It may come as a surprise to many that long before the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, there were Christians usually thought of as sectarians or heretics who were not a part of the larger Eastern or Western churches.
In the previous two articles we saw how such groups known as Ebionites, Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigenses, Cathars, Patarenes and numerous other sprang up in Western Asia and on the European continent. Some of these groups were heretical and departed far from scriptural norms. Others often labeled sectarians sought to reestablish truths of the Bible no longer found in “Christianity”.
Each of these groups struggled for existence. Most who survived persecution were absorbed into the mainstreams of Christianity in the East and West. But there were always small groups of scattered, often persecuted, Christians who clung to their beliefs.
We now turn our attention to the latter part of the 12th century a time that provides one of the most interesting and exciting periods in Church history. In the city of Lyons in the southeast of France lived a wealthy merchant named Peter Waldo. His name in the local language was Pierre Valdes. Waldo would institute a movement that perhaps was to have more of an effect than any since the time of the apostles trained by Jesus Christ.
The story is told in many treatises on Church history, but we refer our readers particularly to History of the Waldenses of Italy from Their Origin to the Reformation by Emilio Comba, and The History of the Christian Church, From the Birth of Christ to the XVIII Century: Including the Very Interesting Account of the Waldenses and Albigenses by William Jones.
The story begins in about A.D. 1170 in the city of Lyons. At a town gathering, one of Peter Waldo’s friends collapsed dead at his side. This had a dramatic effect on Waldo. “What,” he wondered, “would happen to me should I die?”
He turned to a theologian in his local parish, asking what he should do with his life to attain perfection. “Ah,” answered the priest, reciting the words of Jesus, “If you would become perfect, go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come take up your cross and follow me.” Inspired by those words, Peter Waldo determined to do just that.
In practical fact, he took a vow of poverty, sold his possessions and began distribution of his wealth. He made provision for his wife and children and gave much to the poor. With the remainder of his money, Peter did something very unusual. He commissioned parts of the Bible to be translated into the vernacular French of his day an act virtually unheard of.
The officially accepted text of the Bible of the Church in the West was in Latin, translated centuries earlier from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Of course few of the laity could read and understand Latin. That effectively meant only the educated few had access to the Scriptures.
Waldo’s bold move now began to put the Bible into the hands of ordinary people. Armed with only his new translations in the local language and his zeal to serve Christ, Peter Waldo began to preach. He brought to his sermons that practical common sense that had guided him in his business transactions.
The word of Christ was clear enough. It was simply a matter of furnishing a readable translation. For several years, Waldo preached within the confines of the Western Church, on one occasion even traveling to Rome to seek permission from the Pope. Pope Alexander III approved his living in poverty, but rejected his petition to preach the gospel.
But Waldo felt compelled to discuss his understanding of the Scriptures with all who would listen. And many began to listen, first in the Alpine regions of Europe, then in lands beyond.
Albert Henry Newman writes about Waldo and his disciples in his Ancient and Medieval Church History (A.D. 1517): “The Archbishop of Lyons forbade their preaching, on the ground that they were laymen; but they replied: “We must obey God rather than men” (p. 570).
So, by 1184, Waldo and his followers, called the Poor Men of Lyons, were expelled from the church. But this did not deter them. They continued to meet, often in secret, and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ as best they could.
Copies of the Bible they had made were sometimes confiscated by religious authorities. New copies were then made as quickly as possible. Even more amazing, because copies of the Scriptures were so few and far between, Waldo and his followers memorized large sections of Holy Scripture.
Those who opposed them were often dismayed at their knowledge. William Jones in his History of the Christian Church writes, “They were so well instructed in the Holy Scriptures, that (Jacobus de Riberia, who opposed them) had seen peasants who could recite the book of Job verbatim, and several others who could perfectly repeat all the New Testament” (p.288).
