The exact time when the Christian faith first reached the British Isles is lost in the mists of time. Traditions that the Apostle Paul or Joseph of Arimathea first brought the Gospel to England seem somewhat dubious, but cannot be proved or disproved at this distance in time. There is evidence, though, that Christianity existed there long before the Roman Catholic Church sent missionaries to “Christianize” Britain.
Beginning in the latter part of the sixth century the tiny Scottish island of Iona became a centre from which missionaries were sent out to many parts of Britain and Europe. These missionaries translated the Scriptures into the language of the people, baptized believers only, did not require celibacy of their preachers and were independent of the civil authorities.
The Catholic Church, by first obtaining the allegiance of the civil powers, was able to use the might of government to destroy its rivals and endeavoured to wipe out even the remembrance of earlier and purer forms of Christianity. It is partly due to national rivalries and frequent wars among the nominally Christian principalities of Europe that primitive Christianity was not totally eradicated. The Waldensians of Europe must have had frequent contacts with Britain, sometimes in the pursuit of their livelihood (many were weavers), sometimes seeking refuge from persecution in their homelands.
By the late 1300’s Lollards, as Waldensians were known in England, could be found throughout the kingdom. Most historians claim that the Lollards were followers of John Wycliffe, but it is more likely that the reverse is true and that Wycliffe learned his faith from the Lollards. In any case the Lollard name was in use in Flanders a hundred years before the time of Wycliffe.
The Lollard preachers were easily recognized by their long russet-coloured gowns, their reliance on Scripture in all discussions and controversies and the holiness of their lives. They taught nothing that could be considered subversive of the order of the nation, except concerning the false doctrine and avarice of the state church.
In May of 1382 a council of the Catholic Church was summoned to the Blackfriar’s convent in London. Here the doctrines of Wycliffe and the Lollards were condemned and the Church vowed to use all the powers at its disposal to wipe out this threat to their position. Some of the Lollard views condemned were that the communion wafer was not transformed into the body of Christ, that a priest in mortal sin could not administer the sacraments, and that confession to a priest is not required.
The council would have had more impact upon the common people if it were not for an earthquake which occurred at the very moment when the assembled bishops declared the Lollard beliefs to be heresies. The building where they were seated was shaken, pinnacles and steeples were cast down and stones fell from castle walls. Such an event seemed to indicate that though the bishops had condemned Lollardy, God had condemned the bishops.
John Wycliffe died a natural death on the last day of 1384. That he was allowed to live out his life in peace was in part due to disturbances at the very pinnacle of the Catholic Church. Since 1378 there had been two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, France. This confusion within the church, really a power struggle between France and other nations, occupied much of the attention of the bishops.
A few years later some notable dissenters did not escape the fury of the state church. William Swinderby, then a priest in the bishopric of Lincoln, was first arrested in 1389 and charged with heresy. At this time he broke under the torture and threats of death and recanted. Three years later he was back in court and this time did not waver in his faith. He remained in prison for nine years and in 1401 was burned at the stake in Smithfield, London. Walter Brute was a friend and companion of Swinderby who managed to escape arrest. However he sent a confession of faith to the court. This document states that the swearing of oaths and baptism of infants is not Scriptural. It identifies the church of Rome as the “daughter of Babylon”, and the pope as “the beast ascending out of the earth having two horns like unto a lamb”, who compels “small and great, rich and poor, to worship the beast and to take his mark in their forehead and in their hands.”
Another former priest, William Thorpe, was burnt for his faith at Saltwoden in 1407. In 1428, William White, Abraham of Colchester and John Waddon were burnt at Norwich. Margaret Backster was a witness to the executions at Norwich and was herself apprehended and imprisoned two years later.
In 1395 a statement of the Lollard beliefs was presented to Parliament. A comparison of this statement with the confessions of individual Lollards shows the complete unity within the group. The principle points were that the mass and worship of images is idolatry, swearing of oaths and prayers for the dead are wrong, confession of sins to a priest is unnecessary, that infants are saved even though they are not baptized, that bishops are not to be feared or reverenced, and that it was better for ministers of the Gospel to be married.
[This is the first of a seven part series. The following portions will be posted daily over the coming week.]