There were many other non-Catholic groups around at the time but it would be wrong to include them all on our list of “good guys”, simply because they spoke up against the mainstream Church. Many of them actually were heretical, peddling a corruption of the Christian faith, though a different corruption from that practiced by the Catholics of the day. The Catholic Church persecuted them, usually to extinction.
One such group were the Albigenses of Southern France. The Catholic Encyclopaedia got it right in their definition this time, calling them a neo-Manichaean sect. Although they were marked by their humility and clean living and their disdain for the pomp and corruption of the Catholic Church, their theology was markedly Manichaean. The dualism of Plato had taken hold and they held a distinction between the evil physical world and the pure spiritual world, leading to a totally corrupted view of Christian doctrine and practice. The other group that had appeared in France at around the same time were the Cathars, a slang term meant as an insult. They had very similar beliefs to the Albigenses and were eventually wiped out by the Catholic inquisition.
But now back to England. It is the 14th Century and a remarkable man steps onto the stage. This is John Wycliffe, the man who had both the cheek and the grace to translate the Bible from the Latin into English, something unheard of in the Catholic World, where the clear words of Scripture were hidden from the common man. As a result of this, he made a remarkable discovery that was to revolutionise the Christian faith and start a process that led to the sweeping changes of the Reformation many years later. His discovery was …. the Word of God. Through translating the Bible into English, its very words began to grip his soul and others who followed him. These were the Lollards, a derisive name (the ‘babblers’) given to them by others, a movement labelled a heresy by the Pope and also resisted in this country by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It resulted in the first execution of a layman in England as a heretic; that was John Badby in the 15th Century.
A man called Jerome had listened intently to Wycliffe’s sermons in Oxford and took the message of reform for the Catholic Church back to his home city of Prague, in Central Europe. He in turn was listened to by John Huss, a man already influenced by the Waldenses and a new movement was born, the Hussites. Huss was immediately excommunicated by the Pope, who also publicly burned Wycliffe’s writings, then a few years later, both Jerome and Huss were burned at the stake. This was serious business, indeed.
Many years earlier our old acquaintance Tertullian had said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. God had ensured that Jerome and Huss didn’t die in vain. Around fifty years after John Huss’s death a group of his followers, the Bohemian Brethren, morphed into the Moravians, one of the first true Protestant Churches. In the early 18th Century, under the leadership of the German nobleman, Count Zinzendorf, they had an encounter with God. On August 13th 1727 the Holy Spirit came down on a group of them with such power that, according to one of them, “we hardly knew whether we belonged to earth or had already gone to Heaven.” It was a revival.
Out of this came the following: A 24/7 prayer initiative that lasted 100 years, the first ever publication of a daily devotional, the planting of 30 churches, the formation of hundreds of “house churches” and the first ever Protestant mission movement, sending out hundreds of missionaries all over the world. Beat that Toronto, Pensacola, Lakeland!
In 1738, one such missionary, Peter Boehler, had a meeting in London with one John Wesley, informing him that what he needed was true saving faith. Three months later, during a meeting in Aldersgate Street, Wesley relates, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Thus was born Methodism, that started out as a major revival of the Church of England, before becoming a denomination of its own. It is perhaps safe to say that this was the first time the visible and the invisible Churches crossed paths, without bloodshed. The Church of England, a dissident branch of the established Western Church with its roots in Rome and the ideas of the Greek philosophers had collided with the fruit of the long history of the dissident Church, from the Paulicians and Waldenses through to the Lollards, Hussites and Moravians. And the result was … revival! England and the USA were transformed by the Methodists, who took God to the people, with their relentless open-air preaching. They transformed society from the bottom up.
The Methodists were very disciplined in their religious life and practices, with an emphasis on personal holiness, living the life that they preached (which has not always been the case with Christians). They had regular private devotions and met daily for prayer and Bible study. Eventually they organised themselves into regional groups, stressing discipleship, fellowship and pastoral care. Eventually they split from the Anglicans and became a worldwide movement, still active today, albeit without the doctrinal purity of those early days.
I think my point has been made. Church history is not just about the main stories, the familiar stories promoted by the Catholics and the Protestants and the conflicts between them. Such has been the visible Church, the one with the ear of the historians. But, as I have shown, there has been a second, “alternative” Church in Europe, living in the margins, often hidden out of fear of persecution, but a Church without which the Reformation may never have happened. This is the Church largely unsullied by Greek philosophy. I have presented just a flavour of their activities and importance and, of course this has not been an unbroken line, though it was interesting to trace a path from Wycliffe in Oxford to Wesley in London, by way of Prague, Bohemia and Moravia.
There are probably many stories yet untold, through lack of historical material, largely thanks to the state-church-sponsored medieval book burnings. But it is fair to say that God has always preserved a faithful remnant, a Church holding on to Biblical principles and living their lives accordingly. And what were these Biblical principles that informed their actions? This is where we are journeying to next, to try and get inside the heads of the very first Christians …
Who was responsible for the greatest prayer initiative in the history of the Church?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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