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Memoirs of the Reformers - John Frith (1503–1533)

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John Frith, an excellent scholar.

THE first in England that professedly wrote against the corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament, was John Frith, an excellent scholar, and an eminent divine, born at Sevenoaks, in Kent. He was educated at king’s college, Cambridge, where he took the degree of Bachelor of Arts; but afterwards went to Oxford, where the brilliancy and the solidity of his talents soon procured him the office of a junior canon, in Cardinal Wolsey’s new college, now called Christchurch. Some time prior to 1525 he became acquainted with the famous William Tyndale, who, conversing with him on the abuses of religion, was made the happy instrument of convincing him of the fallacious ground on which men rested their hopes of salvation, who trusted either to their own righteousness or that of the saints. That the merits of Christ, and his all perfect righteousness alone, could justify the sinner, and secure him from the wrath denounced against every violation of God’s holy and perfect law; that works of supererogation only existed in the blinded imaginations of ignorant and deluded men; that penances, pilgrimages, and popish absolutions, had no efficacy in removing the guilt, or cleansing the conscience of sinners, whatever they might have in enabling a crafty priesthood to pick their pockets. Frith, pondering these things in his mind, the more he considered, the more he was convinced, and soon after publicly professed the reformation principles; for which he was seized, examined by the commissary of the university, and, along with some of his associates, imprisoned within the limits of his own college, where some of them died in consequence of the maltreatment they had received.

In 1528, being released from his imprisonment, he traveled through various places on the continent, where, by visiting the reformed churches, and conversing with their leading ministers, he returned to England greatly confirmed in the faith; but no sooner had he reached Reading, in Berkshire, than he was taken up for a vagabond, .and set in the stocks; where, after sitting a long time, and almost perishing with hunger, he requested some of the spectators to call the schoolmaster of the town, who, at that time, was Leonard Cox, a very learned man. Cox having discovered the eminent talents of the sufferer, by conversing with him on the Greek and Latin classics, procured his release, and supplied him with victuals and money. After this he went to London, where, notwithstanding that he frequently changed his apparel and the place of his residence, he could not long evade the inquisitive eyes of the lord chancellor, Sir Thomas More, who had spies at every port of the kingdom, and even along the roads, and a great reward promised to whoever would give information against this excellent man.

It is not improbable that Sir Thomas More had some feelings of personal animosity against Frith, from a book he had written. The matter stands thus. A book, entitled, the Supplication of the Beggars, published by a Mr. Fish, of Gray’s inn, inveighing against the imposing arts of the mendicants, and taxing the Roman pontiff with extortion, cruelty, and deception, as he granted his indulgences and absolutions from purgatory to none but such as could pay for them. This book was received with great attention by the public, and even by Henry VIII himself, as it favored him greatly in his then quarrel with the pope.

Sir Thomas answered this publication by another, entitled, the Supplication of the Souls in Purgatory, wherein he strongly exhibits their supposed misery, and the relief afforded them by” the masses that were said in their behalf; and, in the name of these wretched beings, implored their friends to step forward and support the religious orders, at a time when they were surrounded and attacked on every side by their inveterate enemies. Sir Thomas exerted all his wit and eloquence in the composition of this publication; but whether it arose from the badness of the cause, or the increasing information of the people, it met with no encouragement.

Frith, however, undertook to return an answer, which ho performed with all necessary gravity, showing that the doctrine of purgatory had not the least foundation in scripture; that it was inconsistent with the merits of Christ and his consequent pardon of sin; and that it stood diametrically opposed to the whole plan of his salvation by grace. That the fire spoken of by the apostle, as that which would devour the wood, hay, and stubble, could only be understood as the fire of persecution, that puts to the severest trial both the faith and fortitude of the saints. He strenuously urged, and from the history of the primitive church produced abundant evidence, that such a doctrine was then wholly unknown, and that, as it could not be found in scripture, so neither did it exist in the writings of Ambrose, Jerome, or Augustine; insisting that it was introduced into the church by the monks, for the express purpose of deluding the world, and enhancing the value and importance of their craft. This spirited attack on the strong holds of the ecclesiastic empire, enraged the clergy almost to madness; and finding they could not withstand the arguments of Mr. Frith, they determined to silence him by the more energetic syllogisms of fire and faggot.

Some short time after this, Mr. Frith had a conversation with a familiar friend of his regarding the doctrines of transubstantiation, when he was requested to commit the substance of the arguments he had used to writing, and favor him with a copy for the help of .his memory. Frith was rather backward to this, knowing the dangers to which he was exposed; but yielding to the importunity of his friend, he wrote down the following arguments:

1. That the natural body of Christ, sin only excepted, possessed similar properties with the bodies of other men, and could not therefore occupy two or more places at one and the same time; and that consequently the ubiquity of Christ’s natural body was an incredible absurdity.—2. That the words of Christ, as they occur in Matt. xxvi. 26, 27, 28, were by no means intended to be literally understood; but that their sense and meaning are to be taken from the analogy of the scripture. —3, and lastly, That this holy ordinance of the supper ought to be administered and received according to the true and proper* institution of Christ, notwithstanding that the present mode of administration, in the Romish church, is in every respect different there from.

