Frith: Forging the English Reformation
Dr. Herbert Samworth
reformer was a pioneer writer on the theme of liberty of conscience.
He debated the existence of Purgatory with Sir Thomas More and Cardinal
John Fisher. He taught the imputation of Chris's righteousness to
the believer for justification. He was the formative influence on
the Anglican understanding of the Eucharist as found in the Prayer
Book of 1552. Can you identify who he was?
did this person accomplish the things listed above, he did them
all before the age of thirty. He never reached the age of thirty-one
because he was burned at the stake. What might have accomplished
had he been permitted to live is impossible to say.
this individual? His name was John Frith and the story of his life
is crucial to the understanding of the English Reformation. The
purpose of this article is to remember one who paid a great price
to secure the freedoms that we enjoy today.
EARLY YEARS IN ENGLAND
many details of Frith's life that are unknown. However, records
indicate that he was born in 1503, the son of Richard Frith, an
innkeeper of Seven Oaks in Kent. His parents had the ability to
send him to Eton College and then to Cambridge University. He entered
Cambridge in1521, as a member of King's College. During his student
days, his tutor was Stephen Gardiner, the future Bishop of Winchester
and one of those who later condemned him to the stake.
college days were ones in which the New Learning influenced
Cambridge. The New Learning was the result of advances
in Humanistic thought in England, and placed a great emphasis on
the Greek language. Prior to Frith's matriculation, Erasmus, the
great Humanist, had taught Greek at the University. Frith demonstrated
that he was a capable student and soon gained a reputation that
attracted University officials.
the New Learning was not the only thing that was stirring
Cambridge during Frith's student days. News of the German Reformation
had crossed the English Channel and Thomas Bilney, a graduate student
of Trinity College, had come to faith in Christ through the reading
of the Greek New Testament.
about him a group of students who were interested the reformation
of the English Church. Meeting at the White Horse Inn, they soon
acquired the nickname of "Germans" for their interest
in the study of the Bible and theology. It is thought that Frith
first met William Tyndale at one of these meetings. Tyndale, after
graduating from Oxford in 1515, attended Cambridge for a number
of years. John Foxe goes so far as to attribute Frith's conversion
to the evangelistic efforts of Tyndale. Their lives were later to
cross in Antwerp when Frith became Tyndale's most trusted helper
in the printing of the English Bible.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor and Papal Legate, desired
to start a new college at Oxford University. He ordered his helpers
to scour the universities for the finest scholars to be part of
this new college. This new foundation, known as Christ Church, was
to be a bastion of orthodoxy to counter the reforming movements
that were taking place on the European mainland, especially in Germany
was that the Cardinal got more than what he had intended due to
the fact that the majority of the scholars recruited from Cambridge
favored the Reformation. The Cambridge scholars, upon their arrival
at Oxford, found the spiritual climate less invigorating from what
they had experienced at Cambridge. To counter this, John Clarke,
one of the Cambridge students, began a series of Bible teachings
that soon attracted the notice of the University Officials. The
authorities also discovered that heretical books had been smuggled
into Oxford. As a result ten students, including Frith and Clark,
were imprisoned in a college cellar where fish were stored. This
occurred in February 1528 and, for the next six months, the students
were kept in close confinement.
conditions and foul air soon took their toll on the prisoners. Four
of them died before Wolsey ordered their release. Those who survived
were forced to abjure although Frith appeared to escape this requirement.
Sensing that it would be just a matter of time before he would be
charged with heresy, Frith decided to leave England. In December
1528 Frith crossed the English Channel and joined Tyndale in Antwerp
in the Low Countries.
ON THE EUROPEAN MAINLAND
it is impossible to give a chronological account of Frith's activities,
it appears that he spent the majority of his time in Antwerp. Tyndale
had arrived in the city after printing the first edition of his
New Testament in Worms, Germany in 1526.
arrival, Frith would have been able to bring Tyndale up to date
concerning the course of the Reformation in England. Tyndale would
have related to Frith the fate of Patrick Hamilton, a young Scottish
Reformer. Hamilton, from a noble family in Scotland, had come to
Germany to escape the clutches of David Beaton, the Archbishop of
Saint Andrews. After studying in Germany for a brief period, Hamilton
returned to his native land and began to preach. Being apprehended,
he was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in February
1528, the same month that Frith had been imprisoned at Oxford.
returned to Scotland, Hamilton penned a short theological treatise
outlining his beliefs. The manuscript had been written in Latin
and Frith undertook the task of translating and printing it. It
was printed under the title Patrick’s Places and
was the first systematic explanation of Reformation doctrines printed
involved in other literary endeavors. In 1529 he translated and
printed A Pistle to the Christian Reader: The Revelation of
the Anti-Christ; An Antithesis between Christ and the Pope,
one of the first anti-Papal works printed in English. This work
had originally been written in German and the author remains unknown
to this day. In the book a great contrast is drawn between the Pope
and Christ. For example, the book emphasizes Christ's teaching that
while the foxes have dens, the Son of Man does not have a place
to lay His head. In contrast with Christ's poverty, the Pope and
his followers are wealthy. However, the tone of the book is not
totally negative. The author emphasizes the need of personal faith
in Christ and the assurance that one may have that his sins are
time, Steven Vaughn, agent of King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell,
attempted to convince Frith to return to England. Vaughn had also
been commissioned by Henry VIII to persuade Tyndale to return. English
officials had heard of the scholarship and ability of Frith and
were anxious to have him return to the true faith. They realized
that such a person could have tremendous influence on others to
remain faithful to the Church.
Frith would not be persuaded, and he refused to obey this summons.
We do know that he married during this period, however, no information
has come to us concerning his wife. In addition, Frith saw Tyndale's
book, An Answer to Sir Thomas More, through the press.
We are not sure what part Frith had in aiding Tyndale in the translation
of the Scriptures although we can be certain that Frith's scholarship
would help assure its accuracy.
another book that occupied Frith during this time and this was his
own production. Frith entered the field against More by writing
a book called Disputation of Purgatory divided into Three Books.
This book came from the press in 1531. As the title suggests, it
was three books written in answer to Sir Thomas More, John Rastell,
More's brother-in-law, and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester.
Each of the three men had written a book on the subject of purgatory
and Frith answered each of them in this volume.
his book was not large, Frith wrote with a deft touch demonstrating
his knowledge of Scripture and the Church Fathers. He proved that
Purgatory was non-existent by showing the nature of Christ's work
and His teaching on forgiveness. Frith insisted that forgiveness
of sins was complete because it was based on the sufficiency of
Christ's work. Therefore, there was no need for purgatory. Indeed,
the true purgatory was Christ's death that fully consumed our sins
and forever pacified the Father's wrath toward us.
Frith was adamant in his rejection of Purgatory, he wrote with such
lucidity and calmness of spirit that a great impact was made on
More, Fisher and Rastell. Although the first two were not convinced
by Frith’s arguments, they expressed their admiration of his
spirit and learning. Rastell was so persuaded by Frith's reasoning
that, despite the fact he was More's brother-in-law, he was won
to the Evangelical cause and remained faithful to the Protestant
cause for the remainder of his life.
In his reply
to Rastell, Frith not only showed that purgatory was not necessary
because of Christ's death, he also demonstrated the nature of true
forgiveness. Note the following quote:
believe that of merciful favour God gave His most dear Son to
redeem us from our sin; if we believe that He imputeth not our
sins unto us but that His wrath is pacified in Christ and His
blood,…then are we righteous in His sight and our conscience
at peace with God, not through ourselves but through our Lord
Jesus. So mayest thou perceive that thou art a sinner in thyself
and yet art thou righteous in Christ.
In his writings
against the teachings of More and Fisher, Frith followed the same
basic line of reasoning. Fisher was convinced that, if the doctrine
of Purgatory were denied, there would be an attack against other
teachings of the Roman Church including its teaching on the pardon
of sin through the granting of indulgences. Luther had also attacked
indulgences, although he had objected to their being sold to the
German peasantry. A strong case can be made that Frith saw the real
issue involving indulgences sooner than Luther himself. Frith recognized
that if there were no Purgatory, there would be no need for indulgences
whatsoever. Luther was concerned for the abuses associated with
the sale of indulgences and their effect on the German people.
It is true
that nearly ten years had passed between the Indulgence controversy
in Germany and the time of Frith's writings. However, it is apparent
that Frith discerned the heart of the issue and framed his answer
directly. Thus, it is no wonder that his ability and learning were
recognized and attempts were made to reclaim him for the Church.
the most important statement that Frith made in his answer to the
three men was his insistence on the authority of the Scriptures.
Note what he wrote concerning the authority of the Scriptures and
liberty of conscience:
is bound to believe the Doctors except they can be proved true
either by Scripture or good reason not repugnant to Scripture.
clearly that the final authority in the Christian religion was to
be found in the Word of God. Ultimately, it did not matter what
other authorities were quoted, Scripture, and Scripture alone, had
the right to pronounce the final word. This was true because the
Scriptures were the words of the living God. When God spoke, all
the earth was to remain silent. One could wish that Frith's life
could have been spared to develop these thoughts. But the Lord is
infinite in wisdom, and others expanded the teaching of Scripture
alone or sola scriptura.
work on the European continent was nearly done and he desired to
return to England. Let us take a moment to summarize what he had
accomplished. First, he was responsible for the publication of Patrick's
Places, the first summation of doctrine in the English language.
He showed the great difference between the ministry of Christ and
the ministry of the Papal hierarchy in A Pistle to the Christian
Reader. He proved that the doctrine of Purgatory was not found
in the Word of God in his Disputation on Purgatory in Three
to the comments on Purgatory found in the three books mentioned
above, he showed the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the
believer was the basis of one's pardon before God. Finally, he upheld
the sufficiency and authority of Scripture to settle matters of
faith and practice.
All of this
was accomplished before he was thirty years of age. However, his
greatest work was still ahead and we will pick up the story in our
1. John Frith, Writings of John Frith and Robert Barnes.
London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d., p.10.
2. Frith, op. cit., p. 54.