Christianity Through the Ages by Kenneth Scott Latourette
Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). Published by Harper & Row, New York, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 7: Geographic Losses and Spiritual Decay: Partly Offset by Fresh Religious Movements, AD- 1350-1500
Shortly after the mid-fourteenth century several factors combined to pose a major threat to Christianity. Although the prospect was not as bleak or the losses as extensive as during the four and a half centuries which were ushered in by the decay of the Roman Empire, the "barbarian" invasions, and the conquests of the Moslem Arabs, the situation was sufficiently serious to have warranted the prediction that in spite of its resurgence in the preceding four centuries Christianity was doomed. That appraisal would have been supported by the fact that geographically Christianity was confined to a smaller proportion of the earth’s surface than it had been at the close of the fifth century and that the cultures into which it had entered were held by fewer of civilized mankind than had been true at the close of the preceding height of the Christian tide. As in the earlier recession of that tide, a chief cause of the new ebb was the conquests by non-Christian peoples. Another factor, akin to that at the close of the previous decline, was lassitude and corruption within the ecclesiastical bodies which bore the Christian name. Yet, also as earlier, indications of vigor could be discerned, some in fresh and vigorous movements.
A Succession of Moslem Conquests
The invasions most seriously threatening Christianity were by Moslems. One was led by Timur (Tamerlane), whose life span was 1336-1405, the other by the Ottoman Turks.
Timur was of Mongol descent. Before his birth the slight mixture of Christian heritage among the Mongols of Central Asia had disappeared and the Mongols in that region had accepted Islam. By devastating wars, in the second half of the fourteenth century Timur erected an empire which had Samarqand as its capital and embraced much of Central Asia, Persia, Mesopotamia, and North-west India. His exploits contributed to the destruction of the Dominican and Franciscan missions in Central Asia and to the drastic shrinkage of the Nestorian, Jacobite, and Armenian minorities -- a shrinkage that has never been fully repaired.
The Ottoman Turks were one of several peoples whose early home was in Central Asia and among whom Nestorian Christianity had formerly counted adherents. Before the middle of the fourteenth century they had become Moslem and had begun a spectacular advance in Western Asia. By that time they had wrested much of Asia Minor from the Byzantine rulers and had taken Nicaea. In the next fifty years they crossed into Europe, established temporary headquarters in Adrianople, and conquered Bulgaria. In 1453 Constantinople fell to their arms and was made their capital. In 1500 the Ottoman Turks were still advancing. They had mastered Greece and such of the Balkans as were not already under their sway and had taken much of Hungary. By 1550 they had more than once pressed to the gates of Vienna. In spite of frantic appeals by the Popes, the crusading spirit had so far become an anachronism that in Western Europe, divided into rival nation-states, no effective united effort was made to stem the Turkish tide. Under the Ottoman rule, many Christians were killed or forcibly made Moslem. Numbers of children were taken from Christian parents and reared as Moslems. St. Sophia and scores of other church buildings were transformed into mosques. Yet the majority of the Christians in territories in Europe subject to the Turks held to the faith. Only in mountainous Albania did the majority become Moslems. Minorities in Asia also were loyal to the religion of their fathers. The Turks permitted the office of Ecumenical Patriarch to continue, but the incumbents had, in effect, to buy their posts from the Turkish rulers. Increasingly, with Turkish support, Greeks from Constantinople were appointed to govern the Orthodox churches of non-Greeks in Europe. In time the Turks created a form of administration for the Christians in their domains. They treated adherents of the respective Eastern Churches -- Orthodox, Armenian, Jacobite, and the like -- as distinct communities or nations and recognized their ecclesiastical authorities as the heads through which to deal with them.
Russia was the one country in which large contingents of Orthodox who looked to the Ecumenical Patriarch as their ranking bishop escaped Turkish rule. There the center of government was established at Moscow. As Mongol power waned, Moscow became the capital of a realm under Russian rulers. The metropolitans of Moscow helped to strengthen the Moscow grand dukes. In 1480 one of the latter, Ivan III, completed the emancipation of his realms from the Mongols. He married the only niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, and he and those who followed him at Moscow claimed to be the successors of the Byzantine Emperors and as a symbol appropriated the twoheaded eagle.
