John Frith and the Claims of Truth
Since the days of the apostles, the church of Jesus Christ has had to contend with false teachers, and with the great damage that they bring. Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of church history knows that, very often, it is false teaching that appears to win the day. True religion is very often overthrown by those who pervert the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul knew only too well the cost of maintaining the struggle against heresy and error. He was followed by generations of church leaders, some of whom are very well-known even in our day, who had to stand fast in the face of enormous opposition, for the claims of truth.
That struggle has continued through the centuries, and at the time of the Reformation, the whole of Christendom was under the oppressive hand of medieval Romanism, subject to the laws of men rather than the laws of God. True religion was hardly to be found, and those who stood fast were condemned by their enemies. Yet even in such turbulent times, God raised up a large number of faithful men and women, who bore testimony to the truth, many with their lives. As we look at the lives of some of these individuals, we are brought face to face with the terrible ravages wrought by error, and the wonderful grace of God in revealing His truth to people who appear to sit in darkness.
John Frith was an Englishman who lived in the turbulent days of the first half of the sixteenth century. He lived for about thirty years, before dying a cruel death. In his short life, he helped to shape the outcome of the great event that had begun to shake the form of religion then prevalent in nearly the whole of Christendom. He is almost unknown today, and had it not been for a recent biography, would remain so for many days yet. However, John Frith was a man through whom God was at work, and as a servant of the most high God, was enabled to accomplish great things. This, then, is the man to whom we turn this morning.
John Frith and the Claims of Academic Truth
The details of Frith’s early life have been gleaned from tradition, parish and school records, and from the information given by John Foxe. He was born in Sevenoaks, Kent, to an innkeeper father, probably in the year 1503. Some sources place his year of birth a little later, in 1506. He attended the grammar school there, which had been founded in 1432. It is worth noting that the founding of grammar schools had some influence on the shape of the Reformation, for these were not religious houses, but secular. They were founded by municipal guilds, civic dignitaries or wealthy merchants, and they were intended to provide a good education, so that business could be pursued. They were also different from the universities and religious schools, in that the normal language of communication was English, not Latin.
No records survive from Frith’s time at Sevenoaks, but they do from his next place of education, Eton College. He was either fourteen or seventeen when he entered Eton, and was there for two years. He must have been a scholar of some ability to gain entry to Eton College, and no doubt this ability had made itself well-known at Sevenoaks Grammar School. It is, then, no surprise to find that his next move was to Cambridge, to Queen’s College, in 1523. He transferred in the following year to King’s, and was admitted Bachelor of Arts in 1525. Merle D’Aubigne describes Frith as ‘the mathematician from King’s’. Given that mathematics was not a separate subject, and given that it was a part of the required curriculum for all undergraduates, it seems reasonable to infer from this that he had a special aptitude for this part of the course. The Ordo Senioritatis for 1525, the published list of those students who were taking the Bachelor of Arts degree, is headed by the name ‘John Frith’. Since to be named first on the list was a great privilege, and since none in a position to make the choice were King’s men, it is accepted that Frith was placed first by reason of his superior academic ability. Thus the ‘mathematician from King’s’ was perhaps viewed as a man with a bright future while still at his place of learning. This estimation of Frith is echoed by the words of Foxe.
Amongst all the other evils there has been none for a long time which seemed to me more previous than the lamentable death and cruel usage of John Frith, so learned and excellent a young man, who had so profited in all kinds of learning and knowledge, that there was scarcely his equal among all his companions…
Due to his outstanding academic ability, Frith left Cambridge that year, 1525, and transferred to Cardinal College, Oxford, where he would remain until 1528.
Oxford was a very different place to Cambridge. It had an even greater reputation than Cambridge, and as a result was very loath to change its curriculum. This meant that it had begun to fall behind continental universities in the study of the humanist subjects that had become popular through the Renaissance. Cardinal Wolsey, founder of Cardinal College, took his old university to task over their failure to move with the times. He saw the importance of the classical studies, and wished Oxford to share in it. In order to boost this new learning, he invited a number of the most able Cambridge men to transfer, including John Frith. Those whom he invited were well-known for their great learning. What was less well known was that they were all adherents to the Lutheran doctrines that were held by some at Cambridge, and would now be held at Oxford. Cardinal Wolsey had, unwittingly, invited in the very nest of vipers he hated.
