committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs



Success of the Reforming Parties—Consternation at Rome—Anathemas—
The Dominican and Franciscan Orders—Sanguinary Persecution—
Crusade against the Albigenses—The Inquisition—Movement
in England—John de Wycliffe—The Lollards—Bohemia.


All the authorities agree in testifying to the astonishing success of the Reformers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The fact is, that they found “a people prepared for the Lord.” Disgusted with the absurdities which were palmed on them in the name of religion, and shocked at the frauds and crimes which were daily perpetrated, they panted for something better than Rome proffered. The Gospel of Christ, as preached by the persecuted sects, satisfied their souls. Great numbers of them believed and rejoiced in God. And the converts lived so well that they won universal respect. The barons of Southern France encouraged and protected them. It was to their interest to do so, for they were an honest, industrious tenantry, cheerfully paying rates and taxes, and thus contributing materially to the improvement of the estates on which they were located. Peace, prosperity, and good order prevailed wherever their communities were established. How could it be otherwise? They were all brethren, and they were “taught of God to love one another.” They trained their children in principles of truth and uprightness. They abjured litigation and violence. Accounting one day as good as another, they lost no time by observing the holidays of the Church. They never left their farms and merchandise to wander about on pilgrimages. They spent no money in the purchase of indulgences. They thought it wrong to build and endow monasteries. In short, they were quiet, thrifty people, and the land was the better for them. So their landlords judged and felt, and they shielded them against Papal fury at the risk of their own safety. This kindness cost some of them dear: they were involved in the general ruin which the crusading fiends brought upon the country.

Rome looked on and trembled. Her subjects were fast leaving her. Her dominion was crumbling away. What was to be done to secure the remainder, and recover lost ground?

Cursing was first thought of, because it was easy, and the Church was expert at it. So the bishops met in council, year after year, and in all places where the Reformers appeared right heartily did they curse them. As our Lord had foretold, they said “all manner of evil against them falsely,” hurled anathemas at their heads, and called upon the people to “hate them with a perfect hatred.” A long list of those councils is before the writer. The bishops must have been very busy in those days. A large portion of their time must have been spent in attending the meetings.

A more reasonable plan was next invented. The reforming sects owed much of their success to preaching. Addressing the people in their own language, and in strains of rough but forcible eloquence, into which Scripture phrases were largely interwoven, they acquired an influence which the clergy sought in vain to snatch from them. A non-preaching priesthood was powerless in such a conflict. Feeling this disadvantage, ecclesiastical ingenuity hit upon a new scheme. In the early part of the thirteenth century the Dominican and Franciscan orders were founded. In their establishment special regard was had to the great necessity of the times. From among the monks of those orders men were chosen whose talents pointed them out as best fitted for the work, and they were sent out, after proper training, as public preachers. The churches being open to them, they were placed at once on vantage-ground, which they occupied with much zeal and skill. They cultivated the arts of pleasing, and soon learnt to adapt themselves to the popular taste. And whereas the greedy propensities of the resident clergy had long exposed them to the shafts of ridicule and sarcasm, the new orders professed absolute poverty, received alms from the people for their daily support, and abjured all right to hold property. That self-?denying habit did not last long, but reputation was secured by it, and the Dominicans and Franciscans stood high in public favour.

We must not, however, look for uniform and unswerving adhesion to peaceable measures. It was not in the nature of Rome to restrict herself in this matter. She always had a keen scent for blood. Persuasion was very well when there was no power to use force; but what persuasion could be so effective as that of the dungeon, the sword, and the fire? All the various modes of persecution were brought into active operation. The German Emperors, instigated by the Popes, issued sanguinary edicts, threatening the severest punishments to heretics of every name. The Popes themselves acted with characteristic ferocity, and all the councils breathed the same spirit. The general council held at Rome in the year 1179, called the third of Lateran, led the way. If any of the heretics held public offices, they were to be turned out of them as soon as they were detected. All intercourse with them was forbidden; there was to be no buying or selling with them. Contracts with them were declared to be void. Houses in which they were found were ordered to be destroyed; and if any person allowed them to settle on his lands, those lands were to be con?fiscated. Noblemen were commanded not to offer them protection. In every parish two or three inhabitants were to be appointed to make diligent and constant search for heretics, and to denounce them, whenever found, to the authorities. No advocate was to be permitted to plead for them, when they were placed on trial. On conviction, they were to be delivered over to the secular power, to be burnt. And all magistrates and judges were warned that if they did not faithfully execute these decrees, they would be excommunicated.1

Fearful scenes were enacted. The human bloodhounds were at work in all directions. “This year,” says one of the writers of the times, speaking of the year 1233, “innumerable heretics were burnt in every part of Germany.”

