Lollards - Medieval Church Planters

The term "Lollard" may have meant "babbler" or "mumbler" and was probably a pejorative comment on the preaching of this third stream Medieval movement.

The Lollards were the English followers of the reformer and Bible translator John Wycliffe. By the end of the C14, due to extensive evangelism and teaching in the midlands and south of England, Lollards maintained a number of congregations and enjoyed considerable support among the artisan and middle classes.

In 1395 Lollards submitted a document to Parliament summarising some of their beliefs and complaints. In particular, they emphasised the centrality of personal faith in Christ, opposed hierarchy in the church and rejected transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and the church's temporal power. In addition, they rejected prayers for the dead, pilgrimages and images of the saints. They saw the primary duty of priests to preach and teach the word of God and wanted the Bible to be made available in the common tongue for all believers.

As an aside, there is debate over the extent to which Geoffrey Chaucer represented or even endorsed Lollard ideas in his Canterbury Tales. He was certainly familiar with the movement.

Although outlawed as a movement in 1401, and despite many leaders being burned or hanged, Lollardry continued to spread. When the Reformation got under way a century later, much preparatory work had already been done in England. Lollard ideas were already part of the English consciousness.

A season of revival in the C16 in London, East Anglia and the Chilterns added to the movement's strength and influence.


Separate and Different

One of the characteristics of most third stream groups is a recognition that they are called out of the world and called to a different type of life - a life devoted to God.

This awareness came into sharp focus at the time of the Reformation when those seeking an expression of local church made up of believers found themselves strongly opposed by the Protestant Reformers who were generally wedded to the concept of the state church.

In this latter type of church, the conduct of church members was often no different from that of the world around it. Practical holiness was often a mark of the groups seeking a New Testament style of church, comprising believers.

The following quotes are illustrative of the differences that existed at that time:

"I verily see more of moral improvement among them [Anabaptist groups] than with those who are Lutheran." (Philip of Hesse in a letter to his sister Elizabeth of Saxony)

"among us there is no betterment of life." (Martin Luther to Casper Schwenckfeld)

"The Anabaptists have the semblance of outward piety to a far greater degree than we and all the other churches which in union with us confess Christ; and they avoid the offensive sins that are very common among us." (statement before Bern City Council C16)

"The magistrates are rather coarse and carnal men and the preachers are very neglectful; many of them frequently get drunk. Since the lords and the council-men are that kind of people ... they drive the poor people away with their wild way of life. The plain man cannot bring himself to recognise the Church of Christ among such wild persons and to distinguish correctly between doctrine and life." (Martin Bucer)

All quoted in Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Dissent and Nonconformity)


Sticks not Swords

When the third stream Christian groups of the late medieval period were emerging alongside the Reformers, one issue that divided them was on the use of force or coercion in religious matters.

Many of the groups described as heretics by the Catholics and, later, by the Reformers themselves, were distinguished by their insistence that the church was a voluntary body and that the state had no role in forcing people to attend or join.

As a mark of this belief - which was fiercely denounced by many of the main Protestant Reformers - some of these "heretical" groups carried a badge or symbol - namely a simple wooden staff similar to that used by shepherds, in distinction to the sword carried by the magistrate.

So common was this practice that some of these Bible-believing groups of Christians became labelled as Stabler - literally "staff carriers".

At a hearing in 1590 held to investigate whether Anabaptist groups were meeting in a particular area, a witness gave evidence of such groups by recounting that "he had met them often enough when with their little staff they were on their way to their preachings or whatever it is they do."

The practice of staff-carrying was reported among the Waldensians and the Bohemian Brethren as a mark of the conviction that the sword is not a proper weapon in the hands of a follower of Christ. The practice is also recorded among Celtic Christians in Ireland whose gambutta was carried to differentiate them from the Catholic priests.

As early as the fourth century, the Donatists were known for carrying their Azael (meaning strength of God) to consciously contrast themselves with those who were embracing the policy of an official state church on the back of the Constantinian reforms.

The staff or stick symbolised one of the distinguishing features of third stream Christian groups. While some were pacifists, many were not. What they shared, however, was a common vision of the church comprising believers, rather than the church consisting of everyone in a geographical area - the Constantinian idea of the official state church.