In addition to its Orthodox connexions, Russian Christianity developed distinct forms. From its early days it had what was called the kenotic tradition -- the emptying of self in humility as Christ did in His incarnation. Kenoticism had been embodied in Theodosius (died 1074), the first Russian to be canonized and the chief pioneer and inspirer of Russian monasticism. True to its Byzantine tradition, Russian Christianity gave prominence to monasticism, but, somewhat differently from the Byzantine monasticism with its aloofness from the world, due in part to the initiative of Theodosius many Russian monasteries served the sick and the poor, and the monks were guides and confessors to the rank and file of the laity. The kenotic humility, asceticism, mysticism of the Hesychast type, and service to the poor and the laity in general were exemplified in Sergius (died in 1392), later to be the patron saint of Russia. Sergius was first a hermit, but about him others gathered, and reluctantly, for he saw in the position a temptation to pride, he was ordained priest and was made abbot of the monastic community which grew up around him. That monastery, the Troitsa (Trinity), about forty miles from Moscow, became the mother of many other houses.
Especially in North-eastern Russia, monasteries were pioneers in colonization. Around them villages arose. The monasteries gave hospitality to travelers, cared for the sick, and conducted schools. Eventually they were partly transformed into refuges for the wealthy in old age. To them many of the wealthy retired, keeping their property but leaving it to the community on their death. Monasteries became centers of culture. Art and such intellectual life as existed was nourished in them, and the icons were painted which were means of strengthening the religious life and became prominent in Russian Christianity.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century two contrasting movements developed for the reform of the Russian monasteries. One, founded by Joseph Volotsky (born in 1440), insisted that the inmates of monasteries engage in long fasts, work hard, and study diligently. Encouraged by him, huge monastic buildings were erected; services were elaborated and lengthened and were equipped with gorgeous vestments, costly vessels, and ornate altars. In the monasteries following the Volotsky pattern were trained many of the aristocracy who became abbots and bishops and rose to prominence in public affairs. The other reform developed in the North. Those who conformed to it preferred to live alone and without property, giving themselves to meditation and prayer, either singly or in community, They were known as the Non-possessors. They did not mingle in the world, except to give spiritual counsel to laymen who sought them out. A leader of the Non-possessors, Nilus Sorsky (c.1433-1508), combined the way of the hermit and life in community. But the communities were small, were remote from other habitations, and owned no property; their members worked with their hands for the bare necessities of existence. The Non-possessors regarded the goal of the religious life as the union with God of the soul which had given itself fully to the love of God. The two types of monasticism came into conflict. In 1503 a crisis was reached: the Non-possessors lost and the followers of Joseph won. Through their advocacy of the participation of monks in public life the Josephites furthered the close association of Church and State which characterized Byzantine and most of later pre-Communist Russian Christianity.
In the fourteenth century a movement headed by the Strigolniks ("barbers") arose -- evidence that Christianity had sufficiently penetrated the Russian masses to stir them to differ from the tradition of the Orthodox Church. The Strigolniks believed that the fees charged by the Church for ordination and by the priests for the sacraments were contrary to the practice of the primitive Church. They held that the official church, with its wealth and formalism, was apostate. They formed congregations led by laymen who refused financial remuneration, taught the Bible to their flocks, and set an example of humble, earnest living. The Strigolniks were persecuted by the bishops and clergy and were either stamped out or driven underground.
The fifteenth century saw the entrance into the Russian Church of a kind of crypto-Judaism. It influenced some in high position in Church and State but within a few years was crushed by burnings and imprisonments.
Gradually, in spite of corruption in the official Church, something of Christianity filtered through to the Russian masses. In the services of the Church the public reading of the Scriptures in the Slavonic translation helped to acquaint the rank and file with the faith, even if imperfectly and accompanied by non-Christian beliefs inherited from the past.
Late in the fifteenth or early in the sixteenth century it began to be claimed that Moscow was the third Rome, the guardian of the apostolic faith. The first Rome, so ran the argument, had fallen victim to the heresy of the Latins and had lost the primacy that because of Peter it had formerly held. Constantinople, the second Rome, now subject to the infidels, had gone the way of its predecessor. Moscow, free from non-Christian domination, so it was held, had the responsibility of preserving and championing the unadulterated Gospel.
Western Europe: The Changing Setting
While the Eastern Churches, especially the Eastern wing of the Catholic Church, were losing ground to resurgent Islam, and only in Russia were the Orthodox winning their independence of the Moslem and advancing into new territory, Western Europe was moving into a new era in which Christianity appeared an anachronism, a hold-over from a vanishing age. While admittedly still strong, the Church was honeycombed with corruption and seemed to be perpetuating an outmoded structure and intellectual climate.
