Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Persecution of the Lollards

William Swynderby (sometimes spelled Swinderby) and Walter Brute were active exponents of Lollard beliefs in the last 20 years of the 14th Century. Swynderby was burned at the stake for his faith in 1401 at Smithfield, London.

G. M. Trevelyan, while not entirely sympathetic, gives a glimpse of the views of Brute and Swynderby on page 325 of his book England in the Age of Wycliffe, © 1909:

Another Lollard of the neighbourhood was a man named Walter Brute, of Welsh parentage but educated at Oxford, where he had written theological works in support of Wycliffe. He was Swynderby’s friend and companion and adhered to all his teaching. Like Swynderby, he hid from the ecclesiastical officers and sent a manuscript into court as his only answer to the Bishop’s summons.

This strange piece has been fortunately preserved for us at length. It is full of Scripture phrases, applied in the strained and mystical sense which we associate with later Puritanism, though it really derives its origin from the style of theological controversies older far than the Lollards themselves.

Rome is the daughter of Babylon, “the great whore sitting upon many waters with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication.” “With her enchantments, witchcraft and Simon Magus merchandise the whole world is infected and seduced.” Brute prophecies her fall in the language of the Revelation. The pope is 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 on their hands.”

It is easy to perceive, after reading such phrases, one reason why the Bishop objected to the study of the Bible by the common people.

John Wycliffe, as seen by Geoffrey Chaucer

In 1367, when John Wycliffe taught at Canterbury Hall, Oxford, one of his students was Geoffrey Chaucer.  These two men had a great influence on the development of the English language.   In later years, John Wycliffe produced the first translation of the Bible into the English language, and Chaucer produced the first literary work in English, the Canterbury Tales. The following verses are the portion of the Canterbury Tales where Chaucer speaks of his mentor. This is very old English, and you might need to pause a moment here and there to get the meaning.

A good man was there of religioun,
And was a poure Persounn of a toun,             (poor parson)
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk                 (cleric)
That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benyne he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversity ful pacient,
And such he was ypreved ofte sithes. . .

Wyde was his parisshe, and houses fer asunder,
But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In sicknesse nor in meschiefe, to visite
The ferreste in his parish, much and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
The noble ensample to his sheep he yaf. . .

He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie,
And though he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to sinful men nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But hin is techying discreet and benygne.
To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,
By good ensample, was his bisynesse. . .

A bettere prest I trowe that nowthere noon ys.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience,
But Cristes loore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, and first he folwed it  hymselve.

Lollard Conclusions, 1394

1. That when the the Church of England began to go mad after temporalities, like its great stepmother the Roman Church, and churches were authorized to by appropriation in divers places, faith, hope, and charity began to flee from our Church….

2. That our usual priesthood which began in Rome, pretended to be of power more lofty than the angels, is not that priesthood which Christ ordained for his apostles….

3. That the law of continence enjoined on priests, which was first ordained to the prejudice of women, brings sodomy into all the Holy Church, but we excuse ourselves by the Bible because the decree says that we should not mention it, though suspected….

4. That the pretended miracle of the sacrament of bread drives all men but a few to idolatry, because they think that the Body of Christ which is never away from heaven could by power of the priest’s word be enclosed essentially in a little bread which they show the people….

5. That exorcisms and blessings performed over wine, bread, water and oil, salt, wax, and incense, the stones of the altar, and church walls, over clothing, mitre, cross, and pilgrim’s staves, are the genuine performance of necromancy rather than of sacred theology….

6. That king and bishop in one person, prelate and judge in temporal causes, curate and officer in secular office, puts any kingdom beyond good rule…

7. That special prayers for the souls of the dead offered in our Church, preferring one before another in name, are a false foundation of alms, and for that reason all houses of alms in England have been wrongly founded….

8. That pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings made to blind crosses or roods, and to deaf images of wood or stone, are pretty well akin to idolatry and far from alms, and although these be forbidden and imaginary, a book of error to the layfolk, still the customary image of the Trinity is specially abominable….

9. That auricular confession which is said to be so necessary to the salvation of a man, with its pretended power of absolution, exalts the arrogance of priests and gives them opportunity of other secret colloquies which we will not speak of; for both lords and ladies attest that, for fear of their confessors, they dare not speak the truth….

10. That manslaughter in war, or by law of justice for a temporal cause, without spiritual revelation, is expressly contrary to the New Testament, which indeed is the law of grace and full of mercies…

11. That the vow of continence made in our Church by women who are frail and imperfect in nature is the cause of bringing the gravest horrible sins possible to human nature, because, although the killing of abortive children before they are baptized and the destruction of nature by drugs are vile sins, yet connection with themselves or beasts or any creature not having life surpasses them in foulness to such an extent as that they should be punished with the pains of hell.

12. That the abundance of unnecessary arts practised in our realm nourishes much sin in waste, profusion, and disguise….since St. Paul says, “having food and raiment, let us be therewith content,” it seems to us that goldsmiths and armourers and all kinds of arts not necessary for a man, according to the apostle, should be destroyed for the increase of virtue….

– quoted from Peters, Edward, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980

The bishops condemned by God

It is the tendency of British historians to consider religious movements in England to be largely independent in origin.  Lollardy is a case in point.  Despite its similarities to the Waldensian movement on the continent, it is generally seen as the result of the teaching of John Wycliffe.

I have no desire to diminish in any way the work of Wycliffe.  However, the name Lollard appears to definitely be of Dutch origin.  Leonard Verduin even states that it was in use in the Low Countries a hundred years before Wycliffe.  The word derives from a Dutch verb which means to sing softly.