Peter Chelcicky

"By the use of force no man is brought to faith in Christ, as little likely as that a man can learn Bohemian by studying German.

By means of the secular power Anti-Christ has pulled all power to himself under cover of the Christian faith. Since we believe that it was by meekness and humility unto the Cross that Christ delivered us from the power of Satan we cannot allow that the perfecting of our faith comes by worldly power; as if force is a greater benefit than is faith."

(Peter Chelcicky c.1390-1460) in Verduin

A short biography of Peter Chelciky and of his work Net of Faith is available for free to download at the primitive Christianity site here.



Bohemian Rhapsody

Originating in Prague in 1453-54, a new church was formed through the preaching of the local Archbishop Rokycana and his nephew Gregory. The church had historic links with an earlier group - the Chelic Brethren - which was started through the ministry of Peter Chelcicky (1390-1460), a reformer who was himself influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe. Chelcicky rejected monasticism, the secular power of the church and the use of force in religious affairs, affirming instead the local church as the Body of Christ comprising believers.

The Bohemian Brethren embraced much of this earlier foundation and emphasized the ethical teachings of Christ, rejecting the church's participation in the affairs of state, including military service. They maintained a belief in much core Catholic doctrine - including the seven sacraments and the celibacy of the priests - but emphasized the centrality of personal faith in Christ.

As the movement developed, it eventually outgrew its Catholic structures and established churches overseen by synods and bishops. A number of schools were also established in several communities.

Following a wave of persecution, the Brethren relocated to Moravia where the movement eventually merged with the local Moravian brethren and Calvinist churches.

In Bohemia itself, the movement eventually forged links with the Lutheran church and achieved state recognition. Following a Catholic-backed military campaign, Protestantism was virtually eradicated for 150 years in Bohemia at the Battle of the White Mountain. Some scattered groups eventually migrated to Saxony under the protection of Count Zinzendorf in the early C18.

Post Script: if for some reason you're not too familiar with geography of late mediaeval Central Europe, there are some great antique maps of Bohemia and the surrounding nations here.

The Waldensians Come to Rome

Having completed my post on the Waldenses, I stumbled upon an illuminating quotation a few days later. The quote is an aside in Rodney Stark's fascinating book The Rise of Christianity.

The year is 1179 and Walter Map (a Catholic writer) is in Rome. He witnesses the arrival in the City of a group of itinerant Waldensians, who for some reason had traveled from their Alpine homes to Rome. His observation was as follows:

"They go about two by two, barefoot, clad in woolen garments, owning nothing, holding all things in common like the Apostles ... If we admit them, we shall be driven out."


Reformed Before Calvin - an Overview of the Waldenses

Also known as the Waldensians and, confused by some writers with the medieval Albigenses (more on them elsewhere), the Waldenses have traditionally claimed to owe their origins to an unbroken line of apostolic Christianity without coming under the influence of Roman Catholicism. Members and churches survived in the remote Alpine regions of Switzerland and northern Italy throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period.

Acknowledging the influence of leaders such as Peter Waldo and Arnold of Bresci, core values of these groups included an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, the necessity of Christ-like character in church leaders and a broadly evangelical doctrine of salvation/justification. In this sense, they were "reformed" before the Reformers, though as stated, their view was that their churches were not in need of doctrinal reform as they had not deviated from the apostolic tradition over the centuries. Having said that, they did make contact with the Reformed Church in Geneva in the C16 and adopted the Geneva Confession of faith in 1532.

With largely itinerant leaders, the Waldenses exerted an influence out of proportion to their numbers. Rejecting Catholic practices that they could not see clearly in the Bible, the groups were anti-hierarchal and rejected the use of images of the saints and the veneration of Mary.

Suffering repeated waves of persecution - the earliest recorded being the Crusade of 1210 - Waldenses regularly moved around within the countries to the south and east of the Alps, often retreating into more inaccessible valleys at times of intense persecution.

As an aside, a friend currently planting a church on the French-Italian boarder relates the local history of Waldensians fleeing persecution on the French side of the Alps (around current day Briancon) and coming up the valley where he now lives to what is now the resort and boarder town of Montgenevre. From there, they descended to the valley on the Italian side where they exercised an evangelistic ministry in the surrounding areas.

