2. The History of British Christianity – Celebrating the Unknowns (100-300 A.D.)
Looking back through the mist of time to find the earliest believers in the British Isles challenges historians. Especially as some medieval and modern authors have been found to bend or invent the truth to make England’s Christian roots seem established earlier than they perhaps truly were. You can read more about this issue in the previous article, “Facts and Fiction”.
The Spread of Christianity As Paul, Peter, Stephen, Barnabus and other missionaries preached the Gospel, the church quickly and miraculously spread across the Roman empire. But the unrecorded lives of individual believers and their families must not be underestimated. Though the recorded spread of Christianity might be sparse, it is almost certain that believers migrating due to work or persecution would have spread the Gospel further than official records reveal.
In this article, I want to take a look at what we know through ancient writers, but celebrate the unwritten record which truly made an impact.
Lucius - AD 156
The Venerable Bede, our first church historian, wrote that in AD 156 a British King, Lucius, wrote to Pope Eleutherus, essentially extending the British equivalent of a Macedonian call. Bede states that,
“This pious request was quickly granted, and the Britons received the Faith and held it peacefully in all its purity and fullness until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.” (Ecclesiastical History of the English people, Chapter 4)
Diocletian - AD 303 In AD 286 Diocletian and the less-well-known Herculius became co-Emperors over the Roman Empire. Both persecuted the church, one in the east and the other in the west. They ordered all churches to be destroyed and all Christians to be killed. Since Nero, persecution of believers had swept through the empire on nine occasions, and this made the tenth. This tenth persecution continued for ten years. Bede summarises this period of persecution with a note of victory,
“But at length, the glory of these martyr’s devoted loyalty to God was to light even Britain.” (Ecclesiastical History of the English people, Chapter 6)
Alban - AD 304 One example is Alban. When a fleeing priest came to Alban’s door he gave him refuge. The example of the priest challenged the pagan and he soon renounced his idolatry and received Christ as his Saviour. The authorities received a report that Alban was harbouring a Christian and soldiers were sent. When they arrived Alban had put on the priest’s robe and went himself as the prisoner instead of the fleeing believer who had become his teacher and friend.
The judge who was to preside over the judgment of the priest was offering a sacrifice to idols when Alban was brought in. The judge had the soldiers drag Alban to the altar and stood him before the idols. As Alban had concealed a “rebel” and, worse, confessed to be a Christian himself, the judge condemned Alban to suffer all the tortures planned for the priest. The pain of torture did nothing to dissuade Alban and the judge, now in a rage, commanded that he be taken out and beheaded.
At this point in the record, the facts appear to become mixed with legend. There is a story of a river running dry to enable Alban to quickly get to his place of execution. (If I ever am approaching martyrdom I might prefer a miracle that delivers me from the executioner, not deliver me more quickly to him). When they arrived at the top of a hill where the execution was to take place, we read of Alban’s prayer for water being answered by a spring of water appearing at his feet. Finally, the moment arrived when Alban gave his life to testify of Jesus Christ. The first executioner had been so moved by Alban’s example that he converted and was also beheaded. Of the second executioner, it is said that when he beheaded Alban, his eyes fell out.
Alban is known as England’s first recorded martyr. The execution took place at Verulamium on June 22nd, about 20 miles north of London. Today there is a city there called St. Albans and a cathedral is built over the spot he is said to have been martyred.
Constantine - AD 313 Despite the vicious and comprehensive persecution under Diocletian, when Constantine supposedly converted there were still many professing Christians. In AD 313 a church council in France had three representatives from England, Eborious of York, Restitutus of London and Adelius of Caerleon (Gwent). This demonstrates that there was a considerable Christian community in England.
Born Again Christians or Cultural Christianity?
Any consideration of church history must take the time to discern between cultural Christianity and genuine, born-again believers.
Though many of the heresies taught by Roman Catholicism did not begin until a couple of centuries later, the purity of the English church at this time had certainly been weakened.
The Nicene Creed, compiled in AD 325, but clarified due to heresies in 381 and 589, gives an insight into what they believed:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. “Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. “And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
Up until the final paragraph, we would have no problems. And even with the final paragraph there is debate as to what exactly was meant by “baptism for the remission of sins…”
An Application for Believers Today
The Unwritten Records – As with our first article, we are still covering a time where records are difficult to verify. However, we can be certain that in the history books of Heaven we will find the names of those first Christians who evangelised the British Isles as they travelled as soldiers, farmers, families, and politicians.
The Unknown Martyrs – Some stories of martyrs are well recorded and over time miraculous events have been added to the narrative. But even if we sent them aside, we know there were many who gave their lives as they witnessed for Christ. These early saints lived and died in such a way that the world had to change the word martyr to mean more than just a testimony, but one who testified even by their deaths.
The Unfinished Story – Through social media, blogs and digital records we retain much more of daily events and individual lives than at any other time in history. However, the vast majority of believers will not have books written of them, movies recounting their heroics or cathedrals built on the site of their martyrdom. In truth, a true believer would wish for none of those things anyway. However, it is the simple lives of regular believers as that can impact a country more deeply than you realise. By God’s grace live in such a way that impacts history, not in the books or the 10 O’clock news, but in changed lives, families, communities and countries.
The legacy of church planters and pastors today is rarely seen in stories etched in stone or printed on paper, but in the lives lived and changed for eternity.
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.