By Dr. Herbert Samworth
This British 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?
Not only 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.
Who was 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.
HIS EARLY YEARS IN ENGLAND
There are 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.
Frith’s 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.
However, 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.
Bilney gathered 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.
Meanwhile, 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 and Switzerland.
The result 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.
The unsanitary 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.
FRITH ON THE EUROPEAN MAINLAND
Although 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.
Upon his 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.
Before he 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 in English.
Frith was 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 forgiven.
During this 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.
However, 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.
There was 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.
Although 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.
Although 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:
If we 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.
Perhaps 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:
No man is bound to believe the Doctors except they can be proved true either by Scripture or good reason not repugnant to Scripture.
Frith saw 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.
Frith’s 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 Books.
In addition 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 next article.
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.