Not only were the authorities shocked by their scriptural knowledge, they were equally astonished by the understanding the Waldensians possessed. Jones continues: “In the time of a great persecution of the Waldenses of Merindol and Provence, a certain monk was sent by the Bishop of Cavillon, to hold a conference with them that they might be convinced of their errors, and the effusion of blood prevented. But the monk returned owing that in his whole life he had never known so much of the Scriptures, as he had learned during those few days that he had been conversing with the heretics.
“The bishop however, sent among them a number of doctors, young men, who had lately come from the Sorbonne, which, at that time, was the very center of theological subtlety at Paris. One of these publicly confessed that he had understood more of the doctrine of salvation from the answers of the little children in their catechism, than by all the disputations which he had ever before heard.”
In another work, A Short History of the Italian Waldenses Who Have Inhabited the Valleys of the Cottian Alps From Ancient Times to the Present, by Sophia V. Bompiani, we read:
“Long before the German Reformation they (the Waldenses) were an evangelical people, loving the Bible above all things: making translations of it into the vulgar tongue; spreading it abroad in Bohemia, in Germany, in France and in Italy. They taught their children to memorize whole chapters, so that whatever might befall the written copies of the Bible, large portions of it might be secured in the memories of their youths and maidens.
“In secret meetings, when they went by night barefooted, or with shoes bound with rags, so that they might not be heard in passing, it was their custom to listen to the Gospels recited in turn by the young, each one responsible for a certain portion” (pp. 2-3).
The Waldenses generally had to live in remote and forested mountains valleys. In the course of time, a small school, a college, if you please, was started in the Cottian Alps of Italy. Their ministers were called “Barbes” a turn of affection akin to the word “uncle.”
One can still visit in this remote region of the Angrogna Valley the practically reconstructed small building that once was used to train ministers as far back as the 1300s. If you wanted to ravel there today, you would find the building near the town of Torre Pellice not far from Turin. In that same town are monuments and a museum to the Waldenses of old.
Again, many do not know that a modern Waldensian Church remains to this day. There are congregations in Italy, and others in Latin America and the United States. The Waldensians are today largely associated with Protestantism, having been absorbed into the general Reformation movement in the mid-16th century.
The Waldensian motto or logo is an inspiring one a lighted candle framed by the Latin phrase “lux lucet in tenebris,” which aptly describes the Waldensians. They were a “light shining in darkness.”
In the days of Peter Waldo and for a time thereafter, the Waldenses saw themselves as custodians of the original faith delivered by Jesus Christ to his apostles.
Emilio Comba in his History of the Waldenses writes of their perceptions, as recorded by Reinerius Saccho, who opposed them as heretics: “They say, however, that at all times there have been God-fearing people who have been saved. They believe that the Church of God had declined in the time of Sylvester (the Bishop of Rome at the time of the Nicean Council, A.D. 325) and that in these days it had been re-established by their efforts, commencing with Waldo. They call themselves successors of the Apostles and say they are in possession of the apostolic authority, and of the keys to bind and unbind” (p. 7).
William Jones quotes Reinerius Saccho concerning the varying beliefs among the widely scattered Waldenses: “They declare themselves to be the apostles’ successors, to have apostolic authority, and the keys of binding and loosing. They hold that none of the ordinances of the church, which have been introduced since Christ’s ascension, ought to be observed, as being of no value. Some of them hold that baptism is of no advantage to infants, because they cannot actually believe. They reject the sacrament of confirmation, but instead of that, their teachers lay their hands upon their disciples. Some of them hold that this sacrament (the Passover or communion service) can only be celebrated by those that are good” (The History of the Christian Church, pp. 264-265).
Many among the Waldenses held beliefs quite different from the mainstream Christianity - such beliefs as:
They rejected the songs of the church, referring to them as clamor
The rejected the ecumenical hour of times to pray and felt prayers are more effective when in secret.
The opposed all customs not ordained in Scripture.
They felt pilgrimages were useless.
They objected to ecclesiastical burials.
They interpreted the Sermon on the Mount to the strict letter and did not swear or bear arms.
