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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 7 — Protestantism in England, From the Times of Wicliffe to Those of Henry VIII

Chapter 2 — The theology of the early English Protestants

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Protestant Preachers and Martyrs before Henry VIII.'s time — Their Theology — Inferior to that of the Sixteenth Century — The Central Truths clearly Seen — William Thorpe — Imprisoned — Dialogue between him and Archbishop Arundel — His Belief — His Views on the Sacrament — The Authority of Scripture — Is Threatened with a Stake — Christ Present in the Sacrament to Faith — Thorpe's Views on Image-Worship — Pilgrimage — Confession — Refuses to Submit — His Fate Unknown — Simplicity of Early English Theology — Convocation at Oxford to Arrest the Spread of Protestantism — Constitutions of Arundel — The Translation and Reading of the Scriptures Forbidden.

THIS violence did not terrify the disciples of the truth. The stakes they had seen planted in Smithfield, and the edict of "burning" now engrossed on the Statute-book, taught them that the task of winning England would not be the easy one which they had dreamed; but this conviction neither shook their courage nor abated their zeal. A cause that had found martyrs had power enough, they believed, to overcome any force on earth, and would one day convert, not England only, but the world. In that hope they went on propagating their opinions, and not without success, for, says Fox, "I find in registers recorded, that these foresaid persons, whom the king and the Catholic Fathers did so greatly detest for heretics, were in divers counties of this realm increased, especially at London, in Lincolnshire, in Norfolk, in Hertfordshire, in Shrewsbury, in Calais, and other quarters." [1] Wicliffe was but newly laid in his grave; Huss had not yet begun his career in Bohemia; in France, in Germany, and the other countries of Christendom, all was dark; but in England the day had broken, and its light was spreading. The Reformation had confessors and martyrs within the metropolis; it had disciples in many of the shires; it had even crossed the sea, and obtained some footing in Calais, then under the English crown: and all this a century wellnigh before Henry VIII., whom Romish writers have credited as the author of the movement, was born.

William Thorpe, in the words of the chronicler, "was a valiant warrior under the triumphant banner of Christ." His examination before Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, shows us the evangelical creed as it was professed by the English Christians of the fifteenth century. Its few and simple articles led very directly to the grand center of truth, which is Christ. Standing before him, these early disciples were in the Light. Many things, as yet,they saw but dimly; it was only the early morning; the full day was at a distance: those great lights which God had ordained to illuminate the skies of His Church in the following century, had not yet arisen: the mists and shadows of a night, not yet wholly chased away, lay dense on many parts of the field of revelation; but one part of it was, in their eyes, bathed in light; this was the center of the field, whereon stands the cross, with the great Sacrifice lifted up upon it, the one object of faith, the everlasting Rock of the sinner's hope. To this they clung, and whatever tended to shake their faith in it, or to put something else in its room, they instinctively rejected. They knew the voice of the Shepherd, and a stranger they would not follow.

Imprisoned in the Castle of Saltwood (1407), Thorpe was brought before the primate, Arundel, for examination. The record of what passed between him and the archbishop is from the pen of Thorpe. He found Arundel in "a great chamber," with a numerous circle around him; but the instant the archbishop perceived him, he withdrew into a closet, attended by only two or three clerics.

Arundel: "William, I know well that thou hast this twenty winters or more traveled in the north country, and in divers other countries of England, sowing false doctrine, laboring, with undue teaching, to infect and poison all this land."

Thorpe: "Sir, since ye deem me a heretic, and out of the faith, will you give me, here, audience to tell you my belief?"

Arundel: "Yea, tell on."

Hereupon the prisoner proceeded to declare his belief in the Trinity; in the Incarnation of the Second Person of the God-head; and in the events of our Lord's life, as these are recorded by the four Evangelists: continuing thus —

Thorpe: "When Christ would make an end here of this temporal life, I believe that in the next day before He was to suffer passion He ordained the Sacrament of His flesh and His blood, in form of bread and wine— that is, His own precious body— and gave it to His apostles to eat; commanding them, and, by them all their after-comers, that they should do it in this form that He showed to them, use themselves, and teach and administer to other men and women, this most worshipful and holiest sacrament, in remembrance of His holiest living, and of this most true preaching, and of His willing and patient suffering of the most painful passion."

"And I believe that, this Christ, our Savior, after that He had ordained this most worthy Sacrament of His own precious body, went forth willingly... and as He would, and when He would, he died willingly for man's sake upon the cross."