Only granted legal recognition in Italy in 1848, the Waldenses began the process of spreading into mainstream Italian culture where they remain one of the larger Protestant groupings. Waldensians were responsible for translating the Bible into modern Italian and provided moral and theological resistance to Mussolini's fascist government during the 1930s and 40s. Waves of Italian migration to Argentina in the early C20 included numbers of Waldensians. A theological college in that country is one evidence of their continued presence, as well as several schools, hospitals and orphanages in Italy, where the Waldensian Church maintains close links with the Italian Methodist movement.


Understanding the Mennonites - Part 2

At the radical end of the Protestant Reformation of the early C16, the Mennonites (so-called) were part of a wider movement seeking a return not only to a Biblical doctrine of salvation but were also prepared to look more closely at the implications of this salvation for an understanding of the nature of the church.

The idea of a local church as a community of saved believers is so widely accepted now that it is difficult to imagine how radical a concept this was in the context of C16 Europe.

While Luther was articulating a clear doctrine of justification through faith, and could see how clearly this truth challenged the Catholic concepts of the mass, the priesthood, indulgences, purgatory and the veneration of Mary and the saints, Luther remained firmly wedded to an institutional model of the church. When his followers were forced to separate from the Catholic structures, it was reluctantly and with the aim of establishing a purified state church, a mixture of saints and sinners.

Groups such as the Mennonites went much further than this. Seeing clearly that those who had been justified through faith comprised the people of God on the earth, called out and separate from the world, these Anabaptist groups began to understand the church as a community of believers committed to one another and to a life of discipleship.

Although numerically small, the influence of these groups continues to be felt today as modern evangelicalism now broadly accepts the concept of a church made up of believers. Whether contemporary evangelicalism takes as seriously the related call of a life of discipleship is another question.


Understanding the Mennonites - 1

In this, the first article of several on the history, beliefs and practices of the Mennonites, we will consider the origins of the movement, principally through the story of the leader whose name became synonymous with the churches he founded.

Menno Simmons, a Catholic priest, was converted to an evangelical Christian faith around 1525 as a result of reading the writings of Martin Luther.

Attracted to Anabaptism (though an opponent of its militant wing), his leadership and preaching gifts were recognized and he soon emerged as a leading figure in the Anabaptist movement in the Netherlands and North Germany. Within this region, he traveled extensively preaching the gospel, founding and establishing churches and writing numerous books, letters and pamphlets.

Menno stressed the idea of the local church as a community of believers committed to a new life of discipleship, sealed by believers'’ baptism and closely knit in fellowship and brotherly love.

Suspicious of dogmatic theology, Simmons was reluctant to use terms not clearly located in Scripture -– his avoidance of the word “Trinity” being one of the more controversial expressions of this approach. This should not be confused with his Trinitarian beliefs, which were in line with the historic creeds and confessions.

Frequently opposed by both Catholics and mainline Protestant reformers, Menno Simmons was often forced to move on from place to place in the course of discharging his ministry,– which was described by many of the churches he served as “apostolic”. He died in the town of Wustenfelde in 1561.


More on Montanists

following article by W.M. Calder provides the results of an early archeological expedition to Phrygia in search of the "New Jerusalem" of the Montanists.


Cult or Church? The Enigma of Montanism

In the late second century AD, a charismatic reform movement emerged in the Phrygian region of Asia Minor. Named by its critics after its leading figure, Montanus, the movement was to create controversy throughout the Empire and remains a subject of disagreement among church historians to the present day.

The facts as far as we can deduce them are limited in their scope. Montanus, about whose background we know next to nothing, was a Christian who attempted to reform and purify the churches by preaching a message of moral and spiritual purity, paying particular attention to practical holiness, prayer, fasting, resisting persecution and, more controversially, avoiding remarriage.

Believing that the Holy Spirit was still speaking to the church, the movement acquired a prophetic dimension, with two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, exercising the gift of prophecy along with other un-named individuals. This aspect of the group's life led to its preferred name - the new prophecy.

