A Brief Synopsis of the Public History of the Church - G.H.S. Price
1950 - The first edition of this Synopsis was published about five years ago but soon became unobtainable. Instead of reprinting in its original form, it was felt that the opportunity should be taken of altering a few incorrect or ambiguous statements and of revising and slightly enlarging some of the sections. This has now been done and, in particular, the closing pages have been amplified and an entirely new section added. This section is intended to be in the nature of an enquiry as to the light which Scripture may throw on the present confused state of Christendom, and the pathway which may be open to believers at the present time who are desirous of being in subjection to the Word of God.
The object of this synopsis remains as before, namely, to present, in as brief and concise a manner as so wide a subject will permit, an outline of the public history of the church from Pentecost to the present day. It is in no sense intended to compete with existing works on this subject, but may prove helpful to those who, while desiring the knowledge, may have difficulty now in obtaining the books and still more difficulty in finding time to read them.
No claim to originality can be entertained, since all the facts and, in some cases, the very expressions from the writings of others have been freely used. Great care has, however, been taken to ensure the accuracy of all that is stated and to guard against wrong impressions being given because of the brevity of this account.
For those who wish to enquire further into the subject, the following notes are given as to where details may be obtained. " A Concise History of the Church,"1 by A. E. Knight, is one of the few books which attempts to cover the subject in a single volume, but his history stops with the establishment of the Reformation. The three volumes of Andrew Miller comprising " Short Papers on Church History,"' cover well the ground from the apostolic age to the twentieth century and are written from a scriptural standpoint. As far as the Reformation is concerned, D'Aubigne's " History of the Reformation "* is in a class by itself, but it is very lengthy. Finally, the principles which led to the revival of the true character of the church at the beginning of last century will be found in some recently republished writings of J. N. Darby entitled, "The Faith once delivered to the Saints."
Certain facts or quotations which bear on the subject, but which hardly form part of the main Synopsis, have been added in the form of an Appendix, and notes referring to these have been inserted throughout the text.
Finally, it will be noticed that the word assembly has sometimes been used in place of the word church. This is the literal translation of the original word church. This is the literal translation of the original Greek word and really means a company of persons called out. It clearly distinguishes it from any material building. - G.H.S.
The history of the church – spanning as it does nearly 2,000 years of time – constitutes a subject which none but the Holy Spirit of God is able to compile. The facts on which such a history would have to be based are known alone to Him, Who in lowly grace, has been here on earth all the time maintaining in the assembly a witness to the truth according to the revelation of God. Amidst the waxing and waning glories of the church, He has been, on the one hand, the sorrowful Witness of every step of departure and decline, and, on the other hand, the inward Spring of every spiritual feeling after God, and the awakening Source of every phase of recovery and revival. With divine accuracy He has assessed all that is of true worth, as being able to distinguish what is of God from what is of man.
It is the inability to do this, as well as the impossibility of penetrating beyond what the eye can see or the ear can hear, that have limited the activities of all human historians.
If this important reservation is borne in mind, it may be said that many excellent attempts have been made to record the public history of the church and, in this, help is afforded by the Holy Scriptures themselves. For example, J. N. Darby – when referring to the addresses to the seven churches in Asia, as given in Revelation 2 and 3 – said, "I have no doubt that this series of churches applies as history to the moral successive state of the whole church; the first four to the history of the church from its first decline to its present condition in Popery; the last three are the history of Protestantism”.
This divinely-given framework has enabled pious historians to follow the various phases through which the Church of God has passed; though it is clear that the last four phases run on collaterally. In these addresses, the church is viewed, in its position of responsibility in the world, as a public witness for Christ. As such, it is subject to failure and consequently comes beneath the rebuke of Christ for unfaithfulness.
Persecution Commenced A.D.64
It is evident from the epistles of Scripture, that even in the apostles’ time, decline and failure had come in. Not only did Paul have to say in his second epistle to Timothy that all that were in Asia had turned away from him, but the Lord, addressing the angel of the assembly of Ephesus – the first of the seven – says, “Thou hast left thy first love”. This decline was soon followed by a time of intense persecution. It commenced in the reign, and at the instigation, of Nero and continued for nearly three centuries. It is striking that during this period, history has recorded ten general and distinct persecutions which may connect with the Lord’s word to the second assembly Smyrna: “Ye shall have tribulation ten days”.
Passing reference may also be made to the early fulfilment of the Lord’s word concerning the overthrow of Jerusalem. In A.D. 70, the city was laid waste beneath the hand of the Roman general, Titus, and it has been said that well over one million souls perished in the siege and in the terrible civil war which raged at the same time within its walls.
It is unnecessary in a brief synopsis such as this to go into the details of the ten early persecutions or to record the long history of martyrs whose blood had but watered the seeds of the gospel. Men and women, old and young, in many parts of Europe and Asia, suffered alike. In addition to most of the apostles and other men of God mentioned in scripture, such as Timothy, the names of Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin and Perpetua stand out preeminently among the many whose unfaltering faithfulness to Christ but secured for them the crown of the martyr. Again and again, with terrible ferocity, the powers of hell were loosed against the church, but it throve in persecution and, in the main, the lulls which interspersed the storms witnessed the spreading of the gospel. The efforts to overthrow it were terrible and relentless, but the gates of hell were not to prevail and many thousands of souls who had vainly been seeking rest of heart in the mythologies of Rome and Egypt declared themselves the willing followers of Christ.
Increasing Decline of the Church
It was, however, after approximately two hundred years of persecution that the elements of decline and departure from the truth began to deepen in the church and the faithfulness of the martyrs was made to shine out the more brilliantly against the dark background of the declining glory of the church. The cause of this decline – indeed, we may say, the cause of every decline – lay in the fact that the church lost sight of its place of holy separation from the world. Its early simplicity was rapidly becoming a thing of the past and the intruding hand of man was effecting ruinous changes in the management of its affairs.
Clergy and Laity
Furthermore, the distinction between clergy and laity – long suggested by the principles of Judaism – was working its evil way in the church. The bishops and deacons became a sacred order and, contrary to all the teaching of Scripture, a supreme place was being given to them. The events which led up to the establishment of a sacred order within the church are touched upon here, so that the reader may see the beginnings of what has now developed into the great hierarchical system. The apostles established elders no doubt giving their formal recognition to those who were already capacitated by the Spirit of God; but after the apostles were dead, the overseers, elders and deacons, who had been appointed by the apostles to do certain necessary work, and not merely to hold an official position, began to arrogate to themselves the sole right to teach and administer the Lord’s supper. Thus, in Asia Minor, by the opening of the second century, there existed the three permanent offices of bishop, presbyter and deacon. As time passed, these men gradually acquired more and more control and leadership of the church in all its activities and the ordinary members of the assembly were reduced to the position of acquiescing in this control. Thus out of what was in the beginning more or less informal and temporary, grew fixed and permanent offices. Not continued endowment by the Holy Spirit, but the possession of an ecclesiastical office, then became the basis of authority.
Ignatius, early in the second century, combined the two ideas of union with Christ, as the necessary condition of salvation, and of the church, as the body of Christ, and taught that no one could be saved, unless he were a member of the church. Intimately connected with this idea that the church was the sole ark of salvation were the sacraments, or means of grace, of which baptism and the Eucharist were the two outstanding examples. In connection with these sacraments grew up also the theory of clerical sacerdotalism, i.e. the sacraments could only be performed or administered by men regularly ordained for the purpose. Thus the clergy, as distinguished from the laity, became an official priesthood and the latter were made wholly dependent upon the former for sacramental grace without which, it was taught, there was no salvation. Although Ignatius had denied the validity of a Eucharist administered independently of the bishop, it was Cyprian of Carthage who, possibly not by design, eventually championed the episcopal cause.
Once the distinction between clergy and laity was established, we find a multiplication of church offices and the introduction of those never contemplated in scripture. These moves may have secured outward order in the church – indeed the need for this was largely responsible for their innovation – but they stifled the free expression of spiritual life and faith, and denied the fundamental principle of Christianity, viz. that “God is one, and the mediator of God and men one, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all”.
The inevitable result of all this was that the Holy Spirit no longer had His right place in the church. Christian bishops were accepting places at court and seeking to take on the glory of the world, while ostentatious temples for the display of the Christian religion were beginning to appear. More serious still, the Christians soon invited the arbitration of a civil power in the affairs of the church and the fatal link with the world slowly but surely became more apparent.
The Tenth Persecution A.D.303
The tenth and final persecution beneath the cruel hand of Diocletian was undoubtedly the most desolating of them all. The whole power of the Roman Empire combined in a desperate effort, not only to suppress the Scriptures entirely, but to exterminate every trace of Christianity from the earth. This fearful and final conflict between paganism and Christianity, while adding fresh chapters of glory to the growing records of the martyrs, failed to check the germination of the seeds of corruption which the affiliation with the world had sown.
Constantine the Great
It is thus perhaps understandable that the Great Satan should choose this time to alter his method of attack, and at the beginning of the fourth century the Pergamos period of the church began when the lion became the serpent and adversaries from without gave place to seducers from within. Constantine the Great was the Roman Caesar at this time and he openly avowed himself the patron of the new religion – a fact as far-reaching as it was significant and unexpected. It followed, of course, that the position of the Christians changed immediately from one of intense persecution to one of supreme favour; so much so that the Roman Emperor himself might be seen presiding at the councils of the church.
Union of Church and State A.D.313
The pernicious effect of this first union of Church and State was soon felt. Constantine would accept no authority but his own and would resort to violent measures to enforce it. One example of this may be given:
The Arian Controversy
A notable heretic, by name Arius, advanced a code of religion which denied the divinity of Christ. He taught that the Lord had been created by God like all other beings and that, consequently, He was not co-eternal with God. The Christian bishops rightly pronounced it a horrible blasphemy; Arius and his followers received sentence of banishment from the church and the possession and circulation of his writings was constituted a capital offence. Constantine, on the other hand, regarded the heresy as a mere trifle and ordered an imperial mandate to restore the excommunicated heretics to the fellowship of the church. It was Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria who discerned the true danger in the teaching of Arius and who set his face steadfastly to oppose it. He was fully prepared to withstand the mandate of the emperor and to suffer persecution and banishment in the defence of this great central truth of Christianity – the deity of the Lord Jesus. At the Council of Nicea in 325, the deity of Christ received official sanction and was formally stated in the original Nicene Creed.
Edict of Milan A.D.313
Despite many grievous failures, it has to be admitted that Constantine effected much of real value in his day and his general legislation bears evidence of the silent underworking of Christian principles. He was responsible for drawing up the famous Edict of Milan – sometimes called the Magna Carta of Christendom. It granted the Christians free and absolute liberty to exercise their religion. It would be difficult to find a greater contrast than the position of the church at the opening and at the end of Constantine’s reign. As Miller has aptly said, “He found it imprisoned in mines, dungeons and catacombs and shut out from the light of heaven; he left it on the throne of the world”. Yet all was in fulfilment of the inspired prophecy, “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is”, Revelation 2: 13.
Commencement of the Dark Ages
The heresy of Arius was but one of many attempts by Satan during the fourth and fifth centuries to corrupt the truth. For example, one named Pelagius arose who denied the total corruption of the race through the first man’s transgression and taught that we are born in innocence, the necessity of divine grace being thus disallowed. In many cases, God sovereignly raised up one who would combat these evil doctrines, but the glory of the church was steadily waning and the terrible period of the Dark Ages was setting in. The testimony to a rejected Christ on earth and an exalted Christ in heaven – which had shone so brightly in the days of the martyrs – was now rapidly being lost, for the true character of Christians, as strangers and pilgrims, had gone in the fatal amalgamation with the world. Furthermore, since the profession of Christianity was regarded as the sure way to wealth and honour, all ranks and classes applied for baptism, while great numbers sought to join the sacred order of the clergy from the most unworthy motives.