The new age in Western Europe had several features. Cities were growing. Nation-states under monarchs with mounting power were bringing together areas formerly loosely bound together by feudal ties. Although still powerful, feudalism was waning, and the ecclesiastical structure adapted to feudalism and to an almost purely rural economy seemed anachronistic. Printing by movable type was invented. The use of gunpowder was beginning to make the chronic wars more destructive. The Holy Roman Empire persisted, and to the Emperors remained something of the prestige attached to their office, but it did not command as much as formerly the imagination of the dreamers and of the practical men of affairs. The conception of a Corpus Christianum with the Emperor and the Pope as the two foci was being relegated to the past. The Renaissance was in full tide.
The Renaissance was multiform and was more a state of mind and a climate of opinion than a single, concrete movement. It was in part an outgrowth of the Christianity of the preceding period and in part an expression of new social, economic, aesthetic, and intellectual trends. The Renaissance had begun before the mid-fourteenth century, but it was to reach its apex in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its exponents took joy in the literature and art of pre-Christian Rome and Greece. One of the expressions was a humanism which found its goal not in life beyond the grave but in an exuberant appreciation of life in the present world. The men of the Renaissance were self-confident, believing in themselves and in man. They took pleasure in nature and in the beauty of the human form. They rejoiced in verbal expression. Few openly rejected the Christian religion -- some were deeply religious -- but many were content to pay lip service to the faith and regarded man as the competent architect of his own future. They looked with disdain upon the schoolmen and scholasticism.
The Catholic Church Handicapped by Division and Corruption
The Catholic Church, the dominant representative of Christianity in Western Europe, entered the new age badly hampered by division and corruption. The division took the form of the Great Schism, an outgrowth of the Avignon Papacy. Many earnest Christians were unhappy over the absence of the Bishops of Rome from Rome and the subservience of the Papacy to France. Early in 1377, Gregory XI moved his residence to Rome, thus ending the "Babylonian Captivity." When, in the following year, he died, the Roman populace insisted that a Roman, or at least an Italian, be chosen to succeed him. Yielding to pressure, the cardinals complied and elected a Neopolitan. But the new Pope, Urban VI, antagonized many of the cardinals by commanding them to live in the posts whose titles they bore and to give up the profitable pluralism -- enjoying the revenues of two or more offices without fulfilling their functions or doing so only through poorly paid substitutes -- which made possible their luxurious existence in Avignon. Within a few months the cardinals left Rome, declaring that they had the right to depose the Pope as well as to choose him. They said that Urban had been elected under duress from the Roman mob and called on him to resign. The French majority proceeded to name another Pope, one of their own number, who took the title of Clement VII. They and he soon settled in Avignon. Urban VI denounced their action and appointed a new group of cardinals. Europe was now divided: some countries supported Urban VI and others Clement VII. The corruption which had mounted in the Avignon period became, if anything, more notorious.
Healing of the Breach by an Ecumenical Council; Effort to Subordinate the Popes to the Councils
Earnest and able men were scandalized by both the schism and the corruption. They demanded that a general council of the Church be called to deal with both. They did not at first succeed, but in 1409 cardinals from Rome and Avignon yielded and called a council. In the meantime both Avignon and Roman Pontiffs had died, a successor to each had been chosen, and the schism was continued. The Council, meeting in Pisa, called on both Popes to resign, and the cardinals appointed a new Pontiff. But both the Avignon Pope and the Roman Pope refused to surrender their posts and Europe was confronted by the spectacle of three Popes.
To end a situation which was becoming intolerable, Sigismund, King of the Germans, later (1433) to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, called a council. It met in Constance from 1414 to 1418 and is regarded by Roman Catholics as the sixteenth in the ecumenical series. The Council deposed one Pope and persuaded another to resign, and since the third declined to do so, it deposed him. He persisted in his claim to the office but retained only a dwindling following. Thus the Great Schism was ended, not by Papal initiative but by a general council of the Church. The Constance gathering was too badly divided to take many effective measures against the widespread corruption. Drastic action would have curtailed the privileges enjoyed by many of the members. One act was negative: it condemned John Hus, of Bohemia, who had advocated what seemed to the majority radical measures to cleanse the Augean ecclesiastical stables. In spite of the pledge of safe conduct from Sigismund under which he had been induced to come to Constance, the Council turned Hus over to the civil authorities for burning. On the positive side, decrees were enacted in an effort to curb several of the most obvious evils, including some of the financial exactions of the Papacy.
