of Charles the Great (Charlemagne), crowned as the first holy Roman emperor, that a new revival of arts and sciences took place. This revival, called the “Carolingian Renaissance,” foreshadowed the great Renaissance that would sweep through Europe in the late Middle Ages, beginning chiefly with the work of the Medici patrons in Italy, which found its zenith in the labors of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
In the Holy Roman Empire of the eighth century, Charlemagne was determined to recover the best of classical and biblical learning. He became a patron of scholarship and appointed as his chief intellectual assistant Alcuin, who was from Great Britain. Charlemagne was one of the most illustrious members of the Carolingian dynasty that began with his father, Pepin the Short, and lasted until the tenth century. The Renaissance was a recovery of classical language and biblical truth. The later Renaissance at the time of the sixteenth century with its most famous personage, Erasmus of Rotterdam, found its motto in the words ad fontes, that is, “to the sources.” The motto declared the intent of the scholars of that day to return to the wellspring — “to the sources” of ancient philosophy, culture, and especially the biblical languages. So a renewed study of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, coupled with a zeal for the recovery of the biblical languages, spearheaded both the later Renaissance as well as the Carolingian Renaissance that came about under the leadership of Charlemagne.
Before the Carolingian period, Augustine, in his passion for scholarship, was convinced that it was the duty of the Christian to learn as much as possible about as many things as possible. Since all truth is God’s truth, all aspects of scientific inquiry are to be within the province of biblical and Christian learning. It was not by accident that the great discoveries of Western science were spearheaded by Christians who took seriously their responsibilities to exercise dominion over the earth in service to God. Rather than seeing learning, scholarship, and the pursuit of beauty as being ideas foreign to the Christian enterprise, the eighth-century revival, following the earlier lead of Augustine, saw a pursuit of God Himself in the pursuit of knowledge and of beauty. They saw that God is the source of all truth and of all beauty.
Throughout the centuries, Christian influences dominated the world of art as well as the world of scholarship. The legacy of this period has enriched the whole scope of Western history even to this day. It is imperative that we in the twenty-first century learn from the pioneers of the past who did not despise classical scholarship, but saw it as something to be harnessed in the service of the kingdom of God.