Britain’s Christian Heritage
The First People of the British Isles
The early history of Britain can be characterised by the arrival of successive waves of people, including the Celts, Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans. These peoples are primarily descendents of Ephraim, one of the lost tribes of Israel, who according to Biblical prophecy were to be gathered in the isles northwest of Israel (ISAIAH 49:12). The history of Britain really does reflect God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
"... he (Manasseh)
also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother (Ephraim)
shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations …" (GENESIS 48:19) and this is the reason for Britain being called Great and why it formed the British Commonwealth. (See this article on National Israel and Judah for further evidence). The history of the Celts shows that they came from the Middle East and that they were skilled bronze workers and had expertise in agriculture, and a civilized society quickly developed in these Isles after they arrived.
God was re-gathering His people and preparing them to receive the Gospel directly from Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus died. The following sections show how the British people have been used since then to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.
At the time of Jesus, the Isle of Avalon (modern-day Glastonbury) was a major port, important in the trade of tin mined in Cornwall. Joseph of Arimathea, the Virgin Mary’s uncle, was a wealthy tin trader and it was to Cornwall that he returned to found the first Christian church in Britain and to spread the Gospel. It is to be noted that the Celtic converts were never part of the Roman Catholic religion that was to later usurp Christianity.
Despite an earlier invasion attempt by Julius Caesar, the Romans did not come in earnest until Emperor Claudius in AD 43. The Romans took over forty years to conquer Britain and even then it was only ever a partial conquest, which was almost reversed by the uprising led by Queen Boudicca (Boudicea) of the Iceni.
Early Christianity in Britain
When St. Alban was martyred in the 4th Century in the city to later bear his name, Christianity was a long established, but persecuted religion. Alban was a pagan soldier in the Roman army, who sheltered a Christian priest fleeing persecution. The soldier was so struck by the priest’s devotion to God and blameless life that he became a Christian himself. When the Roman governor heard of the priest’s whereabouts he sent soldiers to capture him. Alban then disguised himself as the priest by using his cloak and was captured and eventually executed.
Christianity was soon to be amalgamated with the pagan religions to produce the compromised state religion of Roman Catholicism under Emperor Constantine, who was believed to have had a British Christian mother. By the 5th Century, the Romans had started to withdraw in the face of the invasions by the ‘pagan’ Angles, Saxons, Friesians and Jutes. Christianity then only survived in the Celtic fringes of Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Scotland. Ireland became Christianised through the efforts of St. Patrick, a British Christian, whose monastic Celtic Christianity was responsible for the conversion of the Celts of Scotland. The Celtic Christians of the Celtic fringe failed to evangelise the Anglo-Saxon ‘enemy’ due to the deep mutual hostility and ‘stubborn’ paganism of the invaders.
Celtic Christianity, through the efforts of Columbanus, spread to the continent and established monasteries in Gaul and even in Italy. Their disregard for the ‘authority’ of the local Catholic hierarchy undermined the ‘rule of the bishops’, while spreading a Bible-based Christianity, untainted by the pagan ‘compromises’ of Constantine’s church.
Rome’s response to this threat was twofold: One was to take over the monastic movement promoting the Benedictine tradition and displacing ‘other’ traditions; a process which took a number of generations and was put in motion by the Bishop of Rome, Gregory I. The second response in Britain was the ‘tactic’ later favoured by the Jesuits, in which kingdoms were ‘Catholicised’ by the ‘conversion’ of the elite. This resulted in the ‘English’ Anglo-Saxons becoming at least nominally Catholic under the preaching of the Roman Catholic missionary, Augustine.
A decisive step in this process in Britain was the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, hosted by the king of the powerful Northumberland kingdom. In principle, the synod was about which method to use for dating Easter. The King’s choice of Rome’s method was based on the superiority of Peter as the ‘gatekeeper of Heaven’. The ‘superiority’ of Peter over British saints was exploited by Rome to impress a ‘superstitious’ elite that remained pagan in its attitudes to choose the church with the more ‘powerful’ patron saint. Rome spread its practices throughout Britain, although individual ‘traditions’ still continued within different monasteries and the Celtic Christian influence remained. The full ‘Romanisation’ would require invasion of its staunch allies, the Normans. The later Norman take-over of Ireland would in turn result in its ‘Romanisation’.