Still they were unsubdued. Some evaded the search, and lived in concealment. Some withdrew to more friendly lands. In Southern France the barons were slow to deprive themselves of the advantages which they derived from the residence of industrious, orderly men on their estates, and the exterminating process seemed likely to fall into abeyance.

This was too much for popes to bear. All the bigotry and brutality by which the holders of the popedom have ever been signalized, appeared to be concentrated in Innocent III. Enraged at the failure of the measures hitherto employed, he gave commissions to extraordinary legates, authorizing them to require the co-operation of the civil powers in hunting down and extirpating heretics. They prosecuted the murderous enterprise with unremitting ardor. But they were baffled in France. Innocent then proclaimed a crusade. Full pardon of sins was promised to all who would engage in the unholy war, with whatever plunder they might obtain, and even the territories of such princes and nobles as should resist. A large army was quickly gathered. The narrative of their proceedings occupies some of the darkest pages of the world’s history. We have not space for the horrid details, and must therefore refer the reader to the ordinary sources of information. When he reads the narratives which contemporary historians have transmitted to posterityhow the crusaders attacked town after town, and indiscriminately butchered the inhabitantshow, on one occasion, when it appeared that the population of the place was partly Roman Catholic and partly heretical, the monk who controlled the movements of the army said, “Kill all; God knows who are His own,”how terms of capitulation were granted, and afterwards basely violatedhow, at Carcassone, fifty were hanged and four hundred burnthow, at Lavaur, the lady of the castle was thrown into a well, and stones heaped over her, and “the numberless heretics that were in the fortress were burnt alive with great joy,”how, in short, the whole country of Languedoc, one of the finest portions of France, was reduced to a desert, tens of thousands of its inhabitants slaughtered, and all property destroyed:I say, when he reads these accounts, and marks the fiendish barbarity of the men who proclaimed themselves defenders of the faith, and notes that they were taught to expect pardon and heaven for their diabolical outrages, he will be prepared to admit that the system which sanctioned such villainous proceedings could have had no other origin than the pit of darkness. It has been well observed by a modern writer, that Popery is “the master-piece of Satan.”2

To the crusaders succeeded the Inquisition. The germ of that institution appeared in the directions for parochial visitation which have been already mentioned, and in the appointment of legates to various districts, armed with special power to punish heretics. In the Pontificate of Gregory IX., about the year 1233, the tribunal of the Inquisition was established; that is, the work of punishing and suppressing heresy was taken out of the hands of the bishops and committed to inquisitors. The first court was stationed at Toulouse. Afterwards the arrangement was extended to Spain and other countries, wherever the Pope could gain admittance for it. Dominic had shown so much zeal in forwarding the object, and the members of his order, after his death, evinced such alacrity in the cause, that it was at length judged advisable to entrust the Inquisition wholly to the Dominicans. They have managed the tribunal in the most effective manner for the interests of Rome, while they have covered themselves with deserved infamy. The ecclesiastical historians will fully gratify curiosity in this respect. Those who wish to enter on an extended inquiry may be advised to procure Limborch’s “History of the Inquisition,” or Llorente’s “History of the Inquisition in Spain.” The secrecy of its processes, the withholding of evidence from the accused, the refusal to confront him with the witnesses, the employment of spies, the use of torture in every horrible form that malignant ingenuity could devise, and the unmercifulness and hardheartedness of the whole procedure, have fixed a stigma on the Inquisition which can never be effaced. It has accomplished the bloody work of Popery with terrible faithfulness. In doing so it has taught the world that Rome is the relentless enemy of truth, right, and freedom.

These tremendous demonstrations produced, to a great extent, the desired effect. In France, the Albigenses, though not altogether exterminated, were silenced for a time. Numbers escaped from the murderers and fled the country. Such as remained were compelled to abstain from public acts of worship, and to cease from all attempts to spread their opinions. After the plans of the Inquisition had been brought into regular operation, the Church in France was but little troubled with heretics for the next two hundred years. The suppression was not so complete in Italy and Germany, and other parts of Europe, whence there was freer access to regions beyond the reach of the Inquisition.

