Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity and its Persecution of Schismatics


It is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Dean of St Patrick's, Dublin, Gulliver's Travels

The distinction between schism and heresy is a fine one. In theory the distinction is straightforward: heresy is the denial of a Christian truth; schism is the withdrawal from the authority of the true Church. The problem is that there is no universally accepted test of what is a Christian truth, nor what constitutes the one true Church. Each sect regards itself as upholding Christian truth and accepting the authority of the true Church, since each believes itself to be (or to part of) the true Church. In practice a dissenting group will typically identify some error in the teachings of its parent Church. The parent Church will fail to acknowledge the error, and accuse the group of heresy. If the group is successfully extirpated then it continues to be referred to as heretical. If it survives and grows it eventually comes to be regarded as schismatic. Many sects now considered schismatic were regarded as heretical when they first appeared. The distinction is not important, for what we are really concerned with here is how various denominations have treated each other.

Once orthodoxy had been formulated in the fourth century, Christians soon became efficient at eliminating dissent. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of schismatic sects were persecuted into oblivion (see The Early Centuries. page 119). To take a typical example, the Montanists, a major sect in North Africa in the second century had been harried and persecuted, until they were reduced to a small rump under Justinian in the sixth century. True to their beliefs they refused to surrender to the Emperor's faction - the one now regarded as orthodox. Persecuted beyond endurance by their fellow Christians, they gathered in their churches, which were then set on fire. There they died together, burned to ashes, every man, woman and child .

Each sect regarded itself as representing the one true Church. All the rest were schismatics. As we have seen, over the course of the first millennium the westernmost of the Patriarchies tried to set itself up as superior to the others. This created such tensions that a schism developed between Rome and all the rest. Under political pressure the schism opened and closed many times, but it is conventionally dated to 1054 when anathemas were exchanged between the Patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople. Eastern and Western Churches arrived at a fairly comfortable accommodation, allowing each other their historic territories and, as a rule, killing each other's members only where unclaimed territory was at stake, or one side was so weakened militarily that it could not react. For example when the Normans took Southern Italy in the eleventh century, the population was converted by force from Orthodox Christianity to Catholic Christianity. Again, during the Crusades, monks belonging to the Greek Church were burned at the stake in Cyprus for refusing to adopt Roman practices .

The border between the Eastern empire and the putative Western Empire was especially contentious. Thus the Western, Roman Catholic, Croats warred against their Eastern neighbours, the Orthodox Serbs, for centuries. They even trumped up charges of Vampirism against them . When the modern state of Croatia was created 1941, all Serbs were given the option of converting to the Roman Church, exile, or death. This was no empty threat. On 4th August the Croatian Ustasha rounded up hundreds of women and children from the Orthodox village of Prebilovici. A couple of days later they had their hands broken, and were then pushed into a deep natural crater in a nearby hill and buried alive . Further religiously inspired atrocities, ethnic-cleansing and other war crimes occurred periodically in the area, most recently during the 1990s.

As Western temporal power increased and Eastern temporal power decreased, Eastern rulers were often faced with the choice of submitting to their enemies: either to the Western Church, or to pagans or Moslems. Like many early sects they generally preferred to throw themselves on the mercy of pagans and Moslems, rather than their fellow Christians. In the thirteenth century for example, Alexander Nevski, Prince of Novgorod, one of Russia's greatest warier saints, was faced with the choice of either submitting to the Western Church or being overrun by Mongol hoards. He chose the Mongols . Again, in the fifteenth century Constantinople (ancient Byzantium, modern Istanbul) was threatened by the Turks. In exchange for aid from Rome, the Emperor arranged for the Orthodox Church to re-unite with the Roman Church. To most Eastern (Orthodox) Christians this was worse than being overrun by Moslems and accordingly they rejected the agreement. The Roman Church would not help unless the agreement was adhered to. And so it was that Byzantium, the Capital of the Empire and centre of Eastern Christianity, was lost to the Moslems. Rome then tried to mop up isolated Orthodox Christian communities, using the failed agreement to support its claim.

Following the council of Brest-Litovsk, the Ukrainian Church (including Polish and Lithuanian) defected to Rome in 1596. This resulted in a further schism. Many members of the clergy refused to submit, but their churches and monasteries were seized and handed over to the defecting faction. The defecting faction became what is now called the Uniate Church. This Church still uses Orthodox liturgy, and allows married clergy, yet owes allegiance to Rome. In 1946 Stalin ordered it to be re-merged with the Russian Orthodox Church because of its collaboration with the Nazis. Uniates in Czechoslovakia and Romania were likewise forced to re-merge. Uniate Christians were persecuted for the next 40 years, until the Uniate Church re-emerged in 1990 after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. At the time of writing the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are still arguing over members and the ownership of property.

