Other Radical Movements

The Donatists

by Stuart Murray Williams

Origins of the Donatist movement

When Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, died in 311, senior church leaders in the province of Africa engaged in an unseemly scramble for power and eventually Mensurius’ archdeacon, Caecilian, was chosen to succeed him. This choice divided the Christian community, many of whom felt Caecilian was not suitable. His personality was not the main factor, but he was widely regarded as arrogant, cowardly, shallow, cruel and intolerant. Of greater significance was his strong pro-government stance that did not go down well among those who wanted greater independence from Roman culture and control. But the main concern was suspicion that he was either a traditor or that he had been ordained by a traditor. This term was used to describe those who had handed over copies of the Scriptures to the pagan authorities during times of persecution. In North Africa, where there was a tradition of courageous resistance, such conduct was inexcusable and no traditor was considered suitable for church leadership.

Although Caecilian’s consecration was welcomed elsewhere, trouble was not long appearing. In 312, a council of bishops declared his consecration invalid and appointed Majorinus, a lector in Caecilian’s office, as bishop. News of this was announced to the churches in Rome, Gaul and Spain as well as to the rest of Africa. This produced a schism, since Caecilian was not prepared to accept the decision. He and his supporters appealed to Constantine, claiming that the schism was a threat to public order. Constantine was concerned that Africa did not become unsettled and act as a destabilising influence. He acted swiftly, before listening to the other side, and Caecilian was assured that he enjoyed communion with the Roman church and was regarded as the legitimate bishop of Carthage.

Majorinus and his supporters appealed against this decision. Constantine was surprised by this but invited representatives of both parties to Rome to put their arguments to a council of bishops. When Majorinus died before this could be convened, Donatus of Casae Nigrae was appointed in his place. The council vindicated Caecilian and ordered Donatus not to return to Africa. The decision was not welcomed in Africa and many continued to refuse to recognise Caecilian. Donatus appealed again to Constantine, arguing the proceedings had been flawed. The emperor was displeased but referred the matter to a council at Arles in 314, for a final decision. The decision went against Donatus and the rebels were ordered to conform to this decision and submit to Caecilian, but the tensions continued and repression followed.

Donatus

Our information about Donatus is remarkably limited for a man who for forty years led a movement that vied for recognition as the legitimate church of North Africa. During his lifetime, he was unchallenged as leader of the Donatist church, and his writings were quoted and his memory revered long after his death. He was exiled in 347 and died in about 355, widely regarded as a martyr. He was accorded the epithet ‘Donatus the Great’ and his significance in Africa has been compared to that of Athanasius in Egypt. Unlike Athanasius, however, he was not on the side which eventually emerged triumphant, so his name has been associated with schism. He was widely acknowledged as a vigorous leader, a man of learning, intelligence, integrity, wisdom, passion and oratory. His extensive writings were destroyed by his opponents, but even his adversary, Augustine, acknowledged their brilliance, referring to him as a ‘precious jewel’ in the church and ‘the man who reformed the church in Africa.’

Fluctuating fortunes

(1) The first repression (317-321). Constantine decreed that Donatist leaders were to be exiled and their churches confiscated. Donatus refused to comply with this, so Caecilian persuaded the Roman authorities to put troops at his disposal. Churches and their leaders in and around Carthage were attacked, at least one Donatist bishop was killed, but in Numidia the imperial decree had little impact. The use of military force took the alliance between church and state into new territory and resulted in permanent schism. The Donatists saw this resort to force and persecution as clear evidence that the Catholics were the schismatics and that their own movement, the church of the martyrs, was the true church. In 321 Constantine recognised the failure of this attempt to repress the Donatist movement and issued a further decree granting toleration to the Donatists.

(2) Growth and consolidation (321-346). Caecilian continued to enjoy imperial recognition, but little is heard of him after 325. Donatist churches were established all over Africa and Numidia. Converts were made from all classes, including philosophers and civic leaders. In many towns and villages they were unchallenged. The growth of the movement is attested by the attendance of 270 Donatist bishops at a council summoned by Donatus in about 335. A further short-lived attempt at repression in 336 petered out in the face of Donatist resistance. Some attempts were also made to establish congregations outside North Africa, although with one important exception these were unproductive. The exception was Rome, which had a large African community, and for a hundred years Rome had a Donatist bishop.