At a Synod held in London, in the year 1286, Archbishop Peckham condemned certain metaphysical speculations which had been recently introduced, and which indicated that those who held them were opposed to transubstantiation. The seventh article furnishes a key to the whole. It condemns those who affirm that in such matters they ought not to be bound by the authority of Augustine, or Gregory, or the Popes, but only by “Scripture and necessary reason.”3These men, whoever they were, had imbibed right principles. One cannot help thinking that they must have been Baptists, so entirely does the position they maintained harmonize with our own. All honor to those, of every age and of every land, who will not bow, in matters of religion, to any other authority than “Scripture and necessary reason.”

There were tens of thousands of such men in Europe, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The seed sown by Peter of Bruys, Henry of Lausanne, Peter Waldo, and others, had produced a plentiful harvest. In vain did inquisitors rage, and plot, and torture, and burn. They were neither omniscient nor omnipresent: mighty as they were, they were not omnipotent. If they cursed heresy here, it sprang up there; and, when hard pressed, found shelter in many an inaccessible mountain or secluded valley: It was only in France that the exterminating policy succeeded, or seemed to succeed. In other parts of the Continent, the Reformers, though “cast down,” were not “destroyed.” They laboured on noiselessly, with good success, and prayed and waited for better times. They abounded in every part of the German empire, and were found as far East as Constantinople. The Pope could not suppress them in Northern Italy. So numerous were they, that a member of any of their churches might travel from Cologne to Milan, and lodge every night in a brother’s house.

A quickening impulse was given in the fifteenth century, which may be traced to England. The absorbing propensities of the ecclesiastics had excited general disgust, which often ripened into hatred. By operating on the fears of ignorant or seriously disposed persons, they had procured, in return for promised masses and other imaginary benefits, gifts and legacies of property to an immense amount. It was even affirmed that one-half of the freehold estates of the country were in their possession. Profligacy was connected with wealth, and it was generally believed that none led more licentious lives than those who had taken the vow of celibacy. Besides this, the Mendicant Orders were daily increasing in numbers and strength, and, as their popularity grew, they became formidable rivals of the parish clergy, whose revenues were proportionately diminished. Hence arose contentions fierce and long. Each party strove to blacken the other, and from the revelations made on both sides, the people gained information which would have been otherwise hidden from them; for, when rogues fall out, knavery is disclosed. These circumstances combined to create much bitter feeling against the clerical orders. Dislike of their characters and deeds led to doubts respecting their teachings. Who could hope to hear good words from foul mouths? Opinions which had been long current in the Church, began to be regarded with suspicion, and customs which had become venerable for their antiquity, were neglected or submitted to with reluctance, perhaps sneered at.

John de Wycliffe’s influence greatly contributed to these results. The insolence and rapacity of the Mendicant Orders first moved his indignation. He lectured against them at Oxford so powerfully, that a determination to withstand their encroachments became general among thinking men, who were encouraged in their opposition by a considerable number of the nobility and gentry. Pursuing his inquiries, Wycliffe went further than he originally intended, and propounded opinions which were extremely unpalatable to the staunch supporters of Popery. Rome upheld and protected the Mendicants, and stirred up persecution against all who opposed them. Wycliffe himself was in great danger, and would have fallen a victim to Papal vengeance but for the protection of the Duke of Lancaster and other men of high rank. He was compelled to leave Oxford, however, and to retire to his rectory of Lutterworth, Leicestershire, where he died in peace, December 31st, 1384. For many years before his death he had continued to follow the leadings of truth and to yield to conviction. The injustice of the Popes in regard to the Mendicant controversy, and their steadfast resolve to uphold all abuses and resist all reforms, filled him with disgust. What was the character of the system which cherished such enormities? In answering that question, he was led to compare the professed Christianity of the fourteenth century with that of the New Testament. The contrast shocked him. He saw that the religion of Christ and His Apostles had long been practically abjured. The cunning, crooked policy of the Church of Rome, in withholding the Scriptures from the people, and thus placing them in a state of abject dependence on the priesthood, was contem?plated by him with abhorrence. He devoted himself to the enlightenment of his countrymen. By the publication of short tracts and carefully written treatises, he set before them, in plain, nervous style, the evils in which they had been involved, and the truths which claimed their faith. He exhorted them to think and judge for themselves. He spent the latter years of his life in translating the Scriptures into the English language, and happily accomplished his purpose. For the first time the people of England had the opportunity of reading the Word of God in their own tongue. A more precious gift than the English Bible could not have been bestowed upon them.