Fall of the Roman Empire A.D. 478
It is significant that at this time the Roman Empire which had long been on the decline also, was to reach its darkest days. Hordes of barbarians began to pour into it from all parts and three times the ancient city of Rome itself was at the mercy of the invaders. Finally, they swarmed over the city like locusts, leaving only ruin and desolation in their wake. Such was the awful end of ancient Rome. It was not the Christians this time that were the object of persecution; indeed, they were scarcely touched and deference was everywhere paid to the bishops. Nevertheless, there was little recognition of God in this and the lives of the clergy were becoming notoriously bad. In Rome itself the condition of the church was so abandoned that the bishopric became, at one time, an object of competition and two candidates, in their scramble for the office, did not scruple to bring the gravest criminal charges against each other.
Rise of Monachism
It was out of this confusion and manifest declension on all sides that Monachism [i.e., monasticism - Edit.] arose. Anthony, a native of Egypt, had the doubtful honour of being the first monk. Hermits had existed before him, but he was the first to adopt the life of the cloister and to retire absolutely from the world. There is little doubt that he was a true Christian and a time of persecution drew him out of his retirement to share in the dangers of his brethren. Monachism spread rapidly and, before the end of the century, all the waste places of the Christian world were dotted over with monasteries and nunneries. There is no doubt that considerable good was derived from many of these establishments. They often proved a real haven for the sick, the poor and the traveller. Furthermore, in the silence of their cells, the early monks reproduced and thus preserved many of the ancient writings, including the Holy Scriptures themselves. All these widely scattered institutions were under the control of the bishops; but the monks were recognised only as laymen by the church. At the close of the fifth century they appealed to the pope of Rome and requested permission to place themselves under his protection – a request he was ready enough to grant, being well acquainted with their wealth and influence. Thus it was that monasteries, abbeys, priories and nunneries became subject to the See of Rome.
The division of the Roman Empire resulted finally in the division of the church which was practically complete by the end of the sixth century but was made official and final only in 1054. The Eastern and Western halves – the Greek Catholic and the Roman Catholic church thus went each its separate way.
Rise of Popery
With the sixth century begins the Thyatira period of the church’s history; in other words, the popery of the Dark Ages. It carries us on to the time of the Reformation, although, of course, Romanism itself goes on to the coming of the Lord. This state is characterised by the admission and toleration, publicly in the church, of what is grossly evil and idolatrous, as the word to the angel of the church at Thyatira suggests, “Thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not”, Revelation 2: 20-21.
Reference has already been made to the good work of Constantine, but the sad effect was that the church was more inclined to place her confidence in the Roman emperor than in her living Head in heaven. Yet there could never be a complete amalgamation of the two parties; either the state or the church must assume the pre-eminence and, for a while, the church was content to take the lower place. With the death of Constantine, the strife for supremacy began and the bishops of Rome boldly put forth their claims to universal government in the church as the successors of St. Peter. It is a significant fact, and one which exposes the errors of the roots of papacy, that although the names of the early bishops of Rome may be known in history, the order in which they succeeded each other is not known Furthermore, the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria – the respective capitals of the Asiatic and African divisions of the Empire, as Rome was of the European – were acknowledged as on an equality with the bishop of Rome.
Gregory the Great
Gregory the Great was the only pope of any note in the sixth century. He was a pious man and was responsible for a band of missionary monks, under Augustine, being sent to England. They were kindly received and a great gospel work began, although the gospel had been preached in the British Isles long before Augustine and his monks arrived. Although this period witnessed several other missionary activities, which undoubtedly resulted in many souls being converted, things were growing darker on all sides and the corrupting power of Rome was alarmingly on the increase.
Continued Decline of the Church
It was at this time that the abominable notion of purgatory was first mooted, while the simplicity of Christian worship was being buried under the pomp of ritual. The darkness which was gathering over christendom grew deeper as the years rolled on, and towards the beginning of the seventh century the ignorance of the clergy and the superstition of the people had become amazing.
Ignorance and Superstition
The Bible was but little read, the Greek language was almost forgotten and many of the clergy were unable to write their own names. The pride and avarice of the clergy found their way into the monasteries and it is no exaggeration to say that many of these places were literally honeycombed with vice. Yet who can be surprised at this state when one considers the examples of the popes, whose arrogance and pride seemed daily to increase? Their ambition was unbounded and insatiable and no means were too base to attain their ends and before long the title “Universal Bishop” became theirs by imperial authority. The foundation upon which all their subsequent pretensions were built was thus firmly laid.
Imperial Authority attained by the Pope
Nevertheless, the pope of Rome, although supreme dictator in the church, was still in subjection to the civil power, a fact which proved extremely irksome and from which successive popes strove hard to free themselves. With this end in view and in order to secure fresh converts to her cause, Rome sponsored several missionary bands. Although some of these were undoubtedly blessed of God, it is noticeable that the gospel was preached in its greatest purity by men outside the pale of the Romish church.
The Iona Missionaries
The name of Columba may well be mentioned in this connection. With a handful of other Christians, he sailed from Ireland in 565 and landed on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. For many years the monastery which he founded there was considered the light of the western world and scores of faithful missionaries went out from it to carry the gospel into every quarter of Europe.
The Rise of Mohammedanism
In 612, Mohammed, the false prophet of Arabia, appeared upon the stage of the world’s history. This is no place to go into the long story of Mohammedanism. Its fundamental doctrine is embodied in the well-known dogma of its author, “There is no god but the true God, and Mohammed is His prophet”. The religion – as set out in the Koran – is a dangerous mixture of truth and fable, but its crying sin consists in the absolute denial of the deity of Christ.
It is neither necessary nor profitable to spend long on the history of the church during the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. The papal power with its ritual and idolatry steadily increased. It is strange that this very fact only deepened the enmity between emperor and pope. The former, alarmed by the progress of Mohammedanism – whose avowed object was to exterminate idolatry and assert the unity of God – began a spirited crusade against image-worship. The latter, fully supported by the bishops and clergy, sanctioned image-worship and threatened to excommunicate from the church all who would not conform to it. This deplorable position was to get worse as one emperor yielded on the point of image-worship, joined hands with the erring pope and established idolatry as the law of the Christian church.
Another of the many evil inventions of this period was the doctrine of transubstantiation, by which it was asserted that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are actually converted into the body and blood of Christ. Blinded by the accumulated errors of superstition, Rome was willing to be misled and the dogma of transubstantiation was soon recognised as a leading and essential doctrine.
Darkness of the Dark Ages
Never was the expression, “Blind leaders of the blind”, more applicable than during this period. The clergy for the most part were living in a state of spiritual lethargy and vicious indulgence, the bishops not excepted; indeed, it was in the supreme bishop – the pope of Rome – that iniquity found a head. Their lives, even as recorded by their own historians, show, in lurid light, the downward steps towards the great apostasy. No sin was considered too foul to be perpetrated by the occupant of the papal chair, nor did there appear to be any concern as to the qualifications of the one who was to fill it. At one time it is said it was even occupied by a woman and, later, by a blasphemous and immoral youth of eighteen; while in the years just preceding the Reformation, two popes reigned conjointly, each claiming to be the representative of Christ on earth and each accusing the other, before the world, of falsehood, perjury and the most nefarious secret designs.
Faithful Witnesses in the Dark Ages
In the midst of all this appalling darkness, it is cheering to the heart to record that God never left Himself without a witness and, what has been called the “silver thread of God’s grace” may be traced running with faithful continuity throughout the whole era of the Dark Ages. Louis the Meek, a son of Charlemagne, a true Christian, figured prominently in this connection. He was instrumental in the introduction of the gospel into Denmark and Sweden. The gospel was also carried by various means, sovereignly chosen of God, to the Norwegians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Bulgars.
Ambitions of Pope Gregory VII
With the election of Hildebrand to the papal chair in 1073, the long aspiration of the Romish church to obtain universal domination of all the world was to receive partial fulfilment. The ambitions of Hildebrand – who took the title of Gregory VII – were unbounded, and the same might almost be said of the evil and heartless means he used to gratify them. His desire was to organise a vast ecclesiastical state whose ruler should be supreme over all the rulers of the earth, and Gregory did not hesitate in the suppression of any custom which he considered might be hindering the furtherance of his audacious plan. Among the more conspicuous of these suppressions was his prohibition of marriage among the clergy, a matter which brought untold misery into thousands of homes. His attempted suppression of the time-honoured privilege of kings and emperors to inaugurate their bishops and abbots immediately involved him in a quarrel with Henry IV, Emperor of Germany.
Gregory’s Quarrel with Henry IV
The refusal of Henry to bow to this and other decrees of the pope so incensed the latter that he had the audacity to summon the emperor to appear before him in Rome and, when this summons was refused, the infuriated Gregory pronounced the excommunication of the emperor from the church. At the same time, his kingdom was declared to be forfeited and his subjects absolved from their oaths of allegiance. The superstitious fears of the people, already aroused by the papal ban, were further swayed by renewed outbursts from the Vatican and civil war broke out. Gregory’s power increased as Henry’s declined, until the unhappy emperor, deserted by nearly all his subjects, humbly begged forgiveness of the pope. So callously did Gregory treat the repentant emperor, that bitter revenge was the outcome. Henry had little difficulty in collecting an army of sympathisers which he led against Rome. He succeeded in overwhelming the city, deposing Gregory and electing a new pope in his stead. The imprisoned Gregory immediately appealed for help to Robert Guiscard, a great Norman warrior. A wild and motley army was soon collected and, despite all the beseechings both of the clergy and laity that Gregory should come to terms with Henry, the pope remained adamant. He was even prepared to witness the most fearful carnage in Rome itself rather than yield his lofty pretension that the emperor should “lay down his crown and give satisfaction to the church”. No sooner was Gregory released from his prison, through the triumph of Guiscard, than he entered the conflict against Henry afresh, but his sudden death stayed the full breaking of the storm.
The Holy Wars 1094-1270
Towards the end of the eleventh century, Satan again changed his tactics. The papacy had gained little by Gregory’s struggle with the emperor and the one question still to be solved was how the spiritual power could gain complete ascendancy over the temporal. The new tactics, which the enemy, through the evil genius of Rome, suggested, were the Holy Wars. The eight Crusades which constitute the Holy Wars were spread over the whole of the twelfth and the greater part of the thirteenth centuries. Although entirely unsuccessful as regards the purpose for which they were instigated, the part they played in the development of the church of Rome justifies some reference to their motives and their prosecution.
Object of the Crusades
Complaints had been brought from the Holy Land of insults and outrages suffered by pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre, and Urban the pope was not slow to realise that the blood of Europe might be drained and its strength exhausted, if expeditions could be organised, ostensibly to rescue the sepulchre of Christ from the hands of the unbelieving Turks. This would enable him to push his temporal pretensions in a way that no preceding pope had been able to do, since the turbulent barons and powerful princes would be out of the way and there would be none to oppose him! This cunningly-devised and devilish plan bore an appearance of justice and piety and the hearts of thousands throughout Europe were captured by it. It was steeped in the wildest sentiment and superstition, crowned by a blasphemous offer from the pope of absolution from all sins to all who would take up arms in this sacred cause and the promise of eternal life to all who might die in the attempt.