To further their message, ministers were trained and sent out in twos. Often an older pastor would take a younger man along to train him in the ministry. Waldo never considered himself the founder of a church rather the perpetuator of a truth. A.W. Mitchell in his work, The Waldenses: Sketches of the Evangelical Christians of the Valleys of Piedmont, quotes the Waldenses as believing the following historical background of their religious work:
“We likewise beseech your highness to consider, that this religion we profess, is not ours only, nor hath it been invented by man of late years, as it is falsely reported; but it is the religion of our fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers, and other yet more ancient predecessors of ours, and of the blessed martyrs, confessors, prophets, and apostles.
“The Word of God shall not perish, but remain forever; therefore, if our religion be the true word of God, as we are persuaded, and not the invention of men, no human force shall be able to extinguish the same” (pp. 105-106).
It is clear the Waldensians attempted to follow the instruction of the Scriptures as best they understood them. They tenaciously adhered to the Commandments, leading some among them in the Alpine passes in Italy to observe the 7th day Sabbath.
William Jones writes that an investigator made a report to Louis XII King of France, “that they had visited all the parishes where they (the Waldensians) dwelt, had inspected their places of worship, but they had found there no images. On the contrary, they kept the Sabbath day, observed the ordinance of baptism according to the primitive Church (adult baptism only), instructed their children in the articles of the Christian faith, and the commandments of God” (History of the Christian Church, p. 289).
There is also clear indication that at least some Waldensian groups who dwelt in the Alpine passes in northern Italy observed the New Testament Passover once a year. There would be many attempts to extinguish these peoples and their beliefs.
Church and state had earlier combined to put down different groups, particularly the Albigenses in Southern France. Thus was born the Inquisition. Few words in the course of human history have struck more fear than that one word INQUISITION.
Strangely, it is from the Inquisition that we get much of the information we now have about these peoples. Of course, these sources must be viewed with some suspicion since what is written about court trials is based on the presumption that the Waldenses and other groups were heretics.
We will let the The World Book Encyclopedia description of the Inquisition suffice:
“From the time of the Emperor Constantine (306-337), the teachings of the Christian Church were regarded as the foundation of law and order. Hence heresy was considered an offense against the state as well as against the Church. In the 1100’s and 1200’s, certain groups existed whose views did not correspond to the teachings of the Church. Chief among them were the Albigenses and Waldenses” (World Book Encyclopedia, 1965, vol. 10, article “Inquisition,” p. 215).
Yet in spite of persecution, these people endured. A light shone in the darkness. And the stage was set for a dramatic turn of events in the history of the Church.
We now come to the 15th century. After hundreds of years of the Middle Ages, the world entered a new period of learning. The arts, sciences and religion burst forth with new life. During those ages of human history, the small and persecuted groups of Christians who were not part of organized, mainstream “Christianity” preserved their beliefs through great adversity.
The Crusades and the Inquisition often drove them deeper into hiding, but could not stamp them out. Then came the winds of change in the 14th to 16th centuries.
Few events in the history of the world would have a greater effect than the invention in the 1450s of moveable type and the first practical printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. It is interesting that the first books printed were copies of the Holy Bible.
Before this time, the Scriptures were painstakingly and meticulously copied by hand. Relatively few manuscripts were made, and practically none were available for the general public.
In Alpine Europe the Waldensians and other pre-Reformation followers of the apostles’ doctrine referred to as sectarians and heretics in contemporary records had only partial copies and relied heavily on committing large passages of Scripture to memory.
With printed Bibles available the knowledge of the Scriptures would shortly become known to thousands, then millions. There are a few personalities from this period whom we should at least briefly discuss. Their effect on the Christian world of that time was great.
John Wycliff (1320-1384), an English scholar, was the first to translate the Bible into the English language. He held the Scriptures in high regard and considered the Bible the source of truth and believed that it showed the way of salvation. His followers would be called Lollards among whom we find some of the remnants of the Waldensians-- who moved from the Continent to England.
George Park Fisher, writes: “The greatest service which he did the English people was his translation of the Bible, and his open defense of their right to read the Scriptures in their own language” (History of the Christian Church, p. 274).
