John Frith: His Final Year

By Dr. Herbert Samworth

FRITH RETURNS TO ENGLAND

In July 1532, Frith returned to England. There was speculation he came to assist the Prior of the Reading Monastery to escape to the European mainland. Regardless of the exact reason, he was arrested as a vagrant and because he would not identify himself, he was put into prison. After nearly starving to death, Frith finally requested to see Leonard Cox, a schoolmaster and friend from college days. Cox was amazed to find a supposed vagabond capable of conversing fluently in Latin and Greek and managed to secure his release.

However, it became known that Frith was back in England and the authorities began a search for him. Frith and the Prior managed to evade the spies for a time, but before they could secure passage to return to the European mainland, they were recognized and imprisoned in October 1532.

Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor, managed to have Frith kept in the Tower of London as a prisoner of the Crown. By this means, Frith was kept from the control of John Stokesley, the newly appointed Bishop of London.

During the following months, Frith was busy writing tracts that defended liberty of thought. He was convinced that people should not be coerced against their will. These tracts include A Letter unto the Faithful Followers of Christ's Gospel and A Mirror or Glass to Know Thyself.

Frith also continued to write against the existence of Purgatory. In his book against the teachings of More, Fisher, and Rastell, Frith issued a challenge that if his book did not answer the questions definitively, he welcomed a response. More and Fisher ignored this challenge, but John Rastell, More's brother-in-law, replied to Frith. In his book, A Bulwark against Rastell, Frith wrote in such a convincing manner that Rastell was won completely to the Evangelical faith. John Bale added that he never wavered and continued to uphold the true faith until his death.

FRITH'S WRITINGS ON THE EUCHARIST

However, the next production of Frith's pen brought more serious charges against him. To write against the doctrine of Purgatory was serious, but now Frith attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation or the teaching that the elements of the Lord's Supper actually become the body and blood of the Lord. Frith adopted the basic position of Oecolampidus and Zwingli who believed the Lord's Supper was a memorial of the Lord's death. They denied the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. This belief was against the Roman Church's teaching regarding the Mass and its efficacy.

Frith shared his ideas about the Eucharist with a number of his friends. One of them asked him to put these teachings in writing because he was unable to follow Frith's arguments without a manuscript to guide him. Frith was reluctant to do this but his friend's importunity won him over. Unfortunately a copy of what Frith wrote fell into the hands of Sir Thomas More before the end of 1532.

Although More had resigned the post of Lord Chancellor in May 1532 because of his disagreement with Henry's divorce, he remained very interested in the course of the English reforming movement.

At the time when Frith's manuscript came into his hands, More was preparing to write against Frith's teaching on Purgatory. Recognizing that the doctrine of the Eucharist, or the Mass, was of greater importance, More set aside his work on Purgatory and began a rebuttal of Frith's teaching. However, More was concerned lest what he wrote would reach the public. His official reason was that it would cause confusion among those who were not capable of discerning theological differences. However, the true reason was that More's treatise was very weak theologically and he did not wish Frith to see it. More had his work printed privately and the circulation was limited.

Thus when Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, examined Frith on December 26, 1532, Frith knew nothing of More's book. Gardiner had been Frith's tutor when Frith had been a student at Cambridge University. Despite the radical differences in belief between the two men, Gardiner treated Frith kindly in an effort to win him back to the Catholic faith. When Gardiner reproached Frith for writing against the Sacrament of the Mass, he held a copy of More's book before him but would not permit him to read it.

Back in the Tower, and with some difficulty, Frith managed to secure a copy of More's book and set about to answer it. Before he had finished the work, Frith received a letter from William Tyndale exhorting him to remain true to the faith. Although Tyndale was unaware that Frith had written on the subject of the Eucharist, he warned Frith not to meddle with the doctrine as it would cause division. Already in the Protestant ranks, there had been disagreement at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529 when Luther rejected Zwingli's interpretation of the Eucharist. Tyndale was concerned that this could lead to a fracturing of the Protestants. Tyndale believed that nothing should be written on the subject until Frith's case was decided.

While Tyndale's letter came too late to guide Frith in his first treatise, he made ample use of it in his Answer to Sir Thomas More. Although Frith respected Tyndale highly, he had already stated his beliefs on the Eucharist in writing and could not withdraw them.

In his second book on the Eucharist, Frith not only denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, he went further and stated that even if it were true, the doctrine should not be maintained as an essential article of faith. He argued that denying that the elements of the Eucharist become the body and blood of the Lord could condemn a person. However, what could condemn him was the absence of Christ from his heart due to his unbelief. Frith treated the belief of transubstantiation as indifferent. One could believe the doctrine as long as no idolatry was attached to it.

Frith appealed to the Church Fathers in proof of his position. Despite not having access to his books, he was able to quote them accurately and in context. He was convinced that More did not have the support of the Church Father but followed the Eucharistic teachings of "certain new fellows" such as John Duns Scotus and other scholastic theologians. Frith's Answer to Sir Thomas More was smuggled out of the Tower of London and across the English Channel to Antwerp, although it was not printed until after his death.