Christianity in Britain then had to wait for the great Reformers to break the yoke of Rome. These times were known as ‘The Dark Ages’, though they were not without some light …
Britain’s Christian Foundations
King Alfred the Great (849-899), although a Catholic, studied the Bible and had the Gospels translated into the native tongue. His reign became a ‘golden age’ in which he rebuilt churches, brought over foreign scholars and sponsored a ‘renaissance’ of Christian learning. He was a lawmaker who incorporated the ‘Ten Commandments’ and Christian principles into what would later become the ‘Common Law’.
The Magna Carta in 1215 AD was imposed on a weak king by his overpowering subjects, as a way to control the king’s powers. This charter set in law biblical principles that addressed the warning of the Lord found in 1 SAMUEL 8:11-17 to Israel when they asked to have a king. Here God warns Israel of how a king would tax them and seize their property.
Clause 39 of the Magna Carta states: “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or banished or in any way molested, nor will we go upon him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and law of the land.”
The Magna Carta was also a decisive step towards a parliamentary system in which taxpayers, through their representatives, had a say over their taxation and how they are governed. Great Britain is indeed the oldest democracy in the world!
John Wycliffe (1320–1384). The first Bible in English was translated by Wycliffe. He was known as the ‘Morning Star of the Reformation’, as he campaigned against the corruption of the Church and preached the Gospel to the common people at a time when few priests knew the Bible. Because Wycliffe’s translation was before printing, copies were hand written, limiting their ownership; mass ownership was possible for the later translation by William Tyndale. The preachers, known as Lollards, spread the Gospel using the Wycliffe translation. They were so successful that nearly half the population of England accepted this new faith based on the Bible rather than the ‘traditions’ of the Roman Catholic church and the authority of the Pope.
It was under King James I. (1566 – 1625) that Britain was first named “Great”. And it was this great monarch who wanted the Bible in the hands of the common man. He commissioned and authorised the book that is probably the most widely-read literary work of all times – the King James Bible. About 50 of England’s best scholars produced between 1604 – 1611 such a magnificent translation that even 400 years later it is far superior to all modern versions and has brought countless men and women to salvation and the knowledge of Christ.
The Church of England finally broke from Rome during the reign of Henry VIII, and took on many of the Bible-based protestant reformation teachings. This mainly resulted from Henry’s desire to secure a divorce from his out-of-favour wife. However, the true Reformation of the Church took place during his son’s (King Edward VI) reign. King Edward VI was known as the “The Most Godly King of England” and as the “British Josiah”; after the young king in the Old Testament whose reign saw the revival of faith. In 1547 at his coronation, the boy king Edward VI, when presented with the three swords of his three kingdoms said, “one sword is missing”. When asked which sword this was he replied, “the sword of the Spirit - the Bible”. From then on every monarch would swear the Coronation Oath while holding the Bible.
When Edward VI died, his eldest sister Mary became queen. She was later to be known as ‘bloody Mary’ for the mass martyrdoms of Christians during her reign as she tried without lasting success to make England Catholic once more. Two of her more famous victims were Bishops Latimer and Ridley. While being burnt at the stake Bishop Latimer turned to his younger colleague Bishop Ridley and told him, “Be of good comfort… We shall light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The flame was never to go out, as God protected Britain from all attempts to extinguish it and Britain become a ‘light unto the world’ through the missionary movements of the Victorian period. As we will read, successive revivals and fresh moves of God were to be the hallmarks of British Christianity over the next 450 years. The British truly were “the people of The Book”. You can read about the many British martyrs who died for their faith in ‘Foxes Book of Martyrs’.
