To be sure, Christianity in the West is showing signs of worldly wear and tear. According to many reliable sources, our numbers are dwindling, our historical churches are being shuttered, and our Gospel message is rarely heralded as boldly as it once was. The future of the Christian faith, it seems, is in question. And yet did you know that there are over 1,000 centuries-old trees throughout the United Kingdom whose symbolic strength and longevity still preach on the everlasting nature of Christ’s kingdom and remind us that God is still on His throne?
For hundreds of years, the European yew tree has been an enigmatic, but familiar presence within the hallowed confines of many old churchyards across the British Isles. These striking trees, with their sprawling limbs and green needle-like leaves, have been a constant companion to the faithful believers of Britannia since the days when the Roman Empire still ruled over that rugged northern province. Today, these churchyard yews, over 1,500 by recent count, are acknowledged as an enduring British symbol of Christendom. Out of that number, around 250 are considered national treasures due to their incredible age and size, like the Crowhurst Yew in Surrey or the Fortingall Yew of Scotland.
Often surrounded by mossy tombstones and ivy-covered walls, these famous yew trees have been established over the years as the official pastoral attendant to the stone churches, medieval abbeys and parish kirks found scattered throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Indeed many generations of Christians have walked past these grand old evergreens as they gathered for Sunday worship in their nearby sanctuaries, or gazed at them through tear-stained eyes as they buried their dead in graves deliberately plotted around the yew’s steadfast trunk.
THE YEW’S CHRISTIAN HERITAGE
Romantic legends would have us believe that these particular yews have a pagan origin that pre-dates the churchyards in which they are found, but there is little hard evidence to prove that claim. According to recent scientific research by the Ancient Yew Group, only a “relatively few” of these churchyard trees can be categorized as pre-Christian. This myth, they say, is an “exaggeration that has its roots in Victorian guidebooks and wishful local histories.”
As AYG founder Toby Hindson discovered through his investigation, “Many of our oldest churchyard yews were planted around the time of the original Christian consecration of the churchyards in which they stand. Such ‘consecration yews’ are integral to their site, and stand as witness to all that has happened at the church of which they are part, familiar to all who ever set foot there.”
The age or pedigree of the churchyard yew, therefore, is an issue of little consequence. With the passage of time these trees have become an enduring landmark deeply rooted in the bedrock of Christianity. The only real mystery that remains is why the church planters of old were so enamored with this particular species of conifer? Why did Christians plant and carefully cultivate the yew as a silent ward of their church gardens? And for what great purpose did they do so? The answer may be one that even the yews’ original caretakers could not have anticipated.
Some secular historians believe the churchyard yews are nothing more than a botanical prescription to provide shelter from the harsh wind and rain, or were planted solely for their ability to absorb the odorous gases of decomposition that might escape from the nearby graves. To dismiss these special evergreens as mere fixtures of British practicality, however, is to underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit in the daily lives of the Christian. Seen through the eyes of faith, the yew tree soon transcends the mundane and embodies a biblical symbolism that cannot be ignored when placed in such a religiously-charged setting among ancestral believers.
THE YEW AS A CHRISTIAN SYMBOL
Indeed, the higher purpose for the planting of the yew in such prominence among Christians was, quite simply, as an elegant stamp of remembrance upon their consecrated properties. The long-lived yew tree, they discovered, provided the perfect symbol gleaned from God’s creation to represent the idea of everlasting life. This planting, they hoped, would be a striking visual token that could provoke the memory of a powerful biblical truth: the reality of eternal life through the person and work of Jesus Christ. In fact, a Church of England clergyman verified this historic biblical purpose when he penned this interesting observation way back in 1656: “Our forefathers were particularly careful in preserving churchyard yews which by reason of their perpetual verdure (i.e. greenness) were emblematical… of the immortality of the soul.”
Tony Hall, senior arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens, pinpoints the unique nature of the yew that drives its Christian symbolism. “Unlike Britain’s four other native evergreens,” he writes, “the yew has a remarkable trait that even today is quite astonishing. A hollow yew is able to regenerate itself by producing new roots from its centre. These roots grow down into the ground to feed and strengthen the ageing tree, stabilising it and prolonging its survival, enabling the tree to continue life long after many other trees would have perished. With this exceptional quality, it is understandable that the yew was revered as a symbol of long life, rebirth and regeneration…”
The planting of the “eternal” yew, therefore, was not an accidental by-product of utilitarianism, but a dynamic scriptural emblem brought into view. Long ago, from the earliest days of Christianity, symbols were created by believers to serve as visual markers for the stirring, intellectual propagation of many key doctrines of the Gospel. Following the lead of inspired Scripture where revelation was often presented in metaphor, the Church soon adopted the use of simple symbols as a mark of Christian identification which could hearken back to a particular biblical truth.
