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THE LETTER OF A CERTAIN ENGLISHMAN WHO MAINTAINS THAT THERE IS AN AGREEMENT WITHIN ENGLAND CONCERNING THE DOCTRINE OF TRUE RELIGION AND RITUALS, WRITTEN AGAINST CERTAIN MOST VAIN CAVILS, WITH WHICH THEY ARE STRIVING TO VILIFY THIS LAND IN SERMONS TO THEIR CONGREGATIONS
If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him — 1 Kings 18:21
THE ENGLISHMAN NICHOLAS N. GREETS HIS OLD FRIEND JEAN N. DWELLING AT PARIS
HAVE been given to understand from your letter to me that in these past days of Lent certain monks living among you, being in the first place busybodies, involve themselves in foreign matters which do not touch them, and also, being bold-faced in their pulpits, proclaim to their congregations things they could hardly know about for sure and could barely gather from vague rumors, as if they were assured and established facts. They are saying many things: that all of us are torn apart into factions and sects thanks to our enthusiasms and contentions; that nothing is well-established among us; that neither our bishops, nor our preachers, nor the ministers of our churches, nor even individual men can agree concerning doctrine or rituals; that each man is constructing his own church in accordance with personal whim. And all these things they have been bawling with great confidence and great hatred. Your loyalty towards myself has struck me (as it should) as most welcome, for you have adjudged that it is in my interest, and in that of us all, for you to inform me of these things in a friendly, trustworthy manner. And this is all the more welcome inasmuch as you add that, out of all your great multitude, even a handful can hardly find who believe this stuff. But even had you not written, we could readily have discovered. these things on the basis of the intercourse which obtains between us and your fellow citizens. For it is not to be believed that your nation, most learned and most prudent in these days (particularly thanks to the great illumination of the Gospel) could be gulled by lies and misrepresentations of this kind.
2. I should be amazed that they would be so shameless as to publicly state these things in lieu of preaching, if I did not know full well that this breed of men was not devoted to Christ Jesus, but rather to their own bellies. But it is a troubling, grave thing that among you there have been bishops and church dignitaries who allowed a neighboring, friendly, and allied nation to be publicly traduced by these rascals with impunity. Our own bishops would not have suffered this from our preachers. But these gentlemen, perceiving that the doctrine we profess nowadays is unshakable by legitimate arguments, preferred to attack the personalities of our men: I mean, they adjudged that it would be far more tolerable and popular if they harmed and hounded us with their insults than if they openly criticized the Gospel. I should not be angry, however, if their desire were to improve the standing of their cause and protect and defend that kingdom, in which they so pleasantly dwell.
3. But to heap us with bold-faced lies things from that place, at that time, to that audience, and not just to try the patience of their congregations, but also to abuse the sanctity of that very time and place — assuredly, this was intolerable. For men of good sense are not want to contend with suspicions and rumors, nor are pious men wont to spend their time in frigid untruth or to employ falsehoods in contending with the truth. Was this to play the part of ministers? Was this feeding their flock? Was this what it was to “mount up to a high place and proclaim the Gospel to Zion?” Was this what it was to “have clean feet and preach peace and good things?” Did they learn this from Occam, from Scotus, from Benedict and Francis?
4. They ought to have verified these facts before pouring them forth so rashly in their sermons. Once upon a time, men were in the habit of taking the trouble to ascertain a thing in its entirety before instructing their congregations in what they had accurately discovered. Nowadays, however, as far as I can see, among you people everything has been altered and turned upside-down. For your bawling declaimers first teach their congregations whatever enters their heads, and only afterwards do they inquire whether it is true or false, or, indeed, frequently make no inquiry, as if it makes absolutely no difference what is expounded to God’s people in a holy sermon. For this is to say, along with St. John, “what we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”
5. This tribe of men ought to be careful, men who, while they sit at home in idleness and snore in their cloisters, and can barely see themselves, are the nevertheless able to cast their glance so far away and observe what is being transacted in England. Whatever this is, these gentlemen are able to exhaust even the patient with their cries of this sort, or even mislead the naive, unable to comprehend their deceit. But the knowledgeable can easily discern that, for religion’s sake, they are ill-disposed towards us, and for this reason are not reluctant to invent such stuff. but cite foreign and overseas examples so that they may lie all the more freely and uncleanly. At this time, thanks to the blessing of God Almighty, France has reformed churches in every quarter. It possesses preachers of the kind who teach the Gospel with accuracy and freedom. When have these men ever disagreed with each other concerning any point of religion, or concerning ceremonies? Why do these monks conceal things which are happening at home, before their very own eyes? Why do they blame us for things they alone have begotten, upon no authority, or have learned from vain fellows exactly like themselves? Wretched should be the cause which cannot stand unless it is propped by falsehoods and frauds — although those fellows are doing nothing foreign to their ancestors, who once did battle against the Prophets and Apostles with these very same weapons.
