This British reformer was a pioneer writer on the theme of liberty of conscience. He debated the existence of Purgatory with Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher. He taught the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer for justification. He was a formative influence on doctrine of the Eucharist as found in the Anglican Prayer Book of 1552. Can you identify him?
Not only did he accomplish the things listed above, he did them all before the age of thirty. He never reached the age of thirty-one because he was burned at the stake. What might have accomplished had he been permitted to live is impossible to say.
Who was this individual? His name was John Frith and the story of his life is crucial to an understanding of the English Reformation. The purpose of this article is to preserve the memory of one who paid a great price to secure the religious freedoms that we enjoy today.
HIS EARLY YEARS IN ENGLAND
Many of the details of Frith’s early years are unknown. However, there appears to be evidence that he was born sometime in 1503, the son of Richard Frith, an innkeeper of Seven Oaks in Kent. His parents had the financial means to send him first to Eton College and later to Cambridge University. He entered Cambridge in 1521 as a student of King’s College. During his university days, his tutor was Stephen Gardiner, the future Bishop of Winchester and one who later sentenced him to the stake.
Frith’s college days were ones in which the New Learning greatly influenced Cambridge. The New Learning was the result of advances in Humanistic thought in England, and emphasized the knowledge of Greek. Prior to Frith’s matriculation, Erasmus, the great Humanist scholar, had taught Greek at Cambridge. Frith demonstrated that he was an exceptional student and soon acquired a reputation that attracted the University officials.
However, the New Learning was not the only thing that was stirring Cambridge during Frith’s student days. News of the German Reformation had crossed the English Channel and Thomas Bilney, a graduate student of Trinity College, had come to faith in Christ through the reading of the Greek New Testament.
Bilney gathered about him a group of students who were interested the reformation of the English Church. They met at the White Horse Inn which soon acquired the nickname of Little Germany because of the discussions relative to Luther and the German Reformation. It has been surmised that Frith first met William Tyndale at one of these meetings. Tyndale, after graduating from Oxford in 1515, attended Cambridge for a number of years and John Foxe goes so far as to attribute Frith’s conversion to the evangelistic efforts of Tyndale. Their lives were later to cross in Antwerp when Frith became one of Tyndale’s most trusted helpers.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England and Papal Legate, desired to found a new college at Oxford University. He ordered his helpers to scour the universities for the finest scholars to be students in this new college. This foundation, named first Cardinal College and later Christ Church, was to be a bastion of orthodoxy to counter the reforming movements that were taking place on the European mainland, especially in Germany and Switzerland.
However, the Cardinal got more than what he intended because the majority of the scholars recruited from Cambridge University were decidedly in favor of the Reformation. The Cambridge scholars, upon their arrival at Oxford, found the spiritual climate less invigorating from what they had experienced at Cambridge. To counter this, John Clarke, one of the Cambridge students, began a series of Bible studies that soon attracted the notice of the University Officials. The authorities also discovered that heretical books had been smuggled into Oxford. As a result ten students, including Frith and Clark, were imprisoned in a college cellar where fish were stored. This took place in February 1528 and for the next six months; the students were kept in close confinement.
The unsanitary conditions and foul air soon took their toll on the prisoners. Four of them died before Wolsey ordered their release. Those who survived were forced to abjure although Frith appeared to evade this requirement. Realizing that it would be just a matter of time before he would be charged with heresy, Frith decided to depart England. In December 1528 he crossed the English Channel and joined Tyndale in Antwerp.
FRITH ON THE EUROPEAN MAINLAND
While it is impossible to give a strict account of Frith’s activities while on the mainland of Europe, it appears that he spent the majority of his time in Antwerp. Tyndale previously had arrived in Antwerp in 1526 shortly after printing the first edition of his New Testament in Worms, Germany.
Upon his arrival in Antwerp, Frith would have been able to bring Tyndale up to date concerning the course of the Reformation in England. Tyndale would have related to Frith the fate of Patrick Hamilton, a young Scottish Reformer. Hamilton, from a noble family in Scotland, had come to Germany to escape the clutches of David Beaton, the Archbishop of Saint Andrews. After studying in Germany for a brief period, Hamilton returned to his native country and began to preach the Gospel. Being apprehended, he was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in February 1528, the same month that Frith had been imprisoned at Oxford.
Before he returned to Scotland, Hamilton had penned a short treatise outlining his theological beliefs. The manuscript had been written in Latin and Frith undertook the task of translating and printing it. It appeared under the title Patrick’s Places in 1529 and was the first systematic explanation of the doctrines of the Reformation printed in English.
Frith was involved in other literary endeavors as well. In 1529 he translated and printed A Pistle to the Christian Reader; The Revelation of the Anti-Christ; where are compared Christ’s acts and the Pope’s, one of the first anti-Papal works printed in English. This work had originally been written in German and the author remains unknown to this day. In the book a great contrast is drawn between the Bishop of Rome and Christ. As an illustration, the book emphasizes Christ’s teaching that while the foxes have dens, the Son of Man does not have a place to lay His head. In contrast with Christ’s poverty, the Pope and his followers are wealthy. However, the tone of the book is not negative. The author emphasized the need of personal faith in Christ and assurance that one’s sins could be forgiven.
During this time, Steven Vaughn, agent of King Henry VIII, attempted to persuade Frith to return to England. At the same time, Vaughn was also seeking to have Tyndale return also. English officials had heard of the scholarship and ability of Frith and were anxious to have him return to the true Church. They realized that such person as Frith would have tremendous influence on others to remain faithful to the Church.
However, Frith could not be persuaded and he refused to return to England. From other sources we learn that he married during this time. However, no information has come to us concerning her although Tyndale would later write to Frith that she would desire that he remain faithful to the faith. In addition, Frith saw Tyndale’s book, An Answer to Sir Thomas More, through the press. We are not sure what part Frith had in assisting Tyndale in the work of the translation of the Scriptures into the English language although we can be certain that Frith’s scholarship would help assure its accuracy.