(3) The Circumcellions. The divergent concerns of educated urban and oppressed rural Donatists resulted in the emergence in about 340 of the Circumcellions, a revolutionary organisation drawn from the peasantry of Numidia and Mauretania, and loosely connected to Donatist churches. Reacting against financial hardship and social injustice, but energised by religious convictions, the Circumcellions engaged in direct action against landowners. They saw themselves as Christian ‘athletes’ and operated as shock troops in the battle against the devil – identified with the rich and powerful. Regarded by their opponents as terrorists and by their supporters as freedom fighters, they were alternately courted and disowned by Donatist leaders: their activities both enhanced and discredited the Donatist cause.

(4) The second repression (347-361). In 346 Donatus felt confident enough to petition the emperor, Constans, for recognition as bishop of Carthage. Constans sent Paul and Macarius to investigate this claim. However, despite instructions to treat Catholics and Donatists equally, they immediately acted in support of the Catholics. Feelings throughout North Africa ran high and a Donatist bishop asked the Circumcellions for support and defied the imperial delegates. Their troops stormed the fortified church in which the Donatists were based and massacred them. Macarius issued decrees proscribing Donatism in Numidia, ushering in a second period of repression. Despite riots and instances of resistance, the movement collapsed under severe and determined repression. Donatus and many other leaders were exiled. Some returned to the Catholic fold and new Catholic churches were established in hitherto Donatist areas. But the Catholics lacked an effective leader and seemed unable to apply effective measures beyond the region of Carthage. In Numidia, Donatist leaders retained the loyalty of the population but decided to wait for opportunities to restore the fortunes of the Donatist movement.

(5) Recovery (361-363). In 361, the new emperor, Julian, allowed church leaders exiled by his predecessors to return home, including the Donatists. Their return was greeted with popular enthusiasm and Donatism was restored to pre-eminence almost as suddenly as the movement had collapsed earlier. Catholic churches were returned to the Donatists and rebaptism was restored. Catholic leaders were deposed and congregations absorbed into Donatist churches. Prospects for any further attempt to reunite the two African churches seemed bleak: they would not be reunited again before the tide of Islam swept them both away.

(6) The Donatist movement under Parmenian (363-391). Parmenian had little sympathy with the use of violence. He was a committed but moderate Donatist, concerned to maintain the intellectual vigour of the movement and to provide instruction for congregations at a popular level. Although decrees against Donatism continued to be issued, they were ignored in Africa. For most of Parmenian’s leadership, the movement was left in peace. The hostility between the two communities gradually faded and there is evidence of growing respect, toleration and good relationships. The other influential leader in this period was Tyconius, a lay philosopher and Donatist theologian. His writings espoused a view of the relationship between church and society which seemed to allow for greater integration than Donatism had allowed in previous generations. Tyconius was excommunicated in 385. His rejection was a fateful step for the movement, representing the triumph of conservatism over creative theological discussion.

The Demise of Donatism

(1) Rise and fall (391-398). During the final decade of the fourth century, Donatism was at its peak, with over 400 bishops, but trouble was brewing. Primian, a more extreme and less able leader succeeded Parmenian. Then in 396, Optatus, the Donatist bishop of Thamugadi, joined forces with Gildo, the imperial appointee in Africa, in a revolt against Rome and attempted to establish a nationalist government in Africa. But an invasion force was assembled, the forces met in 398 and Gildo’s army was routed. Optatus was seized and executed. Roman rule was restored and the Catholics were able to re-emerge under the leadership of two very able men, Aurelius of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo.

(2) The tide turns (399-402). Augustine was an influential figure in this period, calling for reform and renewal, and writing books against the teachings of Donatus. But the lead was taken by Aurelius, who decided to hold councils annually in order to maintain momentum and keep the leadership of the churches in close contact. Over the next few years able bishops were appointed in many Donatist centres of influence: gradually they won over the local inhabitants to the Catholic churches, and some Donatist bishops even transferred allegiance. The Donatist movement was now under the leadership of Primian of Carthage, Emeritus of Caesarea and Petilian of Constantine. Their resilience, determination and courage ensured that Donatism would survive, but they were no match for the new Catholic leaders. The Donatist movement, compromised by its involvement in the recent revolt, was proscribed and edicts of previous years were applied with a vigour that had previously been impossible. Finally, in 399, laws against heretics were, at Augustine’s instigation, applied to the movement, even though it was not yet officially designated as a heresy.