First Crusade 1094
It is little wonder, therefore, that an immense rabble crowd of sixty thousand men were soon ready to set off on the first crusade to Palestine. It was doomed to failure and never even reached the Holy Land, although two-thirds of the number perished in the attempt. They were re-organised a year later and, after a long and bloody struggle, the crusaders succeeded in overwhelming Jerusalem. The carnage that followed was indescribable and the butchery of seventy thousand Mohammedans was considered creditable Christian work.
Second Crusade 1147
The second crusade, some fifty years after the first, was considerably more elaborate. The number participating had been increased to over nine hundred thousand men. It included – as was the original intention of Rome – two emperors – those of France and Germany, a whole host of their nobles and it was supported by the wealth and influence of nations.
The Preaching of Bernard
The preaching of this crusade had been entrusted to the famous Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, whose great eloquence and moral weight was undoubtedly instrumental in securing so large a number of those who rallied round the banner of the cross. But this crusade, like the first, was a miserable and humiliating failure and it is estimated that nearly a million souls perished in the enterprise.
The Children’s Crusade 1213
There is little point in giving details of the later crusades, although passing reference may be made to the fact that between the fifth and sixth crusades, an additional one composed entirely of children was organised by a shepherd boy. It is sorrowful to record that this pathetic attempt to conquer the infidels by singing hymns and saying prayers was no more successful than the others, and a large number of the ninety thousand boys who started out died through hunger and fatigue or were sold as slaves. The same unreasonable and unscriptural, but exciting, causes and the same disastrous results are apparent in each of the expeditions, although for two hundred years they were the source of enormous wealth and power to the church and of incalculable misery, ruin and degradation to the nations of Europe.
St. Bernard and Monachism
Although the last crusade carries us up to the year 1270, we must go back over one hundred years and refer briefly to the spread of the monastic life, particularly under the influence of St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. His preaching which preceded the second crusade, and to which reference has already been made, was but one of his many activities. For half a century he appeared as the leading and governing head of christendom – the oracle of all Europe. Although the idea of the monastery had been in existence since the days of Anthony, eight hundred years earlier, there is no doubt that the interest in monasticism was greatly stimulated during the life of Bernard. He himself is credited with the founding of one hundred and sixty monasteries scattered over France, Italy, Germany, England and Spain. Life in these monasteries was severe in the extreme. Working on the pious, but deluded, assumption that the further they were from man, the nearer they were to God, the monks inflicted upon themselves all kinds of torture and misery. Bernard excelled in this and spent his time in solitude and diligent study of the Scriptures. The effect of the monastic system on people generally in the Dark Ages must account for their readiness to believe anything a monk said, especially about good or evil, heaven or hell, and the monastery was even looked upon as the gate of heaven. However deluded Bernard may have been and despite that which history records which is not to his credit, there is no doubt that he was a true believer. Indeed, his link with the Lord must have been both real and precious or he would never have been able to write that hymn:
Jesus! the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.
Such touches as this confirm the earlier reference to the unbroken silver thread of God’s grace. The impression, however, must not be given that all monasteries were up to the standard of those under the control of Bernard, nor that the standard of these was maintained after his departure. In general, conditions in them were deplorably bad. Despite all this, the twelfth century witnessed the activities of several other pious men in addition to Bernard and it is a tragic example of the blinding power of popery that Bernard usually regarded these faithful witnesses as heretics.
Faithful Witnesses in the 12th Century
Of these so-called heretics, Peter de Bruys and Peter Waldo may be particularly mentioned. Their activities were similar in that they both openly denounced the corruption of the dominant church and the vices of the clergy. Waldo went the further of the two. Not only did he renounce the religious system as entirely anti-Christian, but he preached the simple gospel and, by translating the Gospels into the vulgar tongue, he placed the open Bible in the hands of the laity, a fact which only brought the pope’s ban of excommunication from the church!
Thomas à Beckett and Popery in England
A synopsis of the historical developments of the twelfth century would not be complete without some brief reference to the long quarrel between Henry II, King of England and Thomas à Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. In effect it was the old conflict between Church and State, the same battle which had been fought between Henry of Germany and Gregory the pope, but this time on English soil. Thomas à Beckett, an inflexible vassal of Rome, violently opposed the king’s inclination to check the growth of the papal power in England and had no hesitation in playing the mean part of a traitor to the king in order to gain his end. This was evidenced when Henry and his barons drew up a code of laws for the protection of his subjects from the aggression of the clergy. Beckett, immediately after subscribing his name to these laws, violated them by appealing to Rome and, then, under promise of the pope’s indulgence, refused to recognise them at all. A long and bitter struggle between Henry and Beckett ensued, but the latter, by relinquishing all his official titles and offices and retiring to the position of an austere and mortified monk, readily enlisted the sympathy of the superstitious people. Thus it was that when Beckett was murdered, more or less at the king’s command, the king was branded as an irreligious tyrant and Beckett was worshipped as a martyred saint. This unfortunate incident and the consequent humiliation of the king, when he had to walk on a lowly pilgrimage to the tomb of Beckett, there to be scourged by the willing monks, did much to spread throughout England the dominating influence of Rome.
Wickedness of the Priests
At this time, conditions in the professing church seemed, if it were possible, to be degenerating to even lower depths. Ecclesiastics of every grade were engaged in a scramble for wealth and power. The mass of the people were as ignorant as they could be and were almost entirely destitute of spirituality. Despising learning, they were thus at the mercy of the priests who saw the value of it and sought, in every way, to limit their knowledge. It has rightly been said that Europe in the twelfth century was ruled by the priests. The monasteries had become palaces in which the lordly abbots could give their sumptuous entertainments and carry on their guilty amours protected by the strong arm of Rome. The cunning priest could pretend to shake the keys of St. Peter in the face of his opponent and threaten to lock him out of heaven and to lock him up in hell if he did not obey the church. It was their avowed sanctity and their wicked perversion of scripture that gave them such power over the ignorant and superstitious. Furthermore, from the emperor to the peasant, the whole heart of every man and woman belonged to the church of Rome and was laid open to the priest. No act, scarcely a thought, was kept a secret from the father confessor. The priests thus became a kind of spiritual police to whom every man was bound to inform against himself. The fearful threats of excommunication from the church and the pains of hell for ever forced the proudest heart to yield up its secrets. Then, the kindred and equally wicked dogma of indulgences, by which sins were remitted by contributing to the treasury of the church without the necessity for the painful or humiliating process of penance, brought immense wealth into the hands of the guilty priests; and, let it be added here how frequently these very priests were perpetrating crimes of far deeper dye than those which they were reluctantly remitting for the blinded laity. But if the priests ruled the people, the pope ruled the priests. All were subject to him; and the more so, as, during that time, the dogma of the pope’s infallibility was brought prominently to the front. The “Bull of Infallibility” stated that the pope as head of the church could not err when solemnly enunciating, as binding on all the faithful, a decision on the question of faith or morals.
Summit of Papal Power
The thirteenth century is commonly distinguished as the noonday of pontifical glory. In it the great ambition of successive popes from the fifth century onwards to establish the chair of St. Peter above all other thrones, was to receive fulfilment. It was that great pope Innocent III, whose diabolical genius enabled him to surpass the achievements of all his predecessors and to secure domination over the kings of the earth. We cannot even touch on the foul means by which this end was reached, nor on the years of murder and warfare which led up to it. The crowned priest of Rome moved with a masterly hand and with the unwearied application of the whole machinery of popery that he might maintain and consolidate the absolute sovereignty of the Roman See. During this dark period, England was to come more fully beneath the iron rule of Rome than ever before.
England under the Papal Ban
So much so, that another quarrel between the king and the primate resulted in all England coming beneath the papal ban. Every activity of the church was suppressed until the ban was removed, when John, King of England, had been deposed from the throne and that at the pope’s command. Then, as though that was insufficient, the pope offered the vacated throne to the king of France! Rome, as the woman of Revelation 17, was indeed fulfilling the divinely-given prophecy that she “reigneth over the kings of the earth”.
England Surrenders to Rome 1213
John, the deposed king, was, at first, rebellious and defiant, but was later forced to bow meekly to the pope’s decree and England openly surrendered to Rome. This was on 15th May, 1213. Poor John! the most despicable tyrant that ever sat on the throne of England did not long survive this fatal move. He died in 1216 – only a few weeks after pope Innocent himself – and he died, as another has said, “his character unredeemed by one solitary virtue”.
Fresh Persecution against the Christians
Another of Innocent’s activities was to set on foot a violent persecution against the faithful converts from the preachings of Peter de Bruys and Peter Waldo. These had borne wonderful fruit, insomuch that their followers might be found in almost every country of Europe. The persecution, in the main led by the notorious Simon de Montfort, first fell on the Christians in the south of France. Thousands upon thousands were brutally massacred in the district of Languedoc. Let it be observed that this was not the army of the church going forth in holy zeal against the pagans, the Mohammedans or the deniers of Christ, but the professing church itself in arms against the true followers of Christ, against those who acknowledged His deity and the authority of the Word of God. This was something new in the annals of christendom; yet the unassailable work of God was brought to light afresh in exactly the same way as it had appeared a thousand years earlier in the faithfulness of the martyrs. In one place the armies of the pope found a number of Christian men and women praying and peacefully awaiting their end. When presented with the doctrine of Rome as the only alternative to death, they replied with one voice, "We will have none of your faith; we have renounced the church of Rome. You labour in vain, for neither death nor life shall make us renounce the truth we hold”. It is also of interest to record that many of the Waldenses and Albigenses as they were called, who escaped the sword, fled into other countries so that, under the good hand of God, the true gospel was preached in almost every part of christendom.
It was at the beginning of these wars that the inquisition, that most awful of earthly tribunals, was opened through the influence of Dominic, a Spanish monk who had had a leading part in the persecution against the Christians in the south of France. At first, its work was done secretly, but, in the year 1229, its extreme usefulness in the detection of heretics was publicly acknowledged and the council of Toulouse made it a permanent institution. It was commanded that lay inquisitors should be appointed in every parish for the detection of heretics, with full powers to enter and search all houses and buildings and to subject the suspected to whatsoever examination was thought necessary. The reading of the Word of God was publicly forbidden by Rome, and even the possession of it was considered a capital crime. This terrible tribunal was gradually introduced into the Italian states, into France, Spain and other countries, but into the British Isles it was never allowed to force its way. Into the details of the inquisition we cannot go. It is well known that the darkest deeds, the most irresponsible tyranny and inhuman cruelties that ever blackened the annals of mankind were perpetrated under the blasphemous assumption that the inquisitors were piously maintaining the rights of God in the church.
We are now approaching the intensely interesting period of the Reformation, when the proud edifice of Rome was not only to be challenged, but shaken to its very foundations. The importance of the Reformation and the place that it occupies in the history of the church make it necessary to go into it in a little greater detail than has been called for in the history so far.
Dawn of the Reformation
It seems to characterise the ways of God, that He allows evil to reach its head before intervening in judgment. How close evil came to its head in the fifteenth century is known alone to the Judge of all the earth. The whole system seemed irretrievably corrupt, while the pope – foreshadowing the man of sin – was well-nigh usurping the place of God. That divine judgment on such a scene should be suspended in order that the light of the Reformation might break in upon it, is surely a crowning tribute to the longsuffering and mercy of God. Although the full light of the reformer’s day was to shine in the person of Martin Luther in the early years of the sixteenth century, the grey streaks of dawn were clearly visible over a hundred years before Luther was born. So tremendous a work was not to be accomplished in a moment and God was steadily preparing the way for it by weakening the power of the pope over human governments and over the minds of men generally, by raising up men of ability and integrity to expose the evils of Rome.
