Danger Zone History

Closed Universe – Part 2

Sometimes in life it is an off the cuff comment or sudden realisation that changes completely how you see things or even changes how you comprehend your universe. Such was the case for me a few years ago when I happened to read the statistics of literacy throughout the ages. Even as late as 1820 it is estimated only 12% of the people in the world could read and write.

One of the watchwords of the ‘Reformed’ tradition, in which I was brought up, is ‘Sola Scriptura’. Most traditional reformed theologians emphasise the Bible as the unique means by which God communicates with men and women. Of course this raises a very serious issue. What about the other 88% in 1820 – and what about the millions of people who lived before them? Was it not until after this time that the bulk of the world’s population could know God?

I am not in any way trying to belittle the importance of the Bible, its revelation of truth or the supreme sacrifice of those who gave their lives so we can read it today. But, even in our reading of it, according to its own teaching, we are dependant on the Spirit of God for a true understand of it. That is unless, of course, it is only a cold, legal or intellectual understanding of it which, I fear, is the case with many in my tradition. That is why you can be an expert in a theological understanding of the Bible but yet live a lifestyle which is the polar opposite of its basic teaching. I have observed this many many times throughout life – and sometimes the tragic results of living in such a way.

So why prescribe the main, and in some cases the only way, God is allowed to reveal himself to the confines of the Bible? There are of course theological arguments (poor ones IMHO) – but if you put these aside at present one good reason is left – control! Who is the arbiter of what the Bible says about God and the way we should live and believe. If you are a Catholic it is the Priest or, in the Protestant case, the ordained Minister! It is, for the most part,  through the Priest and the Minister that the Bible is interpreted, minds are moulded and the people controlled. Once, in my closed religious universe, I would have argued against this – believing I was free, when in fact I was a prisoner to my tradition and blind to such an obvious truth. I can recall debates over doctrinal matters with Presbyterian friends that ended suddenly when their final word on the matter was – ‘well that is what our Minister says’! This is far from uncommon in my experience.

We know that for hundreds of years the Bible was a closed book to the common people. And even when the Bible was eventually published in a language people could understand and they were educated enough to read it, the clergy still laid claim, as they do today, as to how it should be interpreted and understood. For most this means a university education along with a degree in theology. The common people are not fitted to interpret the Bible for themselves. This might not be openly stated – but is certainly the unspoken attitude of many of the Ministers I have met within my tradition.

When, in the fourteenth century, Wycliffe’s Bible was first published in English the Catholic Church complained that he had made the scriptures – “More open to the teachings of laymen and women. Thus the jewel of the clerics is turned to the sport of the laity and the pearl of the gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.’ (3) Just so! The issue of ‘control’ and ‘who rules’ is one of the things that has caused wars, infighting, schism and major problems since the early days of the Church. And when Calvinistic Presbyterianism eventually took control in Scotland it was no different. (2)

Perhaps one might have expected that, with the overthrow of the abuses of the old Roman Catholic Church and the rise of a Protestantism, supposedly based more closely on the teaching of Jesus, that a golden age of mercy, grace and love would dawn in the life of our nation – a true reflection of the Kingdom of God as we find it in our Bibles. We might expect to find a time when the outsider and sinner were treated with the love and grace we see in the life of Jesus. Sadly though you would be gravely mistaken. In truth, as elsewhere in Europe, Protestantism simply dressed itself in the persecution mantle of those they had overthrown. The sword was still the instrument of power and control – for the Scottish Reformation was as much a political movement as it was a religious one.

It is important to emphasise that, at this time in history, the church and state were two sides of the same coin. Most people belonged to the Church of Scotland. You were baptised into Calvinistic Presbyterianism at birth and only left it at death – and maybe not even then! The National Church and the State were inseparable. Nowhere was this clearer that in regard to matters of crime and punishment. The civil authorities operated hand in glove with the church in these matters. Everyone was expected to bow to the authority of the Church of Scotland. Discovering this has helped me understand the attitudes of some (not all be any means) of the Ministers within the Presbyterian system with whom I have had the misfortune of having negative dealings over the years. I certainly did not fully appreciate this at the time, and was shocked by their behaviour – but they, I now believe, considered themselves entitled to power and control over the people. Anyone who questioned them in this regard was dealt with very harshly. This attitude, as I say, still exists – and has its roots in the Scottish Reformation all those years ago when Presbyterianism became the dominant force in religion and politics throughout Scotland.