The art of printing had spawned a new trade, the book trade. An Oxford bookseller, by the name of Thomas Garrard, was bringing in up to three hundred and fifty ‘heretical’ books within a few months of his arrival there. Many of these were Tyndale’s English New Testament. The rise in the number of heretical works soon came to the attention of the University authorities. Garrard was searched and escaped, yet managed to implicate a number of others as recipients of books. A number of arrests were made in February 1528, many of whom were the very men invited to Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey.
Those who had been arrested were locked in the cellars of Cardinal College. This deep cave, as Foxe described it, was also used at the dried fish store. Salt fish would be kept for many months, though the salt would only preserve it for a limited time. Into this poisonous atmosphere these young scholars were brought, and it is recorded that three of them, eating nothing but salt fish from February to August, died within a week of each other. Another was removed because of illness, but died shortly after. Wolsey ordered the release of the survivors, when he heard these things, and subjected them to a ten-mile limit around Oxford. Frith, however, saw that the cause of Gospel truth in England was opposed at the highest level. In spite of the limitation placed on his travel, he fled to the continent, arriving in Antwerp in December 1528. He had but five years left to live.
John Frith and the Claims of Gospel Truth
It will have been clear from what we have just said, that John Frith had come to faith in Jesus Christ. It seems clear that his conversion took place prior to his leaving Cambridge, though it was really at Oxford that his understanding of the Reformation truths began to grow. Of his time at Cambridge, Merle D’Aubigne says a little more than simply that Frith was good at maths. He quotes Frith as saying the following, of the study of Holy Scripture.
These things are not demonstrated like a proposition of Euclid; mere study is sufficient to impress the theories of mathematics on our minds; but this science of God meets with a resistance in man that necessitates the intervention of a divine power. Christianity is a regeneration.
His biographer says, rightly, that this quotation calls for a few comments. Frith shows an understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith, for he is aware of the innate hatred shown by the human heart towards the things of God, which hatred can only be removed by the application of the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. It also shows that his learning served only to illuminate the problem, but it was grace that solved it. John Frith would go on to use his great learning, under God, for the benefit of the church.
The details of Frith’s conversion are a little hazy. The best evidence suggests that William Tyndale played a key role in the matter. Given that evidence for Tyndale’s presence at Cambridge is negligible, and given that they most definitely met in London, it seems reasonable to assume that the two men held conversations about the nature of true religion which resulted in Frith’s conversion. These would have taken place towards the end of Frith’s time at Cambridge, perhaps explaining why he is not mentioned among those who were regular attenders at the White Horse Inn. However, such a group did exist, and the inn was a centre for the discussion of Lutheran doctrine. It was also a place in which the New Testament was studied, in Latin and Greek.
Cambridge was one of the great universities of Europe, and it attracted scholars from many parts. One who came here was Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar. He was appointed as Cambridge’s first Greek tutor in 1511, and used the occasion to work on his new translation of the Scriptures. Erasmus’ concern in making this new translation was to provide the church with a new Latin Bible, intended to supersede the Vulgate that had been the official translation since Jerome’s day. The Vulgate was known to contain many errors, yet none could alter these, since none knew Greek. So Erasmus’s first task was to produce a Greek text, which would appear in a number of different editions. The work that Erasmus published was called the Novum Instrumentum, and it was divided into three parts. The first part contained the Greek and Latin in double columns, so that those with sufficient learning could compare the new Latin with the original Greek, to see how the Latin translation had been arrived at. This was, so far as Erasmus was concerned, the whole point of the exercise. His interest in the Greek lay in its being a means to an end, not an end in itself. The second part of the work is a long series of essays, called Annotations, but undeserving of the title in the modern sense, in which Erasmus explained some words, and also some ideas arising from words, as well as connected matters such as the need to study Greek. Interestingly, the title page made no mention of the fact that the Greek text was being included, even though this had never happened before. Erasmus’s whole aim was to produce a new Vulgate, and in this he succeeded.
The value of the Novum Instrumentum was, of course, the Greek text. As Cambridge scholars began to use their newly acquired skills in that language to read and study for themselves, so they began to understand doctrines that had been masked by centuries of bad Latin and ecclesiastical glosses. These men began to see that the doctrines and practices of the Church were in fact condemned by the very Book the Church claimed as her own. They began to understand the nature of true religion, and the doctrine of salvation, in the form of justification by faith, became clear to them. At the same time, the writings of Martin Luther were becoming well-known in Cambridge, and those who studied the Greek New Testament could see the force of his arguments for themselves. Some met at the White Horse Inn, known as ‘Little Germany’ for its Lutheran discussions, and it was into this atmosphere that John Frith was brought. It is no wonder, perhaps, that a man of such academic gifts and a thirst for knowledge, should come into contact with the doctrines of truth, and with the men who had come to love them. John Foxe declared that ‘Through Tyndale’s instruction he first received with his heart the seed of the Gospel and sincere godliness’.
We are left, then, with the fact that Frith was present in Cambridge at a time when the Reformation doctrines, as taught by Martin Luther, were being discussed openly, among men of academic ability and spiritual discernment. They were able to see that the Bible is clear on the way of salvation, and that the biblical doctrine knows nothing of mediating priests, repeated sacrifices, or ritual and tradition which serve to undermine that biblical truth. In short, they discovered the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Mediator between God and men. Having discovered those truths, they were compelled to spread them, even at the cost of their own lives. We do not know the exact circumstances of John Frith’s conversion, but we know that it happened. His conversion had a powerful effect upon his whole life, for Frith was himself moved to say,
“I will consecrate my life wholly to the church of Jesus Christ. To be a good man, you must give a great part of yourself to your parents, a greater part to your country; but the greatest part of all to the church of the Lord.”
The question was, how to bring the word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to the people of England? By what means might the Gospel be made known most clearly? It is here that we turn to the work upon which John Frith was to spend his energies, for the brief time he had. That was work was to assist William Tyndale in the translation of the English Bible. When David was fleeing from Saul, he went to the priests to seek a weapon.
And the priest said, The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom thou slewest in the valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod: if thou wilt take that, take it: for there is no other save that here. And David said, There is none like that; give it me.” (1 Sam 21.9).
So William Tyndale and John Frith knew that the Word of God, that sharp, two-edged sword, could alone bring light and life, and overthrow the error and oppression of the Roman church. The unsheathing of that sword by translating it into the vernacular, would be the work to which John Frith, as assistant to the great Tyndale, was called.
John Frith and the Claims of Biblical Truth
William Tyndale’s story is well-known. Suffice it to say that, before he fled to the continent, he was familiar with John Frith. It is perhaps not surprising that Frith should seek out William Tyndale when he fled to Antwerp in December 1528.
Tyndale is best known for his work as translator of the Bible, but he should be remembered as a reformer in his own right. In 1531 he wrote ‘Answers to More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies’, in which he expounded very clearly the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. He wrote,
I must believe the mercy ere I can love the work. Now faith cometh not of our free will; but is the gift of God, given us by grace, ere there be any will in our hearts to do the law of God. And why God giveth it not every man, I can give no reckoning of His judgement. But well I wot, I never deserved it, nor prepared myself unto it; but ran another way clean contrary in my blindness and sought not that way: but He sought me and found me out, and showed it me, and therewith drew me to Him. And I bow the knees of my heart to God night and day that He will show it all other men, and I suffer that I can be a servant to open their eyes.
The application of the doctrine of justification was the same for Luther, Tyndale, Frith and Calvin; it served to overthrow the false doctrines of purgatory and the Mass. Justification by faith strips the priest completely of any power, and as it began to do this work in Germany, so Tyndale and Frith would see that it began to do the same in England. The means whereby this would happen would be the widespread reading of the Bible in English.
Copies of the New Testament began to arrive in England in 1526. Most of Matthew’s Gospel was already in print and circulating in England, as sewn but unbound sections. Such was the desire for he Bible that any scrap was considered valuable. The 1526 New Testament was only one of a line of editions, each produced secretly, at various locations, and from different printers. On more than one occasion, Tyndale and his assistant – not always Frith – had to gather up the printed sheets and run for their lives. After one such escape, Tyndale took ship, and, like the Apostle Paul, was wrecked. He lost all his work on the Old Testament up to that point – a considerable portion of he work.
As the various editions, each a revision from a better Greek manuscript, or bearing the results of further scholarly activity, was put to bed, it was Frith who oversaw the actual production. This was the dangerous work, of being seen in the printing works poring over pages of forbidden print. But Frith was up to the task, and relived Tyndale of this labour, so that he could concentrate on his replies to More, and on translation work. Tyndale expressed his gratitude to Frith in the following words, written to him while in prison in England in 1533.
God hath made me ill-favoured in this world, and without grace in the sight of men, speechless and rude, dull and slow-witted. Your post shall be to supply what lacketh in me.