Wycliff’s influence was instrumental in paving the way for the Reformation to be started by Martin Luther. Wycliff was devoted to the Ten Commandments, but interpreted the Sabbath laws as applying to Sunday. Even mainstream Christian views did not adopt that philosophy. Theologians have regarded the 7th day of the week Saturday as the Sabbath, but have traditionally observed Sunday as the Christian day of worship.
Another important personality of the pre-Reformation era was John Huss. While a student at the University of Prague, Huss was inspired by the teachings of Wycliff. His work in what is today Czechoslovakia would be followed by an important group of Sabbath keepers in Eastern Europe. He displayed much of the same passion for keeping the Ten Commandments as did his mentor. His zeal and differences with the established Church led to excommunication. He was judged a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415.
These events in Britain and Central Europe helped pave the way for the Sabbath keepers of Eastern Europe and, later, England. So we mention these forerunners not as a part of the Sabbath-keeping community, but as instrumental in changing the world of the Middle Ages enough to bring about the relative religious freedom we appreciate today.
The greatest name from this period of time was Martin Luther. What he did and what followed have had a tremendous influence on the entire Western world.
We have shown in the first two articles the history of the Church of God that there have always been groups of scattered, often persecuted, Christians apart from the mainstream Church. Nazarenes, Paulicians, Bogomils and Waldensians were examples of groups among whom were those who strove to preserve the faith of the first apostles. They simply held their faith and beliefs separate from the much larger organized churches.
But any history of the Church should acknowledge the importance of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, or Revolution. What exists today, in many ways, has been made possible by the changing world of the 14th to 16th centuries.
The discovery of the New World, the translation of the Bible into common languages, the printing press, the religious wars, and the rebirth of learning these were critical to what would follow. The Old World was indeed changing.
So on that October day in 1517 when Martin Luther tacked on the door of the church in Wittenburg, in Imperial Germany, 95 things stating his objections to certain practices within the Church. Little did he realize what would result. Martin Luther did not mean to start a new religious movement. But intending to or not, a revolution was begun a religious revolution. Protestantism was born.
The impact of what Luther did was carried further by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland, and by Knox in Scotland. Henry VIII established the main body of the Church in England under authority of the crown, for domestic reasons. The Christian world would never be the same.
During the early part of these dynamic centuries a group of people associated with Wycliff, and called Lollards, provided an interesting transition from the Waldensian period. The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge by B.B. Edwards describes them:
“Lollards; a religious sect, differing in many points from the church at Rome, which arose in Germany about the beginning of the 14th century; so called, as many writers have imagined, from Walter Lollard, their chief leader and champion, a native of Mentz, and equally famous for his eloquence and his writings, who was burnt at Cologne; though others think that Lollard was no surname; but merely a term of reproach applied to all heretics who concealed what was deemed error under the appearance of piety” (p. 752).
The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge further describes these people: “In the reign of Edward III., about A.D. 1315, Walter Lollard, a German preacher, or (as Perin, in his History of the Waldensians, calls him),one of their barbs (Pastors) of great renown among them, came into England; and who was so eminent in England, that as in France, they were called Berengarians, from Berengarious, and Petrobrusians, from Peter Bruis and in Italy and Flanders, Arnoldists, from the famous Arnold of Brescia; so did the Waldensian Christians for many generations after bear the name of this worthy man, being called Lollards” (p. 752).
As in other cases, it is hard to know whether Walter the Lollard gave his name to the movement or the movement gave its name to the man. At any rate, in the 14th century the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom of God again came to England.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, vol. XVI, article “Lollards,” has come interesting observations on these fascinating people.
“The organization must have been strong in numbers, but only those who were seized for heresy are known by name, and it is only from the indictments of their accusers that their opinions can be gathered. The preachers were picturesque figures in long russet dress down to the heels, who, staff in hand, preached in the mother tongue to the people in churches and graveyards, in squares, streets and houses, in gardens and pleasure grounds, and then talked privately with those who had been impressed” (p. 929).