(3) Increasing pressure (403-411). Frustrated by the continuing resistance of the Donatists and secure in their enjoyment of imperial support, the annual council at Carthage decided in 403 on a policy of persecution, but chose to apply economic pressure rather than making further martyrs. These measures had hardly been implemented before the emperor, Honorius, issued an edict of unity in 405, proscribing Donatism as a heresy, prohibiting services, confiscating property and exiling the clergy. The death penalty was not used, but flogging was. But by 410, it was clear that persecution had been no more effective than throughout the past century in suppressing Donatism. A Catholic delegation requested Honorius to convene a conference in Carthage to settle the conflict once and for all. The emperor agreed and sent Marcellinus as his mediator to convene this. There was never any doubt about the outcome of this conference. Marcellinus, a friend of Augustine, declared in favour of the Catholics. A single day of debate resolved a century of division. The decision was broadcast throughout Africa, proscribing Donatist meetings and confiscating their property.

(4) Repression and resistance (412-429). Augustine now led a concerted campaign to enforce the decision and to reunite the church throughout North Africa. But Donatism was far from becoming defunct. In some urban centres, the Catholics made significant progress, but even here their success was limited. The countryside remained loyal to Donatism and the Donatists resisted in various ways. Progress was slower than many wanted, and a council in Carthage in 418 threatened dilatory clergy with censure if they failed to act against Donatist churches. The Circumcellions continued to operate freely and were never effectively suppressed.

(6) Donatism in the fifth and sixth centuries. In 429 the Vandals invaded and the history of the church in North Africa entered a new phase. We have little information about the next 150 years. We simply do not know whether Donatism lay dormant, was absorbed into the Catholic churches, or continued to thrive. It is likely that the dividing lines and antagonism between the sides faded in the face of a common enemy (the Vandals were Arian Christians) and that the situation varied from province to province. The re-conquest of North Africa by Justinian in 534 cleared the region of Vandals and re-established the dominant position of the Catholics. An imperial edict in 535 proscribed the Donatists, suggesting that Donatism was still perceived as a problem in the middle of the sixth century. Evidence from the end of the century indicates that it enjoyed a period of revival during the latter part of the sixth century: there are reports of Donatists baptising converts, Catholic churches being handed over to the Donatists, and new Donatist bishoprics being established. As long as Christianity survived in North Africa, the schism provoked by Caecilian’s election remained unhealed.

Donatist Beliefs

The writings of Donatist theologians were largely destroyed by their opponents: very little has survived, except as quotations in works of their adversaries. Catholics and Donatists were not divided by the doctrinal issues which exercised fourth- and fifth-century theologians. Although anti-heresy laws were eventually used against them, their adversaries generally recognised that the Donatists were orthodox Trinitarian Christians. But they disagreed profoundly about some issues of ecclesiology.

(1) The nature of the church. The Donatist church regarded itself as the legitimate church in Africa, ‘the church of Peter’, rather than ‘the church of Judas.’ Catholics had allowed the church to be corrupted and had lost any claim to legitimacy, whatever imperial officials or bishops of Rome might decree. Schism had taken place, but from a Donatist perspective it was not their fault – they remained faithful to the tradition of the African church as represented by Cyprian and Tertullian. As far as they were concerned catholicity flowed out of purity, rather than legitimacy out of catholicity. The Donatist vision of the church included the following features: the church was a ‘mystical union of the righteous inspired by the Holy Spirit and instructed by the Bible’; discipleship was to be taken very seriously by all church members, so monasticism, whereby higher standards were expected of some than others, was rejected; repentance and readiness to suffer were key components in this, as was meditating on the Bible; the church was to be a people of joyful praise; the ministry of the Holy Spirit was emphasised; the agape meal was celebrated; and feasting as well as fasting was encouraged. Church leaders were regarded very highly and the standards expected of them were equally high: they must live exemplary lives and be willing to suffer for their faith; any compromise, morally or in the face of persecution, made someone unworthy to be a church leader.

(2) Church and society. As Christianity became socially acceptable, it was difficult to retain earlier expectations and standards. The schism in North Africa was due to different responses to this radical change: accommodation or continuing separation. The emperor was no longer a personification of the devil but an agent of Christ, according to Catholics: Donatists regarded him still as the devil. The Donatist view of church and society included: the church was a suffering people, expecting persecution, whether from pagans or false Christians; the church was to be separate from the world; the church should not rely on state power or patronage, and, though resistance was acceptable, it certainly should not persecute its opponents; the church was a missionary community, concerned to spread geographically through making converts.