The Translation of the Bible into English
In the 17th century, King James ordered the translation of the Bible into English. Much of Tyndale's works eventually found its way into the King James Bible, which, though the work of 54 independent scholars, is based primarily on Tyndale's translations. This new Bible was named the "King James Version" and is considered to be the best translation of the original to this day.
This translation was to be chained to the pulpits of every church in the land and was preached to all.
“The entrance of Thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (PSALM 119:130).
The key to the Protestant Reformation was the reading of God’s Word through mass ownership of Bibles translated into the native tongue and it transformed the people into a Bible-based society.
"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 TIMOTHY 3:16-17).
Many had their eyes opened to the Truth and amongst those were the Puritans who set sail for America seeking a new land to worship God, due to the persecution they experienced during this time of upheaval.
George Fox (1624-1691) was another who preached openly against the traditional religious and social practices of the day, and sought to awaken the nation. He became the founder of the ‘Religious Society of Friends’, commonly known as the Quakers. He would preach in market-places, in the fields, in appointed meetings of various kinds, or even sometimes in "steeple-houses" … Fox's preaching was grounded in scripture, but mainly effective because of the intense personal experience he was able to project. He was scathing about contemporary morality, and urged his listeners to lead lives without sin.
“A Guiding Hand”
Sir Winston Churchill once said that he had a "strong feeling that some Guiding Hand" is in charge of Britain, that "we have a guardian because we serve a great cause, and shall have that guardian as long as we serve that cause faithfully." It is amazing how often Britain has been miraculously delivered from foreign threats of attack …
As Britain was used by God to spread His Word throughout the world, many Catholic European nations tried to invade and subjugate Protestant Britain. In 1588, His Most Catholic Majesty, Phillip II of Spain; the most powerful nation in Europe, tried to invade England by sending an ‘Armada’. The fleet was destroyed by a huge storm.
In 1805, Napoleon, the “master of Europe”, sent the combined fleets of France and Spain which were defeated by a smaller British fleet led by Lord Nelson.
During World War II six days of national prayer were called by the King and the Prime Minister, and each was a turning point in the War. In 1940, the British Army was evacuated through the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, protected from the German air force by bad weather, and then retrieved from the beaches during an ‘unusual calm’ on the English Channel. ‘The Battle of Britain’ was then won despite the military superiority of Hitler’s forces.
God promised King David:
"Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime" (2 SAMUEL 7:10). This has literally been fulfilled in the history of Britain, which has not been invaded since 1066 AD, nearly 1,000 years!
The Great Awakening - A Changed Society
During the agricultural and industrial revolution, Wesley and Whitefield’s ministries, together with those of other preachers, ushered in a period of great spiritual revival and strength, the like of which had never been experienced in this country before. Historians speak of it as ‘the great work of grace’ that transformed England during one of the darkest periods of its history.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) had a voice that could be heard “a mile away” and his open air preaching reached as many as 100,000 people in one gathering. He could paint word pictures with such breathless vividness that crowds listening would stare through tear-filled eyes as he spoke. Often as many as 500 people in his audience would fall and lay prostrate from the power of God.
John Wesley (1703-1791) is the founder of the Methodist Movement. His ministry was to spread the Gospel among the working classes who never went to church. He became famous for his constant travelling (he travelled over 250,000 miles on horseback), so as to be able to reach as many as possible with his open-air sermons. Methodist missionaries went on to travel all over the globe spreading the Word to the most isolated parts of the world.
The Nineteenth Century - Taking the Light to the World
“Ye are the light of the world” (MATTHEW 5:14).
It was during the reign of Queen Victoria, at the height of the British Empire that the Bible societies flourished. Protestantism believed that “the Bible and the Bible only” was the foundation of their faith.
“The Lord gave the Word: great was the company of those that published it” (PSALM 68:11).
Many British missionaries carried the light of the Gospel to the world, such as Hudson Taylor who went to China, William Carey, whose mission was in India and David Livingstone who travelled into the heart of Africa. See the “Old Paths” historical section for more information.