The Britannica further describes them: “In the earlier stages of Lollardy, when the court and the clergy managed to bring Lollards before ecclesiastical tribunals backed by the civil power, the accused generally recanted and showed no disposition to endure martyrdom for their opinions.
“They became bolder in the beginning of the 15th century. In 1410 John Badby, an artisan, was sent to the stake. His execution was memorable from the part taken in it by the Prince of Wales, who himself tried to reason the Lollard out of his convictions” (p. 930).
The Lollards were radically opposed to many doctrines of contemporary Christianity. They rejected the authority of the Church’s hierarchy of their day. They did not take oaths and did not believe in war and capital punishment.
The Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes: “Lollardy, which continued down to the Reformation, did much to shape the movement in England. The subordination of clerical to laic jurisdiction, the reduction in ecclesiastical possessions, the insisting on a translation of the Bible which could be read by the ‘common’ man, were all inheritances bequeathed by the Lollards” (p. 931).
On the Continent a growing number of movements came to be categorized by a common name, Anabaptists. This name comes from the practice of sectarian Christians to reject infant baptism and baptize only adults.
Mennonites, Hutterites, Brethren, selected groups of Sabbatarians and even the large Baptist church organizations trace their roots to groups of Anabaptists in the 14th and 15th centuries, whose heritage was quite diverse.
We have seen that Eastern Europe was the dwelling place of some of the secluded believers of the past. After the Protestant Reformation opened the way for other groups to become more publicly known, we find a most interesting group of Sabbath-keeping Christians in what was geographically known as Transylvania.
Our primary source of knowledge of these Christian Sabbath-keepers is The Jewish Quarterly Review, July 1890 edition. An article by I. Abrahams and C.G. Montefiore discusses the part the 7th day Sabbath plays in different religions.
As early as the mid-second century, opposition to the 7th day Sabbath began to gain ground. By the late 4th century, opponents to the Sabbath were influential in declaring those Christians who kept the day, “Judaisers.
As we have seen, Christians who did not accept the way of mainstream Christianity had to migrate to remote areas to observe their beliefs. They were cut off from the mainstream religious world for more than a thousand years.
But, encouraged by the door that began to open after the Protestant Reformation, Sabbath-keepers became more known in some societies.
On page 465 of their Review article, Abrahams and Montefiore writes: “The celebration of the Sabbath is as much a common religious institution, as one of the most obvious marks of distinction between Judaism and Christianity. On the one hand, the whole Christian world observes each 7th day as a hollowed day of rest, thus to some extent pointing from week to week in the most solemn and in the most general and public manner, to the origin of Christianity: on the other hand, it is just by means of this Sabbath celebration by ordaining that the Sabbath should be observed on a different day from that on which the founders of Christianity themselves kept it that Christianity has set itself in conscious and intentional opposition to the first possessors and inheritors of this great institution.
“Thus what was a mark of uniformity became a mark of diversity, and the separate observance of the 7th day developed into the most effective cause of separation between the Christian community and the adherents of the Jewish faith.”
During these tumultuous centuries, the Jews, too, were an often persecuted people. But they also clung tenaciously to their historic beliefs.
Sabbath-keeping Christians spread as far north as Russia. Here’s what The Jewish Quarterly Review says about them: “As regards the Russian Sabbath-observers, the so-called Sobotniki or Subbotniki, we have to depend for an account of their origin and present condition, on a few extremely scanty notices. They belong to the Russian sect, Molokani or milk-drinkers, one of the various sects that arose, during the 16th century, in those provinces of Southern Russia which were at that time under the supremacy of the Polish crown, all of which sects displayed a Judaizing tendency.
“The Molokani, so runs the account given by a Russian chronicler, observed the Sabbath and had their children circumcised. In the second half of the 18th century, their number in the first-named government had grown to 5,000 souls. By keeping their doctrines secret, they escaped persecution, till they were betrayed in 1769, and made to suffer oppression from the State” (pp. 466-467).