When the Pope condemned Wycliffe’s sentiments, he ordered the Government of England to deal with him as a heretic; but the Reformer’s friends were so numerous and influential, that the Papal shaft fell harmless. The subject was taken up by the Council of Constance, which met in the year 1415, and a sentence of condemnation was issued. Wycliffe was out of their reach, but his books were widely circulated, and his bones were in his grave at Lutterworth. Books and bones were deemed fit objects of revenge, and orders were given to burn them. The sentence was not executed on his bones till the year 1428, when, by command of Pope Martin V., the tomb was violated. After a repose of upwards of forty years, the remains of the good man were disinterred. The fire reduced them to ashes, and the ashes were cast into the Swift, a small stream that runs through Lutterworth. Thomas Fuller, the quaint Church historian, says: “This brook has conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.”4

After Wycliffe’s death, the work was carried on by the Lollards, as those who embraced his opinions were called. The origin of that appellation is hid in obscurity. Some derive it from the name of one of their traders, Walter Lollard. Others, with Mosheim, regard it as “a term of reproach, brought from Belgium into England.”5So great was their success that a Romish writer of those times affirms that one-half of the people had become disaffected to the Church. This is an exaggeration; but it is evident, from the strenuous endeavors of the ecclesiastics to procure the adoption of violent measures, that the reforming party had assumed a formidable appearance. The Lollards traveled from place to place, preaching and teaching, as the Waldenses and others did on the Continent. Sometimes they obtained possession of the churches (for many of them belonged to the clergy, and kept their places, as Wycliffe had done before them). Sometimes they preached in the churchyards; they went to the fairs and markets, where the people congregated in great numbers, and often addressed immense assemblies, who heard them with much sympathy and respect. They circulated portions of the Scriptures as they had opportunity, and thus there grew up a strong attachment to the Word of God. Men would sit up all night to read it, or to hear it read by others. Some “would give a load of hay for a few chapters of St. James or St. Paul in English,” as John Foxe testifies. The bishops stormed and raved. In the year 1400 they procured the enactment of the statute de h?etico comburendo, and burnt as many as they could lay their hands on. In some instances even children were compelled to set fire to the pile in which their parents were to be consumed. Others “had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings.” A large number of them were imprisoned in the Tower of London, and in other prisons of the land. Yet the light of the Gospel was not extinguished. When the Reformation broke out, there were many thousands in England who were already prepared to side with the friends of truth against Antichrist and his abettors.

From England the movement spread eastward as far as Bohemia. To what extent the influence of Wycliffe’s writings was felt in the intervening countries, it is not possible to say, but that they were very popular in Bohemia is matter of history. Anne of Bohemia, Queen of Richard II., befriended the Reformer, and probably transmitted copies of his works to her own country. John Huss possessed them and studied them attentively. Many others, some of them persons of high rank, were eager to obtain the Englishman’s books. When the Council of Constance ordered them to be burnt, upwards of two hundred volumes, most of them richly bound and adorned, were thrown into the flames. But many more, we may be sure, were retained by their owners. Wycliffe, though dead, continued to speak and instruct. Peter of Bruys, and other godly men, lived in their successors. At the close of this period there were vast numbers in every part of Europe who “worshipped God in the spirit, rejoiced in Christ Jesus, and had no confidence in the flesh.” Councils had thundered forth their curses, popes had issued their bulls, and inquisitors had exhausted their ingenuitybut it was all in vain. The Church of God still lived.


1  Labbe and Cossart, x. pp. 1503-1535

2   Sismondi’s History of the Crusades against the Albigenses. Jones’s History of the Waldenses, chap. v. sect. 6. Michaud’s History of the Crusades. Rev. R. Cecil’s Works, iii. p. 416. Edition 1816.

3   Labbe and Cossart, xii. p. 1262.

4   Church History of Britain, book iv. cent. 15, sect. 52-54. See Dr. Vaughan’s Life and Opinions of John de Wycliffe.

5   Ecclesiastical History, cent. xiv. part 2, chap. ii. Sect. 20.

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