(3) Ethics. Donatist sermons frequently deplored the low moral standards in the Catholic churches. Some Donatist churches were wealthy, some resorted to violence. But there were those who argued for non-violence, and for voluntary poverty. Furthermore, they were more sensitive to social injustices and the oppression of the poor, and their interests tended to coincide more often with the interests of the peasants and revolutionary movements. The Donatists had a strong belief in the nearness of the return of Christ, but this did not make them indifferent to present social conditions. Instead, they called for social justice in the light of the approaching judgement.

(4) The sacraments. Maintaining the purity and thus the authenticity of the sacraments was of fundamental importance within Donatism. The true church was the church whose sacraments were pure and untainted. Unlike the Catholics, who taught that sacraments remained valid and effective despite unworthiness on the part of the officiating church leader, Donatists regarded the worthiness of the church leader as critical. Thus, any who had been baptised by those who belonged to churches tainted by fellowship with traditors, had to be re-baptised when they joined the Donatist churches. Similarly, consecrations in such circumstances were null and void. They rejected the Catholic argument that the sacraments were gifts of Christ and were valid despite shortcomings in ministers.

The Waldensians

by Stuart Murray Williams

Valdes and the early Waldensians

In 1174, a French businessman in Lyons, Valdes, was challenged by the radical teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and responded by committing himself to a life of voluntary poverty and preaching. He experienced a dramatic conversion, renounced his previous business practices, threw his money out into the street, and after running a soup kitchen during the famine of 1176, began a new life as an itinerant preacher.

There had been other wandering preachers in the Middle Ages who had acted in a similar way. What was different about Valdes, apart from being a layman, was his concern to have the Bible translated into the local dialect, and his success in gathering a group of followers, drawn from different social classes, but sharing a life of poverty and preaching. Their preaching and the provision of a Bible people could understand led the formation of a lay association, known as the ‘Poor in Spirit’. Taking Jesus’ sending out of the Seventy as their pattern, they formed apostolic missionary bands, wore rough clothes and sandals and went around preaching a message of repentance.

They had no intention of separating from the Catholic Church. They simply wanted to live as whole-hearted followers of Jesus. But the challenge of their simple lifestyle, the popularity of this new movement and their unauthorised preaching aroused local opposition. They were in breach of canon law that restricted doctrinal preaching to the clergy. Valdes appealed for permission to preach. The Pope, while approving their motives and vows of poverty, insisted they were not to preach unless invited by local clergy. They must remain within the discipline of the established church. But, as they grew more aware of the corruption of the church, they continued their unauthorised preaching and began to face trouble. The archbishop of Lyons excommunicated the movement in 1181 and expelled them from the area under his jurisdiction. In 1184, they were included in a papal decree against dangerous heretics and became subject to anti-heresy legislation, despite lack of evidence that they were unorthodox. But repression was patchy, depending on the interest of the authorities.

Meanwhile, through planned missions and enforced expulsion, Waldensian groups were established in new areas. They won converts from all social classes, including some wealthy citizens, priests, monks and nuns, and their egalitarian stance towards women attracted many to the movement, as well as further provoking hostility. By 1198 some authorities took firm action, including the imposition of the death penalty on those who refused to recant, though in many places persecution was still sporadic. Furthermore, their missionaries reached Lombardy and began to make common cause with another radical group, the Humiliati, benefiting from the atmosphere of freedom and anti-clerical feeling in that area, and establishing congregations and schools.

Gradually tensions appeared within the movement. Valdes hoped for reconciliation with the Catholic Church and having a reforming influence in it. More radical groups, in Lombardy and elsewhere, were challenging many areas of Catholic teaching and practice. Some seemed determined to form new churches. In 1205, a serious split occurred between the French and Italian branches of the movement. The ‘Poor of Lyons’ followed Valdes. The ‘Poor Lombards’, the group that emerged from the Humiliati and Waldensian groups in Lombardy, gradually separated from them.

Ineffective attempts to deal with Waldensians were replaced in the thirteenth century by a more discerning approach. Innocent III, who became Pope in 1198, distinguished between the genuinely heretical or schismatic, and those whose discontent with the Church had caused them to pull away from Catholicism. The former were pursued vigorously; the latter were wooed back to the Church by making concessions and creating space for their activities within its structures. Some Lyonists were reconciled to the Catholic Church, as were some Humiliati.