One of the most interesting personalities of these Central and Eastern European Sabbath keepers was a man named Andreas Eossi. His story bears amazing similarities to outstanding men we have mentioned in this series: Polycarp, Polycrates, Constantine of Mananali, Peter de Brueys, and Peter Waldo, to name a few.
Quoting from The Jewish Quarterly Review: “Andreas Eossi of Szent-Erzebet was a rich Szekely of noble birth, who owned three villages and a great number of estates in the counties of Udvarhelyszek, Kukullo, and Fehervar. Having been visited by severe trials, (he was ailing for many years, and had lost his wife and three sons), he sought consolation in religion. ‘He read the Bible so long’ runs the account of the chronicler already mentioned ‘that he evolved there from the Sabbatarian form of religion.’
“What he recognized as truth, he endeavored to disseminate in the surrounding district; he composed treatises, prayers, and hymns, caused copies of these and other writings to be prepared, and lent them out in all direction. He was, however, well versed in Church history, and was completely master of the Old and New Testament, from both of which he derived his teaching” (pp. 472-473).
These people, called Sabbatarians, spread their faith through preaching and song. From their hymns we glean that they kept the Sabbath, helped feed the poor, and believed in moderate living. They kept the annual Holy Days of the Bible, had hymns for each and sang with joy the anticipation of the second coming and the millennial reign of Christ on the earth.
Between the 4th and 16th centuries, many persecuted Christians were driven into hiding. They had to live in desert regions and in remote mountain hideaways on the boundaries of the civilized world. From Asia Minor to the Balkans, to the Alpine regions of southern France and northern Italy, they had to stay secluded just to survive.
By the late 1500s a prophesied period of 1,260 years in the wilderness (Rev. 12:6) was coming to a close. The Church needed a new area where it could proclaim its message openly.
Indeed the winds of freedom had already begun to blow. The Renaissance had ushered in a new zeal for learning. Universities had been founded with the implied freedom to inquire and arrive at conclusions without the previous coercion from the State or the official Church.
The desire for an accurate knowledge of the Scriptures had been kindled in the masses by the invention of movable type and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. Earlier still, John Wycliffe had courageously led the movement to make the Bible available in the common tongue.
Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 2, The New World, summed up the brooding ferment of those times as men reached for the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences:
“New ideas were in debate, not only on religious doctrine and Church government, but on the very nature and foundation of political power. But in the great turmoil of Europe silence was impossible. Men talked: secretly to one another, openly in their writings, which were now printed in a thousand copies, kindling excitement and curiosity wherever they were carried. Even if it were granted that Affairs of State could only be lawfully debated by those called thereto, common men could still search the Scriptures, and try the doctrines of the Church, its government, its rites and ceremonies, by the words of the Evangelist and Apostles” (pp. 105-106).
Even the European Reformers had been severe in their discipline of those who did not concur with established doctrine. Thus the winds of change continued to blow, England became the place chosen by God to preserve his Church.
Henry VIII had seized control of the Church of England in a dispute with Rome over whether he was free to divorce and remarry without papal permission. Later, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I would continue his policy of political and spiritual independence from continental Europe.
After much personal agonizing, Elizabeth permitted the execution of a potential rival to her throne, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was a staunch Catholic and had become a rallying point for those who wished to restore Vatican control of worship in England.
On the heels of this drastic measure, the Armada of Philip II of Spain launched an attack against the island kingdom in 1588. A combination of naval strategy and the weather gave the English a stunning victory.
The people, with united voice, felt that God had granted them a great deliverance. “To the English people as a whole the defeat of the Armada came as a miracle. For thirty years the shadow of Spanish power had darkened the political scene.
“A wave of religious emotion filled men’s minds. One of the medals struck to commemorate the victory bears the inscription ‘Afflavit Deus et dissipantur’ ‘God blew and they were scattered.’
