History of Christianity in Britain
The history of Christianity in Britain covers the religious organisations, policies, theology, and popular religiosity since ancient times.
- 1 England
- 2 Scotland
- 3 Wales
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
Christianity was first introduced in Roman Britain. Its early history is highly obscure, with Gildas claiming its arrival by the end of the reign of Tiberius (AD 37) and an account of the seventy disciples discovered at Mount Athos in 1854 listing Aristobulus as "bishop of Britain". Medieval legends concerning the conversion of the island under King Lucius or from a mission by St Philip or Joseph of Arimathea have been discredited; they seem to have been pious forgeries introduced in attempts to establish independence or seniority in the ecclesiastical hierarchy formalized following the Norman conquest of England and Wales. The first archaeological evidence and credible records showing a community large enough to maintain churches and bishops dates to the 3rd and 4th centuries, but it started from a small base: the British delegation to the 353 Council of Rimini had to beg for financial assistance from its fellows in order to return home. The Romano-British population seem to have been mostly Christian by the Sub-Roman period, although the Great Conspiracy in the 360s and increased raiding around the time of the Roman withdrawal from Britain saw many enslaved. The Saxon invasions of Britain destroyed most of the formal church as they progressed, replacing it with a form of Germanic polytheism. There seems to have been a lull traditionally attributed to the Battle of Badon but, following the arrival of Justinian's Plague around 547, the expansion resumed. By the time Cornwall was subjugated by Wessex at Hingston Down in 838, however, it was largely left to its native people and practices.
This was in part due to the reïntroduction of Christianity in Kent by the Gregorian Mission around 600. Establishing his archdiocese at Canterbury, St Augustine failed to establish his authority over the Welsh church at Chester but his mission—with help from Scottish missionaries such as SS Aidan and Cuthbert—proved successful in Kent and then Northumbria: the two provinces of the English church continue to be led from the cathedrals of Canterbury and York (est. 735). Owing to the importance of the Scottish missions, Northumbria initially followed the native church in its calculation of Easter and tonsure but then aligned itself with Canterbury and Rome at the 664 Synod of Whitby. Early English Christian documents surviving from this time include the 7th-century illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels and the historical accounts written by the Venerable Bede. The Irish and Scots adopted the Roman practices over the 7th & 8th centuries; around 768, "Archbishop" Elfodd of "Gwynedd" finally convinced the Welsh to follow, although it was not until after the reign of Bernard that the bishop of St Davids was finally compelled to submit to the authority of Canterbury and the English church.
By then, the Normans had overrun England and begun the annexation of Wales. St Osmund, bishop of Salisbury, codified the Sarum Rite and, by the time of his successor, Roger, a system of endowed prebends had been developed that left ecclesiastical positions independent of the bishop. Tolerance of commendatory benefices permitted the well-connected to hold multiple offices simply for their spiritual and temporal revenues, subcontracting the position's duties to lower clerics or simply treating them as sinecures. The importance of such revenues prompted the Investiture Crisis, which erupted in Britain over the fight occasioned by King John's refusal to accept Pope Innocent III's nominee as archbishop of Canterbury. England was placed under interdict in 1208 and John excommunicated the following year; he enjoyed the seizure of the church's revenues but finally relented owing to domestic and foreign rivals strengthened by papal opposition. Although John quickly reneged on his payments, Innocent thereafter took his side and roundly condemned the Magna Carta, calling it "not only shameful and demeaning but illegal and unjust". A major reform movement or heresy of the 14th century was Lollardy, led by John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English. Posthumously condemned, his body was exhumed and burnt and its ashes thrown into the River Swift.
Even before the Conquest, Edward the Confessor had returned from Normandy with masons who constructed Westminster Abbey (1042) in the Romanesque style. The cruciform churches of Norman architecture often had deep chancels and a square crossing tower, which has remained a feature of English ecclesiastical architecture. England has many early cathedrals, most notably York Minster (1080), Durham Cathedral (1093), and (New) Salisbury Cathedral (1220). After a fire damaged Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, Norman masons introduced the Gothic style, which developed into the English Gothic at Wells and Lincoln Cathedrals around 1191. Oxford and Cambridge began as religious schools in the 11th and 13th centuries, respectively.
