St Augustine is one of the most important figures in Western Christianity. A theologian and philosopher from North Africa, he rose up the ranks of the early Christian church to become Bishop of Hippo and his theological works and autobiography, Confessions, have become seminal texts. His life is celebrated on his feast day, 28 August, every year.
Here are 10 facts about one of Christianity’s most revered thinkers.
1. Augustine was originally from North Africa
Also known as Augustine of Hippo, he was born in the Roman province of Numidia (modern day Algeria) to a Christian mother and a pagan father, who converted on his deathbed. It’s thought his family were Berbers, but heavily Romanized.
2. He was highly educated
The young Augustine attended school for several years, where he became acquainted with Latin literature. After showing an aptitude for his studies, Augustine was sponsored to continue his education in Carthage, where he studied rhetoric.
Despite his academic brilliance, Augustine never managed to master Greek: his first teacher had been strict and beaten his students, so Augustine rebelled and responded by refusing to study. He never managed to learn properly later in life, which he said was a deep regret. He was, however, fluent in Latin and could make comprehensive and clever arguments.
3. He travelled Italy to teach rhetoric
Augustine established a school of rhetoric in Carthage in 374, where he taught for 9 years before moving to Rome to teach there. In late 384, he was awarded a post in the imperial court in Milan to teach rhetoric: one of the most visible academic positions in the Latin world.
It was in Milan than Augustine met the Ambrose, who was then serving as the Bishop of Milan. Whilst Augustine had read and knew about Christian teachings prior to this, it was his encounters with Ambrose that helped re-evaluate his relationship with Christianity.
4. Augustine converted to Christianity in 386
In his Confessions, Augustine wrote an account of his conversion, which he described as being prompted by hearing a child’s voice say “take up and read”. When he did so, he read a passage from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, which said:
“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
He was baptised by Ambrose in Milan over Easter in 387.
5. He was ordained a priest in Hippo, and later became the Bishop of Hippo
After his conversion, Augustine turned away from rhetoric in order to focus his time and energy on preaching. He was ordained a priest in Hippo Regius (now known as Annaba, in Algeria) and later became the Bishop of Hippo in 395.
6. He preached between 6,000 and 10,000 sermons in his lifetime
Augustine worked tirelessly to convert the people of Hippo to Christianity. During his lifetime, it’s believed he preached some 6,000-10,000 sermons, of which 500 are still accessible today. He was known for speaking for up to an hour at a time (often several times a week) and his words would have been transcribed as he spoke.
The goal of his work was ultimately to minister to his congregation and to encourage conversions. Despite his newfound status, he lived a relatively monastic life and believed his life’s work was ultimately to interpret the Bible.
7. He was said to have worked miracles in his last days
In 430, the Vandals invaded Roman Africa, besieging Hippo. During the siege, Augustine was said to have miraculously healed an ill man.
He died during the siege, on 28 August, spending his final days absorbed in prayer and doing penance. When the Vandals finally broke into the city, they burned almost everything, apart from the library and cathedral Augustine had built.
8. The doctrine of original sin was formulated in large part by Augustine
The idea that humans are inherently sinful – something which has been passed on to us ever since Adam and Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden – was something largely formulated by St Augustine.
Augustine effectively designated human sexuality (carnal knowledge) and ‘fleshy desires’ as sinful, arguing that conjugal relations within a Christian marriage was a means of redemption and an act of grace.
9. Augustine is venerated by Protestants and Catholics
Augustine was recognised as a Doctor of the Church in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII and is considered to be the patron saint of theologians, printers and brewers. Whilst his theological teachings and philosophical thoughts have helped shape Catholicism, Augustine is also considered by Protestants to be one of the theological fathers of the Reformation.
Martin Luther held Augustine in great regard and was a member of the Order of the Augustinian Eremites for a period. Augustine’s teachings on salvation in particular – which he believed was by God’s divine grace rather than being bought through the Catholic Church – resonated with Protestant reformers.
10. He is one of the most important figures in Western Christianity
The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote:
“Augustine’s impact on Western Christian thought can hardly be overstated.”
Influenced by Greek and Roman philosophers, Augustine helped shape and create some of Western Christianity’s key theological ideas and doctrines, including those around original sin, divine grace and virtue. He is remembered today as one of the key theologians in Christianity, alongside St Paul.