Quakers and figures such as William Wilberforce led the campaign against slavery. The campaign eventually triumphed over the powerful business interests; resulting in slavery being abolished through out the British Empire. The Slave Trade by sea was stopped through the might of the British Navy, which halted the transport of black Africans to the USA, which then nearly declared war.
William Booth (1829-1912) was the founder of the Salvation Army that started out in the east end of London, preaching to the poor and the downtrodden, and eventually spread worldwide. Their catchphrase was “Blood and Fire” – and their whole-hearted devotion as “soldiers of Christ” led to the conversion of millions of people all over the world.
The Twentieth Century and the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh …” (ACTS 2:16-17). This outpouring of the Holy Spirit in these last days was manifested in Britain and there were many great moves of God in the first half of the 20th century.
The Welsh Revival of 1904 - The leading figure in the revival was Evan Roberts (1878-1959), which started when he heard another revival preacher, Seth Joshua, speaking on the necessity of being broken. During the service Evan cried out “Lord, bend me! Lord, bend me!” and that night he was indeed bent and broken by God. The following night Evan Roberts shared his testimony to some young people. All experienced the power of God and fell to the ground. This was the beginning of a revival in which 500,000 people were converted.
George and Stephen Jeffreys became the best-known Pentecostal evangelists in Britain. George is considered the most successful evangelist Britain has produced since John Wesley. They were the chief influence that brought into being the Pentecostal denominations of Britain. The work spread rapidly and against great odds, despite George Jeffreys and his evangelistic team experiencing many personal hardships. In some places persecution was fierce because of the uncompromising message that was preached. It came to be known as the ‘Foursquare Gospel Campaign’, because George Jeffreys concentrated his message on the four fundamental truths of the faith: Jesus Christ as the Saviour, Healer, Baptiser in the Holy Spirit and Coming King.
Smith Wigglesworth (1859-1947), known as the ‘Apostle of Faith’, was mightily used by God. He was born to a poor family, was unable to read until his twenties, and became a plumber by trade. Smith’s ministry was characterised by his unwavering faith in God which resulted in countless instances of the sick being healed in his worldwide ministry.
Revival On The Hebrides - Between 1949 and 1952, a widespread revival swept through the islands in answer to the prayers of two elderly sisters. God's revival fire was such that sinners were unable to escape God's presence. Instrumental in this revival was the evangelist Duncan Campbell. He came to the Isle of Lewis to conduct a two-week evangelistic campaign and ended up staying for two years. The revival was to continue for another 30 years.
Moral Decline and Hope for the Future
The United Kingdom today is in deep decline. According to the social and economic trends, crime, family breakdown, illegitimacy, infertility, drug-taking, debt, indecency and perversion are rising in a manner that appears to be out of control. Decisions from both European and British Courts are allowing bureaucrats, homosexuals and feminists to impose their morality on the people of the United Kingdom.
In northern Scotland, in Aberdeenshire, an area considered to be the ‘Bible-belt’ of Scotland, a donation of King James Bibles to a school was blocked by the local authorities because a parent objected. The grounds of the objection were that the ‘Trinitarian Bible Society’ was anti-semitic; a claim without foundation and sectarian as the society was formed in response to the inclusion of the Unitarians to the Bible Society.
Stories are appearing in the press of happenings ever stranger or perverse, weird or depraved. One could give no end of examples, and any we could give today would be trumped by others, worse in kind, by the time this reaches the reader.
In addition to a general moral decline there is a threat to traditional, Bible-based laws and declarations such as the Act of Settlement, the Coronation Oath, Trial by Jury and Habeas Corpus from Britain’s membership of an ever more intrusive European Union.
What then is the heart of the matter? The decline, both personal and national, is due to the fact that the people have largely turned their back on God and His principles.
People must wake up to their Christian heritage, turn back to God and make the Bible the centre of their lives.
“If my people, which are called, by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 CHRONICLES 7:14).