Two Pontiffs at War with Each Other
It was at this time that two popes reigned conjointly, but the antagonism between them reached such limits that the pontiff of Rome proclaimed war against the pontiff of Avignon. This outrageous inconsistency, coupled with the terrible massacre which ensued, further weakened the papal influence, God thus sovereignly using a disintegrating element within the enemy’s camp to hasten its own downfall.
John Wycliffe has justly been described as the Morning Star of the Reformation. He was, in fact, the first reformer of christendom – the Luther of England – but the times of revival had not yet come. His scathing criticism of Rome, in which he did not hesitate to speak of the pope as the antichrist, brought forth a torrent of anathemas on his head.
First Tanslation of the Bible in English, 1380
But Wycliffe was loved by the people. He took an interest in their welfare, preached the simple gospel to them and translated the Bible into a language they could understand. At the time of his death in 1384, his followers, well known by the name of the Lollards, had become very numerous and were to be found among all classes of the community. They denied the authority of Rome and maintained the absolute supremacy of the Word of God alone. As might be expected, once the activities of the Vatican had been aroused – for the friars had supplied the pope with information as to all that was going on – they would not subside until the incorrigible heretics had been suppressed.
Persecution against the Lollards
The accession of Henry IV to the throne of England afforded Rome her opportunity. Swayed by the lying witnesses of the friars as to the revolutionary practices of the Lollards, Henry consented to a violent persecution against them and, from that time forth, for nearly a century, the flames of persecution were kept burning in England. The names of John Badby and Lord Cobham may be mentioned specifically among those who faithfully suffered martyrdom during this period.
John Huss and the Revival in Bohemia c. 1400
But while the work of God was thus being consolidated rather than exterminated by the persecution in England, a remarkable work of revival was springing up in Bohemia, particularly in the persons of John Huss and Jerome of Prague. They both openly and fearlessly avowed their sympathy with all that John Wycliffe had taught and were both in turn branded as heretics and burned. Their martyrdom, instead of purging Europe of the heresies of Wycliffe, inflamed the minds of the Bohemian people, so that a civil war broke out. Yet even this was turned to account, for it resulted in a great addition to the numbers of the so-called Hussites. There were others also whom God raised up during this period, such as John Wessel, whose whole tenor of teaching was opposed to the ways and maxims of Rome. Indeed, in proportion as the Reformation drew nigh, were the voices multiplied that proclaimed the truth.
First Printed Bibles
Before coming to the history of Luther, we may refer to the printing of the Bible at this critical period in the history of the church. The invention of printing and the manufacture of paper from rags during the latter half of the fifteenth century, resulted in copies of the Bible being printed and circulated. Translators then began their work; and by individual reformers in different countries, the Word of God was translated into various languages in the course of a few years. Thus an Italian version appeared in 1474, a Bohemian in 1475, a Dutch in 1477, a French in 1477, and a Spanish in 1478, as if heralding the approach of the coming Reformation.
To give a brief summary of the life and manifold activities of Martin Luther, so that just tribute may be paid to his great work, yet preserving, at the same time, a balance as to his shortcomings, is a difficult task. “I see in Luther”, wrote J. N. Darby, “an energy of faith, for which millions of souls ought to be thankful to God. I can truly say I am”. There can be little doubt that no one man was more used of God during the whole period between the death of the apostles and the recovery of the truth of the assembly in the early part of the nineteenth century.
State of the Church at the Time of the Reformation
It has to be remembered that, at the church at the time of Luther’s appearance, Rome’s time of the wicked substitution of a plan of salvation, based on penance or indulgence, in place of the doctrine of justification by faith, had reached appalling heights and was yielding a huge revenue to the guilty church. This revenue passed through the hands of the priests in every town and village and in most cases the wickedness and immorality of the priests themselves were notorious. It was therefore hardly to be wondered at that dissatisfaction was rapidly spreading in the hearts of men of all classes. On the positive side, the faithful testimony of the forerunners had left such an indelible impression, that thousands of pious souls had a premonition that some great revival was about to take place. All that was needed was a man to be raised up by God to lead, to counsel and to control, and these qualities were personified in Luther.
Luther’s Early Days
In fulfilment of a vow to consecrate his life to the service of God, Luther, at the age of 22, quitted the University and became a monk. His diligent study of the Scriptures led to his deep conviction of sin and he repeatedly, but vainly, tried to reform his life. His efforts and mortifications were as earnest and strenuous as they were untiring, but they were unsuccessful and even brought him to the gates of death. Luther was indeed learning the bitterness of the fallacy he was so soon to be instrumental in overthrowing. But he was not destined to remain hidden in an obscure convent. After he had been two years in the cloister, he was ordained a priest and a year after this he became professor of philosophy at the University of Wittemburg. It was at this time that the famous text, “The just shall live by faith”, powerfully laid hold of Luther’s soul. When divine light broke in on Luther and he became truly converted to God, he was still a slave of Rome and it was not until he paid a visit to the papal city that he began to detect her corruptions and to be shaken in his allegiance to her. The guilt and profanity which Luther witnessed at Rome made a deep impression on him. He returned to Wittemburg full of sorrow and indignation and continued faithfully to refute the then prevalent error of the churches that men by their works could merit the remission of sins. The firmness with which Luther relied on the Holy Scriptures imparted great authority to his teaching and it became evident that the fatal clash with Rome could not long be delayed.
Luther Openly Condemns Indulgences, 1517
It was occasioned by the visit to Wittemburg of John Tetzel, a notorious trafficker in indulgences. “I will give you letters”, said Tetzel, “all properly sealed, by which even the sins you intend to commit may be pardoned. There is no sin so great that an indulgence cannot remit. Only pay well, and all will be forgiven”. Thus was the wicked and blasphemous teaching of Tetzel and he rarely found men enlightened enough and, still more rarely, bold enough to resist him. Luther, however, did not hesitate in his condemnation of this daring impostor, and, not content with his public preaching, he went so far as to nail his famous theses to the church doors of Wittemburg. Not only did these theses expose and condemn the iniquitous practice of indulgence, but the evangelical doctrine of the free remission of sins, without any help from man’s absolutions, was there, for the first time publicly professed. This was at noon on 31st October, 1517. The effect was sensational and the news spread like wildfire throughout Europe. It must be realised, however, that Luther distinguished between the dogma of indulgences and the general teaching of papacy. He was convinced that the former was wrong; but was not yet clear as to the latter. Hence, his theses savoured a good deal of Catholicism. This fact explains the apparent indifference with which Rome received the first news from Wittemburg and the fact that nearly three years elapsed before Luther received the Pope’s bull of excommunication. What went on in Luther’s soul during that period will, perhaps, never be known. He was the object of many attacks, while reproaches and accusations were showered upon him from every quarter; even some of his closest and most faithful friends expressed their fears and disapproval of his proceeding. He had expected to see the heads of the church and the most distinguished scholars in the nation publicly unite with him; but the case was far otherwise. He felt himself alone in the church and alone against Rome.
Luther Stands Alone
It is little wonder that he was troubled and dispirited and that doubts began to fill his mind. As he himself wrote afterwards, “No one can know what my heart suffered during those first two years and into what despondency, I may say, into what despair I was sunk … for, at that time, I was ignorant of many things which, now, thank God, I know”.
But God’s good hand was behind all, for the great work which He had begun was not to be thwarted by the temporary lapse of the human agency He had sovereignly chosen for its promulgation. As further light shone into Luther’s soul, his faith and courage increased and the breach between his teaching and that of Rome became more and more apparent. Through the wise counsel of the Elector of Saxony, Luther’s true friend from first to last, a summons to him, to appear before the pope in Rome, was evaded.
Luther Excommunicated 1520
This double heresy occasioned the breaking of the storm, but his faith in his own convictions was then so strong that, when the bull of excommunication finally arrived, Luther publicly burned it and declared that the pope was the antichrist.
Rome seemed powerless and, realising the gravity of the challenge, appealed to the temporal power, Charles V, Emperor of Germany, to suppress the troublesome heretic. But the lonely voice from Wittemburg was not easily to be silenced, for, by this time, the best part of Germany was at heart with Luther. Furthermore, his writings were spreading out rapidly in every direction and it seemed that all Europe was awaiting the outcome of the impending struggle.
The Diet of Worms 1521
Although warned by many of his friends and masses of the common people, yet with his confidence firmly in God, Luther decided to go to the Diet at Worms, there to answer before Charles himself to the charges which had been brought against him. Undaunted by the presence of the emperor and a whole array of dukes, princes, counts and bishops, Luther spoke with a calm dignity which could only have been the outcome of much private wrestling in prayer with God. He acknowledged, simply, the pile of writings on the table as his own and refused to retract from them. But Luther would not stop with the mere defence of what he had already written.
Luther Denounces Rome
In the most scathing and unanswerable terms, he publicly denounced the whole system of popery and even appealed to the emperor not to allow his subjects to be beguiled by it. “I cannot”, said Luther, “submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is clear as the day that they have both frequently erred and contradicted each other … Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me! Amen!”
To the bitter annoyance of Rome, Charles seemed to be swayed by the genuine faith of the reformer and would do no more than consent to an edict of banishment. His own fear of Rome prevented him from doing less. Robbed of their prey by this means, the evil power of Rome attempted to assassinate Luther, but his safety was secured by the good Elector of Saxony and, during the temporary lull which followed, Luther, as a prisoner within the security of Wartburg castle, was able to devote his attention to the translation of the Bible.
Zwingle and the Swiss Reformation
While all this was in progress in Germany, another equally remarkable and totally independent work of God was springing up elsewhere in Europe. This was in Switzerland and the instrument which God had chosen was Ulrich Zwingle – a priest of Rome. Like Luther, Zwingle early had his eyes opened to the deplorable evils of popery and, simultaneously with this, through the wise tuition of the celebrated Thomas Wittembach, he learned the important doctrine of justification by faith and discerned to his own astonishment that the death of Christ was the only ransom for his soul. As his knowledge deepened through careful study of the Scriptures, Zwingle boldly expressed his views on church matters and thousands flocked to hear him. His message was new to his hearers and he delivered it in a language that all could understand and the full and clear gospel which he preached had everlasting results. His faith in the converting power of the word, apart altogether from man’s efforts to explain it, was great, while his quiet and unassuming answers often disarmed his adversaries. In this respect, he presents a striking contrast to the rude and stormy Luther. It should be noticed that Zwingle began to preach the gospel a year before even the name of Luther had reached Switzerland, so that, as he himself said, “ It was not from Luther that I learnt the doctrine of Christ, but from the Word of God”.
Differences between Luther and Zwingle
There was, however, an interesting difference between the teachings of these two outstanding reformers. Zwingle boldly maintained that all religious observances that could not be found in, or proved by, the Word of God, should be abolished. Luther, on the other hand, desired to maintain in the church all that was not directly or expressly contrary to the Scriptures. He even wished to remain united to the church of Rome and would have been content to purify it of all that was opposed to the Word of God. The idea of the Swiss reformer was the restoration of the church to its primitive simplicity. He reckoned nothing of absolute authority that had been written or invented since the days of the apostles.
In due time, the pope received the alarming news of the movement in Switzerland, but, instead of thundering his anathemas against Zwingle as he had done – and was still doing – against Luther, he changed his tactics, wrote a very flattering letter to Zwingle and offered him anything in his power except the chair of St. Peter. But Zwingle was no stranger to the wiles of Rome, and he did not fail to discern this subtle attempt to still his voice.