“Elizabeth and her seamen knew how true this was. The Armada had indeed been bruised in battle, but it was demoralized and set on the run by the weather. Yet the event was decisive. Shakespeare was writing King John a few years later. His words struck into the hearts of his audiences:
“‘Come the three corners of the world in arms, and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue if England to itself do rest but true’” (ibid., pp. 131-132). And indeed God provided a place where the light of his Church could, once again, be seen openly. Queen Elizabeth had said that she wished to “make no windows into men’s souls.” As the result of this approach, a kind of limited freedom was to exist so long as the established Church was not thought to be threatened by dissent.
As the 17th century dawned, open discussion of religious matters began. Joseph Belcher in his Religious Denominations in the United States (1861) records the first shot in the renewed struggle for biblical truth:
“The Sabbath controversy commenced in England near the close of the 16th century. One Nicholas Bound, D.D., of Norton, in the county of Suffolk, published a book in 1595, in which he advanced the modern notion concerning the Christian Sabbath, that it is a perpetuation of the Sabbath of the 4th commandment, but that the day specified in that commandment has been changed by divine authority from the 7th to the first day of the week.
“This doctrine was very taking, proclaimed as it was at a time when there was felt to be so much need of greater strictness in regard to the day of rest. According to a learned writer of that age, ‘In a very little time it became the most bewitching error, and the most popular infatuation, that ever was embraced by the people of England.’
“Dr. Bound’s book was suppressed by order of Archbishop Whitgift in 1599. But its suppression only led to the publication of a multitude of other works, in which every variety of opinion was expressed. While this discussion was in progress, several advocates of the 7th day arose, who vindicated its claims with great boldness and ability” (p. 228).
Despite the disapproval and even hostility of the authorities, still others began to take a stand for biblical truth.
“John Traske began to speak and write in favor of the 7th day Sabbath about the time that the Book of Sports for Sunday was published under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and King James I., in 1618. He took high ground as to the sufficiency of the Scriptures to direct in religious services, and the duty of the State to impose nothing contrary to the Word of God. For this he was brought before the Star-Chamber, where a long discussion was held respecting the Sabbath, in which Dr. Andrews, Bishop of Winchester, took a prominent part. Traske was not turned from his opinion, but received a censure in the Star-Chamber.
“Paggitt’s Heresiography says that he ‘was sentenced, on account of being a Sabbatarian, to be set upon the Pillory at Westminster, and from thence to be whipt to the Fleet Prison, there to remain a prisoner for three years. Mrs. Traske, his wife, lay in Maiden-Lane and the Gate-House Prison 15 years, where she died for the same crime’” (ibid., p. 229).
Another notable example from Belcher: “Theophilus Brabourne, a learned minister of the Gospel in the Established Church, wrote a book, which was printed at London in 1628, wherein he argued ‘That the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is not the Sabbath Day by Divine Institution,’ but ‘that the Seventh-day Sabbath is now in force.’
“This book, not having been replied to, so he published another in 1632, entitled, ‘A Defense of that most ancient and sacred ordinance of God, the Sabbath Day.’ For this he was called to account before the ‘Lord Archbishop of Canterbury” and the Court of High Commission. Several lords of his Majesty’s Private Council, and many other persons of quality, were present at his examination” (ibid.).
Although encountering hostility from the state church, the Sabbath was brought to the attention of the highest leaders in the land. The minuscule Church of God was no longer in hiding. However, its work in society began only with great difficulty.
Other advocates of the Sabbath gained significant attention in that century. Persons such as Philip Tandy, James Ockford and Francis Bampfield took their stand on the same biblical truth. By the end of the century, there was said to be 11 Sabbatarian congregations in different parts of England, as well as many scattered brethren.
However, in the 1660s, as has so often happened in the history of the Church, a new wave of persecution took place. After the interval of Oliver Cromwell’s rule, the monarchy was restored and with it, a renewed desire to impose religious conformity.
Churchill describes how the legal implementation of this revived sentiment was to wreak havoc with religious groups that could have included Sabbatarians and others who differed for reason of conscience:
“Since Clarendon as Lord Chancellor was the chief Minister and preponderant in the Government, his name is identified with the group of Acts which re-established the Anglican Church and drove the Protestant sects into enduring opposition. Parliament recognized that there were religious bodies definitely outside the National Church, and determined, if not to extirpate them, at least to leave them outside under grievous disabilities” (The New World, pp. 336-337).