Over the centuries there had been many further schisms within the Eastern Church. In the seventeenth century for example the Patriarch Nicon tried to introduce Greek practices to Russia. The principal point at issue was whether to use two or three fingers in giving a blessing . For refusing to adopt the three finger option a number of people were executed. One Patriarch (Avvakum) was burned at the stake. The Church went into schism over the issue, the minority two-finger party being known as Old Believers. In 1917 there were still millions of Old Believers in Russia, divided into sub-schismatic groups over the issue of whether or not to recognise a priesthood. This sort of schism was just as common in the Western Church. However trivial such matters to non-believers, Christians have been killing each other over them for centuries: Does bread really turn into flesh during the Mass? Should the bread be leavened or unleavened? Should it be held up, and paraded around, to be worshipped? Are the people permitted to drink wine at the Mass, or wine and water, or something else, or nothing at all? Sects have persecuted each other over the centuries over such issues. It was this sort of behaviour that Swift was ridiculing with the characters in Gulliver's Travels who killed each other over which end of a boiled egg should be broken.

In the West, the deep and widespread corruption of the Roman Church after AD 1000 lead to numerous sects arising. Despite efforts to extirpate them, they have had profound and long lasting effects. We have already met Waldensians, Lollards and Hussites. Fifteenth century Hussites in particular paved the way for the reformation, which opened a new phase of schism and persecution. Catholics persecuted Hussites, Hussites persecuted Catholics and also rival Hussite factions. In the 1520s Martin Luther in Germany seceded from the Roman Church. So did Ulrich Zwingly in Switzerland. John Calvin followed in the following decade. They all advocated Hussite ideas and favoured a return to primitive Christianity free of the accretions developed by the Roman Church. They took the Bible as the authority for doctrine. All would now be described as Protestants, though they disagreed on some points .

As Protestantism spread and gained influence, Protestants started to persecute each other. In the Palatinate Frederick the Pius, a keen Calvinist, persecuted Lutherans as well as Catholics. All of the thee principal groups (Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists) accused the other two of hypocrisy, since they all demanded tolerance in areas where they were weak, and persecuted the other two where they themselves were strong, using state power to impose a monopoly whenever they could. Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted other sects such as the Anabaptists, Congregationalists, and Unitarians.

Further schisms occurred and all manner of sects flourished. There were new Adamists who insisted on not wearing clothes. Antinomians thought they could not sin whatever they did, relying on St Paul's assertion that "… if ye be led of the spirit, ye are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18). Devillers preached that even Satan would be redeemed on the Judgement day. Libertines preached free sex. The Silent Ones did not preach at all.

Schisms presented a rare opportunity to criticise Christianity, but only the Christianity of the enemies of the state. Roman Catholics and Protestants abused each other, just as the Eastern Churches and the Roman Church had done for centuries. Those on the other side were whoremongers, murders, sodomites, cannibals, devil worshippers, and so on; and were led by the antichrist incarnate. The litany of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1549) included a prayer to be delivered "from the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and his detestable enormities". The term pope-holy came to designate extreme hypocrisy. The Roman Mass was regarded as a blasphemous charade and its key words "Hoc est corpus…" was corrupted into a mock magical formula "hocus-pocus" and thence into the word hoax.

Throughout Europe Protestants and Catholics fought each other for many years. Fearing that Protestantism would overtake the whole of the West the Catholic Church made great efforts to extirpate it wherever it could. The Spanish Inquisition exterminated suspected Protestants, and since Spain also controlled the Low Countries Spanish persecution extended to Northern Europe. The Spanish army killed about 18,000 Protestants there between 1567 and 1573. The Roman Inquisition was established specifically to do the same in Italy. In Spain and Italy persecutions were strong enough to wipe out Protestantism almost completely. Bohemia remained Hussite, successfully beating Catholic armies in battle. Elsewhere success was mixed. The whole of Scandinavia went over to Lutheranism, with relatively little bloodshed. In Germany, after a great deal of fighting, Catholic forces were forced to recognise Protestants in 1555. Under the Peace of Augsburg the Emperor allowed 300 or so local rulers to decide whether their domains should be Protestant or Catholic. For years to come Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans all continued to persecute each other, and other sects. These persecutions culminated in the Thirty Year's War, to which we will return later.

In France King Henry II had done his best to exterminate Protestants, establishing a special court, known as the Burning Chamber because of its usual sentence. French Protestants were known as Huguenots. Whole villages became Huguenot, and as a result were wiped out by the Roman Catholic authorities. The Sorbonne prohibited Huguenot books. In 1535 a fancied affront to the host (a consecrated piece of bread) was answered by burning six Huguenots at each of the stations of the cross. Pope Paul III (reigned 1534-1549) encouraged the persecution of Huguenots. So did Pope Pius IV (reigned 1559-1565), who funded the persecution, and ordered that all prisoners should be killed. Despite a measure of toleration granted in 1561 bloodshed continued for many years. Some Protestants sailed to the Americas to practice their faith. One group settled in Florida, at a place now called St Augustine, where they thought themselves safe from the horrors of European Christian strife. A Spanish expedition discovered them in 1565 and exterminated them.