Progress in Switzerland
The proffered, but deceitful, hand of Hadrian the pope being declined, the Reformation in Switzerland rapidly gained ground, God giving abundant proofs of His own mighty hand in the great work. A decree was passed for the demolition of images, the mass was abolished and it was agreed that the Eucharist should be celebrated according to the institution of Christ. More striking still, and perhaps the most terrible blow of all for Rome, was the news of the conversion of many of the nuns and their consequent petition to the government for permission to leave the convent. In this way, and mainly as the fruit of Zwingle’s own tireless labours, did the doctrines of the Reformation spread with inconceivable rapidity and, within a few years, the reformed worship was firmly established in the three great centres of Zurich, Basle and Berne.
Zwingle’s Error and his Death, 1531
But, alas! Zwingle seemed unable to wait until the subduing power of the grace of God should bring the whole country beneath the influence of the reformed faith. Although still the sincere Christian and earnest reformer, he allowed himself to assume the character of the politician, which, in turn, forced him to take arms in order to defend the truth he held so dearly at heart.
Set-back in Switzerland
The result was calamitous. Zwingle himself as chaplain of the army fell down slain in battle, while the Reformation in Switzerland was so grievously deviated from the right path, that the restoration of popery started immediately. But the gifts and calling of God are without repentance and, although the work in Switzerland was temporarily checked through man’s unfaithfulness, it was to be established more firmly than ever a few years later through the instrumentality of John Calvin.
Luther’s Translation of the Bible, 1522
To return to Germany, everything seemed to be calling aloud for Luther. He heard the cry in the solitude of Wartburg and could not resist. Ten months after the Diet of Worms, he took his life in his hands, and although still under the ban of the emperor – as the result of which anyone recognising him might seize him – returned to Wittemburg. Six months later, his translation of the New Testament was printed and given to the world. It was received with tremendous enthusiasm and no less than 53 editions were printed in Germany alone during the first ten years of its publication. With the assistance of Melanchthon, the intimate friend and the faithful fellow-labourer of the reformer, the Old Testament was added shortly afterwards and it has been said that Luther’s gift to his fellow-countrymen of the complete Bible in their own language, did more for the consolidation and spread of the reformed doctrines than all his other writings put together.
The Effect of the Word of God in Germany
It certainly ensured that the basis of the Reformation was the Word of God and not merely the word of Luther. The Holy Scriptures – long chained beyond the reach of thirsty souls – were now accessible to all. The opposition which this aroused in papal Rome did but expose its inconsistency, for the power of the Word had to be acknowledged by those who practically denied its authority.
The good news of the Reformation spread far and wide. The time for it had come and the vast agencies of God were active in the dissemination of the truth, although opposition of one form or another seemed to meet it at every turn. It was useless for Rome to hurl abroad her anathemas, though she did so in futile anger. Her words fell on deaf ears and on hearts divinely prepared to receive instead the liberating truths which the doctrine of the reformers brought to them. Preachers were arrested, tortured and martyred, but it was of no avail. The Bible was in the hands of the people and resistance was useless.
First Diet of Spires, 1526
About this time, the three most powerful princes in Europe, Henry VIII, Charles V and Francis I, the sovereigns of England, Germany and France respectively, united in association with the pope for the suppression of the disturbers of the catholic religion. The council which they set up, however, at the Diet of Spires, produced an altogether unexpected result. Instead of delivering up the reformers to the tender mercies of Rome, they rendered thanks to God for having revived, in their time, the true doctrine of justification by faith! In spite of this defeat, and in the face of many of his nobles who favoured the Reformation, the German emperor assembled a second Diet of Spires three years later at which he demanded the submission of the German princes to the original catholic faith. But the emperor was no longer able to exert supreme authority in matters pertaining to the church and the council was again divided. To bring the matter to an issue, a decree was drawn up embodying the emperor’s demands and this was subscribed to by the catholic nobles.
Commencement of Protestantism, 1526
The reforming party in the Diet, however, were equal to the occasion and, uniting in a body, they protested against the decision of the assembly. This was the beginning of Protestantism and the Sardis period in the history of the church. The Reformation had taken bodily form. It was Luther alone who had said ‘No’ at the Diet of Worms; but churches and ministers, princes and people said ‘No’ at the Diet of Spires.
It should be sorrowfully recorded at this stage, that many Christians in escaping from popery fell into the error of putting church power into the hands of the civil magistrate or else making the church itself a depository of that power. How tragically this was witnessed in the case of Zwingle, we have already noticed. Being thus satisfied with their security, they soon settled down to their new privileges in a deplorable state of spiritual deadness, reminding us of the Lord’s word to Sardis, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead”.
The Error of Protestantism
Protestantism was thus wrong ecclesiastically from the very beginning, because it looked up to the civil ruler as the one in whose hand ecclesiastical authority was vested. The pendulum had swung almost to the other extreme, so that, instead of the church ruling the world, the world became ruler of the church.
The Confession of Augsburg 1530
When the Protestants were summoned by the German emperor to give an account of their activities and their reasons for leaving the catholic faith, they drew up – under the guidance of Luther and Melanchthon – a clear enunciation of their doctrines which was presented at the Diet of Augsburg. Under the good hand of God, a far more favourable reception than was ever expected was given to the Protestants and many staunch supporters of Rome had to bow to the convincing words and tenets of the reformers. This occasion may be taken as the time when the Reformation was definitely established in Germany.
By the multitude, Luther was looked up to as little less than a pope, and it would appear that he tended to come under the influence of this, for it has been said that on one occasion, at least, he even sacrificed the interests of the gospel in the maintenance of his own authority. Furthermore, Luther was never able to free himself entirely from the trammels of popery, and the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a dogma which he held to the last. This involved him in a bitter controversy with the great Swiss reformer Zwingle, who recoiled in horror from the doctrine of transubstantiation. But he was too stubborn to move, though Zwingle’s arguments were clear and convincing, and he even refused to shake the proffered hand of Zwingle.
Luther’s Closing Years
Luther lost much by his obstinacy and it almost seemed as though the star was beginning to set on the great reformer’s life; yet the Lord added another fifteen years to the life of His beloved – though often deluded – servant, during which time he served faithfully by lip and pen in the consolidation of the great work entrusted to him.
Reformation throughout Europe
Having gone in some detail into the history of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland and seen it firmly established in those countries well before the death of Luther in 1546, we need do little more than make passing reference to the Reformation in some of the other countries of Europe. That a similar work should spring up in several different countries at roughly the same time, only adds proof – if proof were needed – that this great work was of God.
The Reformation in French Switzerland has already been mentioned on account of the association with it of John Calvin. His name and that of William Farel are inseparably connected with the Reformation in French Switzerland and in France itself. So fierce and outspoken was Calvin’s condemnation of Rome, that he was regarded as a more dangerous and implacable enemy than Luther. In a feeble and sickly body and in a comparatively short lifetime, he accomplished a great work, but as far as the truth was concerned, Calvin went further than Luther and fell into positive error, particularly regarding the sufferings of Christ.
Persecution of the Huguenots
In France the martyrdom of the Christians, or Huguenots as the French Protestants were called, was severe in the extreme. The story of their sufferings, particularly on the night of the terrible massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, is well known and constitutes, perhaps, the most wicked and heartless massacre that has ever been perpetrated and, let it be added to her everlasting shame, Rome was loud in her joy at the news that 100,000 innocent persons had perished. Similar tragic conditions prevailed in other European countries as the Reformation developed, but, as with the early Christians, so with those of the sixteenth century, the fidelity of the martyrs only strengthened the work of revival.
The Reformation in England
Reformation calls in England for a somewhat more detailed comment, although it is inseparably interwoven with the secular history of the time. Nearly two hundred years had rolled by since the days of Wycliffe, but the spark that he kindled had never gone out and, in the sixteenth century, it was to break out into full and unquenchable flame.
The first outstanding figure after Wycliffe in the English Reformation was William Tyndale. He came to light at the time when Cardinal Wolsey, an unyielding representative of Rome, was exerting an evil influence over the country. His lavish display of wealth and ritual was well nigh introducing a kind of papacy into England. His pretension was such that, at the time of the pope’s bull of excommunication against Luther, Wolsey also issued a bull of his own against him! But Wolsey overreached himself, for the zeal with which he denounced the writings of Luther only drew attention to them and tended to awaken the slumbering interest of the English people and to prepare them for the doctrines of the Reformation. The work of Tyndale, though of outstanding significance, was largely unseen and, being martyred at the early age of forty-eight, his life of faithful testimony was not long. Amidst constant opposition, which involved his fleeing from England, Tyndale – assisted by his brother-reformer, Miles Coverdale – completed a translation of the Bible. Its reception was tremendous, for the people were thirsting for it. In an incredibly short time copies were circulated from the shores of the Channel to the borders of Scotland. The Reformation in England, perhaps to a greater extent than that on the Continent, was effected by the Word of God. This is significant, for men of outstanding personality such as Luther, Zwingle or Calvin did not appear in England.
However, what Tyndale was doing in a silent way, Hugh Latimer was doing in a more public manner by his sermons. So staunch a supporter of Rome was Latimer in his early days, that the papists thought that even Luther had found his match at last, but when God’s time had been reached, Latimer’s outlook was reversed in a moment. Remarkably converted during the confession of one of his penitents who had embraced the true Christian religion, Latimer was as bold and fearless in denouncing the doctrines of Rome as he had previously been in maintaining them. The threats of the bishops were useless and his sermons were used to the enlightening of many souls. Furthermore, the king, Henry VIII, who himself – though only for his own domestic advantage – was trying to throw off the fetters of Rome, supported the preaching of Latimer. How shallow was the interest of Henry will be evident later; indeed, only a few years before, he had willingly submitted all to the pope, and it was the pope who conferred on Henry VIII the title “Defender of the Faith” for writing against the Lutheran teachers. The papists, however, would not let Latimer rest and, on being summoned before the bishop of London on a charge of heresy, he was excommunicated and thrown into prison.
Influence of Cranmer
It was during this time that Thomas of Cranmer came to light. Though superior to Latimer in point of learning, he was behind him in loyalty to Christ and it was a long time before he had resolution enough to extricate himself from the meshes of popery. Cranmer’s counsel to Henry VIII, on the subject of the latter’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, brought him into the king’s favour and he was appointed to the See of Canterbury. Although he used his authority to secure the release of Latimer, the work of the Reformation did not progress as much as might have been expected with Cranmer in this high position. He certainly did not support the burning and torture of heretics, but he was too timid to try and suppress them and they continued at an alarming rate. It was Henry himself who was mainly responsible for the cruel persecution. Although a Romanist at heart and one who gloried in all its ritual, he refused to own the supremacy of the pope but took refuge in the independent position he had assumed, as head of the church in England.
Henry VIII Persecutes the Reformers
An agreement was made between the king and the clergy of the most infamous character. The king gave them authority to imprison and burn the reformers provided they would assist him in recovering the power usurped by the pope. In 1540 this persecution was to receive a new stimulus by the appearance of the famous Six Articles. The ostensible cause of this wicked Act was to promote the unity of Henry’s subjects on matters of religion. In reality it was a subtle artifice to place the Protestants in opposition to the law; hence the breach was only widened. It condemned to death all who opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation, auricular confession, vows of chastity and private masses, and all who supported the marriage of the clergy and the giving of the cup to the laity. Cranmer used all his influence, and even risked the king’s displeasure, to prevent its passing, but all in vain. The Romish party was still powerful, and the king’s temper became more violent than ever. Latimer was thrown into prison and hundreds soon followed him.
The Good Influence of Edward VI
With the death of Henry VIII, Edward VI ascended the throne of England with the noble ambition to make his country the vanguard of the Reformation. As he was only a boy of nine at the time of his accession, the Duke of Somerset – a genuine Protestant – was appointed protector of the kingdom. The first use Somerset made of his authority was towards abolishing the obnoxious Six Articles and when this was done, he directed his attention to other reforms, the most significant of which was the removal of the prohibition which had been placed upon the reading of the Scriptures. The young king himself was not ashamed to give the lead in this and no fewer than eleven editions of the Bible were published during his brief reign.
With the execution of the Duke of Somerset and the death of Edward at the early age of sixteen, the outlook for the Protestants seemed very threatening and, particularly, when Mary ascended the throne, for she was a bigoted catholic. Under the evil guidance of some of Rome’s wicked agencies, Mary consented to parliament’s desire to abolish the religious innovation which Cranmer and Somerset had been foremost in introducing and to restore public worship on the old basis.
Martyrdom of Latimer and Cranmer, 1555-6
As might be expected, persecution was not long in following and Latimer and Cranmer were both burned at the stake. Poor Cranmer! Timid and unstable as ever, he failed in the hour of trial and denied the faith. But, ever an object of the love of God and the restoring grace of Christ, he was recovered and displayed a fortitude in the hour of death which far outshone the feeble testimony of his checkered life. Yet God was soon to intervene and, when the crown of England passed from Mary to Elizabeth, it was the signal for the restoration of Protestantism.
Establishment of the Reformation under Elizabeth
Little credit should be given to Elizabeth personally for this. She has been described as a queen without a heart and almost without a conscience. She could be everything to everybody and was even dangerously partial to much of the ritual of the Romish church by reason of her vanity. Nevertheless, the Reformation was undoubtedly established during her reign and upon a firmer and broader basis than it had ever been.
The Reformation in Scotland
The Reformation in Scotland, when in Scotland it came, was indeed sorely needed, for the wealth of the ecclesiastical orders had become enormous and was only equalled by their greed and licentiousness, while the lives of the people were rendered burdensome by the exactions of the priests. In Scotland, as in England, the Bible was emphatically the nation’s one great teacher, although the names of Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart will ever be associated with the Reformation in that country. They both were fearless in preaching the truth and both sealed their faithful testimony with their blood.
Limitations of the Reformation
It is perhaps desirable at this stage to review very briefly the limitations and shortcomings of the Reformation, while ever paying due honour to the remarkable chain of faithful witnesses whom God raised up for the execution of this stupendous work. The doctrine of the Reformation put forth the view that Christ died to reconcile His Father to us; “a statement”, as J. N. Darby has said, “every way erroneous, confounding the name of relationship in blessing with God in His nature; and teaching what Scripture does not, that Christ’s work was to reconcile God to us, to change His mind”. The truth of the outgoing of the love of God as the free spontaneous actings of His own grace and nature was wanting in the theology of the reformers and their creeds. They had, “the Son of man must be lifted up”, and believed in its efficacy; but they had not, “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”. Furthermore, they preached justification by faith for the deliverance of souls and taught that forgiveness of sins was obtained by baptismal regeneration when establishing a system, and then tortured themselves to reconcile both. The Reformation never went beyond the truth of justification through the death and resurrection of Christ. The formation of the assembly in relationship with Christ ascended and the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, and the second coming of Christ – first to receive His saints, and then to judge the world – were not even touched upon.
The application of justification by faith – precious truth indeed in itself – was, of course, to the individual, and this very fact resulted in the transfer of power and importance from the church to the individual. The idea of the church as the dispenser of blessing was rejected; and every man was called upon to read the Bible for himself, examine for himself, believe for himself, be justified for himself, serve God for himself, as he must answer for himself. The new-born thought of the Reformation – always right, but long denied by the usurpation of Romanism – was, individual blessing first, church formation afterwards. But alas! the true idea of the Church of God was then completely lost and it was not recovered until the early part of the nineteenth century. So far, the reformers were right, but with the Lord’s own place and work in the assembly by the Holy Ghost lost sight of, men began to unite and build churches so-called, after their own minds.
A great variety of churches or religious societies speedily sprang up in many parts of christendom, each country carrying out its own Independent idea as to how the church power should churches be formed and governed. This difference of opinion resulted in the national and innumerable dissenting bodies, all independent of one another, which are still everywhere to be seen. The mind of Christ as to the character and constitution of His church seems to have been entirely overlooked by the leaders of the Reformation in their insistence on the great principle of individual faith.
With this summary as to the outcome of the Reformation in mind, we shall be the more able to fill in the history of the church, particularly in England, during the 280 years between the establishment of the Reformation and the recovery of the truth of the assembly at the opening of the nineteenth century. It may, however, be well to state here that fundamentally the character of Romanism remained unchanged by the Reformation.
The Council of Trent 1545
Indeed it took advantage of the storm, which liberated millions of souls from its thraldom, to set forth a clear confession of its faith. This was done at the Council of Trent and although canons, or articles of faith, were established then which are essentially apostate in character, the doctrinal decisions reached at that time have ever since been regarded as the authoritative summary of the Roman Catholic faith.
It was during the reign of Elizabeth that the Puritan movement was germinated. The Puritan party – headed by the martyr-bishop Hooper – strongly objected to the habits and vestments commanded to be worn and many refused to be consecrated in robes worn by the bishop of the church of Rome. Elizabeth, as we have mentioned, though opposed to popery, wished to retain as much show and pomp as possible, and thus considerable opposition arose between the court and the Puritan party. This deepened when the queen ordered exact uniformity to be maintained in all external rites and ceremonies. It resulted in a multitude of godly ministers being ejected from their churches and forbidden to preach anywhere else. In the face of much persecution these suspended Puritans formed themselves into a body and, bearing the name of Nonconformists, their numbers rapidly increased. When the vestments were generally laid aside some years later, the ground of contention was removed, but the later Puritans went further than their originators and contended not only against the forms and vestments, but against the constitution of the church of England.
Presbyterians and Independents
This resulted in the formation of two great parties, Presbyterians and Independents. The former regarded all ministers in conclave as on the same level in rank and function, the latter, repudiating both Episcopacy and Presbyterianism, held that every congregation should manage its own affairs and its own officers, independent of all human authority.
Attempts to Restore Prelacy
With the successive reigns of Charles II and James II, determined efforts were made to restore the prelacy with all its popish ceremonialism and great anxiety was felt as to whether the Reformation in England would stand or fall, but, through the grace of God, the heart of the nation was too soundly protestant to submit, and the enemy was defeated. James II abdicated and the throne was occupied by Mary and William, Prince of Orange. Under his influence, the throne of the United Kingdom was placed on a thoroughly Protestant foundation, while, at same time, the faithful Scotch Covenanters were to witness the Presbyterian Establishment firmly laid in their country.
Revivals after the Reformation
Inasmuch as the public position of the church remains very much the same today as in the reign of William, this historical summary is practically finished. We have, however, noticed before that God has ever preserved to Himself a faithful Witness and testimony to the truth apart from the public profession and never, perhaps, has this more strikingly been seen than during these closing years now under review and particularly during the last one hundred years. We must therefore, briefly, refer to some independent works of God, many of which characterised the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Higher and Lower Critics
The eighteenth century was characterised by the revival of art and literature and in the ease and luxury which became the main pursuit of the wealthy, little serious consideration seems to have been given to the pursuit of the truth of Christianity. Indeed when scholarship expended its energies on religious matters, towards the latter part of the century, it departed from the principle of faith by which all God’s activities are to be apprehended, and introduced a system of criticism which made scholarship and the purely rational mind, the criterion by which the origin and authority of the Scriptures were to be judged. This movement began in Germany and elsewhere by scholars of repute who, in their writings, cast doubt on the authority of Holy Scripture. Those who challenged the textual accuracy of the Word were called the “lower critics” and those who raised questions as to the credibility and authorship of the books of the Bible, “higher critics”. The effects of this movement, which is one of the most subtle Satan has devised to undermine the authority of the Word of God, quickly spread to England with its pernicious consequences, and the apathy which exists towards Christianity in the minds of the majority of people at the present day may be, more or less directly, traced to this attack on the Scriptures.
While these attempts were being made to overthrow pure Christianity, by casting doubt on the authority of the Word of God, the Lord was preparing His chosen servants for another revival of the truth and a further spreading of the gospel. This revival was first to be seen in the activities of the celebrated John and Charles Wesley.
With the light of the true gospel shining in their hearts, they began by holding private meetings for the promotion of personal piety. The strictness of their lives and the regularity of their habits were responsible for the title of the Methodists being subsequently given to their followers. As the work developed, John Wesley was joined by George Whitefield, a preacher of great ability and, both being clergymen of the Church of England, they began to preach the plain and simple gospel in the churches. But the truth of pardon and salvation through faith in Christ without works of human merit was too simple and too scriptural to be tolerated. The Establishment, which could only remain virile so long as it pursued with spiritual energy the truth which had brought it into issue with popery, had succumbed to the indolence, ignorance and luxury which marked the age and quickly found itself in conflict with the revivalists and closed its pulpits against them.
Preachings of Wesley and Whitefield, 1750
Thus driven outside, they were compelled to preach in the open air and their preachings were used of God to rescue people from the depths of moral darkness, leading thousands both in England and in America to the feet of Jesus. Charles Wesley, who was less vigorous in character than his brother John, but possibly more inwardly affected by the grace of God, was the hymn-writer of the movement and many of his hymns are in constant use at the present day.
While Charles wrote hymns and Whitefield preached the gospel, John became the organiser of the movement and as funds and property were acquired for the work, he insisted on an autocratic control of the organisation. At first he authorised lay preachers, but subsequently assumed the right to ordain clergy and his system became, therefore, as closely aligned to Anglicanism as the reformed churches were to Rome. As a result, no more light of the truth of God could be received by the methodists than their system would allow to be expressed functionally and this limited them to forgiveness of sins and good works. A stream cannot rise higher than its source and inasmuch as the source was in a great reformer, rather than in God Himself, it is not surprising that the death of the Wesleys was followed by a gradual deterioration in the character of the movement, and by schisms which caused it to lose its public significance, until it found its level among the many sects of christendom.
Foreign Missions Established, 1792
We cannot go into the details of other more local revivals during the eighteenth century, but passing reference should be made to the establishment, at that time, of several foreign missionary societies, particularly through the activities of William Carey, as well as to the inauguration of Sunday schools for children. It was a period of considerable evangelical activity and was undoubtedly much blessed of God.
Philadelphian and Laodicean states of the church
It was all clearly part of the general preliminary work prior to the appearing of what might be spoken of as the Philadelphian state of the church’s history, where those who kept the Lord’s word and had not denied His name, followed in the faithful train of the reformers and Puritans. All this was in contrast to the outward state of professing christendom. Laodicea marks the closing phase of the history of the church as a collective witness for God and is characterised, not by doctrinal error or moral lapse, but by lukewarmness and self-satisfaction.
In order to assess rightly the various religious movements of the nineteenth century, it is necessary to consider both those whose influences and effects have been readily discernible to the general public and the more obscure movements resulting from the works of outstanding ministers of the Word of God who shunned publicity.
If we consider first the more public movements, we find the moral fruits of the Wesleyan revival expressed in the “Evangelical” movement headed by such men as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury, who interpreted in political actions, such as the abolition of slavery and general measures of reform, the plain and literal teaching of the Scriptures. These men were a real moral force in their day. In partial opposition to this influence, the “Anglo Catholic” or “Oxford Movement” was developed in the 1830’s under the leadership of J. H. (afterwards Cardinal) Newman, E. B. Pusey and J. Keble. They were also called “Tractarians” because they issued tracts arousing the clergy to the defence of their orders and arguing that only by subscribing to the theory of an indivisible catholic church could they preserve their status and rights. This movement was again opposed by evangelical clergymen such as Charles Kingsley and F. D. Maurice, who together with Thomas Hughes, formed the “Christian Socialist” movement of the 1860’s. All these movements occasioned much public controversy but had little lasting moral effect on people generally.