Tertullian (150 - 225 AD), bishop of Carthage in North Africa, eventually came to believe that the new prophecy represented an authentic spiritual movement and strongly defended it in his later writings. Unfortunately his work in defense of it, De ecstasi, has been lost, though was known and referred to by several ancient writers. Tertullian himself is perhaps better known for his works on the nature of God (he coined the term Trinity) and the person and work of Christ.

Other ancient church leaders were less sympathetic. Jerome wrote a letter at the end of the 4th century refuting the movement and it was declared heretical by the bishop of Rome.

Beyond these facts, a number of claims and counter claims have been made about Montanism. Bearing in mind the difficulty in reading church history through the texts of those who opposed the movement, it is hard to know what to make of these competing claims. They include:

  • the suggestion that Priscila and Maximilla described themselves as logos and paraclyte
  • the description by Montanus of a town on Phrygia as the site of the New Jerusalem
  • the claim that the movement were orthodox in their doctrine of the Trinity
  • that its leading figures were Sabellians (believers in modalistic monarchianism)
  • an expectation on the imminent return of Christ
One view of Montanism is that the personalities whose names survive to this day may indeed have been heretical in some regards but that this controversy masks a deeper movement of spiritual life and renewal that was indeed taking place at this time.

Current archaeological work lead by William Tabbernee at the site of the Montanist New Jerusalem in modern-day Turkey represents an exciting development in our understanding of this early Third Stream Christian movement. [See William TABBERNEE, Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: the discovery of Pepouza and Tymion, Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:1 (2003), pp. 87-93. ]-----------------------------

Reading Between the Lines - the Problem of Early Sources

When examining the history of third stream Christian movements before the Reformation, we have an immediate historical problem. Up to about the 15th Century, the primary sources that exist for many of these groups and movements originate with those who opposed them. Primarily, these sources are from the Catholic and/or state churches, though official documents also exist from courts and other government records, especially towards the latter part of the Middle Ages and, of course, during the Reformation itself.

This problem requires us to try and decode some of the sources. When, for instance, we read of an individual described in a historic source as a "heretic", there is every possibility that we are reading about a Bible-believing Christian with a saving faith and an evangelical doctrine. The term, in that sense, can be compared with the second century use of the word "superstition" or "atheism" by the Roman authorities to describe the emerging Christian movement.

The case of the Montanists is a classic case in point. To this day, Christian historians remain divided over whether to regard these fourth-century zealots as heralds of radical Biblical church reform or misguided fanatics with unorthodox views on core Christian doctrines.

More on them to follow.....


Early Moravians in America

Moravian women taking part in the sacrement of foot washing; engraving from David Cranz, Kurze, Zuverlässige Nachricht, von der, unter den Namen der Böhmisch-Mährischen Brüder Bekannt, Kirche Unitas fratrum, Halle: 1757

Common Features

Third stream Christian movements tend to have a number of similar features, emphasised in varying degrees and expressed in different ways. These include:

1. An evangelical theology of salvation

2. The best of the Catholic mystic tradition

3. A radical attempt to recapture New Testament expressions of church life

4. An emphasis on practical discipleship of members

5. A non-hierarchical leadership structure

The other striking feature of such movements is that, more often than not, they tend to be short-lived. One of three things tend to happen to them. Either they succumb to heresy and gradually lose their way doctrinally; or they are crushed under the force of external persecution; or, finally, such movements gradually change into second stream movements.


Introduction to Third Stream Christianity

Among students of church history, some have sought to identify three distinct expressions of church life over the centuries.

The first stream has grouped together Roman Catholicism, the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Coptic churches of the middle east and Asia.

Second stream Christianity refers to historic Protestantism, both "State" and "free" churches.

Third stream Christianity is an attempt to describe those forms of church life which have existed outside of the other two streams. Broadly speaking, they include those groups which have attempted to rediscover and live out "simple" forms of New Testament church life outside of the mainline historic denominations.

This blog will attempt to identify, describe and analyse such groups and movements, both in the past and the present. The approach will be both historic and theological and will include consideration of some of the ideas, beliefs and values of such groups, as well as some of the wider issues involved in their existence, survival, decline and transformation over time.

Please feel free to forward articles and links relevant to this blog. I will incorporate what I can.