Church history, like all history, has both winners and losers, heroes and villains. And church history, again like all history, is written mainly by the winners and from their perspective. What they wrote may have been deliberately biased and hostile, or they may have attempted to be sympathetic and fair. But the history that emerges is necessarily an interpretation of events, personalities, beliefs and practices. Although there may be other legitimate interpretations or flaws in the official interpretation, it is not always easy to discover these.
When we look at church history, it is tempting to spend all our time on the winners, the mainline churches, establishment Christianity. We may not like everything we find here, but at least we are on safe ground and there are some wonderful saints to be found. The fringe groups that appear in the margins of many textbooks, or are dismissed as ‘schismatics’ or ‘heretics’, sound interesting but dangerous. Are they worth studying, or do we accept the judgment of their contemporaries and later generations of historians? Even if we are interested enough to explore one or more of these groups, it is difficult to discover much about them from these meagre references in the familiar historical textbooks.
This may not simply be because the writers of these books were uninterested in such groups. Often there is limited information about them available to historians. Those whose views and policies prevailed in each generation made sure that their version of events became the official version. The writings of the losers were destroyed, their activities interpreted in the worst possible light, and their memory vilified. What we know of many fringe groups is drawn largely from their opponents, and this is usually open to the charge of being somewhat biased.
However, although many of these difficulties remain, the situation is less bleak than it used to be. During the past fifty years or more, several of these groups have found champions prepared to set aside the traditional evaluations of their significance and present them in a new light, using what little remains of their own writings, and refusing to accept uncritically the accounts given by their enemies. It is now possible to put together what might be termed a ‘Losers’ Guide to Church History’, a survey of an alternative radical church history that is quite different from the official version, based on the research and scholarship of historians who have provided translations of primary sources, revisited earlier accounts and offered new interpretations of the available data.
But there are still difficulties. The few written sources available to us do not give us a complete picture, and it is tempting to fill in the gaps from our imagination, or using doubtful sources. A good example of this is the popular book by E H Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, which attempts to trace a ‘silver thread’ of Christianity from the first century to the twentieth. It is a wonderful and inspiring romance and it contains much historical data. But it assumes too much, makes unwarranted connections, and is frequently unreliable. We simply have to accept that our knowledge of some groups or individuals is very limited, and with most it probably always will be. There is little prospect of new source material being discovered. Many of these groups in any case were poor and illiterate. They spread their teachings mainly by word of mouth, rather than through books.
Another temptation is to create new heroes. In trying to rescue the losers from obscurity and calumny, we can easily gloss over their weaknesses and present an unrealistic and unbalanced picture of them. Around the fringes of the mainline church were real heretics, persistent troublemakers and stubborn individualists. But there were also some wonderful men and women who paid dearly for their faithfulness and courage.
The Anabaptist Network has been primarily concerned to offer resources from the Anabaptist tradition, but it has also from time to time drawn attention to other movements that held similar (though not identical beliefs). Articles in Anabaptism Today have introduced readers to the English radicals and the Waldensians. Conferences have introduced participants to the Celtic tradition, to English radical groups such as the Lollards, Diggers, Levellers and Quakers. Papers from the English Radicals conference have for some time been available on this web site, and further information on other radical movements can now be found here.