6. Our preachers do not mention their infamies, even those they know to be true, familiar, and proven. None of ours has ever said from the pulpit that numerous monks of yours have set snares for high-born little girls and have debauched them in their very churches, under the eyes of the idols, and in a horrible way have submitted them to the lust of the individual members of their gangs, and finally have murdered the girls so they would not reveal their crime. These things are the truth, and for this reason that monastery was razed to the ground and its monks subjected to most just punishment, as not even your monks can deny. And yet our preachers describe nothing of these facts to their congregations, either out of respect for the time and place, or because they think it a man’s duty, and especially that of a Christian preacher, not to besmirch the name and reputation of a most noble nation, and now also an allied one, in even the smallest matter.
7. If, however, something is done wickedly and criminally by a handful of hypocrites and debauchees, this cannot redound to the ill repute of an entire nation. We will not allow that league, which we both hope to be sanctified by God’s auspices and desire to be everlasting, which we religiously observe for the sake of public peace and far more for that of our common religion, and the concord of reformed religion to be estranged by vague rumors. But they say that we are all quarreling with each other. Thus the false prophets once complained: that Paul had disagreed with the other Apostles, and the heretic Marcion was habituated to uttering the slander that not even Scripture agreed with itself, and that there were discrepancies between Christ and the Apostles on the one hand and Moses and the Prophets on the other, and that the New Testament did not harmonize with the Old. But are they saying that we are in disagreement concerning doctrine or ritual? But why am I asking this — as if they cared what they say against us, as long as they say something and not appear to be wholly silent? We are of a single heart regarding every point of religion: concerning God, Christ, Man’s justification, Scriptures, the Church, its leadership, and ecclesiastical polity. For when God rescued us from those troubled, savage storms of these preceding years, and gave us that light which we nowadays enjoy, both those who remained at home in obscurity, as if in the cave of Abdiah, and those who returned home from foreign parts, agreed in these points of religion, and subscribed to those Articles we now employ, and today all men who are received into the ministry accept, teach, and profess these same articles. And thus far out of this great number of men no one has been found who has done so unwillingly, or has disagreed on even a trifling matter in this doctrine we have approved. If we all were to be thrust into individual chambers, just as the translators of the Septuagint were once kept apart from each other, I have no doubt that each man would respond to the same effect, if not in using the same syllables and sentences, nevertheless with the same sentiments concerning every detail of that we profess. If your friars and monks could do the same, they would get along with each other far better.
8. But I fancy they will concede this concerning doctrine, and having us squabbling amongst ourselves concerning ceremonies, I mean so that all their talk and jostling in the end comes down to this: a handful of us — I know not who — there is some difference concerning vestments and headgear. We must confess it is in part true that our ancestors always retained a certain freedom in this matter, although the thing itself is of no great moment. For we know that neither the Apostles nor the Prophets were not especially troubled about variance in dress, and neither do we today place any religion or sanctity in those things. Indeed, our bishops to a man employ similar vestments, without exception, the ones that have traditionally been employed in this realm, not because we adjudge this to be necessary or pertinent to religion, but so none of those men who seek occasions for criticism can have grounds for complaint and because within commonwealths all conspicuous innovations, particularly those which are visible to the eye, always seem odious. And yet I am aware that certain men are a little anxious over the use of this kind of vestments, because those Catholics have contaminated them with their idolatries and superstitions, and can scarce endure that our holy mysteries should nowadays be performed by pious men clad in the same costume with which God’s people were abused for a number of centuries. Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant to the present context. Assuredly, many disdain a shudder at the chalice, in which they remember that poison was sometimes intermingled, not because they imagine some lethal power has clung to it so long, but rather lest the memory of that ancient evil be renewed by the very sight of it. Indeed, there used to be pious and Christian men who, rather than eating the meats which used to be offered up to idols, have preferred to refrain from the eating of every kind of meat and foul.
9. It has scarce been two years now since God has restored to us our liberty and the public use of the Gospel. Wherefore it should not seem strange of our citizens have barely recovered themselves, as from a shipwreck. Concerning the thing itself, there is no quarrel among us. For we are all sufficiently convinced, even the sovereign who has ordained these things, that there is nothing inherently holy or contagious in them. But why do those gentlemen complain about this too, that among us some men are tall and others short, some are fat and others lanky, and that we are not all the same in our grooming, our color, or our physical condition. For among us, even in the midst of those dark days, there are differences of this kind, or rather far greater ones. For our particular churches, such as Salisbury, York, Hereford, and Bangor, offered up their prayers to God in one way or another. But now we have arranged things so that only a single order is observed in all our churches, and that there is no difference at all in the administration of the Sacraments. For, so that no quarrel or strife arises from this business when every man observes his own scheme (as happens), one fixed and prescribed formula is given to everyone, not just for the performance of the mysteries, but even for public prayers.