Back in France, Catherine de Medici arranged a dynastic marriage to end the religious strife. Her Catholic daughter was to marry the Huguenot Prince Henry of Navarre. Huguenots gathered in Paris for the wedding under a promise of safe-conduct. But a Catholic plot to assassinate a Huguenot Admiral misfired, and fearing the likely response Catherine decided to murder all Huguenots in the city. On the night of 24th August 1572, St Bartholomew's Day, troops swept through Paris killing thousands of unsuspecting Huguenots. Further massacres were triggered throughout France. The Admiral, who had survived the original murder attempt, was now beheaded and his head was sent to Pope Gregory XIII. His Holiness celebrated the massacre with Te Deums and services of thanksgiving, and had a medal struck to commemorate this great Catholic victory. On one side was his own image, on the other a depiction of an angel killing a Huguenot.

Altogether there were eight Huguenot wars before 1590. Forcible conversions by Catholic missionaries and dragoons were said to have achieved 60,000 defections in 1684 alone. Even after that Huguenots were still sporadically persecuted. By 1715 King Louis XIV could boast that Protestantism in France had been suppressed. In fact many pockets still remained, though most Huguenots had died or fled to Protestant countries. French surnames in modern England often point to a Huguenot refugee ancestry.

Protestantism spread rapidly in the Netherlands, much to the fury of the country's Catholic rulers. Philip II of Spain, who controlled what is now Belgium as well as Holland, encouraged the Inquisition and demanded that all prisoners be put to death. Protestants rebelled, and burned Catholic churches. In the so-called Spanish Fury which followed the Duke of Alva killed thousands in Antwerp and Haarlem. A new court known as the Bloody Tribunal sent many more to their deaths. Corpses were everywhere: bodies broken on wheels, carcasses rotting on gallows, charred remains still tied to their stakes. In Flanders the regent, Mary, Dowager Queen of Hungary, had Protestant men put to the sword while Protestant women were buried alive.

John Wycliffe's ideas, having taken a firmer root in Europe and crystallised as Protestantism, were reintroduced to Britain from the Netherlands. Henry VIII was fiercely Catholic, and had personally written a denunciation of Luther's ideas, an action for which the Pope awarded him the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith, a title which is still held by English monarchs, and which accounts for the Fid. Def. or F.D. on English coinage). A combination of Protestant argument, clerical corruption, the need for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, along with the prospect of monastic treasure convinced Henry of the advantages of setting up his own Church. It steered a middle course, adopting many Protestant ideas, but still purporting to be Catholic . Scholars studied the historical development of doctrine, and had little difficulty in establishing that a Church could reject the authority of Rome, and yet still properly be called Catholic. The Anglican Church was not then the Church of England, but the Church in England.

Henry's middle course enabled successive monarchs to persecute both Catholics and Protestants, according to the fashion of the day. Henry executed Thomas Moore for his continued allegiance to Rome, but also Lutherans for questioning the doctrine of transubstantiation. A man called Forest was roasted alive, hanging in chains over the fire for denying the King's supremacy in spiritual matters. The English bishops kept a prudent silence on the matter. Henry's successor Edward VI died before he had developed any disposition to kill heretics, though a few Roman Catholics were executed during his reign. Edward was followed by Bloody Mary who favoured the Roman Church and had the corpse of her father, Henry VIII, disinterred and burned. She had some 300 Protestants burned alive in three years. Among them were Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and other bishops, notably Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. Here is part of an account of the burning of Dr John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester in 1555. Dressed only in a shirt, he had secreted bladders full of gunpowder between his legs and under his arms in order to assure himself a quick death. He had been bound to the stake by iron hoops:

Then the reeds were thrown up, and he received two bundles of them in his own hands, and put one under each arm. Command was now given that the fire should be kindled; but owing to the number of green faggots, it was some time before the flames set fire to the reeds. The wind being adverse, and the morning very cold, the flames blew from him, so that he was hardly touched by the fire. Another fire was soon kindled of a more vehement nature: it was now that the bladders of gunpowder exploded, but they proved of no service to the suffering prelate. He now prayed with a loud voice…

But even when his face was completely black with the flames, and his tongue swelled so that he could not speak, yet his lips went till they were shrunk to the gums; and he knocked his breast with his hands until one of his arms fell off, and then continued knocking with the other while the fat, water, and blood dripped out at his finger ends. At length, by renewing the fire, his strength was gone, and his hand fastened in the iron which was put round him. Soon after, the whole lower part of his body being consumed he fell over the iron that bound him, into the fire, amidst the horrible yells and acclamations of the bloody crew that surrounded him. This holy martyr was more than three quarters of an hour consuming; the inexpressible anguish of which he endured as a lamb, moving neither forwards, backwards, not to any side: his nether parts were consumed, and his bowels fell out some time before he expired .