In 1560 ‘The First Book of Discipline’ was published in Scotland. Part of this document outlined punishments against things as diverse as – ‘fornication, drunkenness, fighting and common swearing’. But how did all this work out in practice. Well, the church dealt ‘in house’ with offences of a more minor nature while the state dealt with those that were more serious. However, at times these overlapped. One historian notes of punishments under the jurisdiction of the church (1) –

‘There were several levels of punishment for sinners, depending on the seriousness and notoriety of the sin and the degree of penitence exhibited by the sinner. The First Book of Discipline ruled that public sins had to be punished publicly, but for lesser offences and a sorrowful offender a private admonition by the session sufficed.’

Sometimes, in more serious cases, the church authorities dealt with a case before passing the offenders over to the civil authorities for the sentence to to be carried out. So when, in January of 1585, Helen Watson and David Gray, both married, were caught by the Perth (Scotland) Town Watchmen, in a state of partial undress in David’s bedroom it was to the Session of the Church of Scotland they were brought. Sentenced to death they were hanged by the civil authorities in front of Watson’s mother’s front gate. The fact that there was ample physical evidence that Helen Watson had been assaulted and raped by Gray, a notorious abuser of women, was deliberately ignored by the church court.

In fact what went on behind the bedroom door was of great interest to the church authorities. The same historian quoted above notes of this intrusive behaviour –

‘Sexual offence came to the session’s attention in a variety of ways. Occasionally, offenders were caught in the act by elders making the rounds of their quarters unannounced, or by bailies or watchmen, or by an offended spouse’. ‘Searchers’ constituted another procedural mechanism that the elders found useful to catch out sinners by making surprise visits to their homes or to local taverns. Other sinners were reported by their neighbours, and even if no one had witnessed a suspicious action, the ‘bruit’ or rumour of misbehaviour was enough to initiate a case.’

In the, admittedly, rare case that you found yourself excommunicated from the National Church not only did that have dire consequences for your immortal soul – but your neighbours were under strict instructions, on pain of severe punishment, not even to talk to you – that included your wider family. Nor could you buy or sell from your neighbours or within the community. It was a virtual death sentence – designed to bring you, begging and scraping, back under the authority of the church. Action against those who communicated with or helped someone who had been excommunicated was also enforced by the civil authorities who ordered that – ‘no one was to receive, supply, or entertain an excommunicate.’ This then, in the estimation of Knox’s and his followers was the closest thing to heaven on earth that was possible. This was the golden age Calvinistic Protestantism. And it is an age that some within the Reformed tradition would like to return to.

By the way have you ever sat in a Civil Court building in Scotland and wondered why it is so much like a traditional Presbyterian Church building in design and operation? In an elevated position at the front of the court we see the Judge in his robes seated at the bench – while in the church we have the Minister in his Geneva Gown raised above the people in his pulpit. The Judge is initially escorted to his seat by the Court Officer while the minister is shown to the pulpit by his Beadle (attendant). Below the Judge sits the court officials – below the minister sits the elders. In the dock stands the accused. In traditional Presbyterianism those accused of a crime or misdemeanours stood at the ‘seat of repentance’, an elevated stool or bench to which the offender processed at the beginning of the church service, and on which he stood to confess his sin following the sermon. The audience sat in the public benches or pews in both cases. This, of course, is no accident of design. Our court buildings today are based on what is still termed within Presbyterianism – ‘the courts of the church’. This is also reflected in the appeals procedure of both entities – going all the way to the High Court in Civil/Criminal Courts or the General Assembly in the case of Presbyterianism.

But what has all this got do with a God who, according to the revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, is a God of love, mercy, forgiveness and longsuffering. You may well ask! How did it all go wrong you might wonder – from the simple Galilean living the love of The Father with a few followers to complex systems of control, punishment, abuse and political power enforced and defended by the sword? That is a very long story – but in the final part of this short series we will attempt to shed a little light on this question.