"And I believe in holy Church— that is, all they that have been, and that now are, and that to the end of the world shall be, a people that shall endeavor to know and keep the commandments of God."

"I believe that the gathering together of this people, living now here in this life, is the holy Church of God, fighting here on earth against the devil, the prosperity of the world, and their own lusts. I submit myself to this holy Church of Christ, to be ever ready and obedient to the ordinance of it,

and of every member thereof, after my knowledge and power, by the help of God."

The prisoner next confessed his faith in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, "as the council of the Three Persons of the Trinity," that they were sufficient for man's salvation, and that he was resolved to guide himself by their light, and willing to submit to their authority, and also to that of the "saints and doctors of Christ," so far as their teaching agreed with the Word of God.

Arundel: "I require that thou wilt swear to me that thou wilt forsake all the opinions which the sect of the Lollards hold." Further, the archbishop required him to inform upon his brethren, and cease from preaching till he should come to be of a better mind. On hearing this the prisoner stood for awhile silent.

Arundel: "Answer, one way or the other."

Thorpe: "Sir, if I should do as you require, full many men and women would (as they might full truly) say that I had falsely and cowardly forsaken the truth, and slandered shamefully the Word of God."

The archbishop could only say that if he persisted in this obstinacy he must tread the same road that Sawtrey had gone. This pointed to a stake in Smithfield.

Hereupon the confessor was again silent. "In my heart," says he, "I prayed the Lord God to comfort me and strengthen me; and to give me then and always grace to speak with a meek and quiet spirit; and whatever I should speak, that I might have authorities of the Scriptures or open reason for it."

A clerk: "What thing musest thou? Do as my lord hath commanded thee." Still the confessor spoke not.

Arundel: "Art thou not yet determined whether thou wilt do as I have said to thee? "

Thorpe humbly assured the primate that the knowledge which he taught to others he had learned at the feet of the wisest, the most learned, and the holiest priests he could hear of in England.

Arundel: "Who are these holy and wise men of whom thou hast taken thine information? "

Thorpe: "Master John Wicliffe. He was held by many men the greatest clerk that they knew then living: great men communed often with him. This learning of Master John Wicliffe is yet held by many men and women the learning most in accordance with the living and teaching of Christ and His apostles, and most openly showing how the Church of Christ has been, and yet should be, ruled and governed."

Arundel: "That learning which thou callest truth and soothfastness is open slander to holy Church; for though Wicliffe was a great clerk, yet his doctrine is not approved of by holy Church, but many sentences of his learning are damned, as they well deserve. Wilt thou submit thee to me or no?"

Thorpe: "I dare not, for fear of God, submit me to thee."

Arundel, angrily to one of his clerks: "Fetch hither quickly the certificate that came to me from Shrewsbury, under the bailiff's seal, witnessing the errors and heresies which this fellow hath venomously sown there."

The clerk delivered to the archbishop a roll, from which the primate read as follows:—" The third Sunday after Easter, the year of our Lord 1407, William Thorpe came unto the town of Shrewsbury, and through leave granted unto him to preach, he said openly, in St. Chad's Church, in his sermon, that the Sacrament of the altar, after the consecration, was material bread; and that images should in nowise be worshipped; and that men should not go on pilgrimages; and that priests have no title to tithes; and that it is not lawful to swear in anywise."

Arundel, rolling up the paper: "Lo, here it is certified that thou didst teach that the Sacrament of the altar was material bread after the consecration. What sayest thou?"

Thorpe: "As I stood there in the pulpit, busying me to teach the commandment of God, a sacred bell began ringing, and therefore many people turned away hastily, and with noise ran towards it; and I, seeing this, said to them thus: ' Good men, ye were better to stand here still, and to hear God's Word. For the virtue of the most holy Sacrament of the altar stands much more in the faith that you ought to have in your soul, than in the outward sight of it, and therefore ye were better to stand still quietly to hear God's Word, because that through the hearing of it men come to true belief."

Arundel: "How teachest thou men to believe in this Sacrament?"

Thorpe: "Sir, as I believe myself, so I teach other men."

Arundel: "Tell out plainly thy belief thereof."

Thorpe: "Sir, I believe that the night before Jesus-Christ suffered for mankind, He took bread in His holy hands, lifting up His eyes, and giving thanks to God His Father, blessed this bread and brake it, and gave it unto His disciples, saying to them, 'Take and eat of this, all you; this is My body.' I believe, and teach other men to believe, that the holy Sacrament of the altar is the Sacrament of Christ's flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine."

Arundel: "Well, well, thou shalt say otherwise before I leave thee; but what say you to the second point, that images ought not to be worshipped in anywise?"

Thorpe repudiated the practice as not only without warrant in Scripture, but as plainly forbidden in the Word of God. There followed a long contention between him and the archbishop, Arundel maintaining that it was good to worship images on the ground that reverence was due to those whom they represented, that they were aids in devotion, and that they possessed a secret virtue that showed itself at times in the working of miracles.

The prisoner intimated that he had no belief in these miracles; that he knew the Word

of God to be true; that he held, in common with the early doctors of the Church, Augustine, Ambrose, and Chrysostom, that its teaching was in nowise doubtful on the point in question, that it expressly forbade the making of images, and the bowing down to them, and held those who did so as guilty of the sin and liable to the doom of idolaters. The archbishop found that the day was wearing, and passed from the argument to the next point.

Arundel: "What sayest thou to the third point that is certified against thee, that pilgrimage is not lawful?"

Thorpe: "There are true pilgrimages, and lawful, and acceptable to God."

Arundel: "Whom callest thou true pilgrims?"

Thorpe: "Those travelling towards the bliss of heaven. Such busy themselves to know and keep the biddings of God; flee the seven deadly sins; do willingly all the works of mercy, and seek the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Every good thought they think, every virtuous word they speak, every fruitful work they accomplish, is a step numbered of God toward Him into heaven.

"But," continued the confessor, "the most part of men and women that now go on pilgrimages have not these conditions, nor love to have them. For, as I well know, since I have full often tried, examine whoever will twenty of these pilgrims, and he shall not find three men or women that know surely a commandment of God, nor can say their Paternosters and Ave Maria, nor their creed, readily, in any manner of language. Their pilgrimage is more to have here worldly and fleshly friendship, than to have friendship of God and of His saints in heaven. Also, sir, I know that when several men and women go thus after their own wills, and fixing on the same pilgrimage, they will arrange beforehand to have with them both men and women that can sing wanton songs, and other pilgrims will have with them bagpipes; so that every town that they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the tangling of their Canterbury bells, and with the barking of dogs after them, they make more noise than if the king came there with all his clarions and minstrels."

Arundel: "What! janglest thou against men's devotion? Whatever thou or such other say, I say that the pilgrimage that now is used is to them that do it a praiseworthy and a good means to come to grace."

After this there ensued another long contention between Thorpe and the primate, on the subject of confession. The archbishop was not making much way in the argument, when one of the clerks interposed and put an end to it.

"Sir," said he, addressing the primate, "it is late in the day, and ye have far to ride to-night; therefore make an end with him, for he will make none; but the more, sir, that ye busy you to draw him toward you, the more contumacious he is made."

"William, kneel down," said another, "and pray my Lord's Grace, and leave all thy fancies, and become a child of holy Church." The archbishop, striking the table fiercely with his hand, also demanded his instant submission. Others taunted him with his eagerness to be promoted to a stake which men more learned than he had prudently avoided by recanting their errors.

"Sir," said he, replying to the archbishop, "as I have said to you several times to-day, I will willingly and humbly obey and submit to God, and to His law, and to every member of holy Church, as far as I can perceive that these members accord with their Head, Christ, and will teach me, rule me, or chastise me by authority, especially of God's law."

This was a submission; but the additions with which it was qualified robbed it of all grace in the eyes of the archbishop. Once more, and for the last time, the primate put it plainly thus: "Wilt thou not submit thee to the ordinance of holy Church?"

"I will full gladly submit me," replied Thorpe, "as I showed you before." [2]

Hereupon Thorpe was delivered to the constable of the castle. He was led out and thrown into a worse prison than that in which he had before been confined. At his prison-door we lose all trace of him. He never again appears, and what his fate was has never been ascertained. [3]

This examination, or rather conference between the primate and Thorpe, enables us to form a tolerable idea of English Protestantism, or Lollardism, in the twilight time that intervened between its dawn, in the days of Wicliffe, and its brighter rising in the times of the sixteenth century. It consisted, we may say, of but three facts or truths. The first was Scripture, as the supreme and infallible authority; the second was the Cross, as the sole fountain of forgiveness and salvation; and the third was Faith, as the one instrumentality by which men come into possession of the blessings of that salvation. We may add a fourth, which was not so much a primary truth as a consequence from the three doctrines which formed the skeleton, or frame-work, of the Protestantism of those days— Holiness. The faith of these Christians was not a dead faith: it was a faith that kept the commandments of God, a faith that purified the heart, and enriched the life.