This letter included counsel to young Frith to answer circumspectly at his trial, so that he might be acquitted, and be able to resume his work. It would prove to be a vain hope. John Frith was not engaged in Bible translation merely as an academic or secular pursuit. This was in order to bring to light the truth of God, and to spread abroad the knowledge of salvation. Of course, that knowledge began first to work in the men who were engaged in translation, and so it is natural that both men should be involved in writing works in support of Reformation doctrine. We have already seen that Tyndale was at work in the controversy with Thomas More. John Frith took up the less spectacular but far more necessary task of teaching the literate men and women of England the truth of the Christian Gospel. It was to the doctrines of Purgatory and of the Mass that Frith turned. His views on the latter, would, as for many others, be the cause of his death. Yet his views on the Mass would eventually find expression from the pen of one of his judges, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.
The first of Frith’s works to appear in print was an anti-papal tract entitles ‘The Revelation of Antichrist’. It arrived in England just at the time that Henry VIII hoped that the Pope would grant him his divorce, and Henry had the book added to a new list of proscribed works, which included Tyndale’s New Testament and two other books. Public burnings took place at St. Paul’s Cross. Frith was now considered a heretic by More, and so would be in great danger when he returned to his native land.
The year 1529 was a busy one for John Frith. He published three works under the pseudonym Richard Brightwell. These three works formed one whole, and the work was anti-papal in substance. What set it apart from other such works was that it sought to offset the errors of the papacy with the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. Where Rome turned men from salvation, Frith showed how Jesus Christ turns them to it. Where the Papacy was proud and cruel, he showed how Christ is meek and loving. It is thought that at least part of the work is a translation of an anonymous work by Philip Melancthon. Frith enlarged this greatly, and drew in not just the Pope but the whole hierarchical system of medieval bishops, clergy and monastic orders. His conclusion was that such would be overcome more effectively by love than by opposition.
Another work published in that same year was again a translation of someone else’s work. It was called ‘Divers fruitful gatherings of Scripture concerning faith and works by Patrick Hamilton’, and was better known as ‘Patrick’s Places’. Hamilton, a Scotsman, had attended the college of Marburg in Hesse, where he had come to understand justification by faith. In 1527 he had returned to Scotland and had begun to preach, by the end of 1528 he had suffered at the stake, Scotland’s first Protestant martyr. ‘Patrick’s Places’ proved to be immensely popular, so that one book seller called it ‘The nosegay and posee of light to lede and comfort al synners that walk in darknessse gadred out of the new testament’. Together with Tyndale’s own ‘The Parable of the Wicked Mamon’, an exposition of Luke 16, this work helped to show England the freedom available to all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This freedom gave opponents of the Reformation some ammunition; if we are free from the law in Christ, then lawlessness reigns. Tyndale replied with ‘The Obedience of A Christian Man’, in which he showed that all men are under the Bible as far as God’s authority is concerned, and under the civil law as far as their discipline is concerned.
Meanwhile in 1530, the Reformation in England was hard-pressed. Books were being burned, Thomas Bilney had recanted of his Lutheran views, the king and his Chancellor were apparently winning the battle over the royal divorce, and Rome was being appeased. Things seemed to improve slightly early in 1531, but then Bilney was arrested again and burned, and some demoralisation seems to have set in. John Frith returned in secret, apparently to give comfort to the Reformers. He came, it seems, to Reading, to the great abbey. Prior Sherborne had known Frith at Oxford in 1528, and had been imprisoned by Wolsey. He had received proscribed books, and it may be that the abbey was a centre of Lutheran teaching, though in secret. Certainly the Abbot, Hugh Faringdon, was an opponent of the royal divorce, and would later be hanged in his own gateway rather than submit to Henry as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Whether Frith ever met Prior Sherborne is doubtful; what is certain was that he was disguised as a vagabond, and was arrested. It became immediately obvious that this vagabond was a man of education, and the local schoolmaster, Leonard Cox, was called to him. After a conversation in Latin, Cox, who was more than just as a schoolmaster, went to the magistrates to seek Frith’s release. It was granted. Cox had been educated at Eton and Cambridge, and may have known Frith, at least by reputation. He was a personal friend of Erasmus and Melancthon, and there is some speculation that their Latin conversation was an exchange of secret information more than an appeal form one scholar to another, which is how Foxe presents it. Either way, Frith was free, though not for long. The second arrest caused a stir, for it was declared that the finest Lutheran preacher had been apprehended. However, when the king heard that the main accusation concerned statement that the Pope had no authority in England, he ordered his release on the grounds that the statement was true, not false! There is evidence that the decision was more subtle than that, since a number of influential noblemen hoped that Frith might be persuaded to moderate his tone and thus become a useful man in the propaganda war against the corrupt Roman church. Instead, the newly-released Frith returned to Antwerp, knowing that the Reformation faced great opposition.