The Council of Constance endeavored to further the remaining needed reforms by ordering that general councils be convened at specified intervals. The Council said expressly that it and other general councils drew their authority directly from Christ and that all, including the Pope, were "bound to obey" them "in all those things which pertain to the faith’ to the healing of schism, and to the general reformation of the Church."
For a time what was called the conciliar movement seemed to give promise of accomplishing the needed reforms and of confirming the authority of councils over the Popes. In 1431 the council provided for at Constance assembled in Basel. Although the Pope recognized it and sent legates to it, and although Papal prestige was weakened by the proof (1433 and 1440) by humanist scholars that the Donation of Constantine which had so long been used to bolster Papal claims was a forgery, Basel failed to accomplish the drastic reforms which the situation demanded and permanently to confirm the authority of the councils over the Popes. For a time it appeared to succeed, but numbers of its members withdrew, leaving the control in the hands of the radicals. By the middle of the fifteenth century the Basel gathering was clearly moribund. With its demise the conciliar movement was patently a failure. The effort to employ a general council to effect the claimant reforms had been frustrated.
Corruption in the Papacy
The failure of the conciliar movement to bring reform was followed by a similar defeat in the use of the Papacy for that purpose. A few of the Popes of the latter part of the fourteenth century were pure in their private lives and sought to do what the best consciences of Western Europe desired, but they either were lacking in resolution and force of character or compromised. They faced formidable obstacles which might have baffled abler and more determined men. Italy was torn by domestic quarrels between the many states into which it was divided, and in the attempt to avoid domination by one or another faction the Papacy became a partisan. The Popes sought to confirm their authority in the Papal States and in doing so became further embroiled in Italian affairs. The monarchs of the growing nation-states were seeking, with success, to dominate the Church within their borders. From time to time the French attempted to resume the dominance over the Papacy which they had exerted in the Avignon period. Leading Italian families struggled with one another for a similar control. More than once the cardinals endeavored to reduce the Pope to a puppet status.
Some Popes were notorious for nepotism in their appointments. Several of them attempted to solve the finances of themselves and the Papal curia by the sale of ecclesiastical offices. In Papal elections lavish bribery was common. Now and again a Pope expended much effort in futile attempts to rouse Western Europe to a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The Popes became patrons of the Renaissance and the humanists. Nicholas V is credited with founding the Vatican Library; he made Rome a center of the new humanism and art and adopted the plans for the new St. Peter’s, which in the twentieth century is still the largest cathedral in Christendom. Paul II represented an anti-humanist reaction. He sought to curb simony, insisted on strict discipline in the curia, and appointed worthy men to office. Under him the cardinalate became predominantly Italian. In 1471 the General of the Franciscans was elected Pope as Sixtus IV (reigned 1471-1486), but, although a scholar and of blameless personal life, he strove to make the Papacy the center of a strong Italian state. He engaged in wars, built the Sistine Chapel, named for him, spent vast sums on new buildings and streets in Rome, reorganized the Vatican Library, and attracted scholars and artists to Rome. Among his aides were men who were essentially pagan. Some of his appointees to the cardinalate debased the already low moral quality of their office.
In the closing decades of the fifteenth century the Papacy sank to a nadir from which it did not recover until the next century. Sixtus IV was followed by Innocent VIII, who reigned from 1484 to 1492. Before his ordination he had been married and had a son by his wife and two illegitimate children. While in his private life he seems to have reformed after being ordained priest, his election was obtained by heavy bribes. During his pontificate most of the cardinals were worldly and several were openly dissolute. They lived like secular princes, hunted, gambled, and had mistresses. Innocent’s appointees lowered rather than raised the level. One was the thirteen-year-old son of the influential and wealthy Florentine Lorenzo de Medici, who even before that early age had been given an abbacy and before he was twelve had been made abbot of Monte Cassino, the mother house of the Benedictines. Later, as Leo X (1513-1521), he was addicted to hunting, had a cardinal executed and others severely punished for plotting against his life, and utterly failed to sense the importance of his contemporary, Luther.
Innocent VIII was succeeded by Rodrigo Borgia, who, as Alexander VI, was in the chair of Peter from 1492 to his death in 1503. From his early youth he had been given ecclesiastical posts with large incomes and entailing an intimate knowledge of the Papal administration. He was able and hard working and from long experience knew the etiquette and machinery of the Vatican. Handsome, imposing, he presided with dignity at pontifical functions. He did much to improve the architecture and streets of Rome. He encouraged art. He gave his support to the Angelus and stood for the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Yet when all that can be said in his favor is recorded, the fact remains that no one in the long succession of Popes combined marked ability with personal conduct and political actions to bring so much discredit to his office. Others had been as vicious but they did not compare with him in ability. He was notorious for his mistresses and his illegitimate children. He strove to promote the ambitions of his offspring. He sought and sometimes obtained among the high nobility matrimonial alliances for his daughters. He gave his sons lucrative ecclesiastical preferments and promoted their political ambitions. One son, Caesar Borgia, was made a cardinal in his teens, but when he developed political ambitions he was released from his ecclesiastical status. Utterly selfish, daring, courageous, noted for his perfidy and coldblooded cruelty to all who stood in his way, he sought to make himself the leading prince in Italy. His father’s death, presumably from the endemic Roman disease, malaria, deprived him of the powerful Papal support and his enemies quickly accomplished his ruin. Within four years of Alexander VI’s passing his adventurous career was ended by death in battle.
Corruption Outside Rome
With such corruption in Rome, similar conditions could be expected throughout the Catholic Church. Pluralism and absenteeism were prevalent. Concubinage was common among clergy, high and low. Kings and other political grandees provided for their illegitimate sons by having them appointed bishops, and bishops obtained offices, either clerical or secular, for their illegitimate male progeny. Many bishops behaved more like secular lords than pastors of their flocks. Masses were hurriedly said, and in the chantries established for prayers for the dead, masses were often neglected or grouped together. New monastic movements, evidence of deep religious conviction and dedication, were few, and in existing monastic houses luxury, lethargy, laxity, and even stark immorality were usual. Nunneries were favorite places for providing homes for daughters of the aristocracy. Many women so domiciled had private incomes which made possible physical comforts and often went outside the enclosing walls.
Evidence was accumulating that Western Europe was in danger of de-Christianization. The gains painfully won in earlier centuries were apparently being lost. In practice Christian ideals were repudiated and a secularism was emerging which in morals would have shocked high-minded pagans of pre-Christian days. Western Europeans seemed to be resolving the tension between Christian and un-Christian customs so prominent in the Middle Ages by abandoning any attempt to live up to the standards of the New Testament.
Fresh Indications of Continuing Vitality
The facts just summarized, undoubtedly grim, were only one side of the picture. By that contrast which from the beginning has characterized the course of Christianity, the century and a half covered in this chapter witnessed not only a seeming retreat but also indications of continuing vigor. As in Russia, so even more in Western Europe, that vigor expressed itself partly through old channels and partly in fresh ways. Among the old channels were monasteries which held to their original ideals and bishops and parish clergy who labored conscientiously to fulfill what was rightly expected of men in their posts.
In Italy, where much of the skepticism and worldliness of the Renaissance centered and where the corruption radiating from Rome was most conspicuous, individuals and groups who stood for loyalty to the faith were not wanting. Among them was Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who in her brief life had a wide influence in reconciling enemies and warring factions and in contributing to the return of the Popes to Rome. She also sought to prevent the Great Schism and attempted to restore peace between the Popes and Florence. In the fifteenth century Florence, a center of Renaissance art and humanism, had a circle of brilliant intellectuals who were earnestly Christian. At the close of the century Florence was the scene of the labors of Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). A Dominican, by his sincerity and his eloquence Savonarola endeavored to bring moral and religious reform to that city. For a time in the 1490’s he seemed to succeed. But he ran afoul of Alexander VI, for he denounced that Pontiff as neither a true Pope nor a Christian and appealed to the sovereigns of four leading countries to call a general council of the Church. Public opinion in Florence turned against him, and he and two of his disciples were condemned and hanged, and their bodies were burned. From Florence, too, came Michelangelo, a warm admirer of Savonarola. As a Christian Michelangelo dedicated his skill to some of the greatest sculpture and painting of the age.
North of Italy humanism had less of paganism than in that land. Outstanding, for example, was Jacques Lefèvre d’Ètaples (c. 1455-1536), a priest who taught in the University of Paris. He pled for a return to primitive Christianity, held the Bible to be the primary authority for Christians, and gave much time to the study of the Scriptures and their translation into French. More famous was Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536), a native of Rotterdam. A master of the Latin style admired by humanists, Erasmus was widely read in their circles. An intense individualist and having no use for monks or scholasticism, reluctantly a priest, he was sincerely Christian and wished to see the Church purged of superstition and to return to the ethical teachings of Christ. In a politically divided Europe, racked by war, he pled for peace.