Evidence of the deliberate use of symbols by Christians can be found as early as the first century in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, one of the Church’s first theologians. “Let our seals,” he instructed believers, “be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device.” And the purpose of this instruction? Because, as Clement wrote, “if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water.” In this hallowed tradition, how quickly one is reminded of Jesus calling His disciples, “fishers of men,” as recorded in Mark 1:16-18.
Likewise, the long-lived yew tree with its regenerative root system and dogged resilience was soon established by faithful Brits as a symbol to give hope and comfort to believers as a potent reminder (especially among the graves of those who had passed on) of the resurrection of the body and the promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. This was the churchyard yew’s silent sermon for many centuries, and one which was perfectly suited for the rapid spread of the Gospel in a rugged ancient land where hardship and death were a constant theme.
THE YEW IN THE CRUMBLING CHURCHYARD
Today, the churchyard yew can still speak to Christians, but in a way more suited to the challenging times we live in. These days, with the temporal decline of Christianity in the UK and in the West abroad, the once-prominent churchyards are disappearing from the modern landscape. One might wonder, therefore, if the yew can still strike a spiritual chord when they have lost their physical connection to the historical centers of Christian service and worship that have fallen by the wayside.
The sorry truth is, many of the age-old church gardens encircling these emblematic trees have been abandoned, in one way or another, by their original Christian benefactors. Over the centuries, the venerable church buildings and much of their iron-fenced properties have been re-appropriated for civil use or victimized by years of neglect: scourged by the elements and overtaken by corrosion and wild brush. Even the honorable old graveyards have been devoured by the effects of time; the yews’ ever-expanding trunks have slowly engulfed the weathered tombstones, and their wandering roots have burrowed deep into the earth and become entangled in the skeletal remains below.
Garland Tucker, writing in the National Review, saw for himself the dry bones of Christianity’s fading glory in the U.K: “In Scotland, the landscape is littered with beautiful old churches that have fallen into disrepair or been recycled into some secular service. I had barely set foot on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh before being confronted with a magnificent stone church which now serves as the ‘Visitor Information Center.’ Farther down the road were several equally handsome churches offered for sale and several serving as retail establishments. Only St. Giles Cathedral remained — but as a sort of museum to the rich Scottish religious history…”
Recent statistics, in fact, back up Mr. Tucker’s observations. In a 2019 survey by the National Centre for Social Research, only 38 percent of Britons labeled themselves as Christians, down from 50 percent in 2008 and in stark contrast to the 66 percent reported in 1983. Christianity in the UK is in pronounced decline, and according to similar US statistics, the visible Church in America isn’t far behind. So what does all this mean for the famous churchyard yews and their Christian symbolism? Have they lost their biblical message for our day?
On the contrary, one can say with guidance from God’s sacred word. Now more than ever, the churchyard yew hearkens back to our Lord’s parable of the seed that becomes “larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:30-32). Here, writes R.C. Sproul, “the Lord emphasizes the mysterious, unseen growth of the kingdom according to the good pleasure of God and the patient expectation of faithful servants who plant as He has ordained.”
THE YEW’S NEW BIBLICAL SYMBOLISM
The churchyard yew, therefore, is a fitting picture of God’s everlasting kingdom in the midst of a fallen world. Alive and still growing, it stands in stark contrast to the nearby Christian estates where “moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). Despite our best intentions, our bright-steepled chapels and vibrant gardens, once a beacon of religious influence and affluence, are passing away as part of the “form of this world” (1 John 2:17). This is to be expected, of course, for they were never meant by God to serve as a permanent marker for the presence and power of His kingdom (2 Corinthians 4:18). This is why our Lord told the Samaritan woman that true worship is not ascribed to an earthbound place, but rather “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:21-24).
Why then do we look to our material achievements for Christian assurance? Doing so only makes it harder for us to grasp the transcendent nature of God’s kingdom as a far superior thing to the religious ornaments of this world. Indeed Jesus Christ told us quite clearly, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Even pragmatic Pontius Pilate, when he heard this claim, understood Jesus’ statement to be a spiritual matter outside of any geographical or political construct. The apostle Paul, in fact, emphasized the kingdom’s highest attributes as those ethereal elements which lie outside the carnal realm when he wrote: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17).