If, in one sense, Lollard Protestantism was a narrow and limited system, consisting but of a very few facts, in another sense it was perfect, inasmuch as it contained the germ and promise of all theology. Given but one fundamental truth, all must follow in due time.

In the authority of Scripture as the inspired Word of God, and the death of Christ as a complete and perfect atonement for human guilt, they had found more than one fundamental truth. They had but to go

forward in the path on which they had entered, guiding themselves by these two lights, and they would come, in due time, into possession of all revealed truth. At every step the horizon around them would grow wider, the light falling upon the objects it embraced would grow continually clearer, the relations of truth to truth would be more easily traceable, till at last the whole would grow into a complete and harmonious system, truth linked to truth, and all ranging themselves in beautiful order around the grand central truths of the religion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Meanwhile these early English Christians were beset without by scrupulosities and prejudices, arising from the dimness and narrowness of their vision. They feared to lay their hand on the New Testament and be sworn; they scrupled to employ instrumental music in public worship; and some of them condemned all war. But within what a vast enlargement had they already experienced! Bowing to the authority of the Word of God, their understandings were emancipated from the usurped authority of man. Having this anointing, they refused to look with the eyes of others, and see on the inspired page doctrines which no rule of exegesis could discover there, and from which their, reason revolted as monstrous. In leaning on the Cross, they had found that relief of heart which so many of their countrymen were seeking, but not finding, in fasts, in penances, in offerings to the saints, and in pilgrimages, performed sometimes in sackcloth and tears, and severe mortification of the flesh, and sometimes in gay apparel, and on soft-paced and richly-caparisoned mules, to the screaming of bagpipes and the music of merry songs.

The best evidence of the continued spread of Lollardism—in other words, of Protestantism—is the necessity under which its opponents evidently felt to adopt more vigorous measures for its repression. The "well" which Wicllffe had digged at Oxford was still flowing; its waters must be stopped. The light he had kindled in his vernacular Bible was still burning, and sending its rays over England; it must be extinguished. The accomplishment of these two objects became now the main labor of Arundel. Convening at Oxford (1408) the bishops and clergy of his province, he promulgated certain provisions for the checking of heresy, digested into thirteen chapters, and known as the Constitutions of Arundel, [4] a designation they are entitled to bear, seeing they all run under the authority of the archbishop. The drift of these Constitutions was, first, to prohibit all from exercising the function of preacher who had not a special licence from the diocesan, or had not undergone an examination before him touching their orthodoxy; secondly, to charge preachers to eschew all Wicliffite novelties, and to frame their discourses in every respect according to the doctrine of holy Church; and thirdly, seeing "the errors of the Lollards have seized the University of Oxford, therefore, to prevent the fountain being poisoned, 'tis decreed by the Synod that every warden, master, or principal of any college or hall shall be obliged to inquire, at least every month, into the opinions and principles of the students in their respective houses, and if they find them maintain anything repugnant to the Catholic faith, to admonish them; and if they continue obstinate, to expel them." "In regard that," said the sixth Constitution, "the new roads in religion are more dangerous to travel than the old ones," the primate, careful for the safety of wayfarers, proceeded to shut up all the new roads thus: "we enjoin and require that no book or tract, written by John Wicliffe, or any other person either in Wicliffe's time or since, or who for the future shall write any other book upon a subject in divinity, shall be suffered to be read either in schools, halls, or any other places within our Province of Canterbury, unless such books shall first be examined by the University of Oxford or Cambridge," etc. The infraction of this enactment subjected the offender to prosecution, "as one that makes it his business to spread the infection of schism and heresy." [5]

The seventh Constitution began thus: "'Tis a dangerous undertaking, as St. Jerome assures us, to translate the Holy Scriptures. We therefore decree and ordain," it continued, "that from henceforward no unauthorised person shall translate any part of Holy Scripture into English, or any other language, under any form of book or treatise. Neither shall any such book, treatise, or version, made either in Wicliffe's time or since, be read, either in whole or in part, publicly or privately, under the penalty of the greater excomunication, till the said translation shall be approved either by the bishop of the diocese or a provincial council, as occasion shall require." [6]

No such authorization was ever given. Consequently all translations of the Sacred Scriptures into English, or any other tongue, and all reading of the Word of God in whole or in part, in public or in private, were by this Constitution proscribed, under the penalty of the greater excommunication.

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