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The Origin of the Baptists By S.H. Ford

Chapter V—Century XIV - Wickliffe and the Lollards


A bright star rose on the darkness of the fourteenth century, and threw its light over Britain and the continent of Europe.


It was the darkest hour of that long night of Papal oppression. Over that darkness and dead silence, from the Avon to the Tiber, a sound went forth from Lutterworth; a light from the center of Britain. A memorable spot is that little village, with its old, tottering church still standing. Near that village Richard III buckled on his armor for the battle of Bosworth field. Near it Wolsey fell, and with him the power of Popery in England. There, too, stands the memorable little ground of Naseby, where Cromwell and liberty triumphed over the defeated despot Charles.

Lutterworth! Associations cluster round it more potent in their influence than the clash of armies or the fall of kings. The lone voice that went forth from it, the light that gleamed from it in the fourteenth century, are heard and felt still—must echo and beam through all time, and all eternity. It was the voice and light of truth—truth which once generated is immortal. Chains can not bind it; time can not weaken it. Eternal is its nature; eternity is its guardian.[1] John De Wickliffe, rector of Lutterworth, was the chosen instrument to announce that truth, and bear aloft that flame-torch through the world’s valley of the shadow of death.

On the banks of the Tee, in Yorkshire, John Wickliffe was born, in 1324. With Bradwordine, and Occam, and Dunn, and Scotus, the luminaries of the age, he passed his early manhood in Oxford University. He entered the clerical order, and beheld before him the highest honors in the "Church." But, like Luther, God’s Word had found entrance into his soul, and, in obedience to its teaching he tore away from his heart the webs and wrappages of error which incased and deadened it. On, step by step, he struggled into light, until on the Bible and the Bible alone, he took his sublime and defiant position. Among the principles he advocated were, that the church consisted only of believers—the saved; that baptism was a "sign of grace received before," and consequently should be administered to those only who professed to have received "grace."

"It was in 1371," says Walsingham, "that Dunn and Wickliffe read the accursed opinions of the Berengerians, one of which undoubtedly was the denial of infant baptism."[2] Thomas Walden, who was familiar with his writings, called him "one of the seven heads that rose out of the pit, for he denied the baptism of infants, that heresie of the Lollards of which he was so great a leader." And further, Wickliffe, in the eleventh chapter of his Trialogues, as quoted by Danvers, states that "believers are the only subjects of baptisms."

In his adherence to the Bible as his only rule of faith and practice; in his denial of grace or pardon communicated in baptism; in his rejection of infant and avowal of Christian baptism; and in his clear definition of a church as an assembly of baptized believers—Wickliffe was a Baptist. Among Baptist heroes and martyrs must his name be enrolled. As one of them he was reviled while living, and, forty years after his peaceful death, his ashes were violated by the foes of truth.

But Wickliffe did not stand alone. Thousands were around him, and followed him. Branded, burned, and driven from the haunts of men, these Wickliffites—these Baptists—were found scattered throughout England. "They were as numerous," says Sir William Newbury, in his History of England, "as the sands of the sea."

Here, then, we have found these people in the midst of the fourteenth century. Where did these Baptists come from?Did they originate with Wickliffe? Did the "morning star" of the Reformation usher in the advent of the Baptists, whose existence previously was not? Let us see. Milner, in his History of Christianity, says

"The term ‘Lollard’ was affixed to those who professed a greater degree of attention to acts of piety and devotion than the rest of mankind. Of these, Walter Reynard, a Dutchman, was apprehended and burned at Cologne. This is he whom I have already called Reynard Lollard, in the account of the Waldenses, and from whom the Wickliffites are supposed to have acquired the name of Lollards."

That these Lollards were Baptists is evident. The denial of infant baptism we have already seen was the "great heresie of the Lollards."In the Dutch Martyrology is an account of one L. Clifford, who was arraigned as a Lollard, and confessed and recanted, acknowledging that they renounced infant baptism. And Fox, in his Martyrology, has extracted from the register of the Bishop of Hereford, one of the charges of which the Lollards were found guilty—"that faith ought to precede baptism."