Such burnings had exactly the opposite effect to that intended, and shifted the country towards Protestantism. When Elizabeth I came to the throne she had to contend with extreme Protestants - Calvinist Puritans, as well as Roman Catholics. Under Elizabeth the Church in England now became the Church of England. Puritan worship was banned as well as celebration of the Roman mass, and a fine was imposed on anyone who did not attend Anglican services. Three puritans were put to death. Some 200 Roman Catholics, including Mary Queen of Scots, were executed for treason (The charge of treason was not entirely without foundation, since the pope purported to have released Catholic subjects from their allegiance to the Queen, and declared it their duty to kill her). Since Henry VIII, the papacy had been encouraging European Princes to mount a Crusade to recover England for the faith. Philip II finally responded and sponsored the famous Spanish Armada which sailed in 1588. It failed, and no further significant attempts were made, despite numerous papal requests. Treasonable conspiracies were a different matter. The Gun Powder Plot was a plan to destroy James I along with both Lords and Commons at the State opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605, supposedly in preparation to a Roman Catholic uprising. The fate of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators is well known.

For years to come the country was polarised. Under Charles I Puritans were treated little better than treasonable Catholics. They were tried in Archbishop Laud's infamous Star Chamber before having their nostrils slit and their ears cropped, as well as being pilloried, whipped, and branded on the face. Puritans openly called their Episcopal oppressors 'satanical lords', and 'servants of the Devil'. In 1641 matters came to a head when a Parliament sympathetic to the Puritans impeached the bishops, after passing an Act to destroy the episcopacy root and branch. This was one of its last acts before the Civil War. The much hated Archbishop Laud was imprisoned and later executed.

The English Civil War was fought by relatively High Church Anglicans on the one side, against a confederation of Puritans, Presbyterians and other dissidents on the other. Both sides fought zealously in the certain knowledge that God favoured their cause, though victory went to the Puritans. England was now Calvinist, or more specifically Presbyterian. A profession of Presbyterian faith was agreed in Scotland in 1647, and accepted the following year at Westminster. Known as the Westminster Confession it describes the Pope as "that anti-Christ, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God". Second to the Bible this Confession is still the principal standard of Free Presbyterian orthodoxy.

Cromwell died in 1658 and the monarchy was restored in 1660. After the Restoration Cromwell's body was disinterred and hanged, and his head mounted on a pole over Westminster Hall. But Catholics were still widely suspected of treason - the great Fire of London in 1666 was widely attributed to arson on the part of Roman Catholics . Both extremes were feared. Parliament passed a series of Acts against Puritans, and the Test Act of 1673 disqualified all Roman Catholics from holding public office. The authorities were still concerned about treasonable Catholic plots, both real and imagined. The so-called Popish Plot of 1678 was one of the imaginary ones, invented by Titus Oats. It led to the judicial murder of some 30 Roman Catholics. Non-conformists were still persecuted as well. John Bunyan wrote his classic work The Pilgrim's Progress around this time, during his imprisonment in Bedford gaol between 1660 and 1672 for non-conformist preaching. When James II came to the throne he authorised a Declaration of Indulgence, intended to favour Roman Catholics. For this he lost the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and William and Mary were invited by Parliament to occupy it in his place.

Religious developments in Scotland were broadly parallel to those in England. Initially, those who espoused Lutheran ideas were burned, as Patrick Hamilton was at St Andrew's in 1528. George Wishart an early Presbyterian was burned in 1546, but his disciple John Knox survived his sentence as a galley slave to lead Scotland away from the Roman Catholic camp and into the Calvinist one. In Scotland, as in half of Europe, it was now to be Roman Catholics who would be persecuted. Protestantism had not impinged much upon Ireland until James I started displacing native Catholics from Ulster and giving their lands to Protestant incomers from Scotland and England. Soon Roman Catholics were being exterminated for practising their religion, a tendency which would become more pronounced under Cromwell. Cromwell's forces killed many thousands of religious opponents in Ireland. In town after town Catholics surrendered and were executed - a righteous judgement of God as Cromwell described it. With several periods of quiescence, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, have been killing each other in large numbers ever since. The killing is now regarded as a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, though in fact this sort of interdenominational torture and murder is merely a vestige of what was for centuries the norm throughout Europe. .