This inflamed desire to crackdown on dissidents led to another tragic episode in Church history.
Belcher writes: “On the 19th day of October, 1661, while Mr. (John) James was preaching, an officer entered the place of worship, pulled him down from the pulpit, and led him away to the police under a strong guard.
“About 30 members of his congregation were taken before a bench of justices then sitting at a tavern in the vicinity, where the oath of allegiance was tendered to each, and those who refused it were committed to Newgate Prison. Mr. James himself was examined and committed to Newgate, upon the testimony of several profligate witnesses, who accused him of speaking treasonable words against the King. His trial took place about a month afterward, at which he conducted himself in a manner to awaken much sympathy. He was, however, sentenced to be ‘hanged, drawn, and quartered.’
“This awful sentence did not dismay him in the least. He calmly said, ‘blessed be God, whom man condemneth, God justifieth.’ While he lay in prison under sentence of death, many persons of distinction visited him, who were greatly affected by his piety and resignation.
“At the scaffold, on the day of his execution, Mr. James addressed the assembly in a very affectionate manner. Having finished his address, and kneeling down, he thanked God for covenant mercies, he prayed for the witnesses against him, for the executioner, for the people of God, for the removal of divisions, for the coming of Christ, for the spectators, and for himself.
Then, having thanked the Sheriff for his courtesy, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” After he was dead, his heart was taken out and burned, his quarters were affixed to the gates of the city, and his head was set up in Whitechapel on a pole opposite to the Alley in which his meeting house stood” (Religious Denominations, pp. 230-231).
Many do not realize the dear price that had to be paid to obtain the religious freedoms we enjoy today. Freedom to openly worship on the 7th day Sabbath was only just beginning in 17th century England.
With the death of John James, it was clear that the Church would need to find a safer haven, a place where it could grow and prosper without harassment. As had been demonstrated in the past, God’s providential care was soon to be made manifest.
A man named Roger Williams had come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the New World in 1631. He was excited by the “wonderful, searching, disputing and dissenting times” in which he lived (Roger Williams: The Church and The State by Edmund S. Morgan, p. 3).
He soon found himself in profound disagreement with the leaders of the Puritan governed colony. They held that the civil government had a divinely ordained prerogative to impose its religious views on its subjects. In rejecting this supremacy of “Rome”, they substituted the authority of civil magistrate in its stead.
Although Williams recognized the right of the state to enforce public morality as expressed in the last six commands of the Decalogue, he maintained the right of absolute freedom for the religious conscience. In addition, although he did have strong personal convictions himself, he did not believe his group had a monopoly on all truth.
Roger Williams was banished for his nonconformist ideas. The following words eloquently sum up the life and thinking of Williams, as well as the effect he had on the future development of the United States of America.
“In accordance with these principles, Roger Williams insisted in Massachusetts, upon allowing entire freedom of conscience, and upon entire separation of Church and State. But he was obligated to flee, and in 1636 he formed in Rhode Island a small and new society, in which perfect freedom in matters of faith was allowed, and which the majority ruled in all civil affairs. Here in a little State, the fundamental principles of political and ecclesiastical liberty practically prevailed, before they were even taught in any of the schools of philosophy in Europe. At that time people predicted only a short existence for these democratical experiments universal suffrage, universal eligibility to office, the annual change of rulers, perfect religious freedom.
“But not only have these ideas and these forms of government maintained themselves here, but precisely from this little State have they extended themselves throughout the United States. They have given laws to a continent, and formidable through their moral influence, they lie at the bottom of all democratic movements which are now shaking the nations of Europe” (An Introduction to the History of the Nineteenth Century by Gervinus, as quoted by Belcher in Religious Denominations, p. 153).
It was to this small but fertile field of religious freedom that a representative of the beleaguered Sabbatarian churches of England came in the year of 1664.
More on the History of God’s True Church follows in Part 4. Where is that true Church today? We’ll see.