As believers, therefore, our only “real” assurance is found in Jesus Christ and His spiritual kingdom, and not in any evidence of high regard or status in this world. As a matter of fact, we know that we will be hated and mocked by the world (as our Savior was) because we, like Christ, place our faith in the unseen (John 15:18-19). And why is our faith focused like this? Because we know the kingdom of God, though sometimes hard to discern by worldly standards, is the ultimate reality of His eternal presence and power. As Professor David J. Engelsma argues:
“It is not fantastic, imaginary, and ghostly, like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, or J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle earth, or J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is a real kingdom. It is present in the world, exercising its tremendous power, creating and empowering its citizens, advancing and enlarging with invincible force, destroying the weapons and defenses of its enemies. So real is the kingdom of God to us who have been translated into it by being begotten from above, so that we now have the spiritual sight of faith to see it, that the kingdom of God is the solid, substantial reality, whereas all earthly kingdoms are frail, fleeting shadows.”
This, then, is what makes the churchyard yew so compelling for us today. In a staggering foresight of the Spirit, these “everlasting” trees are still preaching from God’s word even if the nearby churchyards lie in rubble. These botanical marvels remind us that the breadth, length, depth, and height of God’s love is not subject to the corrupting influences of this fallen world. Like the churchyard yew, God’s spiritual kingdom has the uncanny ability to grow and expand its root system far and wide, even when the world proclaims that it is dead because its heartwood is hollowed out or its continued growth is imperceptible to the naked eye. This, of course, is the folly of man when they mock our lowly status in the world because they are spiritually blind and cannot see what believers see with the eyes of faith.
On the surface, perhaps, we live in a time where the tangible comfort zones of our faith are dwindling, but as Stephen Charnock reminds us, “God is a perpetual refuge and security to his people. His providence is not confined to one generation; it is not one age only that tastes of his bounty and compassion. His eye never slept, nor hath he suffered the little ship of his church to be swallowed up, though it hath been tossed upon the waves… In the greatest confusions, the church’s eyes are to be fixed upon the eternity of God’s throne, where he sits as governor of this world.”
Therefore, despite any appearance of Christian decline or confusion, we must remember that God is still on His throne, working all things according to the good pleasure of His will (Ephesians 1:11). And while we continue to labor in God’s name, despite the pitfalls and hardships, the Lord does indeed reign even now, from generation to generation (Daniel 7:14; Psalm 145:13). Behold, even as He did for the apostle John, Jesus lovingly places His right hand on our shoulders and gently speaks to us from Scripture, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).
THE YEW’S SYMBOLISM POINTS TO CHRIST
Here, of course, is where the churchyard yew must immediately decrease and Jesus Christ increase. Like John the Baptist, the symbolism of the yew tree simply points us to Christ and then its work is done. It is, after all, only a tree. Its appearance on the scene is not divine revelation, for it is still subject to the whims of man and nature in this fallen world. Nevertheless, in the providence and sovereignty of God, the visible Church at a point in time and place found the European yew to be fit for a spiritual purpose and a convenient device for biblical remembrance. In light of this truth, let us honor the early Christians of Britannia, who established this noble evergreen as a emblem of the eternal existence, power, and glory of God in Jesus Christ for all the world to see.
Better yet, let us, as true Christ-bearers, be like the yew in the crumbling churchyard. May we, among the ruins of this sin-sick world, take root in Christ and fearlessly proclaim the Gospel throughout all the days of our life, regardless of the darkness that so often surrounds us. And this we can surely do if we remain spiritually minded, and not carnally so (Romans 8:5-8).
Remember, fellow believers, our heavenly Father “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). Therefore, as those redeemed and forgiven by His grace, we now make up the spiritual citizenry of Christ’s everlasting kingdom, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that we should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light…” (1 Peter 2:9).
If we acknowledge this exciting biblical truth, then we can never leave our praises of God to the passive symbol of a mere tree. Now is the time to fully return to our great commission. We must actively proclaim the Gospel and trust in the Spirit to drive the message home. In doing so, we will surely witness the planting of shiny new “churchyards” in Spirit and in Truth to the everlasting glory of our King, Jesus Christ, who one day will return to usher in the fullness of His magnificent kingdom.
Thus the essay concludes with Spurgeon and his fit description of how God’s kingdom continues to grow:
“To me it is evident beyond all contradiction that according to the whole run of Scripture the kingdom of Christ is to extend over all parts of the earth, and over all races and conditions of men, and therefore I charge you never despair for the grand old cause…
“Other men may teach Socialism, deliver lectures, or collect a band of fiddlers, that they may gather a congregation; but I will preach the Gospel. I will preach more Gospel than ever if I can; I will stick more to the one cardinal point. The other brethren can attend to the odds and ends, but I will keep to Christ crucified. To the men of vast ability, who are looking to the events of the day, I would say, ‘Allow one poor fool to keep to preaching the Gospel.’ Beloved… be fools for Christ, and keep to the Gospel. Don’t you be afraid: it has life in it, and it will grow: only you bring it out, and let it grow.”