Henry VIII was named Defender of the Faith (Fidei Defensor) for his opposition to Luther's Reformation. His wife's inability to bear a living son and the pope's inability to permit him a divorce while her nephew's armies held Rome, however, prompted Henry to summon the Reformation Parliament and to invoke the statute of praemunire against the English church, ultimately leading to the 1532 Submission of the Clergy and the 1534 Acts of Supremacy that established the Church of England. A law passed the same year made it an act of treason to publicly oppose these measures; SS John Fisher and Thomas More and many others were martyred for their continued Catholicism. Fear of foreign invasion was a concern until the 1588 rout of the Spanish Armada, but land sales after the Dissolution of the lesser and greater monasteries united most of the aristocracy behind the change. Religious rebellions in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in 1536, in Cumberland in 1537, and in Devon and Cornwall in 1549 were quickly dealt with. The doctrine of the English Reformation differed little at first except with regard to royal authority over canon law: Lutheranism remained condemned and John Frith, Robert Barnes, and other Protestants were also martyred, including William Tyndale, whose Obedience of a Christian Man inspired Henry's break with Rome and whose translation of the Bible formed the basis of Henry's own authorized Great Bible. Meanwhile, laws in 1535 and 1542 fully merged Wales with England.
For the next 150 years, religious policy varied with the ruler: Edward VI and his regents favored greater Protestantism, including new books of Common Prayer and Common Order. His sister Mary restored Catholicism after negotiations with the pope ended Rome's claims to the former church lands, but two false pregnancies left her sister Elizabeth I as her heir. Upon Elizabeth's ascension, the 1558 Act of Uniformity, 1559 Act and Oath of Supremacy, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 formed the Religious Settlement which restored the Protestant Church of England. The vicissitudes of the clergy during the period were satirized in "The Vicar of Bray". The papal bull Regnans in Excelsis supporting the Rising of the North and the Irish Desmond Rebellions against Elizabeth proved ineffective, but similarly ineffective were the Marian exiles who returned from Calvin's Geneva as Puritans. James I supported the bishops of the Anglican church and the production of an authoritative English Bible while easing persecution against Catholics; several attempts against his person—including the Bye & Gunpowder Plots—finally led to harsher measures. Charles I provoked the Bishops' Wars in Scotland and ultimately the Civil War in England. The victorious Long Parliament restructured the church at the 1643 Westminster Assembly and issued a new confession of faith. (The English Baptists drew up their own in 1689.) Following the Restoration, onerous Penal Laws were enacted against nonconformists, including the Clarendon Code. Charles II and James II tried to declare royal indulgences of other faiths in 1672 and in 1687; the former was withdrawn in favour of the first Test Act, which—along with the Popish Plot—led to the Exclusion Crisis, and the latter contributed to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The failure of the Jacobite rebellions and papal recognition of George III after the death of J.F.E. Stuart in 1766 permitted the gradual removal of anti-Catholic laws, a process known as the Catholic Emancipation. Major Nonconformist movements included John Wesley's Methodists, Charles Simeon's Evangelicals, and the 1833–1845 Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement. During the New Imperialism of the 19th century, the London Missionary Society and others like it were active around the world, notably including the work of the Scotsman David Livingstone in Africa. New religious orders were also established within the Anglican fold. In the 20th century, the Liturgical and Ecumenical Movements were important developments; Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a notable modernist. Present debates concern the ordination of women and the acceptance of homosexuality within the church and clergy. The established church continues to count many more baptised members, although immigration from other countries has caused some surveys to report that the restored Catholic Church in England and Wales now has greater attendance at its weekly services.
During the 16th century, Scotland underwent a Protestant Reformation that created a Calvinist national Kirk, which became Presbyterian in outlook and severely reduced the powers of bishops. Remnants of Catholic and Epsicopal religion remained, however. In the earlier part of the century, the teachings of first Martin Luther and then John Calvin began to influence Scotland, particularly through Scottish scholars, often training for the priesthood, who had visited Continental universities. The Lutheran preacher Patrick Hamilton was executed for heresy in St. Andrews in 1528. The execution of others, especially the Zwingli-influenced George Wishart, who was burnt at the stake on the orders of Cardinal Beaton in 1546, angered Protestants. Wishart's supporters assassinated Beaton soon after and seized St. Andrews Castle, which they held for a year before they were defeated with the help of French forces. The survivors, including chaplain John Knox, were condemned to be galley slaves in France, stoking resentment of the French and creating martyrs for the Protestant cause. Limited toleration and the influence of exiled Scots and Protestants in other countries, led to the expansion of Protestantism, with a group of lairds declaring themselves Lords of the Congregation in 1557 and representing their interests politically. The collapse of the French alliance and English intervention in 1560 meant that a relatively small, but highly influential, group of Protestants were in a position to impose reform on the Scottish church. A confession of faith, rejecting papal jurisdiction and the mass, was adopted by Parliament in 1560, while the young Mary, Queen of Scots, was still in France.