The first appearance of the Black Death in Europe was in Sicily in October of 1347.  By 1349 it had spread to London and was all over the British Isles by the following year.  By 1353 it was all over Scandinavia and Russia.   It is estimated that as many as half of the people of Europe died in the years 1347 to 1353.  The cause was unknown at the time, many attributed it to bad air.  The inability of the established church to help in this terror stricken time weakened its hold on the people and opened their minds to hear other teachers.  Ideas spread as rapidly as the disease had.

An interesting side note is that a group of men who buried the dead while singing chants during the black death were called lollebroeders or lollhorden.

John Wycliffe’s English Bible first appeared in 1382.  It was translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original languages but it was the first time that English-speaking people had access to the Word of God in their own language.  The Lollards certainly appreciated this fact and made good use of Wycliffe’s Bible, but it is probably a stretch to believe they did not exist in England before Wycliffe.  Perhaps he was more influenced by them, or by the same ideas that had influenced them, rather than the other way around.

– the next two paragraphs are quoted from pages 293-294 of England in the Age of Wycliffe, by G. M. Trevelyan, 4th edition, 1909.

“In May 1382, Courtenay’s (the Archbishop of Canterbury)campaign began.  He summoned to the Blackfriars’ convent in London a Council of the provinces of Canterbury, before which he brought up Wycliffe’s opinions for judgement.  First in the list of heresies came the doctrine of Consubstantiation, next the proposition that a priest in mortal sin could not administer the sacraments, and that Christ did not ordain the ceremonies of the Mass.  Two other heresies are of equal note: that if a man be contrite, all exterior confession is superfluous or useless; and after Urban the Sixth no one ought to be received as Pope, but men should live, after the manner of the Greek church, under their own laws.  Wycliffe’s views on the temporalities of the clergy, and the uselessness of the regular orders, were also condemned.  Lollardy was for the first time put definitely under the ban of the Church, and war was formally declared by the Bishops against the itinerant preachers.

“The council at Blackfriars was spoken of throughout England as a new and important move in the game.  A curious accident enabled Wycliffe’s friends to boast that, though their master had been condemned by the Bishops, the Bishops had been condemned by God.  It was on May 19 that the theses were pronounced to be ‘heresies and errors.’  About two o’clock that afternoon, while the churchmen were sitting round the table at the pious work, the house was shaken by a terrible earthquake that struck with panic all present except the stern and zealous Courtenay.  He insisted that his subordinates should resume their seats and go on with the business, although the shock seems to have been more violent than is usual in our country, casting down pinnacles and steeples, and shaking stones out of the castle walls.  It took away from this solemn act of censure some at least of the effect on which the bishop had calculated, and Wycliffe did not let pass the opportunity to point the moral.  Such an omen was no light thing in such an age.”

English Christianity – Part 2

The writings of John Wycliffe reached as far as Bohemia, where they were adopted, at least in part, by Jan Hus. Hus was appointed rector of the University of Prague in 1401 and chaplain of Bethlehem Chapel in Prague in 1402. Hus preached in the Czech language and strongly attacked the corruption of the Catholic church. In 1414 the German Emperor Sigismund called a church council at Constance to reform the church and settle the question of which of three competing popes should be recognized as the true pope. Hus was promised safe conduct by the emperor, but was captured by one of the popes, condemned for heresy and burned at the stake. Peter Payne, an English Lollard, turned up in Prague about the same time, after spending some time among the German Waldenses. Peter Payne became known as Petr Engliš and became the interpreter of Wyckliffe to the followers of Hus. Divisions soon developed among the Hussites on the point of how much they could accommodate themselves to Catholic teachings for the sake of peace, and all parties eventually got drawn into the use of arms to support or defend their particular views.

In the Bohemian countryside, in the town of Chelčice, lived another Petr, known to us as Petr Chelčický. This Petr was a freehold farmer with little formal education. It is quite probable that the two Petrs will have had discussions together. But one had moved from peaceable Lollardy to the more militant Hussite view. The other had dropped out of the Hussite movement to proclaim by his writings the old Waldensian doctrine of the peaceable and pure church of believers.

Petr Chelčický wrote that the Bohemians were like people who had come to a house that had burnt down many years ago and tried to find the foundations. The ruins had become overgrown with different sorts of growths and people took these for the foundation and proclaimed that this is the way that all should go. Another may perhaps take a different growth for the foundation. How much better it would be if all could see that the old foundation had become lost among the ruins and then would dig and search for it and build upon it. The “Net of Faith” is a metaphor for the Church of God, where the believers are separated from the other fish in the ocean by this net of faith. But two whales, the Pope and the Emperor, have forced their way into the net, tearing great holes in it and mangling it so that only a few threads of the original net are now visible. Now there is no difference between being inside the net or outside.

After the death of Chelčický several small communities of believers grouped together as the Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), or Jednota Bratskrâ (Church of the Brotherhood) and sought ordination for their leaders from a Waldensian bishop in Austria. But with toleration came a trend to greater formality in worship and the acceptance of civil offices. By the 1500’s their enhanced position in society brought a renewal of persecution. After more than a century during which they sometimes had to hide or flee and sometimes experienced times of peace, they took up arms to defend themselves and were decisively defeated, effectively destroying the Bohemian Brethren.

Years later, in 1690, a small group of Moravian refugees gathered under the protection of Count Zinzendorf in Germany. They were organized as an independent body within the Lutheran church. Later, in more tolerant times, they became completely independent. From the first this new Moravian Brethren church had a strong missionary emphasis.

English Christianity – Part 1

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.]

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