Of these Lollard Baptists was William Sawtre, the first name in that illustrious roll of martyrs who died for soul-freedom in Britain; and soon after, at the hour of midnight, one hundred of those down-trodden Christians assembled to worship God among the bushes of St. Giles, near London, hoping, at that hour and unfrequented place, to be free from detection and molestation, were tracked and murdered by the king and a troop of his courtiers.

Among the Lollards was one illustrious man of title, wealth, and courage. It was Sir John Oldcastle, Earl of Cobham. He was apprehended and brought to trial before the Bishops. He met them and their charge with fearless intrepidity. Nobly he avowed and advocated the doctrines which have distinguished Baptists in every age. Honor and preferment were before him if he would but recant; disgrace, ignominy, and death the reward of his steadfastness. He chose to be numbered with the scorned, down-trodden, vulgar Baptists; and confront shame and suffering, rather than abandon or betray the immortal principles that inspired them.

Faith, inwrought, heartfelt faith, shining, without a shadow into the depths of a man’s being, revealing the eternal verity of the thing believed—faith resting on a rock which the rush of a wrecked universe can not move—this is the soul of true heroism. There never was a hero without it. Dragged, amid insults, to Tyburn to be hung up by the waist and burned to death, his possessions confiscated, his family impoverished, his name cast out as evil, Sir John Oldcastle never wavered. This was the victory whereby he overcame the world, even his faith. In death he warned the people to follow nothing but the Scriptures; prayed for his enemies, and exclaimed, "I die in triumph! "

And so he received the crown which celestial conquerors wear. Pity or regret found no place in the hearts of his sanctimonious murderers. "He was an Anabaptist." said Parsons the English Churchman, "and deserved to die as a traitor."[3]

"Not satisfied with his death," [says Fox,] "the clergy induced the Parliament to make fresh statutes against the Lollards. It was enacted, among other things, that whosoever read the Scriptures in English, should forfeit lands, chattels, goods, and life, and he condemned as heretics, should he hanged for treason against the king, and then burned for heresy against God."[4]

"No sooner was this act passed than a violent persecution was raised against the Lollards."[5]

In an old history of the Welsh Baptists are recorded the labors and sufferings of an intelligent, active Baptist layman, who, from Wales, passed into England in company with a preacher. His name was Walter Brute.[6] Arrested and brought before the Bishop of Hereford-shire, he confounded his adversaries by his fearlessness and acquaintance with the Scriptures. In the account of his trial, recorded by Fox, is his written answer to the Bishop:

"In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I, Walter Brute, sinner, layman, husbandman, and Christian, having my offspring of Britons, have been accused to the Bishop of Hereford-shire that I did err in matters of Christian faith, by whom I am required that I should give a written answer.

"If any man of any state or sect whatever, wilt show me that I err in my writings or sayings, by the authority of the sacred Scriptures, or a probable reason grounded thereon, I will gladly receive his information. But as for the bare words of any teacher, (Christ only excepted,) I will not simply believe, unless he shall be able to establish them by the truth of experience, and the example of God’s Word."

Such was the fearless denial of Episcopal and church teachings which Baptists dared to utter centuries before Luther was born, and which is their leading characteristic still. Walter Brute was condemned as an Anabaptist.

But from the ten thousand sufferers of the poor Lollards we must pass. There still stands at this hour the gloomy monument of their miseries on the banks of the Thames—the Lollards Tower at Lambert Palace, London. Fitted up as the palace of their torture by the Bishop of Canterbury, in 1414, it stands there a witness to the triumph of truth. It speaks with an awful, yet prophetic eloquence, of the future of the Baptists.

But still the question occurs, these Baptists, Lollards, Wickliffites—Whence came they? Was Wickliffe, then, their father and founder?