A few new monastic movements emerged. One of the more notable was the Brethren of the Common Life. They sprang up in the Low Countries in the fourteenth century and combined some of the features of monasticism with non-monastic life. They spread chiefly in the Low Countries and in Germany and were closely related to other movements which stimulated monastic reform in Germany. By the close of the fifteenth century the Observants among the Franciscans, holding to a complete adherence to the ideal of Francis of Assisi, multiplied rapidly. One of their number, Ximénes de Cisneros (1436-1517), in his later years Archbishop of Toledo, endeavored to bring all of the Brothers Minor of Castile to the Observant discipline and to purify the entire church in that Spanish realm. A Dominican, Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), severely ascetic, of an aristocratic family, traveled widely, preaching repentance and impending judgement.
Varied expressions of the rising tide of devotion appeared through mysticism. One channel was what were known as the Friends of God. They began early in the fourteenth century and were found chiefly in Germany and the Low Countries. Among their pioneers were two Dominicans, John ("Meister") Eckhart (c. 1260-1327) and John Tauler (died 1361). Related to the movement but not of it was the Fleming John Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), who with a few companions followed the rule of the Augustinian Canons. His writings had a profound influence on the Friends of God and the Brethren of the Common Life. From the awakening represented by the Brethren of the Common Life came the New Devotion. Its chief literary legacy was -- and is -- The Imitation of Christ, composed early in the fifteenth century. To the latter half of the fourteenth century belong influential English mystics. One of them, Walter Hilton, an experienced spiritual director who died in 1396, wrote The Scale of Perfection, to guide the soul in its progress towards God. It is said to have been the book of devotion most widely used in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Movements Condemned by the Catholic Church
The latter part of the fourteenth and the fifteenth century witnessed two movements which were closely related, which sought to bring the Church to a closer approximation to the New Testament, but which were branded by the Catholic Church as heretical.
One was that begun by John Wyclif (c. 1320-1384). Wyclif spent much of his life in Oxford and was an outstanding teacher in that university. When he was already in middle life, possibly because he was scandalized by the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism, he began giving pen to views which antagonized the conservatives. He declared that Popes might err and were not necessary for the administration of the Church. He said that a worldly Pope was a heretic and should be removed from office. Later he insisted that the true Church is made up only of those elected by God and that no visible church or its officers could control entrance to it or could exclude its members. He maintained that every one of God’s elect is a priest. He attacked transsubstantiation but held to the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the mass. He condemned the cult of the saints, relics, and pilgrimages. Wyclif was responsible for the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate into English. To give wide currency to the Bible he sent out itinerant preachers who won a following known as the Lollards. Wyclif was protected by some of the nobility who were powerful at court; he died peacefully in the parish at Lutterworth to which the Crown had appointed him. But his followers were persecuted. Among other charges, they were accused of stirring up the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. In 1415 the Council of Constance condemned Wyclif and ordered his writings burned. In 1428, at Papal command, Wyclif’s remains were dug up and burned, and the ashes were thrown into a nearby stream.
Wyclif’s writings came into the hands of a Bohemian priest, John Hus (c. 1373-1415), and reinforced him in the course on which he had already entered and for which he has been remembered. Hus was of humble birth but eventually became Rector of the University of Prague. In his preaching in Prague he advocated reform and stirred both high and low. He held that God had founded the Church on Christ and not on Peter, and that Popes might be heretics. His emphasis was more ethical than theological. He was condemned by the Pope and, as we have seen, was tried by the Council of Constance and, stripped of the priesthood, was turned over to the civil authorities for burning. In his death Hus became a national hero of the Bohemians. His followers fell into two groups. One, largely from the aristocracy, wished the free preaching of the Gospel, gave the Communion to the laity in both the bread and the wine, not simply in the bread as had become the custom, and opposed only those practices of the Catholic Church which seemed to them to be forbidden by the Bible. The other wing was from the humbler ranks of society and rejected all in the Catholic Church for which they could not find express warrant in the Scriptures. The radical wing was defeated in battle by the moderates. In spite of Papal condemnation, the Bohemian Parliament gave the latter full equality with the Catholics. Another movement, the Bohemian Brethren (the Unitas Fratrum), combined elements from both wings and from the Waldenses. They were one of the sources of the Moravians, whom we are to meet later.
The many and varied movements, both within the Catholic Church and condemned by it, in which the inherent vigor of Christianity was finding expression contributed to vast tides that, beginning in the sixteenth century, were largely to reinvigorate and transform the Christianity of Western Europe. They started it on a course of geographic expansion which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries attained global dimensions.
Viewed 257748 times.