Our European Roots

UCC Series I
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
Psalm 16:6

One of the problems with church history is that most of it tells the story of the church in Europe. That doesn’t mean that the church is a European institution. But after the Roman Empire became a Christian empire, most of the world’s Christians became concentrated in or near the continent where Rome was located.

But early on, Asia and Africa were much more important to the history of our religion than Europe was. With Asia, it’s obvious. The land we call the Holy Land is in Asia. Jesus was born in Asia, as were all his first disciples and all the apostles. When you read the New Testament, most of it takes place in Asia.

But not all of it. The Apostle Paul made some trips to Europe, and wrote some letters to European churches. And even Jesus, early in his life, took refuge from a despot on the continent of Africa. Africa is even more important a bit later on when Egypt and Ethiopia are among the first nations to become Christian. And after Constantine made Rome a Christian empire, one of the church’s greatest theologians was a man named Augustine, who was from a North African city called Hippo. And he wasn’t just a great theologian in general, his theology became extremely important to the traditions that later formed the United Church of Christ.

But first let’s look at the church he was part of—the church we know as the Roman Catholic Church. We all know that the Roman church was probably the most powerful institution in Europe up until the end of the 15th century. Very few Christians practiced a faith outside Roman Catholicism, and those that did seldom had any access to power, and were more often than not persecuted.

Peter Waldo, as portrayed on the
Luther Memorial in Worms
An example of a group that was persecuted was a people that called themselves the Poor of Lyon—Lyon being the city in France where they had their beginnings. This group was founded near the end of the 12th century by a rich merchant named Peter Waldo, and so they later came to be named after him: the Waldensians. Waldo gave up all his wealth for the sake of Christ, and he and his followers had three practices that differentiated them from other Christians: they believed in what they called evangelical poverty (meaning, poverty in obedience to the gospel), the refusal to take oaths, and the belief that all Christians were commissioned to preach the word of God. According to our belief system, none of these things seem all that threatening, but they were declared to be heretics and mercilessly persecuted by the established church. Though they had quickly spread, they ended up being confined to Alpine valleys where they could more easily hide. Though the Protestant Reformation didn’t come about until three centuries later, the Waldensians are considered by many to be the first Protestants—at least the first ones to persevere (more about that later).

Martin Luther
There were other reform movements that had varying degrees of success over the centuries, but the one we all remember began on October 31, 1517 when a monk named Martin Luther, upset at the selling of indulgences, posted a document with 95 complaints against the church on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Remember Augustine? Well it’s interesting to note that Luther was specifically an Augustinian monk, belonging to an order that depended on the writings and way of life of Augustine of Hippo. Luther’s act of defiance was the beginning in earnest of the Protestant Reformation. His reforms were quickly adopted in several German-speaking states, as well as in Scandinavia. In places where Luther’s church wasn’t established, it still had a great deal of influence, especially in France.

And it was in France that a young law student began to call himself a Lutheran. This man’s name was John Calvin, and he left his homeland during a crackdown and was making his way to Strasbourg when he stopped to spend a night—one night only—in the city of Geneva, which just that year (1536, to be exact) had adopted the Reformation. Recognizing his great mind, the Genevans basically refused to let him leave, and convinced him to stay and help them make sense of this Reformed faith that they had declared to be their own. He did, and not only did he help them, he also opened up Geneva as a city of refuge from Christians all over the continent. People came to Geneva to study and translate the Bible, and would eventually leave once again to take what they’d learned to their homelands. This is how places like Scotland and Holland, most of the rest of Switzerland, and many German states became Calvinist. Believe it or not, Calvinism also became the majority religious expression in Hungary and Transylvania in the 1500’s, though during the Counterreformation most Hungarians were forced back into the Roman fold. Even so, there is still a very large Reformed church in Hungary, and the Reformed Church in Romania contains about half of all Hungarians in that country—just about all of them in Transylvania. France also very nearly became a Reformed country, though there those who adopted Calvinism (called Huguenots) were killed by the tens of thousands, exiled, or sold off as galley slaves.

And all the while in the Alpine valleys I mentioned earlier, the Waldensians were learning of the Reformed faith, and finally adopted it as their own, thus bringing the first Protestants fully into the Reformation. If you don’t think this is significant, then perhaps you probably weren’t paying attention when in July of 2015 Pope Francis visited a Waldensian church in Italy and had this to say: “On behalf of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness. I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behavior that we have shown you. In the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!”
Augustine of Hippo

But what was this belief system like that John Calvin taught and which spread like wildfire through 16th century Europe? Well, it can best be described as being almost identical to the theology espoused by Augustine of Hippo around the year 400. So as you can see, when we talk about our European roots, even they are dependent upon an African man’s interpretation of what an itinerant Asian preacher said and did.

One place that I didn’t talk about earlier that’s really important to us is England. The situation in England was a bit more complicated than elsewhere, because the Reformation there came about for different reasons. But when it did, the 39 Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England were quite Calvinist in their expression, though most Anglicans these days pretty much ignore what they say. But even back then, there were many Christians in England who didn’t think the church was Reformed enough. Some of these wanted to purify the Church of England—these people were called Puritans. They didn’t like having to use a prayer book and they really didn’t like having bishops. But there were others who simply wanted to separate from the established church. The latter were so persecuted that they fled to Holland. These were the people we call the Pilgrims, and they were the first branch of the United Church of Christ to come to North America. They established Plymouth Colony 1620, and close on their heels were some Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1626.

Frederick William III
About a hundred years later, German-speaking Calvinists settled in Pennsylvania, and a century later another group of German Protestants fled European wars to settle mostly in the American Midwest. These people’s religion was a mixture of Calvinism and Lutheranism—something made possible by Frederick William III, King of Prussia, who united the Protestants in his realms in 1817. These German-speakers called themselves the Evangelical Synod, and the ones who’d come over in the 1700’s originally called their church the German Reformed Church, later simply the Reformed Church in the U.S. One of the interesting things about this church is that when Hungarians started coming to the United States, those who were Calvinist became a Hungarian-speaking synod within the Reformed Church. And despite all the subsequent unions, they still exist today as a separate conference within the United Church of Christ called the Calvin Synod. They, by the way, are the only conference where the person in charge is called a bishop.

Next week, we’re going to hear more about the most famous UCC predecessors to arrive on these shores—the people who came on the Mayflower and to whom we refer as the Pilgrims. And one of the reasons they’re the most famous, I think, is because we like to think of ourselves as pilgrims. But we as individuals aren’t the only ones on a journey. We as a congregation are also sharing a journey, and so is the United Church of Christ. I think it’s important to know who our ancestors in the faith were. How we’ve grown, where we’ve come from, and all that we’ve been through can help point the way to more change. For, as one writer put it, “a wise traveler never despises his [sic] own country” [Wm. Hazlett].

As we think about how others have been faithful to the Christ they came to know, may we be encouraged to know Christ in our own day and to share Christ in our own way. Let’s own our pilgrimage, and let’s make it clear to others that, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, they’re welcome here among us.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.