At this time, one William Holt, a tailor, who professed himself a warm friend to the cause of reformation, by his hypocrisy, found an opportunity to betray its friends and adherents. This man expressed a strong desire to see Mr. Frith’s arguments; which he no sooner received, than he hurried away to Sir Thomas More, to whom he presented the heretical billet with no small share of consequential importance. Sir Thomas lost no time in apprehending the unsuspecting Frith, and lodging him in the tower, where he had several conferences with the chancellor and others. At length he was taken to Lambeth before the archbishop, afterwards to Croydon before the bishop of Winchester, and at last, on the 20th of June 1533, examined before an assembly of bishops, sitting in St. Paul’s cathedral, who, after interrogating him respecting the sacrament and purgatory, urged him to recant. Frith confuted all their arguments; and in place of recanting, subscribed his declaration in the following manner:—I Frith, thus do think, and as I think and believe, as have I said, written, taught, and published to the world.

From the tenor of Mr. Frith’s open defense and unequivocating assertions, both in his writings and before the assembly, he was deemed incorrigible, and condemned to be burnt. Accordingly, he was, carried to Smithfield along with a young man named Andrevv Hewet, on the 4th July 1553. When Mr. Frith was tied to the stake, he evinced amazing courage, resignation, and self-possession. He embraced the burning faggots that were flaming around him, as an evidence of the cheerfulness with which he could suffer for the cause of Christ and his ever-blessed gospel. One Dr. Cook, a priest, standing by, in an audible Voice admonished the weeping spectators not to pray for the sufferers more than they were dogs! Frith smiled at his impotent malice, and prayed the Lord to forgive him. The wind carried the flames in the direction of Hewet, his fellow martyr, by which Frith had a lingering and exceedingly painful death; but his mind was so fixed, and his patience so invincible, that he seemed less careful for his own, than for the sufferings of his faithful companion. At last, committing himself into the hands of his Father and Redeemer, he expired in the prime of his life.

When Mr. Frith, as we have seen, was to be examined at Croydon, two of the archbishop’s servants were sent to fetch him. Frith’s pious and edifying conversation, and amiable deportment by the way, made such a favorable impression on the minds of these men, that they contrived between themselves how they might let him escape; and having completed their arrangements, one of them thus addressed him. “Mr. Frith, I am extremely sorry for having undertaken this journey. I am ordered to bring you to Croydon; and knowing the rage of your enemies, I consider myself as bringing you like a lamb to the slaughter. This consideration overwhelms me with sorrow, insomuch, that I disregard any hazard I may run, so as I may but deliver you out of the lion’s mouth.” To this friendly proposal Mr. Frith replied, with a smile, Do ye think I am afraid to deliver my sentiments before the bishops of England, and these manifestly founded on the unerring veracity of divine revelation? It seems strange to me, said the other, that you was so willing to quit the kingdom before your apprehension; and that now you are even unwilling to save yourself from almost certain destruction. The matter, said Mr. Frith, stands thus. While I was yet at liberty, I cherished it, and to the utmost of my power, endeavored to preserve it for the benefit of the church of Christ; but now, by the providence of God, having been delivered into the hands of the bishops, I consider myself particularly called upon as an evidence for Christ and the truths of his religion, as well as bound by the ties of gratitude and love to my adorable Redeemer, publicly to acknowledge his supreme government in the church, and contend for the purity of that faith which in old times he committed to the care and guardianship of the saints. If therefore I should now start aside, and run away, I should run away from my God and the testimony of his word, deny the Lord that bought me, and grieve the hearts of his faithful servants. I beseech you, therefore, bring’ mo to the place appointed, otherwise I must needs travel thither by myself. In the point instance, Mr. Frith is perhaps more to be admired than justified. The saints are nowhere commanded to give themselves up to their persecutors, “but to avoid them wherever this can be done with a safe conscience. The primitive Christians, it is true, many of them rather courted them avoided the martyr’s crown; but what makes it more remarkably in Mr. Frith, ho wan of mi eminently meek and quiet disposition, by no means of that lionhearted temperament that distinguished Luther, Knox, and several others of the reformers.

Frith’s greatest adversaries were Fisher, bishop of Rochester; Sir Thomas More, and his son-in-law, Rastal. These he had refuted in his writings; and the vigor with which this was effected, most probably subjected him to their animosity and unmanly resentment. He was a polished scholar, says bishop Bale, as well as a master of the learned languages; and these, and all his other qualifications, were cheerfully devoted to the service of God and his generation. His works are—1. Treatise of Purgatory—2. Antithesis between Christ and the Pope —3. Letter to the faithful followers of Christ’s gospel, written in the tower 1532—4. Mirror, or Glass to know thyself, written in the tower 1532—5. Mirror, or Lookingglass, wherein you may behold the Sacrament of Baptism—6. Articles for which he died, written in Newgate, 21st June 1533—7. Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogues concerning Heresies—8. Answer to John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, &c.—All these treatises were printed at London, in folio, 1573.

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