The discipline of church history has sometimes been entirely top-down history of institutions and intellectual currents, under the assumption that what popes, other leaders, and professional theologians do and think matters more than what Joe Doe in the pew, in his shop, or behind the plow does and believes as a Christian. And church history has focused on the mainstream under the assumption that the beliefs of heretics and schismatics are best treated as (usually short-lived) deviations. This is because it is the winners, those who have survived to dominate, who have the privilege of sponsoring historians.
But some Reformation and post-Reformation traditions have wanted to understand the religious feelings and concerns of some of those Joes who weren’t professional Christians but just plain Christians and some of those folks who were out of the mainstream. This is out of a sense that with institutional and intellectual history we are leaving out what matters most, which is the faith of the Christian Joes, and that the people in the mainstream aren’t always the ones we want to identify with. This has sometimes been influenced by the concerns of our revivalist-evangelical tradition; that is, we want to know who in the past is likely to end up in heaven and who in hell, and we believe that neither institutional loyalty nor even creedal conformity is determinative of that final destiny.
Church histories built on such newer concerns have sought out people in the past for us to identify with. Baptists, for instance — because I know something about their history-telling — have done this, but there might be parallels in other traditions. Baptists originated in the seventeenth century. But according to their traditional history of themselves they have actually been around since Pentecost, as recounted in Acts, or perhaps even since the ministry of John the Baptist. They have always been there in the background or underground even while they were oppressed by the increasingly institutional, sacramental, hierarchical church. Their tradition has come into view in dissident groups such as the Montanists, the Albigensians, the Wycliffites, the Bohemian Brethren, and the Waldensians. This Baptist prehistory can be tricky business since those whom it claims as ancestors seldom fit completely comfortably in a Baptist pew once they’re examined closely. So, recognizing this, Baptist historians generally abandoned or greatly qualified this sort of history-telling by the mid-twentieth century.
We see the same kind of history-telling in another tradition in E. H. Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church. Broadbent was a British member of what we Americans call the “Plymouth Brethren” and what British folks call “Christian Brethren.” Quite a variety of Christian groups are enrolled into Broadbent’s “pilgrim church,” those whom he recognizes as spiritual forebears (some individual Christians as well, but his focus is on the groups). These groups are consistently, once we get as far as Constantine, minority groups in societies with Christian majorities — often persecuted minorities.
I engaged in an odd and unintelligent exercise after reading Broadbent’s book a few years ago. I built on his questionable history — really theology disguised as history — by putting together a list of convictions that, according to Broadbent, characterize the groups he highlights and the occasional individuals or conventicles within the majority churches that he gives recognition to. They are all convinced of:
- the possibility of a personal — unmediated, that is — spiritual relationship with God on the basis of the atonement that God has accomplished by means of Christ’s death,
- the necessity of such a relationship in order to count oneself saved,
- the need to seek and maintain practical holiness/discipleship in order to have that relationship (avoid attempts to sort out the chicken and egg here), and
- the distinction from and conflict with the larger society/church and its values that come with that relationship with God and that holiness.
Along with this, and in close connection with the unmediatedness of the relationship with God, there is often
- an emphasis on every individual Christian’s possession of and knowledge of the Scriptures.
These groups were, in fact, groups, and though Broadbent notes the occasional lonely individual, another value was
- an emphasis on the congregation as the place where holiness is nurtured.
Broadbent, being a good Christian Brethrener, often also notes in these predecessor groups
- a dislike for denominational or connectional structures.
These groups’ assessments of the larger church and of the possibility of salvation within it varied, but they were convinced of their own
- need not to be part of the larger church to count themselves among the saved.
Also varying considerably, but present to some degree in many of these groups was
- a renunciation of violence.
To some degree the latter was a function of whether a given group sought to live apart within a larger society or to create its own society, which was not always so much a decision as what circumstances dictated. But at any rate there was always
- a preference for death over compromise of the relationship with God.
Whether a given group was orthodox (i.e., Chalcedonian or at least Nicene) in other ways varies. Some favored the relationship with God over orthodoxy, and some were, in fact, unconcerned enough about orthodoxy to allow plenty of leeway on points of doctrine and sacramental practice among their members. Broadbent allows the same sort of leeway in his search for spiritual ancestors (and F. F. Bruce makes a bit of a joke about that in a Foreword added to the book in a reprint).
A theme that emerges in Broadbent’s telling of the story is the larger church’s consistent violent dislike of, fear of, and hence fight against the Christianity of these non-normative groups. No amount of misrepresentation or violence was too much to combat them. And, since the larger church has generally defined Christianity in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, it has been the practice, according to Broadbent, to describe these aberrant groups as more heterodox than they really were. He says in regard to some that they are regarded as heterodox only because the majority wrote the history and continues to write it, and it is true that in more recent reassessments historians have taken such misrepresentation into account.
Fundamentally, though, assessments of the orthodoxy of these groups ask different questions than they asked of themselves. I think the evangelical anti-“cult” writers, quite popular at least into the 1970s, generally continued to ask those wrong questions. Is discipleship to Jesus possible among Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance? Certainly. Are any of the official doctrines of the Witnesses wrong? Certainly.
Broadbent does speak of a historical continuity uniting many of his ancestor groups, particularly by way of the Paulicians, the Bosnians (a historical Christian group centered in that nation), and the Brethren of the Common Life. But he does not make that continuity a doctrine like some of the Baptist historians used to do. This allows him to assess each group critically and to see the same continuity as including people within the socially dominant churches. And anyway the continuity is of a relationship with God, not of doctrine or practice, and is therefore divine in origin and best understood by one who believes in that spiritual relationship that individuals can have with God.
E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church: Being Some Account of the Continuance through Succeeding Centuries of Churches Practising the Principles Taught and Exemplified in the New Testament (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1931).