“Amongst all other chances lamentable, there hath been none a great time which seemed unto me more grievous, than the lamentable death and cruel handling of John Frith.” – John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (aka, Acts and Monuments, 1570)
Confined in London’s Newgate prison in the summer of 1533, a young English Reformer penned a brief tract with the title, “The Articles Wherefore John Frith Died.”
The tract’s author, 30-year-old John Frith, had already suffered much for his Reformation beliefs. In 1528, he languished for weeks in an Oxford University fish cellar, where he saw some of his companions die. He then experienced the hardship of exile on the European continent. Later, while on mission in England, he was taken as a vagabond and put in the stocks—fearing for his life, should anyone discover his identity. Only by citing portions of Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek from memory did he convince his captors that he was no vagabond, but rather a traveling scholar. So he escaped, this time. On his second mission to England he was imprisoned on charges of heresy. But this time, he was never released.
On July 4, 1533, Frith burned at the stake as a heretic.
But why? Here, we turn to Frith’s own account, spelled out in his tract. According to Frith, he would soon die for two reasons: First, he rejected the existence of Purgatory—a fiery netherworld where the souls of baptized Christians would be purged of their sins (See Dante’s Divine Comedy for one detailed, literary account of this realm). Frith argued that, through faith in Christ’s atoning death on the cross, each Christian’s soul is already purged of sin. Moreover, each Christian’s flesh is purged of its sinful inclinations through the pains of this life and, ultimately, through death itself. As a result, the Christian has no need for Purgatory after death.
But, ultimately, Frith died for another reason. He died because of Reformation debates surrounding the Lord’s Supper—a Christian practice that believers today too often relegate to secondary importance, at best. Frith rejected the belief that Christ’s body and blood exist literally within the elements of the Lord’s Supper—that is, within the bread and wine. And for this reason, he burned.
To fully grasp what Frith believed and why it matters, we need to consider some background about Reformation debates regarding the Lord’s Supper.
Reforming the Lord’s Supper
According to the Gospels (as well as the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11), Christ Jesus taught his disciples to commemorate His death by reenacting together their last dinner with Him. During this dinner, Jesus broke bread and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Likewise, He passed a cup to His disciples saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26-28, ESV).
During the Middle Ages, a vast body of ceremony and doctrine had developed around the practice of the Lord’s Supper. And, during the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper became the focus of heated doctrinal debate. By the end of the Reformation, three basic views about this religious ordinance existed:
- Medieval theologians had developed a theory called “transubstantiation.” According to this theory, the bread and wine used during the Supper were miraculously transformed into the literal, physical body and blood of Jesus. The bread and wine, in fact, no longer existed. Although partakers saw and tasted bread, what they actually ate was the body of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church championed this view during the Reformation period.
- The German Reformer Martin Luther rejected the doctrine of “transubstantiation” as too speculative. Instead, he proposed a new theory that is now called, “consubstantiation.” According to Luther, the bread and the wine used during Communion were just that—bread and wine. Nevertheless, the real, physical body of Christ existed “in, with and under” the bread and wine, somewhat like water is “in, with and under” a sponge.
- In 1525, the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli entered into public debate with Luther about this issue. Unlike Luther, Zwingli taught that Christ’s body and blood were not literally present in the bread and wine used at the Lord’s Supper. Instead, he argued that the bread and wine simply symbolized the body and blood of Christ. By partaking of the bread and wine, the faithful meditate on the truth that Jesus’ body was broken and His blood was shed once-for-all on the cross. During the Supper, they also looked forward to a day when Christ would bodily return to the earth. Until that day, Jesus is bodily present at the right hand of God the Father.
(On a side note, some of Zwingli’s companions and successors would add that, by faith, Christ was spiritually—though not bodily—present in the Lord’s Supper. Traditionally, Baptists have affirmed Zwingli’s symbolic view of the Supper, although some disagreement exists regarding Christ’s spiritual presence in the ordinance.)
Luther and Zwingli debated this issue fiercely, and their disagreement would play an important role in carving a deep and lasting divide between the Reformers—that is, between the “Lutheran” and the “Reformed” traditions.
‘Nourish, in All Things, Brotherly Love’
Regarding the Lord’s Supper, Frith firmly sided with Zwingli and the Reformed tradition. He rejected both Roman Catholic “transubstantiation” and Luther’s “consubstantiation.”
But he also approached this particular issue with a different spirit than some other Reformers had. In an age of sometimes brutal theological debate, Frith refused to suggest that other Christians were damned heretics for disagreeing with his own view of the Lord’s Supper.
“Only avoid idolatry, and we desire no more,” Frith once wrote, strongly urging his readers not to sin by worshiping the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper. Otherwise, he called men and women to search Scripture honestly and believe it firmly—but also charitably. A person on one side of the debate, he said, shouldn’t “condemn or despise the other.” Rather, everyone should “nourish, in all things, brotherly love,” and they should “bear others’ infirmities.”
Of course, Frith’s call for Christian love doesn’t mean that he saw doctrinal debates about the Lord’s Supper as unimportant. He wouldn’t damn or kill another Christian for disagreeing with him in this matter. Nevertheless, for the sake of what he saw as the biblical doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, he bravely died.