It was at about this time that Frith published his ‘Disputation of Purgatory’, in which h showed the unbiblical nature of the doctrine, and the great damage it did. He stated that purgatory should be empty by now, there being so many priests saying so many masses. The style of the book was the quote the practice of the priests, and to contrast it with Scripture, with comments. He expounded the passages used by the Church to maintain their doctrine, in a manner that showed how far removed the Church was from true religion. Frith was intent upon seeing that true religion spread abroad in England, and so, in 1532, a married man, he returned to England again.
John Frith and the Claims of Salvific Truth
The return to England must have been necessary, yet it ended with his arrest as he boarded ship to return to Europe. He was in the company of Prior Sherborne of Reading Abbey. To begin with, his imprisonment was relatively lenient, but after eight months, his trial began and he was reduced to terrible conditions. Soon the examination centred on two points, purgatory and the mass. The answers he gave sealed his fate. They showed that he understood the impossibility of transubstantiation, and that if that were true, then there is no place for faith. He was able to quote from and expound the Early Fathers, and to show that their writings did not support but opposed the Roman practices. The result was that he was condemned to death for denying these things.
It may be asked, why did the trial wait eight months before commencing?
Frith was urged to put into writing his views on the Lord’s Supper. He was willing to speak about them, but to commit them to writing was to place himself in danger. Yet he felt compelled so to do, even though he was in prison, and knew that the discovery of such writings would seal his fate, ‘to purchase me most cruel death’. A copy was passed to Thomas More by a traitor, More replied to it, and the reply was allowed to come into Frith’s hands. The result was that Frith’s views were well-known in the circles of power, and at his trial, he was condemned from his own pen.
Frith’s judge was Thomas Cranmer, who had inherited the case when he was consecrated as Archbishop. He had successfully exposed as a fraud the Maid of Kent, a traditionalist who had received visions that gave support to the old views. Now he had to contend with a young man who espoused the new views, which he himself at this time adhered to. He was tried before various examiners and bishops, and none could answer him. However, they were determined to kill him, and were able to produce his prison writings as evidence of his views. Even the intervention of the King himself could not convince Frith to moderate his opinions for the sake of his learning. Opportunity was afforded Frith to escape, but he would not take it. He was brought to Smithfield, and chained to the stake. Next to him was one Andrew Hewet, and very simple young man, according to Foxe. A local parson, Doctor Cooke, warned the crowd not to pray for these two any more than they would for a dog, but they expressed their offence at this sentiment. The fire was lit, the flames engulfed the two martyrs, and they perished. The date was July 4, 1533.
Frith’s death at twenty four, or thirty, according to the source, was a blow for the Reformation, but from the ashes of his funeral pyre would rise the greatest monument to his faith and learning. His judge, Thomas Cranmer, had afforded him every opportunity to moderate his views, to recant, even to escape. Cranmer was at this time a convinced Catholic, though one not enamoured of the power of the papacy. Within thirteen years of the death of John Frith, Cranmer had changed his own understanding of the Lord’s Supper to that which John Frith had defended so ably. In 1552 he published the forty Two Articles, which would become the Thirty Nine Articles. The expression of the doctrine there was that which Frith had first expounded before Cranmer in 1533. The doctrine of purgatory is also explicitly denied, Article XXII. Cranmer had published his own views on the Lord’s Supper in ‘A defence of the true and catholic doctrine of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ’ in 1550. He had also appointed a number of ‘White Horse’ men, including Latimer and Ridley, as bishops, to promote these doctrines. In short, the testimony borne by John Frith before the bishops and archbishops, was to bear fruit in their life-time and would be expressed in one of the earliest Reformation Confessions of Faith. He fought the battle in England for the doctrine of Justification by Faith, which was able to overthrow the power and tyranny of Rome, and he left his successors a legacy which we still benefit from today. So long as the biblical doctrine of salvation is known and believed, the name of John Frith should also be remembered, to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.