Background: Wycliffe, Huss; Anabaptists

John Wycliffe died in 1384, an early radical of biblical interpretation, a Protestant before his time. He was an Oxford teacher.

For him, lordship for its legimacy depends directly upon divine grace, not Church position. Therefore, if churchpeople sin, they should have their property removed (testimony of works as evidence of grace). Nothing Christ was recorded as saying establishes a papacy, and anything the pope says only has authority in so far as it conforms with scripture. He opposed strongly the production of special saints and pilgrimages to their shrines. Nicholas of Hereford and John Purvey completed the task of translating the Bible into English - an illegal act. He rejected the outcome of the Lateran Council of 1215 as refined by Aquinas that asserted transubstantiation (after consecration the bread and wine become body and blood of Christ other than outward appearance).

All his influence was out of sight in England but Richard II marrying Anne of Bohemia in 1382 was a route of these ideas into Bohemia (Czech lands). It has a perceived corrupt Church with theologians in its universities and Church receptive to new reforming ideas. John Huss emerged (c1369-1515) and the implication was a new Bohemian nation. He was a philosopher, lecturer and preached in Bethlehem Chapel to significant gatherings. He copied and explained Wycliffe's writings; in 1399 his colleague Jerome of Prague (died 1416) went to Oxford for two years and brought back more material. King Wenzel approved of Huss, and so many German theologians left, forming a university at Leipzig in 1409. Soon that year Huss was made Rector of Prague University, but then in 1410 the Pope excommunicated Huss and in 1411 Prague was placed under an interdict. Huss was protected by noblemen and in 1413 pretty much lifted Wycliffe's words for the first ten chapters in his On the Church (1413).

Emperor Sigismund (reigning 1411-37) offered Huss safe passage to the Council of Constance, the result of attendance being imprisonment. With his imprisonment, Wycliffe's influence became more direct. A chief objection from Papal authorities was the demand that the Church is the congregation of the saved (elect), and that bishops and priests are unnecessary for salvation. The Pope is unscritural and papal bulls' only authority are in their conformity with scripture. If you sinned you had no authority over anyone. Huss's supporters, meanwhile, starting with Jacob of Mies, professor of philosophy at the University of Prague, in 1414, said that the laity like the priesthood should consume both the bread and the wine (utraquism), which led to the Communion chalice becoming a national symbol throughout Bohemia - origins sometimes claimed erroneously by Unitarians in using the flaming chalice symbol: it is nothing to do with Huss. In 1419 came the Four Articles of Prague: utraquism, free preaching, temporal possessions forfeited by clergy and punishment for offences against both the word of God and Kingdom of Bohemia. The Council of Constance rejected Utriquism.

The Emperor Sigismund organised four crusades between 1420-31 against these heretics, but they defended themselves against him and his German supporters, using wagons as mobile fortresses, and turned the tables on their attackers as they became the missionaries. They went into Germany, Poland and Italy, and one ended up being burnt at the stake in Scotland in 1433. However, the victors split, one group into Calixtines or Utraquists, and another into more radical Taborites. In May 1434 they fought each other at Lipany, with the Utraquists winning. They made a treaty with the Royal Council, a Compactata, to return to the Catholic Church but with the Four Articles permitted. But the perceived radical threat continued, and Catholic noblemen wanted their lands back. In 1458 George of Podebrady was elected King by the Bohemian estates, and held off condemnation by the Pope. Podebrady had a plan for secularising and pacifying Europe, with princes meeting to solve disputes and commonly oppose the Turks, also opposed by the Pope. After Podebrady had died there were tensions in maintaining tolerance, and increasing divisions: for example, the Unity of Bohemian Brethren inherited Taborite views against ecclesiastical hierarchy and to cut down the nobles' powers. They rejected private property, military service and oaths.

So it was that Catholics could state that Hussite Bohemia was chaotic. Bohemia was a by-word far and wide for lack of order. In 1621 at the Battle of the White Mountain the Habsburgs won and from then on persecuted the Bohemians. This was the beginning of the end of a toleration that had spread in Eastern Europe. Poland with Lithuania, Bohemia, and Transylvania were a group of tolerant lands. Moscow had the Tartars and the Turks were strong. Prussia had fallen under Poland's influence, and Germans in Poland made it more 'Western'. However, Poland was never really strong, the then intolerant West was always going to be stronger, even if these later vitorious lands also contained Renaissance and bubbling Reformation elements.

Utraquism influenced Anglicanism in that Anglicans did not withold the chalice from the laity and reserve it only for clergy; however, some high Anglicans deliberately ask for the bread to be dipped in the wine and placed on the tongue in Catholic fashion.

Dickens, A. G. (1977), The Age of Humanism and Reformation: Europe in the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Open University Press/ set book, London: Prentice-Hall International, 41, 79-83.

Münster at the time of the Anabaptists

The following was written for the Autumn 2016 Hull Unitarian Magazine

A note on the Anabaptists: The importance of their ‘of the Spirit’ influence on Socinianism was emphasised in the Unitarian Theology Conference attended by Adrian Worsfold (21 May 2016). Their emphases are: primitivism, favouring the four Gospels and the Book of Acts; no war, soldiers or direct violence; ambiguity regarding wider society, so that Anabaptists form their own societies away from the general culture with both separation and shunning the rejected individuals; Anti-tradition in terms of against music, against traditional forms and anti-hierarchy by not ordaining presbyters. The belief in the last days (apocalyptic) meant the Anabaptists were the revolutionaries of their day, particularly in Germany. They were behind a German peasant revolt and about them Luther was scathing.  Servetus was much influenced by the Anabaptists and was burned to death in Calvin's Geneva as an Antitrinitarian. They shared in the Minor Reformed Church in Poland with Socinians.

Don’t confuse them with Baptists with specific origins in 1609 and first church 1689 in London. Baptists divided in 1802 into General and Particular, the first adopting universal salvation from God,forming their own Unitarian-tendency chapels. There were three in Hull, and became one, and the one merged into the Presbyterian line in Bowl Alley Lane.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful