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), 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 be 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 will 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.
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
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
other patriarchies. 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. When the western
crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they dispossessed the Orthodox
Patriarch and his clergy from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Orthodox priests refused to hand over their treasured piece
of the "True Cross" to the new Catholic Patriarch
so he tortured them until they revealed its location. No one
seems to have noticed the irony of Christian priests torturing
other Christian priests over the most holy relic in Christendom.
The bitterness has continued to this day, and physical fights
between Christian priests of half a dozen different sects are
still a regular feature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- the most holy church in the world - as they have been continually
for almost a millennium. These fights no longer feature clubs,
daggers and guns as they did until recent times, but they still
regularly horrify Christian pilgrims and amuse everyone else,
especially at Christmas and Easter - the most holy times of
year - when they most commonly occur.
When the Normans took southern Italy in the eleventh century,
the population was converted by force from Orthodox Christianity
to Roman Catholic Christianity. Again, during a later crusade,
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
short-lived Independent State of Croatia was established in
1941 (incorporating most of modern-day Croatia as well as Bosnia
and Herzegovina), all Serbs were given the option of converting
to the Roman Church, exile, or death. This was no empty threat.
On 4 th August the Croatian Ustaša 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 Muslims. Like many early sects they generally preferred
to throw themselves on the mercy of pagans and Muslims, rather
than their fellow Christians. In the thirteenth century for
example, Alexander Nevski, Prince of Novgorod, one of Russia's greatest warrior-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 reunite with the Roman Church. To most Eastern (Orthodox)
Christians this was worse than being overrun by Muslims, 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, home of the greatest
church in Christendom and centre of Eastern Christianity, was
lost to the Muslims.
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, which 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 reunited with the Russian Orthodox
Church because of its collaboration with the Nazis. Uniate Christians
were persecuted for the next 40 years, until the Uniate Church
emerged again in 1990 after the fall of communism in eastern
Europe. At the time of writing the Orthodox and Roman Catholic
Churches are still arguing over members and the ownership of
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,
where for centuries different Christian sects had been persecuting
each other over issues that might seem trifling to non-believers.
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? People have been killed, sometimes in large numbers,
over such differences of opinion. It was this sort of behaviour
that Swift ridiculed with the characters in Gulliver's Travels, who slaughtered each other over which end of a
boiled egg should be broken.
the West, the deep and widespread corruption of the Roman Church
after AD 1000 led 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. During
the fifteenth century Hussites in particular paved the way for
the Reformation, which opened a new phase of schism and persecution.
Roman Catholics persecuted Hussites, Hussites persecuted Roman
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, although they disagreed
on some points.
As Protestantism spread and gained influence, Protestants started
to persecute each other. In the Palatinate of the Rhine, the
keen Calvinist Frederick the Pious persecuted Lutherans as well
as Roman Catholics. All of the three 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. Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted
other sects such as the Anabaptists, Congregationalists and
treatment of rival denominations by Christians was almost always
brutal. The following event is typical, the only untypical element
being the modern vestiges of the brutality. An Anabaptist army
from Münster was defeated in 1536 by the Catholic Prince
Bishop of Münster, Franz von Waldeck. The Anabaptist king
of Münster, John of Leiden, was captured, along with two
other Anabaptist leaders. Each of the three was attached to
a pole by an iron spiked collar. Their bodies were ripped with
red-hot tongs for an hour. After the burning, their tongues
were pulled out with tongs. They were eventually killed by burning
daggers thrust through their hearts. The bodies were then placed
in cages hung from the steeple of St. Lambert's Church, and
the remains left to rot. The three cages remain attached to
the steeple to this day (see photographs below).
Three macabre cages still hanging from
the steeple of St. Lambert's Church, Münster
Further schisms occurred, and all manner of sects flourished.
There were new Adamists who insisted on not wearing clothes.
Devillers preached that even Satan would be redeemed on the
Day of Judgement. Libertines preached free sex. The Silent Ones
did not preach at all.
Catholics saw Marin Luther as an instrument
of the Devil
here the Devil is shown playing him like bagpipes (1535)
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, murderers, 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
Roman Mass was regarded as a blasphemous charade, and its key
words "Hoc est corpus.... " were corrupted into a
mock magical formula "hocus-pocus" and thence into
the word hoax.
Ego Sum Papa "I am The Pope".
Detail of Pope Alexander VI from a Reformation handbill,
Paris, late fifteenth century.