To be continued..


In case of any misunderstanding I would like to make clear that these posts are not in any way intended to be a critique of any religious group or individual today. I am not trying to say that everyone who is Catholic, Protestant or Calvinist believe what their founders and forefathers did – or that they approve of the way they behaved and acted. I am also fully aware that within every religious group there are different beliefs and different attitudes. I know Presbyterians who are Baptist by conviction and Calvinists who are Charismatic. It is also true that the early Protestants Reformers such as Knox and Calvin could not agree among themselves either. I am simple trying to understand my own tradition and how it may have influenced my beliefs and the way I understanding my universe!

(1) Margo Todd – The Perth Kirk Session Books – Scottish History Society 2012.

(2) John Knox, father of the Scottish Reformation, had of course based his vision for Scotland on what he had seen during his time in Geneva with Calvin. So impressed was he with Calvin’s Geneva, he called it, ‘The most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles’. Calvin’s Geneva, remember, was the city where his followers still burned at the stake those it considered heretical and who drowned Anabaptists (see last post). If this is the Presbyterian vision of – ‘The most perfect school of Christ’  – may God help us all.

(3) Of course Wycliffe did so much more than translate the Bible in to English. He had, in the words of one historian, ‘raised up his fist against the greatest authority on the earth’.  Wycliffe had in fact also launched a furious attack on the power, wealth and abuses of the Catholic Church – and this over one hundred years before Luther. One of Wycliffe’s followers John Ball even demanded that the church give away its wealth to the poor! In truth Wycliffe’s reforms would have gone way beyond Luther’s . I also suspect they would have been more clearly aligned with the teaching of Jesus. You can find ‘The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards’ online. It is a radical document indeed!

After translating the Bible into English Wycliffe began to train and organise what amounted to a new religious order of itinerant preachers whom he despatched around England. This was known as the Lollard movement although they called themselves Christian Brethren – not to be confused with the much later group of this name, which was in fact the spiritual heritage of my own father.

Of course the  Catholic Church could not allow such a state of affairs to continue – this was a clear and present danger to their authority and control. The subsequent story is well known. At a show trial the works of Wycliffe and his followers were condemned as heretical. Historian Melvyn Bragg, in his book – ‘The Adventure of English’, takes up the story –

‘The synod ordered the arrest and prosecution of itinerant preachers throughout the land. Many of those caught were tortured and killed. Perhaps most significantly of all as far as the English language is concerned, the synod led, later, to a parliamentary ban on all English-language Bibles. Wycliffe’s great effort was routed. He had taken on the power of the Church and he had been defeated. His Bibles were outlawed. Wycliffe became ill. He was paralysed by a stroke. Two years later he died on the last day of 1384.

In 1412, twenty-eight years after Wycliffe’s death, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all of Wycliffe’s works to be burned and in a letter to the Pope entered a list of two hundred sixty-seven heresies “worthy of the fire” which he claimed to have culled from the pages of Wycliffe’s Bible. He is quoted as having said, “That wretched and pestilent fellow, son of the Serpent, herald and child of Antichrist, John Wycliffe, filled up the measure of his malice by divining the expedient of a new translation of Scripture in the mother tongue.”

The Church (however) was not finished with him yet. The Emperor Sigismund, King of Hungary, called together the Council of Constance in 1414. It was the most imposing council ever called by the Catholic Church. In 1415 Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and in the spring of 1428 it was commanded that his bones be exhumed and removed from consecrated ground. With the Primate of England looking on, Wycliffe’s remains were disinterred and burned, thus, presumably, it was thought, depriving him of any possibility of eternal life. For when the Last Judgement came and the bodies of the dead rose up to meet those souls chosen to live with God, Wycliffe would be unable to reunite body and soul and so, if he had not already perished in hell, as they prayed for and hoped, he would certainly perish at the last.’

Wycliffe’s remains were burned on a little bridge that spanned the River Swift, which was a tributary of the Avon. His ashes were thrown into the stream. Soon afterwards a Lollard prophecy appeared:

‘The Avon to the Severn runs,
The Severn to the sea.
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad
Wide as the waters be.’


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