Meanwhile, contact between the French and Italian branches continued and there were sporadic attempts to bring about reconciliation. A final attempt was made in 1218. Six representatives from each group met near Bergamo. Disagreements were discussed at length and the conference foundered on the issue of the validity of the sacraments and the role of the celebrant. But the division represented the different perspectives of a group still wanting to see the established church reformed and a group that had given up and was committed to building an alternative church.

Later Waldensians

French Waldensians enjoyed peace and freedom in many areas of the country until the 1230s. Persecution increased then, however, driving the movement underground and detaching its less committed members. Numbers fell steadily during this century, and early in the next century, inquisitors found few traces of the movement in its area of origin. Waldensians survived by retreating into quietism or into the mountains, where they formed communities that were too remote to bother the authorities. In Italy, the Lombards too found themselves under increasing pressure and unable to establish an alternative church. Gradually, they withdrew and took refuge in rural areas in the south of Italy or further north in the Alpine valleys. These losses in the heartlands were more than compensated for numerically by the growth of the movement in other areas. During most of the thirteenth century, both groups of Waldensians spread, into Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Poland and Spain.

By the start of the fifteenth century, Waldensians in France and Italy seemed to be in terminal decline, a beleaguered minority of Alpine peasants in remote valleys and small communities scattered throughout other parts of France. Only in the Piedmont area did Waldensians experience significant growth. Persecution was less intense than before, but there were periods of severe pressure. The response of the Waldensian communities varied. Usually, they tried to hide and avoid confrontation; occasionally, they resorted to violence. In 1487 a determined campaign against Waldensians was launched, which resulted in executions, emigration and the return of some to the Catholic Church. The survival of the movement into the sixteenth century was the result of the resilience of small groups and the courage and faithfulness of travelling leaders who continued to visit these isolated communities.

In the fifteenth century, German-speaking Waldensians were also an underground movement, surviving through a combination of outward conformity and quiet but tenacious transmission of beliefs within families to subsequent generations. But in Bohemia, and then Moravia, reform ideas were circulating and a new movement was emerging. Influenced by the writings of John Wyclif, but energised also by nationalist stirrings, the movement became associated with Jan Hus, rector of the Bethlehem chapel in Prague. The Hussite reform movement encouraged and breathed new life into the Waldensian groups who came into contact with it.

By the start of the sixteenth century, much of the heat had gone out of the conflict in the Alps. Waldensians had survived, in Italy, France and various German-speaking areas. By the end of this century, the Waldensian movement was absorbed into the Reformation. Exhausted by centuries of repression, it gratefully received the leadership and new energies of Protestantism. From the 1560s the emergence of the Waldensian Church, rather than a loosely linked movement, can be dated, a church which continues to provide an alternative to Catholicism in Italy and elsewhere.

Waldensian beliefs

An 800-year history presents difficulties in trying to set out the beliefs and practices of the Waldensians. These were not uniform everywhere or throughout the centuries, but there are some common features.

(1) Anti-clericalism. Waldensians preached a simple message of repentance, individual responsibility and holy living. They criticised the corruption of the clergy and denied that such men should be trusted. Instead they endorsed lay Bible study. The movement was marked by deep love for the Bible and passionate desire to understand and obey it. They were committed to a ‘believers’ church ecclesiology, where the local congregation ordered its life together, and they were determined to submit to biblical authority alone.

(2) Church structure. There was emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, men and women. The role of the preachers was crucial for the movement, but these leaders were not ordained, nor generally regarded as belonging to a separate class of Christians, nor ranked in any kind of hierarchy. They were committed to a life of celibacy, travelling and poverty, dependent for their support on the gifts of members of the movement. Once trained, they were sent out in pairs to visit scattered groups. Those who were not preachers remained in their homes and jobs, devoting time to Bible study and nurturing their faith in secret. They collected support for the preachers, ran training schools in their homes and, where they could, tried to draw others into the movement.

(3) Ethical integrity. They were not interested in speculative theology or doctrinal issues, but in spirituality and ethics. They called people to follow Jesus and obey his teachings. They advocated personal integrity, simple lifestyle and rejection of greed and excess. They opposed all forms of lying and deception. They also generally rejected the swearing of oaths. And usually they practised what they preached.

