Early Church History: Part 5, The Gospel in Britain
Jul 30, 2007
Perhaps no one caught the imagination of the Church in the Middle Ages more than Joseph of Arimathea. Much lore rose up around him as the centuries passed. However, there are some basic truths that stand out, proven by subsequent events as well as by genuine scholars, ancient and modern.
There is one undisputable fact that emerges from any serious study of early Church history: the Church in Britain was among the first to be established after the day of Pentecost. The Roman Church, of course, has long been embarrassed by this and has worked hard to hide the facts proving this. The British Church was not subject to Rome for many centuries, and thus the Roman Church did not recognize them as being Christian until they came under Rome's headship over six centuries after Pentecost. Yet, as Rev. W. Morgan tells us,
"The British Church was represented during his [Constantine's] reign by native bishops at the Councils of Arles, A.D. 308, and Nice, A.D. 325." (St. Paul in Britain, p. 111)
How could there be no British Church until the seventh century, when British bishops were represented at Church Councils in the fourth century? The main fact is that in the fourth century, those British bishops were recognized by Rome as Christians, simply because Rome had not yet demanded submission of all Churches in exchange for the right to be called Christian.
In fact, it is well known by all historians that Constantine himself was a British general, though he was part of Rome's army. Rome had many generals from other nations, for their armies were full of foreign soldiers. Constantine was favorably disposed toward Christianity from the influence of his mother, Helena (Helen of York), who was also a famous early Christian song writer. As Sozomen tells us in his Eccl. Hist.. lib. i. c. v., "It is well known that great Constantine received his Christian education in Britain."
When Britain was "evangelized" by the Roman missionary, Augustine (not the bishop of Hippo by the same name who lived two centuries earlier), his mission was not to convert the British to Christ, but to convert Christians to the Roman Church. Augustine arrived in 596 A.D. but was rebuffed. Morgan quotes Bacon's Government of England as follows:
"The Britons told Augustine they would not be subject to him, nor let him pervert the ancient laws of their Church. This was their resolution, and they were as good as their word, for they maintained the liberty of their Church five hundred years after his time, and were the last of all the Churches of Europe that gave up their power to the Roman Beast . . ." (p. 101)
"The soldier who interrogated Augustine at the oak of Conference seems, in like manner, to treat the question between them as one quite apart from doctrine.
"Does Rome possess all the truth?"
"And you say we do--our usages only differ. Now of two men, if both have all their limbs and senses complete, both are equal. Because the Romans have noses, and we have noses, must we either cut off our noses to be Romans? Must all who have noses be subject to the Romans? Why, then, should all who hold the faith be subject to Rome because she holds the faith?" (Morgan, p. 102)
Morgan quotes many ancient sources to show that the British Church had long been established and was in full strength by the time Augustine arrived there to subject them to Rome's headship. On page 105 he quotes the Jesuit, Robert Parsons, in his book, Three Conversions of England, vol. 1, page 26,
"The Christian religion began in Britain within fifty years of Christ's ascension."
He quotes also Polydore Vergil, lib. ii, "Britain, partly through Joseph of Arimathea, partly through Fugatus and Damianus, was of all kingdoms the first that received the Gospel."
He quotes Sir Henry Spelman's Concilia, vol., p. 1, "We have abundant evidence that this Britain of ours received the faith, and that from the disciples of Christ Himself, soon after the crucifixion of Christ."
Alford's Regia Fides, Vol. 1, p. 19 is quoted as well, "The faith which was adopted by the nation of the Britons in the year of our Lord 165, was preserved inviolate, and in the enjoyment of peace, to the time of the Emperor Diocletian." This referred to King Lucius, who had proclaimed Britain to be a Christian Nation, he says, in 165 A.D., while the Church in Rome was still suffering under the Roman Emperors.
Morgan cites other ancient sources:
"In A.D. 600, Venantius Fortunatus, in his Christian hymns, speaks of Britain as having been evangelized by St. Paul."
"In the year A.D. 408 Augustine of Hippo asks, 'How many churches are there not erected in the British isles which lie in the ocean?' And about the same time Arnobius writes, 'So swiftly runs the word of God that though in several thousand years God was not known except among the Jews, now, within the space of a few years, His word is concealed neither from the Indians in the East nor from the Britons in the West'."
Morgan likewise provides us with quotations from Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, in 402 A.D., Jerome (A.D. 378), and Eusebius (A.D. 320), all referencing the strength of the Church in Britain. Since the Roman Church all claims these writers as their own, it is plain that there were many churches in Britain in the early centuries. Only when Rome demanded submission in later centuries, denying Christian status to any Church that did not comply, was Britain suddenly denied Christian status until after the time of the Augustinian mission.
The question, then, is not whether or not there existed a British Church in the earliest days of the Church. The question is whether or not a Church must submit to Rome to be Christian. By Rome's definition, no Church calling itself Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc. is really Christian. They have a right to their opinion, of course, but they should not use that opinion to deny the existence of a non-Roman Church.
And so the Church of Rome in later years has attempted to suppress the near unanimous consent of its own early historians as to the early evangelization of Britain. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia writes under "Joseph of Arimathea," "Likewise fabulous is the legend which tells of his coming to Gaul A.D. 63, and thence to Great Britain, where he is supposed to have founded the earliest Christian oratory at Glastonbury."
No proof is given to sustain their disdain, and in a single sentence, they dismiss what virtually all of its own early Church historians affirmed for many centuries.
Another great fabrication of history thrusts Britain outside the boundaries of civilization just because they were outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. From the perspective of the Roman government, any people outside of its borders were "barbarians." Yet Britain had many centers of higher learning which were so rigorous that it took twenty years to master their courses in philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and many other subjects which, in that day, were accepted everywhere as the mark of civilization.
In the sixth century, Gildas writes of Britain: "These islands received the beams of light--that is, the holy precepts of Christ--the true Sun, as we know, at the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, in whose time this religion was propagated without impediment and death threatened to those who interfered with its professors." (J. W. Taylor, The Coming of the Saints, p. 141)
Tiberius Caesar died in 37 A.D., thus fixing the time of the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea and his companions around that time.
This is the fifth part of a series titled "Early Church History." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones