FRITH RETURNS TO ENGLAND
In July 1532, Frith returned to England. There was speculation that he came to aid the Prior of the Reading Monastery 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 imprisoned. After nearly starving to death, Frith finally requested to see Leonard Cox, a schoolmaster and friend from Cambridge. Cox was amazed to find a supposed vagabond capable of conversing fluently in Latin and Greek and managed to secure Frith’s release.
Soon it became known that Frith had arrived 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 the European mainland, they were recognized and imprisoned in October 1532.
Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, 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 and a notorious persecutor.
During the following months, Frith was busy writing tracts that defended liberty of conscience. 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 had 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 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 enough, but now Frith attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation, the teaching that the elements of the Lord’s Supper actually become the actual 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 physical presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. This teaching also denied the Roman Church’s doctrine of the Mass and its efficacy to forgive sins.
Frith communicated his teachings concerning the Eucharist to a number of 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 opposition to King Henry’s divorce, he remained very interested in the course of the English reforming movement.
At the time Frith’s manuscript on the Eucharist 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 writing on Purgatory and began a rebuttal of Frith’s Eucharistic 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 weak theologically and he did not want Frith to have access to it. More had his work printed privately and the circulation was limited.
When Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, examined Frith on December 26, 1532, Frith knew nothing the existence 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 Frith 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’ unity. Tyndale believed that nothing should be written on the subject until Frith’s case had been 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 Thomas More. Although Frith respected Tyndale highly, he had already stated his beliefs on the Eucharist in writing and would 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 the doctrine were true, it should not be made an essential article of faith. He argued that even a denial that the elements of the Eucharist were transubstantiated into the body and blood of the Lord could condemn a person. However, what would 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 Fathers 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 later impact that Frith’s teaching on the Eucharist had on the 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 position on the Eucharist. 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 many of 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.