Knox, having escaped the galleys and spent time in Geneva as a follower of Calvin, emerged as the most significant figure of the period. The Calvinism of the reformers led by Knox resulted in a settlement that adopted a Presbyterian system and rejected most of the elaborate trappings of the medieval church. The reformed Kirk gave considerable power to local lairds, who often had control over the appointment of the clergy. There were widespread, but generally orderly outbreaks of iconoclasm. At this point the majority of the population was probably still Catholic in persuasion and the Kirk found it difficult to penetrate the Highlands and Islands, but began a gradual process of conversion and consolidation that, compared with reformations elsewhere, was conducted with relatively little persecution.
In the 1690s the Presbyterian establishment purged the land of Episcopalians and heretics, and made blasphemy a capital crime. Thomas Aitkenhead, the son of an Edinburgh surgeon, aged 18, was indicted for blasphemy by order of the Privy Council for calling the New Testament "The History of the Imposter Christ"; he was hung in 1696. Their extremism led to a reaction known as the "Moderate" cause that ultimately prevailed and opened the way for liberal thinking in the cities.
The early 18th century saw the beginnings of a fragmentation of the Church of Scotland. These fractures were prompted by issues of government and patronage, but reflected a wider division between the hard-line Evangelicals and the theologically more tolerant Moderate Party. The battle was over fears of fanaticism by the former and the promotion of Enlightenment ideas by the latter. The Patronage Act of 1712 was a major blow to the evangelicals, for it meant that local landlords could choose the minister, not the members of the congregation. Schisms erupted as the evangelicals left the main body, starting in 1733 with the First Secession headed by figures including Ebenezer Erskine. The second schism in 1761 lead to the foundation of the independent Relief Church. These churches gained strength in the Evangelical Revival of the later 18th century. a key result was the main Presbyterian church was in the hands of the Moderate faction, which provided critical support for the Enlightenment in the cities.
Long after the triumph of the Church of Scotland in the Lowlands, Highlanders and Islanders clung to an old-fashioned Christianity infused with animistic folk beliefs and practices. The remoteness of the region and the lack of a Gaelic-speaking clergy undermined the missionary efforts of the established church. The later 18th century saw some success, owing to the efforts of the SSPCK missionaries and to the disruption of traditional society. Catholicism had been reduced to the fringes of the country, particularly the Gaelic-speaking areas of the Highlands and Islands. Conditions also grew worse for Catholics after the Jacobite rebellions and Catholicism was reduced to little more than a poorly-run mission. Also important was Episcopalianism, which had retained supporters through the civil wars and changes of regime in the 17th century. Since most Episcopalians had given their support to the Jacobite rebellions in the early 18th century, they also suffered a decline in fortunes.
After prolonged years of struggle, in 1834 the Evangelicals gained control of the General Assembly and passed the Veto Act, which allowed congregations to reject unwanted "intrusive" presentations to livings by patrons. The following "Ten Years' Conflict" of legal and political wrangling ended in defeat for the non-intrusionists in the civil courts. The result was a schism from the church by some of the non-intrusionists led by Dr Thomas Chalmers known as the Great Disruption of 1843. Roughly a third of the clergy, mainly from the North and Highlands, formed the separate Free Church of Scotland. The evangelical Free Churches, which were more accepting of Gaelic language and culture, grew rapidly in the Highlands and Islands, appealing much more strongly than did the established church. Chalmers's ideas shaped the breakaway group. He stressed a social vision that revived and preserved Scotland's communal traditions at a time of strain on the social fabric of the country. Chalmers's idealized small equalitarian, kirk-based, self-contained communities that recognized the individuality of their members and the need for cooperation. That vision also affected the mainstream Presbyterian churches, and by the 1870s it had been assimilated by the established Church of Scotland. Chalmers's ideals demonstrated that the church was concerned with the problems of urban society, and they represented a real attempt to overcome the social fragmentation that took place in industrial towns and cities.
