Review By Lee Harmon, March 27, 2012
Broadbent writes with the dramatic flair of an apologist, but with the atonal precision of a historian. This is obviously a topic dear to his heart. It’s not an exciting read, but an awful lot of data is presented, and if you’re seriously interested in the topic, you’ll find it captivating. I did, so much so that I was able to forgive Broadbent’s bias (he tends to classify everyone into three divisions: Catholic, heathen and Christian).
Broadbent was born in England in 1861, and this is a reprint of a 1935 book. Broadbent’s thesis is that God has preserved a remnant of faithful underground believers through the ages, who depended solely upon the Spirit and strict Biblical teachings, and who resisted the institutionalization of the Catholic Church. He treks methodically through the centuries from Christ to about the year 1900, highlighting individuals and groups that appear to fit the mold of true Christianity.
This means meeting in inauspicious groups (usually private homes), identifying by no name except perhaps that of Christian or Brethren, and denying any reliance upon authoritative structure with the exception of local guiding elders (Christ alone is the “head” of the church). These tiny Christian gatherings objected to taking the name of anyone as their founder. Seeking to mimic only Bible teachings, they refused to venerate the cross, denied transubstantiation, discouraged infant baptism and sprinkling, and most important of all, displayed a willingness to stand true in the face of great persecution. So many thousands of believers died for their convictions that I quit counting.
Broadbent is particularly appreciative of Christian martyrs, so much so that he seems to consider it a primary identifying mark of the “Pilgrim Church.” Constantine’s conversion afforded no relief, since persecution only intensified under the Catholic Church. Systematic beheading, burning, and drowning persisted throughout church history.
The rest of my review will give you a run-down of Broadbent’s favored selections. In the first couple centuries of Christian development, Broadbent praises Origin and appears sympathetic to the Montanist movement, perhaps because of their emphasis on direction by the Spirit. He uncovers an anonymous letter sent to Diognetus which provides not a word of doctrine, but mimics the tone of the earliest believers. The letter indicates that Christians “pass their days on earth, but are citizens of heaven,” enduring all things as if foreigners even in their own land.
Broadbent denounces Arianism, but praises Athanasius for “maintaining a valiant witness to the true divinity of the Savior.” Priscillian kept true, but Augustine was a man of good intentions with “strong affections and quick and tender sympathies” who nevertheless departed from the principles of Scripture. In particular, Augustine was unable to embrace the Donatists. From the third to the fifth centuries, true Christians kept their distance from four false teachings: Manichaeism (attributing the natural world to an evil creator), Arianism (which taught that Jesus is not God manifest in the flesh), Pelagianism (which denies the sinful state of man), and Sacerdotalism (dependency upon the Church for salvation).
Several early movements do display evidence of the Spirit’s leading, though. Broadbent approves of the Paulicians, Bogomils, Waldenses (Vaudois), Albigenses, Lollards, and others. Broadbent explains: “No authority of any man was allowed to set aside the authority of Scripture. Yet, throughout the centuries, and in all countries, they confessed the same truths and had the same practices.” The Waldenses in the Alpine valleys especially earned Broadbent’s praise. Waldensian “apostles” (a traveling ministry) left property, goods, home and family to travel in simplicity, without money, their needs being supplied by the believers among whom they ministered. They always went two and two, an elder with a younger man. The name “Friends of God” was often given to them.
These collections of believers rarely named themselves, but were named by their opponents. One exception is a period in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries when some were wont to name their elders after men of the Bible, and their gatherings after churches of the Bible (Achaia, Philip, Colosse, etc.) All claimed apostolic tradition, some believed in apostolic succession through the laying on of hands. Yet one must be very careful in rightly divining which groups are Godly, because such groups are invariably slandered, and one must read between the lines of the smears. As with martyrdom, a prime determinant of a Spirit-led church is one which the Catholic church denounces.
Around the time of the Reformation, the Pilgrim Church blossomed. This is not due to Luther’s influence, for though Luther began on the straight and narrow, he didn’t fully return to the Scriptures. Perhaps the growth of the Pilgrim Church can be attributed to a period of little persecution, or perhaps to the printing press and the ready availability of translated Bibles.
Even so, they never used written prayers; instead, an elder among them would “begin to pray and continue for a longer or shorter time as it may seem suitable to him.” They memorized the scripture in their mother tongue from much reading. They held seven points of faith, including a Triune God and that this God chose for Himself a spotless church. Among this resurgence was found the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Puritans, and Lollards. Clusters of believers sprang up in place after place, known among themselves as “the Friends,” but derisively called Quakers. Relief from persecution was again short-lived; Anabaptists were tortured or banished from their homelands, and seldom were there less than a thousand Friends in prison at a time.
These groups were not of one mind on all points, such as whether it was appropriate to bear arms, but they were of like character and appreciation for the Bible’s primitive teachings. John Wesley, an influential Christian figure, nearly adopted the righteous teachings of a group named the Moravians. A Methodist group in North Carolina took the name of “Republican Methodists” but soon rightfully abandoned the name, acknowledging no head of the Church but Christ, and no creed or rules, but accepted the Scripture alone for their guidance. Soon after, a similar movement originated among Baptists. The “Christian Connection” formed.
These movements, although arising independently and only discovering each other later, held much in common. Even in Russia, a group began to form, forsaking their church for “meetings,” calling each other brethren. They were reproachfully labeled “Stundists.” In Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania numerous congregations sprang up calling themselves Nazarenes, and living quietly below the radar.
As groups proliferated, a new danger surfaced; that of the ease in which any particular spiritual movement could crystallize into a sect. In the 19th century, John Nelson Darby was influential in teaching a humble Spirit-led church, encouraging the independence of each congregation, though he later shifted from that ground and adopted the Catholic position of an organized body of churches.
Many churches followed Darby into error, condemning others and excluding all churches outside their own circle subject to central authority, but others endeavored to carry out the principles of Scripture, refusing to cut off one another but recognizing that minute differences—particularly non-scriptural differences—did not necessitate division. Broadbent concludes his research with a plea to recognize the Church as One, members of one Pilgrim Church, acknowledging as our fellow-pilgrims all who tread the Way of Life.