Page images







HE controversy with Donatism ended in giving a decisive

victory to a false conception of the Church. The Church was now regarded as a great society consisting of all those who had received the Christian sacraments from duly authorised ministers. To determine whether any particular assembly was a Christian Church-or part of the Christian Church-it became unnecessary to inquire whether the persons who constituted it loved Christ and cach other, and whether in their character and conduct they gave evidence of possessing that supernatural life in virtue of which all saintly souls are one with Christ and, therefore, one with God. The questions to be asked were of a formal and technical character. Had they received the Christian sacraments ? Had they received the Christian sacraments, from a minister who had been authorised by a bishop to administer them? Had the bishop who authorised him been consecrated by the proper persons and according to the proper rites ? To receive the Christian sacraments was to belong to the Christian Church ; and things had come to such a pass that the Christian sacraments were not refused to persons who were flagrantly destitute of Christian life.

There are some “ tares,” indeed, which even Augustine thought should be destroyed before the final judgment. The

sword was invoked to defend the Church from those who impugned the truth of its creeds or resisted the authority of its rulers. Heresy and schism were extirpated by ecclesiastical censures, by the fierce discipline of fire, imprisonment, torture, and death. But the more wholesome discipline which would have closed the doors of the Church against those whom no breadth of charity could regard as “faithful brethren in Christ,” and as "sanctified in Christ Jesus,”1 was neglected. The Church had ceased to be a society of saints.


But Christian men still longed for fellowship with those who shared their faith in Christ. Those who were born of God retained their near kinship to each other. The real tie which united them was the possession of a common life in Christ, not their common membership of a visible society which was very largely composed of persons in whom no indication of the presence and power of that life could be discovered. They were taught of God to love one another”: they knew that they had “passed out of death into life” because they loved the brethren. Those longings for “ the communion of saints " which the Church in its corrupt condition could not satisfy, sought satisfaction in other ways.

Devout men and devout women retreated into monasteries, not only to live a more regular life than was possible in the

world,” but for the sake of the safety and strength and happiness which they hoped would come from close association with those whose hearts were filled with the divine love and whose lives were controlled by the divine law. They despaired of salvation while they were alone. Communion with those who knew and loved God was almost as necessary as communion with God Himself. In many cases it cannot be doubted that the monastic community was an assembly of really Christian men gathered together in Christ's name; and, though the conditions under which they were associated were artificial, and in many ways most pernicious, Christ knew what was in their hearts; and since they were drawn together by love for

1 Col. i. 2; I Cor. i. 2.
? 1 Thess. iv. 9; 1 John iii. 14.

the brethren and love for Him, He was in the midst of them.


When monasticism degenerated,-“ there grew up beside it something new, and nearly allied to it, which strove by a purer and freer method to realise that for which the monastic communities were originally designed, but which they were now no longer able to effect. . . . Through the greater part of the Middle Ages we can trace a succession of free spiritual associations, which were often oppressed and persecuted by the hierarchy, pertained rather to the life of the people than to the framework of the Church, exhibited more or less a regulated form, and professed a diversity of doctrines, but which all emanated from a fundamental endeavour after practical Christianity." 3 In other words, those who earnestly desired to live a Christian life were conscious that they could not live it while they were alone. They discovered that association with others who shared their joy in the consciousness of restoration to God, and their hope of immortal glory, not only satisfied strong cravings of their spiritual nature, but increased the fervour of devout affection, added vigour to faith, and gave greater steadiness to Christian obedience. They learnt from personal experience that when they were near to those who loved Christ, Christ Himself came near to them.

As early as the eleventh century there were formed in the Netherlands societies of Christian women who were called Beguines, or “ praying women.” They were not nuns, for they took no oaths that were binding for life ; but while they remained in the community they were under vows to live a single life and to submit to the authority of the Superior. They had houses of their own; they were supported partly by their own earnings, and partly by the contributions of the charitable. “ Their dress was uniform, consisting of a garment of coarse brown material and a white veil. They took their meals at a common table, and assembled daily at fixed hours for prayer and exhortation. The rest of the day was occupied actively, with manual labour and the care of the poor and the sick.” 4 They were regarded with jealousy by the monks

3 Ullmann, Reformers before the Reformation, ii. 11.
4 Ullmann, ibid., ii. 13.

and the clergy, but were greatly beloved by the common people and received the protection of princes and magistrates. In A.D. 1250 there were a thousand of these Christian women at Cologne. In Mechlin there were several thousands of them, and the Beginagium, which was surrounded by a ring-wall, must have resembled a modern Moravian settlement.

