1. The History of British Christianity – Facts and Fiction (100-200 A.D.)
The definition of what constitutes a Christian nation generates endless debate. But regardless of the definition, many claim that parts of the British Isles have been a Christian nation for millennia.
Over several articles, I want to survey the history of Christianity in the British Isles, particularly in the south of England where possible, and consider what lessons we can learn. It will not always be possible to point to local fellowships that we might identify 100% with today in doctrine and practice. However, we will find groups and individuals that recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of Man and Son of God, born of a virgin, who lived a perfect life, died as the perfect sacrifice and who rose victorious three days later from the grave.
First, we will consider some facts and then we will throw in some fiction before drawing some conclusions and applications.
Paul Arrested and Sent to Rome In Acts 21 a chain of events began that led to Paul traveling to Rome as a prisoner. False allegations were made in Jerusalem, there was an uproar among the people and the Roman officials had to step in. Paul was placed under guard and taken to Herod’s Palace in Caesarea. During his time of imprisonment and interrogation, Paul made his appeal to have his case heard by Caesar. And so Paul the Apostle was taken to Rome, arriving there sometime in the year A.D. 60.
Caractacus Arrested and Sent to Rome
Now we move the scene to ancient Catuvellauni, modern-day southeast England during the same time period. The Celtic ruler, Caractacus (also referred to as Caradog in Welsh, possibly the origin of the King Arthur myth) expanded his kingdom into the territory of the Atrebates. The Atrebate’s chieftain, Verica, fled to Rome and appealed to Emperor Claudius for help. Claudius decided it was time for regime change in the British Isles and the appeal from Verica was the excuse he needed to invade ancient Briton. Caractacus led a fierce and sometimes successful resistance. Until, in AD 51, Caractacus was defeated, betrayed and he and his family were taken as prisoners to be displayed as a war prize in Rome. Caractacus was given the opportunity to speak before the Senate, and following a moving speech he and his family were pardoned and freed to live in Rome.
“History became Legend. Legend became Myth.” Now, thanks to Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826) and others, the facts turn to fiction, myth, and legend. The story goes that Caractacus’ daughter, Gladys, changed her name to Claudia and married Pudens. The leap is then made to connect this Claudia and Pudens to the individuals mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21. The connection is partly made because Caractacus, Claudia, and Paul all resided in Rome at the same time.
Depending on the story you read, either Caractacus or his daughter returned to the British Isles with the Gospel. Some say Joseph of Arimathea came to the south of England with the Gospel and that through his ministry Caractacus was a Christian before traveling to Rome.
There are other traditions about bishops and missionaries spreading the Gospel in the British Isles in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some are debunked by experts. Others are based upon facts, but the facts are open to interpretation.
The more you delve into this subject the greater the degree of fantasy and imagination. I want to establish several points:
Though the exact dates are not known, Christians have been in the British Isles for millennia.
There has always been a desire to trace the connection to Christ back as far as possible.
People have gone to great lengths to paint the UK as a Christian nation.
Has God Finished with these Isles? With such a long history, and having enjoyed so many privileges, does the current trend away from God indicate God is no longer at work here? Some refer to parts of Europe as being “burned over”. They say that great works were done here, but now people are “sinning away their day of grace” and God is choosing to work in other parts of the world.
I know of no Biblical premise for this position and on that basis alone I reject it. Also, God is still calling His people here to proclaim the Gospel, and He is drawing men and women from other parts of the world to minister here. God has not turned His back on the people of Europe.
Optimism, Pessimism or Realism? Ministry in Britain is a challenge. But things have not regressed to the days when the first Christian set foot on British soil. Can you imagine that at some point in history there was only one, single, solitary Christian in the land?
Maybe it was Claudia, daughter of Caractacus. Maybe it was an unknown Roman soldier. Perhaps it was a missionary sent deliberately to the then furthest corner of the Roman Empire. What we do know, is that over hundreds of years the Gospel would spread, it would be corrupted by some but held to faithfully, if only in great simplicity, by a remnant. Revivals and reformations would bring many back to orthodoxy. Generations would eventually come who would, by God’s grace, become part of a powerhouse that would send and take the Gospel around the globe. The influence of Christianity would permeate society, law, government, education, language, and literature.
And it all began with one.
If God’s work could begin with one believer in the land long ago, then surely we can hope for God to do a mighty work with the many faithful saints that labor here today.
Martin is from the UK and worked in a variety of churches and ministries in England and Northern Ireland. He is married to Carrie and they have 4 children. Since 2018 Martin has lived in the US and pastors at Bedford Bible Church, PA. He has a strong focus on expositional preaching, family, fellowship, and spreading the Gospel to the community and around the world.