(4) Non-violence. Early Waldensians were committed to non-violence, deriving this emphasis from a literal reading of the Gospels. They spoke out against violence: crusades against infidels and warfare in general; killing Jews; execution of thieves who were caught stealing food for their families in times of famine; capital punishment; and coercion in matters of faith. This instinctive non-violence persisted through the centuries, though there are instances of Waldensians resorting to violence. Generally, this was provoked by repression, or the threat presented by defectors who might betray them, and was regarded as necessary to defend homes and family. Occasionally, there seem to have been attempts to use violence for political ends, as a form of revolutionary action.

(5) Rejection of superstition. Waldensians discovered that some familiar Catholic practices had no biblical basis. Gradually they removed these practices from their churches in order to cut back their church life to the simpler pattern they found in the New Testament. They rejected prayers for the dead, regarded indulgences as benefiting greedy priests and challenged the doctrine of purgatory. They rejected official fast days and refused to bow before altars, venerate crosses or treat as special holy bread or water. Somewhat surprisingly, many retained devotion to Mary, despite the teachings of their leaders.

(6) The sacraments. They regarded communion as a remembrance, not a sacrifice, and allowed all to take bread and wine. They rejected the theology of the mass and were dubious about the idea of transubstantiation. Initially many continued to receive communion from the priests, but increasingly communion was celebrated in their homes without clerical involvement. On baptism, there was uncertainty. They were not fully convinced infant baptism was biblical or appropriate, but they seem rarely to have abandoned it.

(7) Confession. The importance of confessing sins, doing penance and receiving absolution was retained throughout the movement. Although some continued to confess to the Catholic priests, in many places their low view of priests precluded these as suitable candidates to hear confession. The natural alternative was the travelling preachers, and they certainly performed this role, but the underlying conviction that all believers were priests allowed the development of the practice of confession to one another.

(8) Mission. A remarkable feature of the movement was its determination to continue pressing ahead despite sustained pressure and opposition. Only in the darkest periods was its energies taken up with survival. At other times missionaries travelled across Europe, risking their lives to spread their convictions. Sometimes new churches were planted. In other places seeds lay dormant for years until watered by similar ideas brought by the Hussites in Bohemia or the Reformers or Anabaptists in central Europe. Much of the evangelism must have been cautious and through quiet conversations, since any form of public witnessing would have incurred severe penalties. There are accounts of evangelists operating as door-to-door salesmen, offering various goods and then referring to more valuable treasures, which could be revealed if the local clergy were not informed about the visit. Where there was a positive response, the gospel would be explained and invitations given to join a study group.

The Lollards

by Stuart Murray Williams

The Lollard movement emerged in late medieval England from the popularising of the ideas of Oxford scholar, John Wyclif. Between the late fourteenth and early sixteenth century, the Lollards flourished, suffered persecution, attempted armed resistance, were suppressed and yet survived as a pre-Reformation movement of dissent.

John Wyclif (c1329-1384)

Wyclif was an academic rather than a revolutionary, an establishment man rather than a radical, who seems to have had no intention of launching a movement that would challenge the religious and political status quo. His criticisms of the church were accompanied by calls for reform rather than the development of an alternative church, and he remained a member of the established church throughout his life. But his views inspired the first dissident movement of any consequence in England.

Wyclif was a philosopher as well as a theologian, and many of his earlier writings are concerned with complex metaphysical issues as he entered into contemporary debates.

In his later writings, he concentrated more on ecclesiastical abuses that concerned him and developed strongly anticlerical views. His writings were not intended to foment social unrest or to promulgate political ideas, but his opponents certainly feared that they might have this effect. Most of the things he said were not new, but his academic reputation and the force with which he wrote gave his views a special significance.

The publicity given to Wyclif’s views aroused the concern of the church authorities, and attempts were made to convict him of heresy and to silence him. But the support of many powerful friends protected Wyclif and enabled him to continue propagating increasingly trenchant criticisms and radical views until his death.