The pope was just one of hundreds of individuals identified
by Christian groups as the anti-Christ.
Throughout Europe Protestants and Roman Catholics fought each
other for many years. Fearing that Protestantism would overtake
the whole of western Europe, the Roman 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 Roman 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, Roman
Catholic armies 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 Roman Catholic.
In France King Henry II had done his best to exterminate Protestants,
establishing a special court known as the chambre ardente
(burning chamber). 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. The sixteenth
century popes, Paul III and Pius IV, encouraged the persecution
of Huguenots, the latter funding the persecution, and ordering
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 practise 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 and exterminated them in 1565.
in France, Catherine de Medici arranged a dynastic marriage
to end the religious strife. Her Roman 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 24 th 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 Roman Catholic victory.
Altogether there were eight Huguenot wars before 1590. Forcible
conversions by Roman 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, although
most Huguenots had died or fled to Protestant countries. French
surnames in modern England often point to a Huguenot refugee
A morning before the Louvre (Saint Bartholomew's
Day Massacre), Édouard Debat-Ponsan - 1880
Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, who approved the
extermination of the Protestants, coming out to see the
carnage of St. Bartholomews Day Massacre (August
Protestantism spread rapidly in the Netherlands, much to the
fury of the country's Roman 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 Roman Catholic churches. In
the so-called Spanish Fury that 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.
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 Roman 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 that is
still held by English monarchs and accounts for the Fid.
Def. or F.D. on British 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.
Henry's middle course enabled successive monarchs to persecute
both Roman Catholics and Protestants, according to the fashion
of the day. Henry executed Thomas More for his continued allegiance
to Rome but also Lutherans for questioning the doctrine of transubstantiation.
A man called John 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.
The Church developed various techniques
for roasting heretics. This is one of them.
The illustration shows Sir John Oldcastle , English Lollard
leader (and model for Shakespeare's Falstaff), He was
prosecuted for heresy and executed on 14 December 1417
Henry's successor Edward VI died before he had developed any
disposition to kill heretics, although 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. 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 Protestant Thomas Cranmer being burned
alive under Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary") , despite
having recanted, and having been promised his life.
The Gunpowder Plot was a plan to destroy James I and his sons,
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
The Pope as Antichrist riding the Beast
of the Apocalypse. Artist unknown. From Fierie Tryall
of God's Saints (1611). The Folger Shakespeare Library.
The pope's words "Go kill your Prince" are represented
as tiny demons entering his followers, who are expected
to assassinate their non-Catholic rulers (A few years
earlier, Pope Pius V had encouraged Catholics to assassinate
For years to come the country was polarised. Under Charles
I, Puritans were treated little better than treasonable Roman
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 English 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, although 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 antichrist,
that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself
in the church against Christ, and all that is called God".
(Confession XXV vi). Second to the Bible, this confession
of faith is still the principal standard of Free Presbyterian
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 Roman 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 Oates. It led to the
judicial murder of some 30 Roman Catholics. Nonconformists 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 nonconformist
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. By the Toleration Act of 1689 Baptists, Congregationalist,
Presbyterians and Quakers were allowed freedom of worship, but
not Roman Catholics or Unitarians. Of the various sects Quakers
and Unitarians were distinguished by the fact that they consistently
advocated toleration. They persecuted no one themselves, but
had been persecuted by all.
Religious developments in Scotland were broadly parallel to
those in England. Initially, those who espoused Lutheran ideas
were burned, as Patrick Hamilton had been at St Andrews 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 Roman Catholics from Ulster and giving their lands to
Protestants arriving from Scotland and England. Soon Roman Catholics
were being exterminated for practising their religion, a tendency
that would become more pronounced under Cromwell. Cromwell's
forces killed many thousands of religious opponents in Ireland.
In town after town Roman Catholics surrendered and were executed
a righteous judgement of God as Cromwell described it.
With several periods of quiescence, Protestants and Roman Catholics
in Northern Ireland have been killing each other in large numbers
ever since. The killing is now regarded as a peculiarly Irish
phenomenon, although in fact this sort of interdenominational
torture and murder is merely a vestige of what was for centuries
the norm throughout Europe.
Anti Catholic sentiment was common in
all Protestant countries and Baptist communities, including
the USA. (The Ku Klux Klan counts Catholics among its
enemies as well as Blacks and Jews). The cartoon below
from the early twentieth century reflects a continuing
fear of Catholic influence.