It is nearly impossible to overstress the impact that Frith's teaching on the Eucharist had on the official teaching of the Church of England. He was the first Englishman to address the doctrine and seek to explain it in a systematic way. Although at the time of Frith's imprisonment, Thomas Cranmer was not of Frith's persuasion, he later adopted Frith's point of view. Frith's teaching received official acceptance in the Communion Office in the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, we can go so far as to say that the Marian martyrs went to their deaths for holding John Frith's view of the Eucharist. Such was the impact that this little work of sixty three folio pages, composed secretly in the Tower of London and smuggled to Antwerp, had on the English Reformation.

FRITH'S TRIAL, CONDEMNATION AND DEATH

In the meantime Frith was held as a state prisoner in the Tower of London. As long as he remained in this position, he was safe from Stokesley, the Bishop of London, and Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who wished to send him to the stake. Frith was kept busy writing tracts to encourage those who were facing difficult times. They included The Treasury of Knowledge, Vox Picis, A Brief Instruction to teach a Person willingly to die, and The Preparation to the Cross and to Death. The titles of the books demonstrate Frith's personal courage and his attempts to support those who were facing imminent death.

Cromwell managed to keep Frith in the Tower of London for six months. However, Gardiner was not content to leave the situation alone. He persuaded one of the Court Chaplains to speak on the subject of the Eucharist before Henry VIII. In his message the Chaplain spoke of the troubles then engulfing England and the reason for them. He traced them back to the heretical teaching regarding the Eucharist. The Chaplain stated that even at that very time there was an individual being held in the Tower of London who held these erroneous doctrines but nothing was being done about it.

King Henry VIII ordered Cranmer and Cromwell to arrange a trial for Frith. Although both men sought to save him, it soon became apparent that Frith would have to stand trial before Stokesley. There was little doubt that he would be condemned. Cranmer even went so far as to arrange an informal trial at his home in Croydon and give Frith a chance to escape, but Frith refused to take advantage of this kindly offer. Many have questioned why Frith refused to escape when he had the chance to do so since he sought to leave England before. Apparently Frith had come to the conclusion that it had been lawful for him to leave England before he had gone on record concerning his beliefs about the Eucharist. But now that he had written on the subject, it was the Lord's will for him to defend what he had written.

At the end of May, Tyndale addressed another letter to Frith. It was a foregone conclusion that Frith could not be saved and Tyndale wrote to encourage him to remain faithful. In the letter Tyndale encouraged Frith to look to the Lord for strength to endure the trial. Note his words:

If the pain be above your strength, remember, Whatsoever ye shall ask in My Name, I will give it you. And pray to your Father in that Name, and He shall ease your pain or shorten it. [1]

On June 20, 1533, Frith appeared before Stokesley, Gardiner, and Longland, the Bishop of Lincoln, at St. Paul's Cathedral. There were two articles against Frith. The first dealt with his denial of Purgatory. Frith maintained that the sinner is purged through the effect of the Word of God. The second charge was more serious because Frith denied that the elements of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, became the very or true body of the Lord. Frith maintained that a denial of this doctrine could not hurt the conscience in any way. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Frith was declared to be a heretic and, because he would not recant, he was sentenced to death by burning.

However, Frith was not to die alone. The friend to whom he had originally addressed his treatise on the Eucharist was also sentenced to die with him. His name was Andrew Hewet and he worked as a tailor in London. He also was tried before the three ecclesiastical officials and refused to deny his beliefs. On several occasions he stated that he believed the same as Frith. When threatened with death by fire, he merely stated that he would go to the stake for his convictions.

There was one final letter that Frith wrote that is dated June 23, 1533 just eleven days before he died. He closed the letter with these words, "It is true that I lay in irons when I write this." Gardiner sent two or three messengers to persuade Frith and Hewet to recant but they were unable to persuade them.

On July 4, 1533 John Frith and Andrew Hewet were led out to Smithfield where they were bound back to back. The fire was lit and Hewet was the first to die. During the terrible ordeal Frith remained constant. John Bale commented on his courage when he wrote, "John Frith never showed himself once grieved in countenance."

John Frith was in his thirtieth year when he died. How much more he could have accomplished for the cause of the reformation in England is impossible to state. As it was, his contributions were great. Perhaps his two greatest were his writings on liberty of conscience and the doctrine of transubstantiation.

But he spoke more eloquently by his death. His steadfast courage in holding firm to what he believed spoke of his constancy in the face of certain death. He had the opportunity to escape his captors and return overseas, but he chose to honor his word so that no reproach would come on those who profess that the life to come has greater value than what life on earth can provide.

May the courage and example of John Frith spur us to live faithfully for the Lord in these days!

Endnotes
1. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Volume 5, New York: AMS Press, 1968, p.132.

 

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