It must be remembered that Wickliffe was denominated by his persecutors, "The leader of the Lollards." It is evident that thousands of these Lollards hailed him as a great light, whom God had raised up and sent forth amid the darkness. That he adopted their principles, and became one of them, there is little doubt. But why were they called Lollards? Now Mosheim, with whom there is a general agreement among historians, states that "Walter, a Dutchman of remarkable eloquence, and famous for his writings, who came from Mentz to Cologne, was burned there in 1322."[7] Fuller and Perrin state that he came to England in the reign of Edward III "from the Waldenses, among whom he was a great barb or pastor." That this man’s name was Walter Reynard is most evident, and, "Lollard," a term of reproach, was given to him and his brethren because they were accustomed to sing psalms and hymns. Abelly says the word is derived from loben,"to praise," and herr,"Lord." But, however this may be, the fact is unchallenged, that Walter the Lollard, a shining light in the midnight of Papal darkness, after passing from country to country, lifting his eloquent voice and scattering over the wintery seed-fields the germs of truth, passed through England to build up the scattered flock of Christ there, and then breathed out his great soul amid the fires of martyrdom, before John Wickliffe was born.

That this Walter Lollard was a Baptist is unquestionable. He came from the Waldensian Baptists to England, and found Baptists there, who were afterward called Lollards. And these English Baptists, who welcomed this eloquent teacher among them, may be traced to a still higher date. At the time when the Norman nobles of William the Conqueror were crushing out the spirit, the language, and nationality of Englishmen; when a foreign priesthood and a foreign tongue were forced by cruel edicts upon the prostrate Saxons—there were those who still dared to avow their deathless attachment to the simple truths and ordinances of primitive Christianity. During the reigns of William and his son Rufus, they were subjected to insults and persecutions, and were denounced by the imported Popish Bishop, Lan frank, of Canterbury.[8] Gascony and Guienne, the domains of the Duke of Normandy, were, at the conquest, attached to England. The intercourse between the latter and the Pyrenean mountains, became general and intimate. "In Gascony the heretics," says the old monkish historian, Sir William Newbury, "were as numerous as the sands of the sea."A company of these Baptists were found in England in the tenth century, and is thus described by Henry in his history of Great Britain, which, in substance, corresponds with Napier, Collier, and Lyttleton:

"A company of about thirty men and women attracted the attention of the government by the singularity of their religious practices and opinions. They were apprehended and brought before the Council of the Clergy at Oxford. Being interrogated about their religion, their teacher, named Gerard, a man of learning, announced in their name, that they were Christians, and believed the doctrines of the apostles. Upon a more particular inquiry, it was found that they denied several of the received doctrines of the church, and, refusing to abandon their damnable heresies, they were condemned as incorrigible heretics, and delivered to the secular arm to be punished. The king, (Henry II) at the instigation of the clergy, commanded them to be branded with a red-hot iron on their foreheads, whipped through the streets of Oxford, and having their clothes cut short at their girdles, to be turned into the open fields, all persons being forbidden to afford them any shelter or relief under the severest penalties. This cruel sentence was executed with the utmost rigor, and, it being the depth of winter, all these unhappy persons were pressed with cold and hunger."

A further account of these people and their treacherous treatment, is found in the Dutch Martyrology, or "Martyr’s Mirror,"[9] which places the date in 1161, and gives abundant evidence that they were Baptists. Their leader was branded on the forehead and chin, and, as they were driven, bleeding and naked, out into the wintery fields to die, he raised his voice in triumph, singing—

"Blessed are ye when ye are hated,
Beaten, and despised," etc.

But they did not all perish.There were among the crushed Saxons a hatred to their foreign oppressors, kings, and priests, and a common sympathy for those who suffered from Norman cruelty. The seed was scattered, and a half century afterward, Walter Lollard preached among these same Baptists, Waldenses of England.

