History of the Church of God
(Out of the Shadows)
WE NOW COME, in our series, 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, and 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.
The Bible in England
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 defence of their right to read the Scriptures in their own tongue"(History of the Christian Church, page 274).
Wycliffs 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 seventh day of the week-Saturday-as the Sabbath, but have traditionally observed Sunday as the Christian day of worship.
... and in Central Europe
Another important personality of the pre-Reformation era was John Huss. When 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 instrumental in changing the work 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 this series of 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 belief 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, 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 theses 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.
Meanwhile, the Lollards
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 of Rome, which arose in Germany about the beginning of the fourteenth 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" (page 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" (page 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 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, volume XVI, article "Lollards," has some 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" (page 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" (page 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 Encyclopaedia 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" (page 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
The Sabbath in Central Europe
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 seventh-day Sabbath plays in different religions.
As early as the mid-second century, opposition to the seventh-day Sabbath began to gain ground. By the later 4th century, opponents to the Sabbath were influential in declaring those Christians who kept the day, "Judaisers."
As we have seen in this series, 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 write: "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 seventh day as a hallowed 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 people of Israel and 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 seventh 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.
kept the day,
"They belong to the Russian sect, Molokani or milk-drinkers, one of the various sects that arose, during the sixteenth 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 eighteenth 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" (pages 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 Bruys, Peter Waldo, to name a few.
Quoting from The Jewish Quarterly Review: "Andreas Eossi of Szent-Erzsebet was a rich Szekely of noble birth, who owned three villages and a great number of estates in the counties of Udvarhelyszek, Kukiillo, 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 directions.... 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" (pages 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.
That brings to a fitting close another chapter in the history of the New Testament Church. Next chapter, we'll pick up the Sabbatarians in England and see how they came to the New World colony of Rhode Island more than a hundred years before the American Revolution.
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