While historians often credit men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale for sparking, and then leading the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th Century, they did not change the religious, political, and social dynamics of Europe by themselves. Men like John Frith, through a couple brilliant writings and a convicting passion for the truth, helped pave the way for Tyndale and others to reform the church through the power of God’s written word.
Born in 1503 as the son of an innkeeper, Frith attended Sevenoaks Grammar School and, after attending Eton College, was accepted to Cambridge University. While studying at Cambridge, news of the German Reformation began making its way across the English Channel, influencing Frith along with a few other open-minded students. Thomas Bilney – a graduate student who had come to faith in Christ by reading the Greek New Testament – began gathering students interested in the reformation of the English church. Historians believe that John Frith may have come into contact with William Tyndale during these meetings, foreshadowing a productive and meaningful relationship down the road.
At this same time, a Cardinal by the name of Thomas Wolsey desired to form a college at Oxford University devoted to countering the German and Switzerland reform movements. So, he instructed his helpers to pluck the finest scholars out among every English University, namely Cambridge. One of these elite few, unsurprisingly, was John Frith, who by this time had grown fluent in both Greek and Latin.
Wolsey received exactly the opposite of what he intended in his new college, dubbed “Christ Church,” as many of his new students favored the Reformation. John Clarke, one of the former Cambridge students inspired by the German reformers, began a series of Bible studies that used “heretical” books smuggled into Oxford. Upon hearing word of the underground Bible study using banned books, Wolsey imprisoned ten students, including Frith and Clark, to a foul, unsanitary fish locker. The college held the students in the squalor conditions for six months, resulting in the deaths of four. Once released, Frith, realizing that it was only a matter of time before he would be apprehended again and charged with heresy, left England for the European mainland.
Upon arriving from England, Frith made his way to Antwerp, where he became William Tyndale’s most trusted advisor in printing the English New Testament. The Protestant friendly environment, his close proximity to Tyndale, and the amount of printers in town, made it an ideal location for Frith to formulate and then write down his thoughts on two things that would eventually have him burned at the stake: Purgatory and the Holy Eucharist.
In his rather pioneering book, Disputation of Purgatory divided into Three Books, Frith proved the non-existence of Purgatory by showing the nature of Christ’s work and his teachings on forgiveness. If the forgiveness of sins was complete due to the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, what was the point of Purgatory? Frith insisted that Christ’s death was the true purgatory, encompassing all of our sins and making us right with God.
Frith went even farther than just the idea of Purgatory in his book. If Purgatory did not exist, what would be the point of indulgences, the act of the Roman Catholic Church pardoning sins through payments? This idea was even more radical than Luther’s attack on indulgences, where his concern mainly rested in the church abusing poor German peasants with overpriced indulgences.
For reasons relatively unknown, Frith returned to England in 1532, perhaps to help someone escape to the European mainland. He alluded spies for a while, but eventually, authorities tracked him down and threw him in the Tower of London. There, he penned his thoughts on the Holy Eucharist, something that he knew would “purchase [him] cruel death.”
Writing with “great chains piled onto his body,” Frith attacked the concept of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine taken during communion actually become Christ’s living flesh and blood. Frith, along with a growing number of reformers, believed that communion was intended to be a memorial of Christ’s death, not a re-sacrifice.
In his final days in the Tower, Frith wrote perhaps his most brilliant work, The Bulwark, a response to John Rastell’s objections to Frith’s writings on Purgatory. Written with such elegance and clearness of content, the book actually won Rastell over to the evangelical cause, as it emphasizes the idea that a man sins if his good works are done in order to gain favor with God.
Needless to say, once they got their hands on his new works, authorities within in the English church did not take a liking to Frith's ideas. Bringing up issues about Purgatory was one thing, but attacking the Holy Eucharist was an entirely different, and much more serious, issue.
King Henry VIII – whose advisors convinced him that Frith’s writings were one of the sources of England’s problems – commanded that Frith be put on trial. Friends within the political system offered him a way out, but Frith knew it was too late. After a few trials where Frith adamantly defended his writings using scriptural knowledge and reason, the Church officially condemned him as a heretic, and sentenced him to a death by flames.
Knowing of his friend’s future demise, Tyndale wrote Frith these words in a pair of letters that still survive: "If your pain proves to be above your strength, pray to your Father in that name, and he will ease it."
Before being led out to Smithfield – the same place where other reformers like John Rodgers would burn – Stephen Gardiner, his tutor from when he attended Cambridge, offered him a pardon if he answered yes to both of these questions: Do you believe in Purgatory, and do you believe in transubstantiation?
Frith replied that neither one could be proven by the Holy Scriptures, and was thereby sentenced to death.
John Frith was burned at the stake on July 4, 1533. He was 30 years old.
19 years later, Frith’s teaching on communion would be officially adopted by the Anglican Church, represented in the 1552 edition of The Book Of Common Prayer. John Frith’s contribution to a change of thinking towards Purgatory and communion still remain relevant today.
Let us have the courage of John Frith, who stood up and faced an entire country as a result of being so convicted by the scriptures.