the weblog of Alan Knox

The result of the success of the Lollard educational programme

Posted by on Mar 7, 2013 in church history, community | 4 comments

I have thoroughly enjoyed studying some of the “heretical” groups of the middle ages, that is, groups of Christians who sprung up from place to place before Luther and the Reformation. Many of these groups bear striking resemblance to later Reformation-era groups, especially the Anabaptists and other “radical reformers.”

For example, in England, there was a group called “Lollards” who followed the “pre-reformer” John Wycliffe. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with Wycliffe, I’d encourage you to investigate him and the “Lollards.”) These groups of believers opposed the Catholic Church in several areas, specifically in regards to the clergy and transubstantiation. (In fact, their Catholic opponents often asked suspected Lollards if the bread was actually the body of Christ, to which the Lollards would reply that it was just a piece of bread, thus condemning them.)

In many ways, the religious leaders of the day did not know what to do about the Lollards, because they did not make sense to them. They didn’t know what to call the simple meetings that these believers held in homes and public places. They couldn’t understand why these “Lollards” kept quoting Scripture (in English, though, which was always suspect). Although there were a few “leaders” (from an outward perspective), the groups continued to thrive after the leaders were, um, removed.

Speaking to this last point, consider this passage in The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History by Anne Hudson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988):

If there were few ‘prophets’, in the mould of Swinderby, Thorpe, or Wyche, in the later period, there was a host of lesser figures, men and women, who in the course of their everyday activities proselytized, encouraged and upbraided the wavering, and fostered the faithful. It seems clear that the dominating figures were not to be found in Lollardy of the last sixty years before Lutheranism. In part this is doubtless the effect of the continued persecution, and most notably of Arundel’s Constitutions; conventional wisdom would add the effect of Oldcastle’s rebellion in removing lay support for the heretics amongst the aristocracy and gentry. But it is worth examining whether in part it is not also the result of the success of the Lollard educational programme. For it is clear that the communities themselves had effectively taken over from the individual preachers as teachers and maintainers of heresy. (449-50)

In a theology course, a seminary professor once told me that if the seminaries were doing their job correctly and the church was doing its job correctly, then the seminaries would not need to exist. So, considering the quote above, it seems that the fact that seminaries continue to exist is a demonstration of the failure of that educational program.

On the other hand, those who persecuted the Lollards for their “heresy” found that their “educational programme” was vastly successful. And, what was that educational program? “The communities themselves had effectively taken over from the individual preachers as teachers and maintainers of heresy” (with “heresy” referring to the beliefs and practices of the Lollards).

What would happen if communities of believers today took over from “the individual preachers as teachers and maintainers” of the way of Christ? Would we see a similar success to that “educational programme”?


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  1. 3-7-2013

    Very interesting and good thought. Have you read “The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy”… Finke and Stark? If so, I wonder what your thoughts are? I think it is pretty interesting, especially in regard to the Methodist Church. The decline associated with requiring minister’s to be educated via (seminary).

    Note, by no means am I against Biblical Education. I am looking into Graduate Studies myself. In fact, I find a strong need for good Apologetics (not heresy hunters or bashers) more than anything right now.

  2. 3-7-2013

    By the way read your article on heresy. Very good and thanks.

  3. 3-7-2013

    I’ve noticed the more we include our kids in our community and also allow them to share their thoughts, the more empowered they become to stand up to assertions that don’t make sense to them.

    We model referring to Scripture and explaining our reasoning process to them.

    At least in our little assembly, this seems to have the effect of strengthening their critical thinking skills (as well as their theology).

    I’m actually starting to wonder if neglect of making disciples of children could be a cause for the many false starts and falling back to non-participatory forms of church throughout history.

  4. 3-7-2013


    No, I haven’t heard of “The Churching of America.” I’m not against formal education either. I have a bachelor’s degree, a couple of masters degrees, and I’m working on a PhD. But none of that indicates that I’m mature in Christ. I know some “uneducated” brothers and sisters who are much better at following Jesus than me.


    Thanks for bringing the children into this topic. They are definitely part of the community, and should be treated as part of the community – a contributing part of the community.