10. And the ministers of our churches, our deacons, presbyters, bishops, are duly and properly summoned to their holy office, and even (if we wish to consider the old canons), each one is ordained in his own canonical way. But regarding vestments, this liberty has always existed for our lower clergy, that different men may employ different kinds of gowns, surplices, and headgear without offending any man, so that these things cannot now strike us as offensive. And what breed of men has ever been so addicted and devoted to rituals and vestments that they have believed it sinful to make any innovation? In the primitive times of the Gospel, the citizens of Syrian Antioch used to pray facing the setting sun, whereas most Christian men prayed facing eastward; the Egyptians gathered for Holy Communion in the evening, but other Christians in the morning; some took Communion daily, others every few days, and yet others only on Sundays. In the administration of Holy Baptism, individual churches employed idiosyncratic rites. Among the Romans, the Sabbath was a day of fasting, but not among the Africans. Sozomen says that it was not easy to find the same rituals in all churches, and Socrates adds that in his day there were scarce two churches in complete agreement, using the same ceremonies and regulations. And yet he says that all churches cultivated peace and harmony between each other. Or at that time was the Gospel not the Gospel? Because there were certain differences between Christian men, was religion therefore not religion, the Church not the Church, or Christ not Christ? Believe me, a prudent man does not condemn all doctrine because of some trifling, amicable disagreement. And yet I do not say these things as if I am fond of such differences, or do not wish the ministers of Christ in our established Church to employ similar vestments. Indeed, I vehemently desire this and hope that, either thanks to the authority of our sovereign or the voluntary will and modesty of our men themselves, this will soon come to pass.
11. But these gentlemen who traduce us so tragically, oh God everlasting, how beautifully they harmonize with each other. Or will little friars and monks object to us these discrepancies, men who have scarce anything in in common beyond the light of day and the air, who fora ll these years have not been able to come to an agreement concerning their costume, their minor prayers, or their tonsure, bowing, or the shape and color of their robes, cloaks and sandals? For why are some of them walk about girdled, others ungirdled, some clad in white, some in black, others blue, some particolored and some looking like crows? Why do they disagree more light-mindedly and foolishly than those who once upon a time were drawn into factions at racecourses by nothing more than their titles and colors? Or those who used variously to boast that some were copying Paul, others Cephas, and still others Apollo? If they say that these things concerning themselves are trifles, although they want them to be considered quite grave in ourselves, then you have a look, my friend, and see if they all speak or write concerning religion’s dogmas and parts with sufficient concord. See whether the Scotists agree with the Thomists regarding the sinfulness of angels, original sin in the Blessed Virgin, on simple and solemn prayer, or about merit congruous and condign; whether Gregory agrees with Pelagius concerning the marriage of subdeacons; whether Innocent agrees with the Church of Mutina concerning marriages previously contracted; whether Alexander agrees with Innocent about that same thing; whether the canonists agree with the scholastics concerning auricular confession; whether Thomas agrees with Lombard concerning the creation of the devil in grace; whether Scotus and Innocent agree with others concerning the means of consecration; whether the Bishop of Rochester with others about this, that he says mice and dogs can eat the true body of Christ; whether the Scotists can agree with the Occamites, or the Occamites with the disciples of Peter Alliacus; whether Dominicans can agree with Franciscans, or Nominalists with Realists.
12. These men, who are unmoved by suchlike squabbles and factions, oh everlasting God, what great tragedies they conjure up against us concerning a single little biretta! But it is truly a disgrace, if they should wish to give us instruction in peace while struggling so greatly amongst themselves. We do not contend among ourselves as if were enemies, as is their wont, but rather like brothers disagreeing in a fraternal, friendly way about our love and devotion to our common mother. With very harmonious minds and zeal we promote God’s kingdom, and, no matter what those fellows of yours may cry out against us, we singlemindedly and with one voice glorify God, the Father of our Lord Christ Jesus.
. 13. Amidst this upheaval, you should take refuge in Holy Writ, and find peace in their most pleasant reading As often as you hear those monks of yours making trouble in this manner, you should think that these are snares set for you by the devil, so that you might abandon your salvation and think ill of Christ’s Gospel. You must see that you are not entrapped by these. Christ Himself has already warned us that in these days there would be such great confusion that, if such could happen, even God’s elect would be seduced. But this should suffice to lessen our fear and excite our industry. He who perseveres until the end will be saved. You should refuse to place your trust in those whom you perceive not to be sincere, but, like snakes speaking from their bellies and cheating God’s people with very insubstantial rumors and unmitigated lies. Here you have, in brief, my reply to their calumnies. If they persist in their impudence, or if they continue to manufacture more falsehoods, when I learn this from you, then, God willing, I shall refute them individually, and I shall name names.
14. Farewell. From England, 5 April, 1561.