Prior to 1638: The Context: A Brief Look at the Reformation

The troubles in Scotland were endemic in Europe and had been for a century when Jenny Geddes tossed her stool at Bishop Lindsay in St. Giles Cathedral. Her act was not the straw that broke the camel’s back. The proverbial back of the camel had been broken many times before. Chiropractors and surgeons didn’t have the means to put Humpty Dumpty together again after a variety of monarchs, catholic and protestant alike, had basically kicked the daylights out of the believer. While Pascal’s Wager dictates that it is wise to bet on God if you are seeking eternal life, it seemed at the time (1638) that life on earth might be safer if one could appear as a deist. Any personal conviction based on a human translation of the Bible, a Papal pronouncement or Laud’s law could create serious side effects, including death.

The Catholic Church, which had monopolized and franchised the worship of Jesus the Christ for 1500 years, was being challenged by men and women who were more than willing to go toe to toe with the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, and Catholic clergy. Jan Hus had been burned at the stake at Lake Constance (Germany/Switzerland) in 1415. His sin: thinking outside the box. Burning Hus at the stake only fanned the flames of a protestant reformation in central Europe. The Czech peasantry rose up in rebellion and the Hussite Wars ensued. With the home field advantage and the latest in technological warfare (a thing called ‘the hand held cannon’) the people of Bohemia were undefeated over a span of 15 years. With 5 wins and no losses, the Hussites were rated number 1 in central Europe, winning championships on five separate occasions. They turned back Crusades by the Pope’s army in 1420, 1421, 1422, 1427 and in 1431. Up until that point, folks thought of Crusades as a Christian attempt to persuade Moslems to convert or die. But the Pope could also use a Crusade to persuade Christians to stay in line with the brand name.  The Czech community was not convinced that Catholicism was all good. The Pope finally relented and the Hussites continued to practice rituals that the church deemed heretic. Moderate Hussites convinced Radical Hussites to tone it down a notch.

Protestant emperors could also send out the shock troops and toss a good Catholic into the much maligned Tower of London. One didn’t have to be Catholic to earn Henry VIII’s disdain. Any protestant whose thoughts conflicted with Henry’s Anglican Church could find his or her way to the chopping block.  Rumor alone could cost one a life on Earth. Of course, Henry’s needs to lead a reformation in England were far less noble than efforts of British theologian, John Wycliffe (1330-1384). Henry was simply in need of a divorce from a Catholic Queen who seemed unable to provide the King with a much needed son. When the Roman Catholic church couldn’t provide the annulment, Henry (1491-1547) created his own church and sent his friend and counselor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey off to his death while under house arrest. Wolsey’s sin: He failed to secure the annulment Henry so desperately desired. There were some other issues as well, but this failure caused Henry to make it clear to Wolsey that the King was in charge. Rather than quoting Donald Trump, “You’re fired!” King Henry chose to quote Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank: “You’re dead to me!”

Three hundred years earlier, John Wycliffe was laying the groundwork for theologians, guys like Hus and Luther, who wanted to purify a corrupt church and eliminate extravagant rituals that smacked of superstition and false teaching. Historians point out several of Wycliffe’s more salient issues with the teaching and conduct of the Catholic Church circa 1360. On a Richter Scale each of the following issues weighed in as a ’10’ in Rome:

  1. Wycliffe felt that an individual’s interpretation of the Bible was their best shot at living a moral life. This flew in the face of the Church emphasis on receiving the sacraments as the only way to salvation. Wycliffe didn’t believe that a generous donation to the Church coffer could insure an easier path to the gates of heaven.
  2. He insisted that holding an official office within the Church did not insure that a person was living a more holy life than a pious commoner running a vegetable stand in the market to the west of St. Giles Cathedral, as an example. In Wycliffe’s mind Bishop Lindsay held no advantage over Jenny Geddes when it came to spending eternity with the Lord in heaven.
  3. And carrying that belief a bit further: Wycliffe turned thumbs down on the privileged status of the clergy, which was central to their powerful role in England. He was one of the first to challenge the role of papal authority over secular power. You can understand why the church felt threatened by Wycliffe’s teachings.

What really threw Wycliffe from the frying pan into the fire was his attack on the luxurious lifestyle of the clergy. They lived in elegant surroundings, pampered by the population and living off the donations of the peasantry. The church had accumlated more wealth than the nations of Europe and lived exorbitantly. Wycliffe was also tired of the pomp of the church ceremony. There was too much bling. He couldn’t picture Jesus driving a Ferrari when a donkey could be found.

I am reviewing all of this information (and there is a ton more about these folks) to simply lay the groundwork for the role that our own ancestors played in this Reality TV show called Life on Earth. The issues that were important to human kind in Europe in the 1300’s were equally important to our ancestors in the 1600’s and 1700’s. Wycliffe not only inspired Jan Hus and Martin Luther, but his work also found its’ way into the lives of ancestors William Whittington, Nathaniel Littleton, Ann Southey, Abraham Pierson, Obadiah Bruehn and a host of others, some Presbyterian, some Anglican, Puritan and Congregational. There are Quakers, Shakers and Huguenots (de la Fountaines). And in the outside lane, closing fast: The Schliermachers of Bavaria, Silesia, Poland, Holland and England. And they wouldn’t stop moving west, not even when they hit William Penn’s Lancaster in Amish Country.

Wycliffe was also an early advocate for translation of the Bible into the common language of the people. A Bible written in Latin did not serve the masses very well but it did serve the purpose of the Catholic Church. Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lau of communist China held firmly to the belief that he who has information has power. And this was certainly true in the days when the Church ruled Europe. One would have to be highly educated to have a handle on the Latin language. So the Church was in a position to define what God meant in each passage of both the Old and New Testament. Wycliffe believed that a commoner could live a more moral existence, closer to God, if a Bible was written in their native tongue. Of course literacy was also an issue and one the Reformation and our ancestors would have to address if they really wanted to purify the Church and the soul of mankind.

John Wycliffe 1330-1384

John Wycliffe 1330-1384

Wycliffe wrestled with his editors and corporate sponsors (the Church) the way most authors do today. He completed his translation of the Bible in the year 1382. For marketing purposes it was called simply, “Wycliffe’s Bible.” This tendency for reformers to update the Bible begins trending not on the internet, but with the arrival of the printing press. Wycliffe was a thorn in the side of the Pope and his posse. Free thinkers would come and go among the clergy and often appeared like one hit wonders on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Occasionally the theologian would espouse theory with such passion that followers were bound to glom on like groupies at a One Direction concert. Such was the case with Wycliffe whose followers were called Lollards. Such was the case with Hus whose band of warriors were Hussites. Martin Luther would come along on the heals of these two great preachers and brand himself a Christian, not a Catholic or Lutheran, but simply a Christian. His followers preferred sticking the label Lutheran on the movement.

Before we move on to Luther, there is one quirky event in the life of John Wycliffe that is rather stunning. The event actually occurs to him after his death which was a rare natural death.  The Pope decides, and the nobility agrees, that Wycliffe’s corpse should be executed for heresy. It was agreed that the man had been a pain in the posterior to good Catholics. They could exact some revenge now that he was so readily available and vulnerable.  So they exhumed the man’s body, burned his bones and scattered the ashes on the river.  This execution of a man who was already dead confirmed the thought among many that the Church was out of sync with reality.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) took the whole Reformation movement viral in a matter of weeks once his team got a handle on using a printing press. Friar, priest, theologian and professor Luther strongly disputed several teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. In fact, he was able to bullet 95 points that he found troublesome. He pulled his thoughts together in a letter to his bishop, Albert of Mainz which Luther referred to as the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”.  The work became known as The Ninety Five Theses and gained legs when Luther’s PR manager, Philipp Melanchthon, pumped out the false story that Luther had boldly nailed the document to the front door of the Bishop’s cathedral. That took more cojones than required at the time. Luther wasn’t necessarily looking for a life or death battle just yet.  He was offering his reflection on stuff that bothered him.

So, he took the time to itemize his concerns, all 95 of them.  Historian Hans Hildebrand notes that Thesis 86 really caught the eye of the clergy, the Bishop and eventually the Pope.  Thesis 86 asks: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”  Good question and it reflects Luther’s awareness of the objections voiced by Wycliffe and Hus.  Luther struggled with the Church belief that salvation and an eternity in heaven was earned by good deeds and acts of charity. Charity was defined as donating money to the Church. This mental wrestling match came to a head for Luther in 1517 when a traveling salesman, Johann Tetzel, came to town (Wittenberg).  Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was selling indulgences on behalf of the Catholic Church. He was a papal commissioner and like most salesmen he had a target “dollar amount” he needed to rake in on behalf of the Pope. The Pope wanted to refurbish St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and needed cash to do so.  The Girl Scout Cookie and the game of Bingo had not yet replaced the Indulgence as the number one fund raising scheme in the Church.

Martin Luther was not a back stabbing kind of guy. If he had a problem with someone he said so, to the face of the person. He did have a problem with Tetzel. In particular Luther objected to Tetzel’s cutesy ad campaign that ran with a slogan that went something like this: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther was offended and let Tetzel and the guys in Rome know that this was beyond tacky. It was morally wrong. It violated Luther’s view of God and that was important to Luther. He believed he was entitled to his view of God.  Luther challenged the authority of the Pope by insisting that the Bible was the only source of the divine word of God. Luther believed all baptized believers were members of the priesthood of Jesus Christ no better or worse than some of the characters parading around in the vestments of the Church.

Luther also believed (very adamantly) that a person’s soul was saved not by a dollar donation to the Church, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer. Forgiveness and salvation were gained by grace not indulgences.  One could not purchase God’s forgiveness. It wasn’t for sale. But Tetzel wasn’t buying Luther’s selling points, nor was the Church.  It wasn’t financially advantageous for the Church to shift gears and go with Luther’s strategic plan.  So they did what any good CEO would do.  They kicked Luther out of the organization (excommunication) and marked him for death. He was branded an outlaw,which, in Germanic Law, made him fair game for someone to kill.  It was a fate that our Great Grandfather, Fulk Fitzwarin III (1160-1258) faced and survived in ancient England when he angered King Henry II.

Jenny Geddes and her friends in Edinburgh were well aware of the judgements against Protestants in England and Wales. They knew their history handed down through the ages and huts of Scotland.  They knew of those recently executed under legislation that punished anyone judged guilty of heresy against the Roman Catholic faith or Anglican Church. Although the standard penalty for those convicted of treason in England at the time was execution by being hanged, drawn and quartered, legislation was also adopted that created the dramatic burning at the stake for those condemned for heresy. At least 300 people alone were recognised as martyred over the five years of Queen Mary I’s (1553-1558) reign.