In the late 19th century the major debates were between fundamentalist Calvinists and theological liberals, who rejected a literal interpretation of the Bible. This resulted in a further split in the Free Church as the rigid Calvinists broke away to form the Free Presbyterian Church in 1893. There were, however, also moves towards reunion, beginning with the unification of some secessionist churches into the United Secession Church in 1820, which united with the Relief Church in 1847 to form the United Presbyterian Church, which in turn joined with the Free Church in 1900 to form the United Free Church of Scotland. The removal of legislation on lay patronage would allow the majority of the Free Church to rejoin Church of Scotland in 1929. The schisms left small denominations including the Free Presbyterians and a remnant that had not merged in 1900 as the Free Church.
Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the influx of large numbers of Irish immigrants, particularly after the famine years of the late 1840s, principally to the growing lowland centres like Glasgow, led to a transformation in the fortunes of Catholicism. In 1878, despite opposition, a Roman Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy was restored to the country, and Catholicism became a significant denomination within Scotland. Episcopalianism also revived in the 19th century as the issue of succession receded, becoming established as the Episcopal Church in Scotland in 1804, as an autonomous organisation in communion with the Church of England. Baptist, Congregationalist and Methodist churches had appeared in Scotland in the 18th century, but did not begin significant growth until the 19th century, partly because more radical and evangelical traditions already existed within the Church of Scotland and the free churches. From 1879 they were joined by the evangelical revivalism of the Salvation Army, which attempted to make major inroads in the growing urban centres.
20th & 21st Centuries
In the 20th century existing Christian denominations were joined by other organisations, including the Brethren and Pentecostal churches. Although some denominations thrived, after World War II there was a steady overall decline in church attendance and resulting church closures for most denominations. Talks began in the 1950s aiming at a grand merger of the main Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist bodies in Scotland. The talks were ended in 2003, when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland rejected the proposals. The religious situation was also been altered by immigration, resulting in the growth of non-Christian religions. In the 2001 census 42.4 per cent of the population identified with the Church of Scotland, 15.9 per cent with Catholicism and 6.8 with other forms of Christianity, making up roughly 65 per cent of the population (compared with 72 per cent for the UK as a whole). Of other religions Islam was at 0.8 per cent, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism and Hinduism were all at around 0.1 per cent. Other religions together accounted for 0.6 per cent of respondents and 5.5 per cent did not state a religion. There were 27.5 per cent who stated that they had no religion (which compares with 15.5 per cent in the UK overall). Other more recent studies suggest that those not identifying with a denomination, or who see themselves as non-religious, may be much higher at between 42 and 56 per cent, depending on the form of question asked.
Bishop Richard Davies and dissident Protestant cleric John Penry introduced Calvinist theology to Wales. They used the model of the Synod of Dort of 1618-1619. Calvinism developed through the Puritan period, following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, and within Wales' Methodist movement. However few copies of Calvin's were available before mid 19th century. In 1567 Davies, William Salesbury, and Thomas Huet completed the first modern translation of the New Testament and the first translation of the Book of Common Prayer (Welsh: Y Llyfr Gweddi Gyffredin). In 1588 William Morgan completed a translation of the whole Bible. These translations were was important to the survival of the Welsh language and had the effect of conferring status on Welsh as a liturgical language and vehicle for worship. This had a significant role in its continued use as a means of everyday communication and as a literary language down to the present day despite the pressure of English.
Nonconformity was a significant influence in Wales from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. The Welsh Methodist revival of the 18th century was one of the most significant religious and social movements in the history of Wales. The revival began within the Church of England in Wales and at the beginning remained as a group within it, but the Welsh revival differed from the Methodist revival in England in that its theology was Calvinist rather than Arminian. Welsh Methodists gradually built up their own networks, structures, and even meeting houses (or chapels), which led eventually to the secession of 1811 and the formal establishment of the Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian church of Wales in 1823.
The Welsh Methodist revival also had an influence on the older nonconformist churches, or dissenters — the Baptists and the Congregationalists — who in turn also experienced growth and renewal. As a result, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Wales was predominantly a nonconformist country.
The 1904-1905 Welsh Revival was the largest full scale Christian Revival of Wales of the 20th century. It is believed that at least 100,000 people became Christians during the 1904–1905 revival, but despite this it did not put a stop to the gradual decline of Christianity in Wales, only holding it back slightly.
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