Christianity and Science in Conflict
A much deeper stir was caused when science entered into conflict with Christianity. In 1830 Sir Charles Lyell published his “Principles of Geology”. Through failure to perceive the immeasurable gap of time between the first and second verses of the Bible, his arguments were accepted by many as constituting a successful challenge to the teaching of the Scriptures on the subject of creation, and the spirit of scepticism generated by the higher and lower critics received further impetus from this source. This tendency was deepened by the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and his “Descent of Man” in 1871. Although these theories have been discounted by subsequent scientific discoveries [today, as this is posted in 2017, these theories are accounted by many in mainstream science to be, essentially, fact - albeit, that they are, in title and fact, "theories" - Edit], they had the effect at that time of shaking the confidence of millions in the authority of the Holy Scriptures and are largely responsible for the general apathy towards, and ignorance of, the Word of God which exists today.
Salvation Army Started, 1878
One further public development which merits reference was the formation of the Salvation Army in 1878 by William Booth. This was a powerful evangelical movement designed to reclaim drunkards and others, steeped in the vices of the age, by the fervent preaching of a simple gospel. So long as the movement was sustained by faith in God and adherence to its original motives, it was very successful. The founder’s idea was to clothe every convert in a uniform that marked him out publicly as a disciple of Christ. This often brought bitter persecution on the converts, but called forth a lively testimony to the power of the Gospel. In process of time evangelical fervour waned and the movement sank to the level of a social relief organisation, governed by leaders appointed for their business ability.
The Truth in Obscurity
We may now turn to some of the more obscure, but deeply important, developments of spiritual life in the nineteenth century. At the outset of it Dr. Augustus Neander, a German Jew converted in his early years to Christianity, was lecturing at Berlin University to enthralled audiences on the great truths of Christianity. He was a man of great learning and based his ministry purely on the Word of God, and in so doing, revived many important truths which had become obscured for centuries. He saw clearly that there was no authority in Scripture for a clergy exercising a mediatorial office between God and men, and held that all Christians were priests in virtue of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit and having access to the holiest of God’s presence. He did not, however, initiate any movement to give effect to his teaching and contented himself with lecturing at the University. In Switzerland and in France Dr. J. H. Merle D’ Aubigne – who himself had studied under Neander at Berlin – pursued a somewhat similar line of teaching and devoted much of his time to compiling his vast History of the Reformation.
J. N. Darby, 1830
In England and in Ireland a simultaneous movement began among persons totally unknown one to another. There was an independent work of the Spirit of God in the hearts and consciences of many faithful followers of Christ, of whom J.N. Darby, Edward Cronin, J.G. Bellett, A. N. Groves and G.V. Wigram ay be specifically mentioned. J. N. Darby, who was a scholar of considerable renown and a barrister, was converted by reading the Holy Scriptures. In his early years he accepted a Protestant curacy in Southern Ireland, but later became much impressed with the truth that a glorified Christ was Head of the church, from which he deduced that there must be an organism on earth, a spiritual body, in which His headship should be expressed. The call of this truth led him out of his ecclesiastical associations, like Abraham of old, who, called of God, obeyed to go out, not knowing whither he was going – Hebrews 11: 8. Simultaneously other men were similarly moved, by the study of Scripture, to judge the sacerdotal system as iniquitous, inasmuch as all Christians are brought into the same place of nearness and liberty with God by the Gospel, and as receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit become members of the Body of Christ. Hence any system ruled by an official priest denies the first of these cardinal truths, and any assumption of exclusive rights to minister, denies the second.
The recognition of these all-important truths caused these Christians to forsake associations which denied them, and to meet together in all simplicity to partake of the Lord's Supper as it was inaugurated by the Lord and according to the inspired teaching of the Apostle Paul. They recognised the personal presence of the Holy Spirit and His sovereign disposition of power as the channel for the ministry of the Word of God, while the Holy Scriptures were recognised as the only infallible criterion of truth and error. This movement, which started in Dublin and southern England about 1832, soon spread with considerable rapidity through the preaching of the Gospel and the ministry of the Word. Gatherings thus formed on the acceptance of the principle, that separation from iniquity provided the only true basis for unity, sprang up all over England and in France, Switzerland, Germany and all the English-speaking countries of the world.
Revival of the Heavenly Character of the Church
The very fact that this work began simultaneously – yet independently – in many parts of the world, proved, as it had done three hundred years earlier at the Reformation, that God Himself was at work. The distinctive heavenly and heavenly calling of the church – or character of assembly – and the consequent need of the church separateness from evil – both ecclesiastical as well as moral – were the keynotes of this revival, while the simplicity and joy of the early days of the church’s history were revived in many a little gathering.
The persons who met together in this fashion assumed no public status, and allowed themselves to be called by the name of “Brethren”. In the acceptance of this designation it was in no sense narrower than that conveyed by the Lord’s own words: “One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren”. They inaugurated nothing new, nor did they attempt to reform things. They simply recognised that the assembly was still here and that they formed part of it, notwithstanding the public ruin.
The Truth Compromised
As time went on, however, the truth and principles which governed J. N. Darby and others were not maintained by all who professedly took the ground of separation from the Establishment and the sects, and various crises have arisen among Brethren. The truth of Christ and the assembly, not being maintained in spiritual power, led to differences of judgment and soon disclosed the presence of some who were prepared to accept a lower or compromised standard. For example, there were those who held that the assembly in its universal aspect had become invisible and that nothing now remained but to set up local assemblies, each being self-contained and having no responsibility towards other such bodies. Each would thus be free to receive any individual believer, supposed to be perfectly sound in the faith, without taking any account of the associations with which he might be connected. The truth of the assembly in its general unity – so strenuously maintained by J. N. Darby – then lost its due place, the door for compromising with evil stood wide open and the course of the testimony during the last one hundred years has repeatedly been marked by conflict. Nevertheless, the original movement, following the revival of the 1830’s has been maintained and expanded among many who seek in humility and in the energy of divine grace “earnestly to contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints".
The results of this conflict for the faith, and of Satan’s activity to corrupt the truth, are borne witness to everywhere today by the existence of scores of different religious sects. It is one of the most humbling and sorrowful facts that such conditions should characterise the closing days of the church’s history.
The public ruin of the church and the outward smallness and weakness of those in it who seek to keep the Lord’s word and not to deny His name, all become the more evident as we contrast them with the great apostate things, the things of the world, whether civil or ecclesiastical, which are advancing in outward strength and magnificence as their day of judgment approaches. Yet all is in full accord with inspired prophecy. The vast pretensions of the great apostasy are vividly portrayed in the pages of Holy Scripture, while there is no New Testament promise that the church shall recover her consistency and beauty before her translation.
Such then is the position confronting us at the present period in the public history of the church and, surely, the completion of the history cannot long be delayed now. In the words of another, the church is about to pass from her ruins to her glory, while the world goes from its magnificence to its judgment.
AN OPENED DOOR
The history which forms the substance of this book closes with a reference to the many different religious sects and denominations, the existence of which characterises the present day. On account of this, some sense of bewilderment may arise in the mind of an exercised reader and a desire to know in which direction he should turn. It is in order to indicate any light or guidance which God Himself may have given prophetically through the Holy Scriptures on the subject that this additional section is given. In the light of the Lord’s own words, “ If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God”, John 7: 17; we may rest assured that God will never have an honest enquirer remain in uncertainty as to the truth and light which should govern any position at any time. In appealing to the Word of God, it is assumed that its inspiration and authority are accepted unequivocally by the reader and that there is a readiness to allow the word to have its full effect upon the conscience and subsequently to control the actions. In the spirit of dependent and earnest enquiry, we may therefore ask, “What saith the Scripture”?
In the first place, we are left in no doubt that, however deep may be the darkness of the last days, what is of God remains and is never subject to any failure or decline. In recording the sorrowful ruin of the church and the breakdown of what is public, it is of all importance to recognise this. Divine standards are invariable and the Holy Spirit of God – spoken of by the Lord as “the Spirit of truth”, John 15: 26 – is here to maintain all that is of God, until the coming of the Lord and the completion of the church’s history on earth.
Paul, John, Peter and Jude all refer to the conditions of the last days and all, in their own way, cling to the unfading light of divine truth in the face of apostate darkness. Peter, for example, in the second chapter of his second epistle, describes the time of apostasy in the most solemn words and yet in that very chapter he speaks of "the way of truth”, verse 2; “the right way”, verse 15; and “the way of righteousness”, verse 21; as though to stress the fact that there is a way even amidst such conditions. Then Paul, in his second epistle to Timothy, refers to the last and perilous days, but brings in, at the same time, the word: “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure”, and, “The Lord knoweth them that are His”, 2 Timothy 2: 19.
Now these words of the Apostle Paul, which must bring comfort to the heart of every lover of the Lord Jesus, are immediately followed by this word to the conscience: “And, let everyone that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity”. Professing christendom is likened, in that passage, to “a great house” in which are vessels both to honour and to dishonour and if anyone is to be serviceable to the Master, the passage indicates that it can only be as purifying himself, by separating from vessels to dishonour. What then are meant by “departing from iniquity” and “separating from vessels to dishonour”?
It is clear from scriptures such as Leviticus 5: 15 that iniquity “in the holy things of the Lord” is as solemn as the violation of moral principles between men, and it is the former whose true character has to be discerned before a right understanding of iniquity according to God can be known or a judgment upon it formed. When the Lord is presented in His judicial glory in the Revelation, His eyes are said to be “as a flame of fire”. It is thus that He observes what is transpiring in the church and seven times over He says, “I know thy works”. We need ever to bear this in mind if we are to be preserved from falling into the error of judging according to the degraded standards of fallen man.
The intrusion of the hand of man into the holy things of God, with all its widespread implications within the Christian profession, has been justly designated as iniquity and the call now is: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord”, 2 Corinthians. 6: 17. In the words of J. N. Darby, “God is working in the midst of evil to produce a unity of which He is the centre and the spring and which owns dependently His authority. He does not do it yet by the judicial clearing away of the wicked: He cannot unite with the wicked or have a union which serves them. How can it be then, this union? He separates the called from the evil, ‘Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.’ This is God’s way of gathering. Since evil exists there cannot be union, of which the holy God is the centre and power, but by separation from it. Separation is the first element of unity and union … Separation from evil is the necessary consequence of the presence of the Spirit of God under all circumstances as to conduct and fellowship”.
In this way, J. N. Darby – readily discerning the great departure of the Christian profession from the truth and humbly owning his part in the responsibility of it – recognised that scripture provided an open door by which to escape from things which are both inconsistent with the truth and with the fellowship to which he, as a believer, was called. He, therefore, separated entirely from all systems characterised by human order or clerical office or where a sectarian bond was recognised, and his reasons for doing so are laid out in the following extracts from one of his own writings. They contain one of the most solemn indictments of the Christian profession that has ever been written and deserve the careful and prayerful study of all who are exercised about the present state of christendom:
“After I had been converted six or seven years, I learned by divine teaching what the Lord says in John 14, `In that day ye shall know … ye are in me, and I in you’ – “that I was one with Christ before God, and I found peace, and I have never, with many shortcomings, lost it since. The same truth brought me out of the Establishment. I saw that the true Church was composed of those who were thus united to Christ … “The presence of the Spirit of God, the promised Comforter, had then become a deep conviction of my soul from Scripture. This soon applied itself to ministry. I said to myself, if Paul came here, he could not preach, he has no letters of orders; if the bitterest opponent of his doctrine came who had, he would according to the system, be entitled. It is not a wicked man slipping in – that may happen anywhere – it is the system itself. The system is wrong. It substitutes man for God. True ministry is the gift and the power of God’s Spirit, not man’s appointment … “I believe the `Notion of a Clergyman' to be the sin against the Holy Ghost in this dispensation. I am not talking of individuals wilfully committing it, but that the thing itself is such as regards this dispensation and must result in its destruction. The substitution of something else for the power and presence of that holy, blessed, and blessing Spirit, is the sin by which this dispensation is characterised”.
