Reach the Isles
3. The History of British Christianity – Rebels, Royalty, and Revival (300-600 A.D.)
We would find the British Isles of 1500 years ago unrecognizable in many ways, yet in others, the seeds of the nations and society we live in today were taking root. The edges of our island nations have been eroded over the years, but the major geographical features of the country remain the same. Accounts of vineyards during the times of the Romans indicates Britain had a warmer climate, and in parts of the country, less rain fall. Consequently, the fauna and flora may have varied, but only slightly. We know massive efforts to build the nation’s navy in later years meant the woods and forests that once covered the island were depleted, but large forests sometimes replaced the old.
So, many things may appear different, but much remains the same. As it is with the landscape, so it is with our religion and society. A familiar issue that connects modern and ancient times is a constant battle with heresy. Another recognisable feature of modern society which also began in those ancient times is the link between the monarchy and the church. A final thread that will weave its way through this post connecting 1500 years ago with today is revival.
Rebels (360-418 AD)
Blogs abound today that spend their time naming and shaming false teachers. Some do so in an edifying manner and are worthwhile. Others are harsh in spirit and do more to harm than to help. Something I have never seen, however, is the use of poetry to describe a false teacher. Here are two poems written against an ancient rebel, written over 1000 years apart.
The first poem is quoted in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”,
“Against the great Augustine see him crawl, This wretched scribbler with his pen of gall! In what black caverns was this snakeling bred That from the dirt presumes to rear its head?
Its food is grain that wave-washed Britain yields, Or the rank pasture of Campanian fields.”
This later poem dates from the 17th century and was found on a Calvinist print:
“Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse Man’s foul Concupiscence,
Or cry down Sin Original, or that The Love of GOD did Man predestinate.”
Though some now question the authenticity of the attacks made on Pelagius, he has had a false teaching named after him, Pelagianism. His contemporaries describe him as British in origin. Though Jerome describes him as “stuffed with Irish porridge”, so perhaps he was Irish. This statement refers to his tall and overweight appearance. Condemned as a heretic, his written work was largely destroyed and most of what we know of him comes through quotes by his opponents.
Pelagianism, whether popularized by Pelagius or merely attributed to him, denies that we are sinners by nature and affirms that we may earn salvation by good works. If we allow for the historical view on Pelagius, then it is apparent that from its earliest days the church in Britain and Ireland had to deal with the false teachings of rebels.
The genuine conversion of much of Britain to Christianity while under Roman rule may be questionable as it did not seem to truly take root. In 410 AD when the Romans withdrew from the British Isles, the native peoples were left to defend themselves against the Saxons and Christianity in those areas went into decline. The pagan Saxon tribes settled along the southern coast, but many outside of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms remained Christian. These early British churches developed independently from Roman Catholicism and were helped and influenced by missionaries from Ireland, which was also independent of Rome.
Sometime between 560-590 the pagan King Ethelbert of Kent, great-grandson of the first king of Kent, married Bertha, the Christian daughter of one of the kings of the Franks, Charibert I, King of Paris. When Bertha married she brought with her a Bishop named Liudhard. It is thought they restored St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury which dated back to Roman times.
Though King Ethelbert was a pagan, he believed in freedom of religion and tolerated his wife’s Christianity. Under her influence, and perhaps that of the Kentish court, Ethelbert, according to some sources, asked Pope Gregory to send them a missionary. Some attribute the sending of missionaries to Pope Gregory himself after he saw fair haired slaves from Briton in a Roman slave market.
Whatever the motivation or whoever initiated the idea, a missionary was sent; Augustine, later referred to as Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with the earlier Augustine of Hippo).
Augustine would come to be known as the Apostle of the English and “founder of the English Church”. The latter is a somewhat misleading title as the church already existed in Britain. However, because they had struggled to withstand the pagan Saxons, the Gregorian Mission pioneered by Augustine is often pointed to as the beginning of the English church’s formal history.
In 597 AD King Ethelbert welcomed Augustine to Kent, but would only do so in the open air as he feared Augustine had magic powers. King Ethelbert soon converted to Christianity and gave authority and land to Augustine. Augustine would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, an impressive cathedral would be built in Canterbury in 597 AD but completely rebuilt in 1070-1077 and extended in later years, and the Archbishop of Canterbury continues to this day to be the head of the denomination of the Church of England.
Augustine had been commanded by Pope Gregory I to purify rather than destroy the pagan temples and customs, and a tragic result was the incorporation of many pagan festival and rites into “christian” feasts. King Ethelbert’s efforts resulted in the conversion of the East Saxons and this resulted in the first church of St. Pauls to be built in London.
Since this time there has been a clear link between the British monarchy and Christianity.
No doubt a remnant of believers remained in Kent from the times of the Romans. However, they do not seem to have held any prominence. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the Patriarch of Alexandria that 10,000 Christians had been baptised in England.
An important detail to note about these baptisms, is that the individuals were not commanded to convert as often happened when an ancient king changed his beliefs, but they seem to have become converts by choice. While the numbers are perhaps exaggerated and in many mass conversions some are not genuine, we could perhaps point to this as the first revival or awakening on the British Isles.
Prior to and during the time of Pope Gregory I error had certainly spread into the Roman Catholic church. Here are some examples,
Use of images in worship – 375 A D.
The Mass as a daily celebration – 394 AD
Beginning of the exaltation of Mary; the term, “Mother of God” applied at Council of Ephesus – 431 AD.
Extreme Unction (Last Rites) – 526 AD
Doctrine of Purgatory (Gregory I) – 593 AD
Prayers to Mary & dead saints – 600 AD
However, sometimes we can see the Gospel still being clearly presented and we can only hope that those who converted in the days of Ethelbert were genuine believers.
Events from 1500 years ago have certainly impacted us today, for good or for ill. We too face Rebels, the Royal connection with religion often leads Briton’s to settle for cultural Christianity rather than genuine conversion, and we hope, pray and work for revival.
Some people dismiss church history as unimportant, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things it does not hold the importance of other subjects, but an understanding of errors of the past and of bad decisions which have led to compromise and generations taking the wrong path can greatly aid us today. Finally, as we reflect on revivals and mass conversions of the past, we may, with hope, pray and work to see the same outpourings of God’s spirit in our own day.
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.