The Lollards, the Wickliffites—the suffering, struggling pioneers of the Reformation—we have found them away up amid the darkness of the middle ages—found them weak, yet fearless; few, yet mighty; poor, yet powerful—sublime in their sufferings, and triumphant in their prostration. Baptists they were, whether represented by Wickliffe, or Lollard, or Gerard. Neither the power of man, nor the gates of hell could prevail against them.

But from the Lollards, and from England with it blessed and elevated by the truths they cherished, let us pass still upward, marking this or them as a milestone in the path of time.


ENDNOTES:

[1] Bancroft.

[2] Neal’s History of the Puritans.

[3] Dr. Thomas Fuller, Church History, vol. ii, p. 488.

[4] Fox, Acts and Monuments.

[5] Ib., Book of Martyrs, p. 224.

[6] “While the Lord was employing the immortal Wickliffe to prepare his way in England, he remembered Wales in his tender mercy, and visited her with the dayspring on high. The pioneer in the cause of the Reformation in Wales was Walter Brute, who was a native of the principality, and who had been at Oxford, where he became acquainted with Wickliffe, with whom he formed an in­timacy, and fully entered into his views respecting the reformation of the church. It is an old adage, that like begets like, which was verified in the ease of Brute. Having reflected on the pitiable con­dition of his countrymen, who were bewildered in the haze of ignorance, his heart was moved with compassion. He left the university, endowed with the principles, fortified with the intre­pidity, and fired with the zeal of his colleague; and fully determined to resist the delusions and abominations of the secular church, even unto blood, he entered his native land, where he soon distin­guished himself.” Fox says, that Walter Brute was “eminent in learning, gifts, knowledge, zeal, and grace.”

“He fearlessly sounded the trump of God throughout the land, until, in a few years, the huge temple of Antichrist began to crumble, and its gilded worshipers to tremble for their safety. As his weapons were those of truth and righteousness, and his cause the cause of God, his victory was certain, and he soon became instrumental in rescuing the prey from the mighty, and in delivering many lawful captives. His disinterestedness becoming generally known, and his labors of love appreciated, he found a number of steady friends among high and low. It may be supposed, that in traversing the country to preach the truth, and to seek the lost sheep of the house of Adam, that the established churches were closed against him; for we learn that he was preaching from house to house, and in the chief places of concourse and elsewhere, and conducting the worship of God with the greatest simplicity. He maintained that baptism was not necessary to salvation; and that it was to be administered to adults subsequently to conversion. And he frequently took occasion to protest against the doctrines and dis­cipline of the Established Church. His zeal for the truth and his exposures of the Papacy, soon elicited the hostility of the clergy, and fixed upon him all the envy of the sons of the Church. Such was the importance attached to him and the cause he promoted, and such a wonderful reformation he had been instrumental in produc­ing, that all the attempts of ecclesiastical judicatories, and of the ministers of the civil law, to arrest his progress, were vain and in­effectual. Finally a petition was presented to Richard II, king of England, praying his majesty to interfere in behalf of the Church, in the prosecution of the heresiarch, Walter Brute, whose words the land was not able to bear. The insolence, oppression, and ex­actions of the clergy had become quite intolerable to the lords and squires, whose hereditary high-mindedness would not suffer the sons of Levi to surpass them in authority or splendor. Many of the great congratulated Brute in putting a check to the clergy from no other principles than those of personal interest and envy; and gladly availed themselves of the opportunity to chastise their power­ful rivals. Besides, the Reformation had so extensively prevailed among all ranks, that some of the great and nobles were pious re­formers, and others were impelled to yield to the force of public opinion.
“In the year 1391, the king, wishing to show favor to the Church, issued a letter to the nobility of the Principality, in which he imperiously enjoined them to assist Dr. John Trevnant, Bishop of Hereford, in apprehending and punishing Walter Brute and his adherents.”—Evans Martyns Letter.

[7] History, p. 356.

[8] Fuller, Ecclesiastical History, vol. i.

[9] This rare book is in the Jesuit’s College of St. Louis.

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