Many subsequently have been led to a similar judgment and accepting the authoritative character of the Word of God, they have separated from anything which is not in accordance with it.
This procedure is strikingly set out in type for us in Exodus 32 and 33. The people of God, in that day, had already separated from that which spoke of the world – Egypt – but they had fallen into the sin of idolatry by worshipping a golden calf. God Himself was displaced in the minds and affections of His people, His wrath had waxed hot against them and He had spoken to Moses of consuming them. In the face of all this, Moses – beautiful type of Christ! – stood in the gate of the camp and appealed to any who were on the Lord’s side to come unto him. Yet more was needed than the owning of the Lord’s authority; for purpose of heart had to be translated into positive movement and Moses proceeded to pitch the Tent of Meeting outside the camp. The door was thus opened for anyone who sought Jehovah to go out unto Him there.
All this typical instruction is carried forward into our own dispensation and is most touchingly linked up with the death of Christ, as it says in Hebrews 13: 12-13, “Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing his reproach”. Could any exhortation be more affecting to a sensitive conscience?
The initial move has, therefore, clearly to be in relation to the Lord Himself. Separation must be to Him and a preparedness, if needs be, to walk alone. But the word in Timothy goes on to say, “but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart”, 2 Timothy 2: 22. In entering a path that is right according to divine principles, the believer is contemplated as immediately finding others calling upon the Lord out of a pure heart. They are thus able to walk in bonds of happy and holy fellowship together, and since this path is clearly open to all believers who are prepared to recognise the scriptural instruction of 2 Timothy, it is possible and correct to say that no sectarian ground has been taken. It is of all importance to recognise this, since the setting up of any fresh sect or system would but add to the confusion and deny the true unity of the church of Christ. Those who move in this way do not claim to be “the church” but they seek to walk in the light of it, recognising that the firm foundation of God still stands and all that Paul established in a public way – and which he spoke of as “the commandments of the Lord” – is still in existence. Although error and failure have been found among the people of God, every divine principle governing the assembly externally and internally can operate practically today in spite of the weakness.
It is in the acceptance of a pathway of separation from all that is inconsistent with the truth of God, or where the liberty of the Holy Spirit is hindered, that Christians today may find the divine way out of all the admitted confusion and may consequently know the joy of being available to the Lord Jesus and of having part in the praise and worship of God in the assembly.
Every indication now is that we are in the closing days of christendom. The church is very near the end of her sojourn here on earth and is about to be caught up to meet her Lord in the air. The holy privilege of ministering joy to His heart in this, still the time of His rejection, is almost over. The days of witnessing to a rejected Christ on earth and an exalted Christ in glory will soon have passed. The public history is nearly completed and professing christendom – as so obnoxious to the Lord – is about to be spued out of His mouth. Let every Christian reader search his heart, his position and his associations in the light of these solemn facts, for what should be the position of those who desire to keep the Lord’s word and not to deny His name? It is for such that the Lord’s gracious provision is made, “Behold, I have set before thee an open door”, Revelation 3: 8. The instructions of Scripture are clear and explicit; have we the desire and the courage to move in accordance with them?
Note 1 – There seems a good deal of justification for the statement that “Constantine was a heathen in heart and a Christian only for military motives”. His imperial standard, which prominently displayed the symbol of the cross, also bore an image of the emperor in gold and it was intended to be an object of worship for both heathen and Christian soldiers. Furthermore, although recognised as head of the church, he never relinquished his tide of “high priest” of the heathen.
Note 2 – In order to give the reader some indication of what the papal ban meant in England in the Dark Ages, the following account, taken from Miller, will be serviceable: “In a moment, all divine offices throughout the kingdom ceased, except the rite of baptism and extreme unction. From Berwick to the British Channel, from Land’s End to Dover, the churches were closed, the bells were silent; the only clergy who were seen stealing silently about were those who were to baptise new-born infants, or hear the confession of the dying. The dead were cast out of the towns, buried like dogs in some unconsecrated place, without prayer, without the tolling bell, without funeral rite. "Those only can judge the effect of a papal interdict who consider how completely the whole life of all orders was affected by the ritual and daily ordinances of the church. Every important act was done under the counsel of the priest or the monk. The festivals of the church were the only holidays, the processions of the church the only spectacles, the ceremonies of the church the only amusements. "To hear no prayer nor chant, to suppose that the world was surrendered to the unrestrained power of the devil and his evil spirits, with no saint to intercede, no sacrifice to avert the wrath of God; when no single image was exposed to view, not a cross unveiled; the intercourse between man and God utterly broken off; souls left to perish, or but reluctantly permitted absolution in the instant of death. "And, in order to inspire a deeper gloom and fanaticism, the hair was to be left uncut and the beard unshaven, the use of meat was forbidden and even the ordinary salutation was prohibited”.
Miller’s Church History, 2: 445.
Note 3 – Luther’s entire dependence on God was perhaps never more strikingly seen than during the hours which immediately preceded his making his defence before the Diet of Worms. His prayer at that time, as overheard and recorded by a friend, is quoted here from D’Aubigne:
“O Almighty and Everlasting God! How terrible is this world! Behold, it openeth its mouth to swallow me up, and I have so little trust in Thee! … How weak is the flesh and how powerful is Satan! If it is in the strength of this world only that I must put my trust, all is over! … My last hour is come, my condemnation has been pronounced! … O God! O God! … O God! do Thou help me against all the wisdom of the world! Do this; Thou shouldest do this … Thou alone … for this is not my work, but Thine. I have nothing to do here, nothing to contend for with these great ones of the world! I should desire to see my days flow on peaceful and happy. But the cause is Thine … and it is a righteous and eternal cause. O Lord! help me! Faithful and unchangeable God! In no man do I place my trust. It would be vain! All that is of man is uncertain; all that cometh of man fails … O God! my God, hearest Thou me not? … My God, art Thou dead? … No! Thou canst not die! Thou hidest Thyself only! Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it well! … Act, then, O God … stand at my side, for the sake of Thy well-beloved Jesus Christ, who is my defence, my shield and my strong tower. Lord! where stayest Thou? … O my God! where art Thou? … Come! come! I am ready! … I am ready to lay down my life for Thy truth … patient as a lamb. For it is the cause of justice – it is Thine! … I will never separate myself from Thee, neither now nor through eternity! … And though the world should be filled with devils – though my body, which is still the work of Thy hands, should be slain, be stretched upon the pavement, be cut in pieces … reduced to ashes … my soul is Thine! Yes! I have the assurance of Thy word. My soul belongs to Thee! It shall abide for ever with Thee … Amen! … O God! help me! … Amen”.
D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, 2: 242.
Note 4 – Luther’s own comment on the part played by Melanchthon in the German Reformation is worthy of inclusion. He said:
“I am born to be a rough controversialist; I clear the ground, pull up the weeds, fill up the ditches, and smooth the roads. But to build, to plant, to sow, to water, to adorn the country, belongs, by the grace of God, to Philip Melanchthon”.
Note 5 – Calvin maintained that Christ’s living sufferings went up to God to make righteousness by atonement and that His life as well as His death and even His suffering, as he said, the torments of hell, were needed to complete our righteousness. In writing thus, it is probable that he intended to distinguish the corporal death of the Lord from His suffering what was due to sin and sins in the righteous judgment of God. Calvin also regarded believers as justified before they were born and that faith merely gave them the knowledge of it. Despite these erroneous interpretations of Scripture, J. N. Darby’s comments on Calvin are interesting. He said: “I may see a clearness and recognition of the authority of scripture in Calvin, which delivered him and those he taught – yet more than Luther – from the corruptions and superstitions which had overwhelmed Christendom, and through it the minds of most saints”.
Note 6 – A remarkable feature of the Evangelical revival in the eighteenth century was the large number of hymns which were written about that time, as for example:
“When I survey the wondrous cross”, by I. Watts, 1707;
“Love Divine, all loves excelling”, by C. Wesley, 1747;
“Rock of Ages”, by A. M. Toplady, 1775;
“God moves in a mysterious way”, by W. Cowper, 1779; and
“How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds”, by J. Newton, 1779.
ADDENDUM BY EDITOR: The word “brethren” was first used in the foregoing “Synopsis” under the heading “Revival of the Heavenly Character of the Church”. It should be noted here again that the word “brethren” simply applies, according to Scripture, to all true believing Christians (“One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren” — Matthew 23:8). In the Greek of the NT It simply means “brother” in the singular (“brethren” being the plural), and is the word constantly used by the Holy Spirit throughout the Old and New Testaments as a designation for the people of God. It is probably the best term to use to refer to a true Christian, especially as the word “Christian” carries, today, additional meaning — i.e., such as anyone who calls themselves Christian whether saved or not saved.
It is well to know that the discord and failures among those spoken of in the “Synopsis” as brethren eventually resulted in more divisions, and a level of deplorable failure possibly as great as any failure throughout the history of Christianity. Some today use the terms “Open Brethren”, “Closed Brethren” — and, even subsets of those labels to mark some of these divisions. It is important to be aware that a movement commenced in the mid-1950’s among thousands of those referred to as “Brethren” that caused world-wide division and incalculable sorrow. Family ties were unconscionably sundered, there were suicides, many despaired, unscriptural rules and edicts became the order of the day, and a general atmosphere was prevalent in which good was called evil, and evil called good (Isaiah 5:20). Ultimately, a single man ruled with self-centered authority, and his decisions were proclaimed to be as binding as Scripture itself.
Today in early 2019, as this Addendum is written, this sect is still relatively prominent, and its adherents are said to number 46,000. Power is still centered in one man — having been passed down through some generations — and practices of this sect have come under considerable scrutiny by the governments in Europe and Australia. They currently style themselves as the “Plymouth Brethren Christian Church”; but, however, pious sounding the name, in practice it is only a sect. That there are real, believing Christians in its ranks is undoubtedly true; however, as a body, they greatly besmirch the name of the Christ that they profess.
The above has been written here to highlight the simple reality that the movement of so many individual Christians commencing in the early 19th century was undoubtedly engendered by the Holy Spirit, and was faithful to the precepts of Scripture that govern the nature of, and Spirit-led, activity in God’s Assembly/Church. On the other hand, this sect as noted above — while purportedly seeking to trace a clear ancestry to the spiritual work of those in the 1900’s — yet continues to hold practices both in direct contradiction to Scripture and, also, at odds with the spirit and activity of those many brethren commencing almost 200 years ago.
It is important to make this distinction, as there is an understandable tendency today in the public eye to lump this current, flagrantly unscriptural sect with those who, as noted above, had come out from clerical systems around the world to meet in simplicity according to Biblical teaching. This is, perhaps, more important to understand currently as there is evidently a growing unrest by many Christians everywhere to find, in distinction to what is seen in main-stream Christendom at the present time, a clear, Biblical basis for righteously meeting together in fellowship.