Early in the thirteenth century similar communities of men were founded—the first of them, apparently, at Louvain, A.D. 1220. Being unmarried tradesmen, and chiefly weavers, they, too, lived together under a Master, took their meals in common, and met daily at a fixed hour for devotional exercises and addresses. They, likewise, wore a particular dress of a coarse stuff and dark colour, occupied themselves with handicrafts and works of charity, and earned the good opinion of the public by a usefulness like that of the Beguines.” 5 The men living in these communities were called Beghards. The Lollards differed from the Beghards less in reality than in name. We are informed, respecting them, that at their origin in Antwerp shortly after A.D. 1300, they associated together for the purpose of waiting upon patients dangerously sick and burying the dead.” ? At first, the only object of the Beghards and Beguines had been to care for the wretched after the example of Christ, and to reach a higher level of Christian perfection than seemed to them attainable while they were living an isolated religious life. They accepted the doctrines of the Church and acknowledged the authority of its rulers. But early in the fourteenth century they broke away from the traditional creeds into the wildest mysticisma mysticism which destroyed the obligations of morality. Their flagrant heresies and their flagrantimmoralities provoked fierce antagonism. In the year 1329 their opinions were condemned by the Pope. Traces of the Beghard communities are to be found in several of the great cities of Germany as late as the end of the century, but they were at last suppressed.

Another attempt to realise " the communion of saints was made by the Brethren of the Common Lot. Gerhard Groot, with whom this new attempt originated, was born at Deventer,

5 Ullmann, Reformers before the Reformation, ii. 13-14.

6 The Lollards were people that chanted or sang, as the Beguines and Beghards were people that prayed—if the traditional etymology be correct.

7 Ullmann, ibid., ii. 14.

A.D. 1340. He was a student in the University of Paris and the University of Cologne ; at Cologne he also distinguished himself as a Professor. On leaving Cologne he became Canon of Utrecht and of Aix-la-Chapelle. He was wealthy, took part in public amusements, was self-indulgent, and apparently wholly indifferent to the duties of his calling. But a great change came. He discovered the vanity of earthly things, and the awfulness of death and of eternity. He retired from the world and spent three years in a Carthusian monastery, reading the Scriptures, praying, examining his own heart, and practising a severe asceticism. Then he obtained a licence to preach. The churches were too small to hold the people that crowded to hear him. Frequently preaching twice a day, and three hours at a time, he created throughout the whole diocese of Utrecht a genuine revival of religion. Stolen property was restored; drunkards became sober ; people that had been living in gross sin began to live a virtuous life. He was no enemy of the Church, but he attacked with unsparing severity the corrupt morals of the clergy, and this raised up an opposition to his work which the bishop was unable to resist. His licence to preach was withdrawn, and he went back to his old home at Deventer.

Here he won the affections and admiration of the young men who were preparing for a priesthood at a school in the town. He invited them to his table ; gave them direction in their studies ; and assisted the poorer students to earn a little money. He set them to copying manuscripts for him, and paid them for their work. One of them said to him : “Dear master, what harm would it do, were I and these clerks, who are here copying, to put our weekly earnings into a common fund and live together?” Gerhard consented, and in this way

the first society of the Brethren of the Common Lot was founded.

The new institution at once attracted the hearts of those who were conscious of the difficulty of living a Christian life without the aid and support of communion with Christian brethren. One “ Brother-House” after another was founded in the Netherlands; soon the movement spread to other countries, along the Rhine, and to the very centre of Germany.

8 For fuller information as to the life of Gerhard Groot and his remarkable work, see Ullmann, Reformers before the Reformation, ii. 57-184.

« PreviousContinue »