Wyclif and the Lollards

The nature of the relationship between Wyclif and the Lollards is not easy to assess. One of the practical initiatives he suggested in his later writings was the training and commissioning of ‘poor preachers’, laymen whose task was to teach the Scriptures throughout the land. Wyclif’s expressed intention was not to start a new movement or to plant new churches, but simply to fill what he saw as a gap in the established churches. His preachers were to work alongside the parish priests, preaching, teaching and evangelising. Another initiative with important consequences was Wyclif’s determination to provide a bible in the English language for his preachers and their hearers. At least some of Wyclif’s own writings during the final period of his life were also in the vernacular, rather than Latin, consistent with his concern that the discussion of theology should not be restricted to priests and academics. Some of these writings helped to inspire the developing Lollard movement.

The groups that emerged during Wyclif’s final years and proliferated after his death quite quickly became known as the Lollards. This word probably derived from a word meaning ‘to mumble’ and referred either to their practice of learning and reciting Scripture or to their praying. An alternative possibility is the derivation of the term from ‘lollers’, meaning idle loafers.

The Lollard movement

Whatever the direct influence of Wyclif on the movement, Lollards owed much to Wyclif’s ideas, even if they knew them only in a simplified form. He provided them with ammunition to launch a powerful assault on the established churches: it was a small step from denouncing the clergy to the idea of the priesthood of all believers.

After Wyclif’s death, Lollard groups spread rapidly. The Oxford leaders – Nicholas Hereford, John Aston, Philip Repton, Robert Winston and John Ashwardby – travelled widely and wrote extensively, building up a substantial following. Under their leadership radical ideas were translated from academic to popular circles and the Lollard movement emerged as a loose-knit but identifiable phenomenon.

The academic and clerical leaders were joined by many lay evangelists, who often dressed in russet tunics and walked barefoot. Most were from the poorer sections of society, their greatest strength being among urban and rural artisans, especially those who had recently become literate and were open to new ideas. Lollard beliefs spread through public preaching, distribution of Bibles and tracts, and invitations to friends to join ‘reading circles’, where the Bible was studied and radical ideas discussed.

Lollard preaching called for personal responsibility rather than passive acceptance of clerical authority and expressed the doubts that were more widely felt about some of the seemingly superstitious and biblically unwarranted beliefs and practices of the church. Making available portions of the Bible in the vernacular enabled the Lollards to demonstrate the lack of biblical support for such beliefs and practices.

The authorities were alarmed by the spread of this movement, especially in light of recent peasant unrest, and steps were taken to arrest it. But no co-ordinated strategy was adopted to check the popular spread of the movement. Many bishops were slow to respond and found Lollard groups deeply rooted in their dioceses by the time they were ready to take action. Lollard leaders enjoyed widespread popular support – and protection from influential landowners – which made ecclesiastical action less easy. Secular authorities, though concerned about peasant unrest and possible Lollard complicity in this, were not unduly bothered about ecclesiastical disputes.

From 1401, opponents of the Lollards had been authorised to use burning for relapsed and impenitent heretics. But in England, there was reticence about using torture and burning to stamp out heresies, and the Lollards profited from this welcome restraint. Those arrested were generally given ample time to recant and the authorities wanted to convert them back to the established churches, rather than execute them.

But in 1413 this changed. Sir John Oldcastle, a baron, was the most distinguished secular Lollard leader. He began to gather support for an armed rebellion, presumably to impose Lollard reforms on church and nation. This was betrayed to the authorities before it could be carried out. But this incident revealed how far Lollardy had spread and finally roused both official and public opinion against the Lollards. Oldcastle was caught and executed, and others involved in the rebellion were hanged. Various Lollard groups were discovered and their members prosecuted, now that the bishops and secular authorities could rely on their outraged neighbours to betray them.

The following years were marked by efforts by secular and ecclesiastical authorities to stamp out the movement, although gradually the repression became less severe. It was clear that the Lollards would survive, if at all, only as an underground movement. Throughout the fifteenth century efforts were made to root them out, but, as memories of the revolts faded, there was less enthusiasm for such actions.

In the 1450s, during a lull in action against them, Lollards began again to evangelise and plant new groups. The reading circles were still influential means of attracting new adherents, and the authorities were unsuccessful in their efforts to restrict the production and distribution of Lollard literature and vernacular versions of the Bible. Lollard beliefs were passed down within families and through trade contacts. Sermons were written down and distributed to adherents and to interested enquirers. Lollard schools were also operating to instruct members of the movement.

Most Lollard groups operated in the southern part of England, although there were groups as far north as Newcastle. Seven areas have been identified as the main centres of Lollard activity in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: Kent, London, the Chilterns, Essex, Bristol, Coventry and East Anglia.

Lollard beliefs

Though there was no uniformity of belief in such a loose-knit movement, there was broad agreement within the movement on many issues throughout its history.

(1) Personal responsibility/biblical authority. In an age when people expected to let the priests do their thinking for them in matters of religion, the Lollards encouraged the development of personal Bible study, taught reliance on the Holy Spirit as guide, and urged members to reach independent decisions on matters of faith rather than accepting ecclesiastical opinions and dogmas.

(2) Rejection of superstition. Lollards used their new English versions of the Bible to contrast the simplicity of the early church with the formalism and complexity of contemporary church life. They rejected anything they perceived as superstitious rather than authentically Christian, including doctrines such as purgatory and transubstantiation and practices such as prayers for the dead. They rejected pilgrimages as a waste of time and a money-making scheme for the priests. Simple rational explanations held greater appeal for them than elements of mystery and symbolism.

(3) The priesthood of all believers. The distinction between clergy and laity was crucial in the established churches, with the laity being largely passive. But Lollards rejected this distinction, and their anti-clerical stance found a ready welcome among many who were already critical of a privileged and corrupt clergy. Many Lollards advocated withholding tithes from such clerics. They rejected the authority of the Pope and the Church as an institution and replaced this with the authority of the Bible interpreted within their communities. The true church was a congregation of true believers. Although there are instances of Lollard groups ordaining their own priests, generally they were committed to the priesthood of all believers, with lay people involved in all aspects of religious life, including preaching, hearing confessions informally, and officiating at the Eucharist.

(4) The sacraments. Lollards stressed a common sense approach to faith and applied this to issues such as communion, where it seemed obvious that the bread remained bread, whatever the metaphysical explanations behind the traditional dogmas. Transubstantiation was regarded as a recent and perverted development contrary to the teachings of the orthodox creeds. Anti-clericalism led naturally to the rejection of ordination and some opposed priestly celibacy. They valued marriage but some taught that no priestly involvement was needed to witness a marriage. Financial and anti-ceremonial views coincided in the rejection of the need for extreme unction or burial in consecrated ground. In some areas, infant baptism was held to be as acceptable in a ditch as in a font, or rejected altogether, on the grounds that infants were redeemed by Christ in any case and did not need to be sprinkled with supposedly holy water.

(5) Ethical perspectives. There was a strong moral component in the Lollards’ teaching. The book of James, with its practical ethical teaching, was popular. They criticised the low standards among ordinary parishioners and clergy (especially their sexual misdemeanours and social insensitivity). They called for repentance, discipleship, simplicity of life and concern for the poor. On specific issues there was diversity of opinion. Some groups followed Wyclif’s view that war might be justified but other means were preferable; others held a pacifist view and opposed participation in war, making weapons, capital punishment, and self-defence when attacked; others again were willing to support John Oldcastle in his attempt to overthrow the government. Some taught that tithing had no New Testament support and should not be practised; others held that tithing was voluntary and that tithes should not be paid to unworthy priests. Some opposed the swearing of oaths as contrary to the teaching of Jesus; others held that oaths should be avoided where possible but were legitimate to save lives.

(6) Mission. Lollard preachers were a mission band that contrasted sharply with the maintenance orientation of the parish priests and the monks. Unlike the settled leadership of parish priests, Lollard leaders moved from place to place in order to spread the message and establish new groups. Furthermore, mission was not restricted to preachers but was the responsibility of all members. The spread of the movement relied upon this every-member evangelism, as new converts were made through house-to-house visitation, pub evangelism, preaching in fairs and markets, conversations over meals in homes, passing on tracts and invitations to reading circles. Lollard preachers sometimes interrupted church services to preach, or persuaded local priests to surrender their pulpits to them. By the middle of the fifteenth century, it seems that the charismatic itinerant leaders had largely given way to less colourful figures who travelled between the communities, carrying books and greetings rather than initiating new activities, and that mission now mainly comprised the quiet evangelising of local communities.

"Who Were the English Radicals?" Conference

Held on Saturday 23 March 2002 at Kings Church, Amersham, Bucks


The Conference looked at Lollards, Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Fifth Monarchy, Quakers and more and asked: Who were they? What did they believe? and How can they inspire us or help us today?


Papers and handouts (in pdf format)


Roots of the English Radicals: Chris Rowland



Workshops: