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Thursday, 29 April 2010 19:02

The loss of the true faith in Britain
- an abomination that led to desolation

Celtic Christianity: part 1 of 3

By Chris Tolworthy


After the deaths of the apostles the Church of Jesus Christ drifted into apostasy. Churches had been set up throughout the empire, but one by one they all fell under the power of the "little horn". Some parts came under the control of the horn sooner than others. The church in Britain was perhaps the last to be defeated.

The horn probably represented Europe. Its power was both political (the "fierce appearance" of the invading barbarian kingdoms) and religious (the "mouth speaking great things" - apostate Christianity). When we look at how these forces affected he British church, we can see more clearly how the apostasy happened.

The Ancient Apostles in Britain
(for even greater claims, click here)

The first missionaries

The sixth century British historian Gildas said the gospel came to Britain at a very early stage - in the last year of Tiberias, AD 37 (perhaps as a result of the scattering described in Acts 8:1-4). For this and other references in this section, see "Saint Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury" by Lionel Smithett (London: Mowbray & co., 1922).

The Seventy

Aristobulus (according to Strong's Concordance) was one of the Seventy. He may have been Peter's father-in-law. Several sources (Hippolytus writing in AD 160, the Martyrologies of the Greek Church, and others) state that he preached the gospel in Britain. He is only mentioned in the Bible in passing, in Romans 16:10)

The Apostles

Latter-day Saints will be familiar with Joseph Smith's claim that ancient prophets walked the British Isles. This may be confirmed by the great church father Eusebius, who stated that Apostles did come to Britain. According to Doretheus (bishop of Tyre, writing in AD 303), the apostle Simon Zelotes was crucified in Britain.

It may be interesting to note that Bruce R. McConkie, following the writings of Edersheim (1:521-22) indicates that Simon Zealots may have been a cousin of Christ through on Joseph's side. (The Mortal Messiah, Vol.2, footnotes, p.113)

Aristobulus, mentioned above, traditionally worked under Paul. Clement of Rome (AD 30 to 100) states that, before his martyrdom, Paul went "to the extremity of the west". Theodoret (writing in AD 435) and others say that Paul came to Britain.

Joseph of Arimathea - and the Lord himself?

Some people make great claims for the importance of Britain in early Christianity. These are discussed elsewhere.

Whatever the truth, there is plenty of evidence that the church in Britain, these "Isles of the sea", could trace its authority to Christ, through the apostles, without going through Rome.

AD 166-380: The Influence of the church of Rome

When the apostles died, the churches began to be tossed

Since Rome had more political power, weaker churches tended to look to her for support. Even Britain may not have been immune. As early as the year 166, the British king Lucius allegedly asked the Roman bishop Lucius to send missionaries to baptize him. However, other scholars reject this, and say that Lucius simply asked for one of the British saints at Rome to do the job.

Later history indicates that there must have been increasing tension between the British church and what Rome was becoming. But just as the second century in the empire is suspiciously lacking in records (Nibley refers to it as "when he lights went out"), so the period from the late second century to 380 is a blind spot in British church history. Commenting on the alleged discovery of a fragment of the cross, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 199, a later footnote to the Chronicle adds:

"This and other notices of Ecclesiastical matters, whether Latin or Saxon, from the year 190 to the year 380 . . . may be safely considered as interpolations, probably posterior to the Norman Conquest [1066]".

So the victors were re-writing church history.

The Year 381: the Great Battle Against the Little Horn

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was a history of Britain written before by the Angles and Saxons, the Germanic tribes who conquered Britain in the period in fifth and sixth centuries. It says the following about the year 381:

"This year Maximus the emperor obtained the empire; he was born in the land of Britain . . . [there follows a few words about how he replaced Gratian]. In these days the heresy of Pelagius arose throughout the world."

That was the Saxon (German) view. But who were Maximus and Pelagius, what exactly did they do, and why did they do it?

The Britons in 381

The Britons could no doubt see how the church was declining throughout the empire. They could see the invading barbarians (from first hand experience of the Scots and the Picts). They could see the church subtly changing and distorting the doctrines of Christ. In the 380s they launched an audacious double attack on the European monster. Two powerful men arose from Britain who may had the strength to turn the tide. The first, Maximus, might have stopped the advance of the Germanic tribes. The second, Pelagius, might have stopped the decay in Christianity.

Maximus - battling to save civilisation

The late fourth century was disastrous for the Roman empire. In 376, the emperor Valens allowed the Visigoths to settle inside the empire. Valens was soon replaced by an even weaker emperor - an eight year old boy called Gratian. Gratian then chose an assistant emperor - the four year child Valentinian! They could not halt the Visigoth advance. (The Visigoths eventually sacked Rome in 410). The British knew that their culture (and with it their already weak church) could not survive if the barbarians won. Even apart from his military losses, Gratian was heavily influenced by St Ambrose, and was giving more and more concessions to the Roman church. The British knew they had to do something.

At that time, Magnus Maximus commanded the Roman troops in Britain. He was (according to Bede) capable and courageous. He was British (or possibly Spanish), of humble origins, and thus not infected by the madness of Rome. The British troops saw their chance. Maximus was declared emperor. He soon gained the support of Gratian's advancing troops, but unfortunately Gratian turned and ran, and was killed by Andragathius. Maximus then made a truce with Valentinian. In 384 Theodosius agreed to allow Maximus to rule the western part of the empire. But sadly we will never know what Maximus might have achieved. Theodosius did not like sharing power. He eventually defeated Maximus in 388, and the empire continued to decline. Rome was sacked 22 years later, and 66 years after that the last western emperor was deposed by the Ostrogoths.

A note about Gildas' history.
Some readers may notice that later historians, including Gildas, looked on Maximus as a villain. This is all part of Gildas' fatal flaw - taking the Roman view of history as the truth. Modern historians agree that, when writing about events before his birth (or the birth of his father's generation), Gildas was extremely unreliable. It is my belief that, in rejecting the Celtic view in favor of the Roman view, Gildas himself may have lost the last thread of early Christianity. Hence the early church died when Gildas died, in 570.

Pelagius - battling to save the truth

Pelagius came from Britain to Rome in 380. He was an extremely able preacher and was greatly respected because of his high standards. He saw that the doctrine of being saved purely by grace was leading to the church becoming lazy and corrupt. He dedicated his life to showing by word and example that good works were needed. He attacked false teachings like "original sin".

"The rigorous asceticism of his adherents acted as a reproach to the spiritual sloth of many Roman Christians, whose moral standards greatly distressed him. He blamed Rome's moral laxity on the doctrine of divine grace. . . Pelagius attacked the teaching on the grounds that it imperiled the entire mortal law and soon gained a considerable following in Rome." (-Britannica).

Pelagius was strongly opposed by Augustine, the architect of medieval "Christian" doctrine. This was the great battle of the late fourth and early fifth century: Augustine (infant baptism, predestination, good works are not essential) versus Pelagius (baptism of believers, we are free to choose, good works are essential). Despite the fact that a synod in Jerusalem could not find anything in the scriptures to censure him, Pelagius was finally silenced. Augustine won.

For more about Pelagius, click here.

AD 429-447: The Counter-Attack

The church of Rome was very concerned about these "Pelagian" beliefs in Britain. It sent the very capable Germanus (an appropriate name given that the other great threat came from the Germanic invaders) to sort things out. Germanus arrived in 429 (according to Bede), and was a powerful preacher of the Roman version of Christianity.

The same year he arrived (429) he had many great successes. He managed to suppress or change much of the British "Pelagian" faith. He set up schools to ensure that new priests were taught in the Roman way. He left, and only returned in 447 when he heard reports that some people were returning to their previous Christianity. But when he arrived he found that actually "but few had gone astray".

But why had any gone "astray"? Why had some of the Britons rejected the new Roman Christianity? Because, quite simply, accepting the Roman ways was causing the British nation to slip into sin. This was exactly what Pelagius had been trying to prevent.

An Abomination that led to Desolation

Several times in the Bible we read of abominations that lead to desolation. The phrase refers to times when the church commits abominations (usually involving false gods) and consequently the land is left desolate. The first and biggest example is the fall of Israel to the Assyrians (discussed here). Another example was the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies (foretold in Matthew 24 and elsewhere). Daniel uses the phrase more than once in his prophecies. And British history gives us another example.

The abomination

Pelagius (from the British faith) was closer to the truth that Germanus (of the Roman tradition). Pelagius reacted against the sinfulness of Rome, and taught the need for good works, and other issues such as saying that infant baptism was wrong. But the British people rejected Pelagius in favour of Germanus. They were giving in to the false teachings of Roman Christianity.

Britain before Germanus: repentance and prosperity.

Readers of the Book of Mormon will be familiar with the classic cycle of national decline, where hardship is followed by humility and repentance. This righteousness is followed by prosperity. This leads to pride, then destruction. Fourth century Britain illustrates this quite neatly.

Describing the period 400-414, Bede records how the invading Picts and Scots had reduced Britain to a sorry state of war and famine. The chronologically next chapter covers 426 to 447, when the Britons drove out the invaders:

"When, however, the ravages of the enemy at length ceased, the island began to abound with such plenty of grain as had never been known in any age before"

He does not make the link explicit, but a later chapter indicates that this was exactly the time when the faith taught by Pelagius had taken hold. (Chapter XVII records how Germanus was sent in 429, because "some few years before their arrival, the Pelagian heresy... had sadly corrupted the faith of the Britons").

The influence of Germanus

Germanus arrived in 429 and had almost immediate success:

"The apostolic [i.e. Roman] priests filled the island of Britain with the fame of their preaching and virtue; and the word of God was by them daily administered, not only in the churches, but even in the streets and the fields, so that the Catholics were everywhere affirmed, and those who had gone astray, corrected."

Chapters XVII to XX of Bede (book 1) record the great success of Germanus. When Germanus returned to Britain in 447, "They found the people constant in the faith as they had left them, and ...but few had gone astray". So what was the result of the Roman faith having such great success between 429 and 447?

Britain after Germanus: pride and wickedness.

The following is Bede's description of the period 426 to 447, when the teachings of Germanus are taking hold. It follows on from the famine in 414, the increasing influence of Pelagius' call to repentance, and the national prosperity.

"with plenty luxury increased, and this was immediately [during the teachings of Germanus, though Bede will not make the connection] attended with all sorts of crimes; in particular, cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood; insomuch, if any one among them happened to be milder than the rest, and inclined to truth, all the rest abhorred and persecuted him, as if he had been the enemy of the country [exactly the treatment Germanus' followers gave to the Pelagians].

"Nor were the laity only guilty of these things, but even our Lord's own flock, and his pastors also, addicted themselves to drunkenness, animosity, litigiousness, contention, envy, and other such like crimes, and casting off the light yoke of Christ."

Remember that Pelagius' teachings had been motivated by the shocking wickedness of Rome, which he directly linked to their belief that good works were not essential. Now Pelagius had been defeated and Rome had won. And sure enough, the British became like Rome.

The desolation that followed these abominations

To quote Bede (Ecclesiastical History, book I chapter XV):

"In the meantime, on a sudden, a severe plague fell upon that corrupt generation, which soon destroyed such numbers of them, that the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead ... not long after, a more severe vengeance, for their horrid wickedness, fell upon the sinful nation ..."

Vortigern, chief of the Britons, did just what the Roman emperor Valens had done a generation before. He invited in the Germanic tribes (in this case the Angles) to defend the country. Instead, the Saxons, with their allies the Angles, were far worse than the Scot and Picts had been.

"having on a sudden entered into league with the Picts, ...they began to turn their weapons against their confederates. ... the barbarous conquerors ... spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and covered almost every part of the devoted island. Public as well as private structures were overturned; the priests were everywhere slain before the altars; the prelates and the people, without any respect of person, were destroyed with fire and sword ...

"Some of the miserable remainder, being taken in the mountains, were butchered in heaps. Others, spent with hunger, came forth and submitted themselves to the enemy for food, being destined to undergo perpetual servitude, if they were not killed even upon the spot. .. Others, continuing in their own country, led a miserable life among the woods, rocks, and mountains, with scarcely enough food to support life, and expecting every moment to be their last."

So it was that the land of the Britons was laid desolate. The land was given a new name. England - the land of the Angles.

"In short, the fire kindled by the hands of these pagans, proved God's just revenge for the crimes of the people; not unlike that which, being once lighted by the Chaldeans, consumed the walls and city of Jerusalem." - Bede, book 1, chapter XV.

Very little of the "Christian fabric" survived

This not only destroyed the land, but the church as well. According to the history of the church at http://abbey.apana.org.au/history/ :

The material achievement of the Roman rule [in Britain] was largely destroyed, and with it a great part of the Christian fabric too. St. Gildas, writing a century and more after the events he describes, hands on a tradition of churches destroyed, of priests massacred, of loot and sacrilege, and of a wholesale flight of the survivors.

Thus only a handful of the original Christians survived in Britain into the sixth century. The next page looks at how every last remnant was wiped out by the year 570.

the bottom line

Long ago Britain had true Christianity. How it was lost is a story of heroism and tragedy.


the Briton who almost saved the church


This page is not so much about "proving" anything, but it is a tribute to a hero of mine. Outside the restored gospel I have two heroes. One was Michael Faraday. The other is Pelagius – though his real name was Morgan, and his friends called him Brito.

At first it might seem that Pelagius is not as important to the prophecies of the Dark Ages as Constantine or Augustine or Gregory. But unlike them he shines as a beacon of light in the darkness. He offered one last chance for the church to escape from the jaws of The Beast. Truth is always more important than error. So Pelagius stands head and shoulders above all the other figures in the crucial period of decline, AD 100 to 570.

He is of special personal interest to me because, like me, he was tall, overweight, and British. I hope I can become like him –a man of great integrity and wisdom, admired by all who knew him, yet genuinely not wanting admiration. He focuses on one or two key issues that have concerned me personally (I will not bore you with which ones). As a man of outstanding learning, ability, modesty and righteousness at a key moment in history, he deserves to be remembered.

Unless stated, the quotations on this page are from the Celtic Orthodox Christianity website at http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~ai598/pelagius.htm . It seems that this site is down, but much the same material can be found at http://www.brojed.org/pelagius.html

Quotations, as usual, are in blue.

Grace and works

Pelagius should be of special interest to Mormons. Like us, he believed that both grace and works are necessary for salvation. Like us, he opposed much of Augustine's teachings as being opposed to the spirit and the letter of the original gospel. But like us, he is falsely accused of believing in salvation by works alone, and of opposing orthodox Christian teachings.


point1 Who was he?

Augustine’s "chief opponent", condemned as "the West's chief heresiarch."

Around the year 400, Saint Augustine created the theology on which all Catholicism and Protestantism is based. Pelagius was Augustine’s "chief opponent". While Augustine taught that mankind is basically evil and his works do not count toward salvation, Pelagius was horrified to see the practical effects of this: wickedness in Rome. People did not try too hard, and righteousness declined. Pelagius spent his life teaching that righteousness is essential to the gospel. Pelagius taught that when Jesus said "be ye therefore perfect", he meant it.

As a person

Tall in stature and portly in appearance (Jerome, loc. cit., "grandis et corpulentus"), Pelagius was highly educated, spoke and wrote Latin as well as Greek with great fluency and was well versed in theology. Though a monk and consequently devoted to practical asceticism, he never was a cleric; for both Orosius and Pope Zosimus simply call him a "layman". In Rome itself he enjoyed the reputation of austerity, while St. Augustine called him even a "saintly man"… - From the Catholic Encyclopedia.

[contemporary] commentators have described Pelagius as "a cultivated and sensitive layman," "an elusive and gracious figure, beloved and respected wherever he goes," always "silent, smiling, reserved," certainly a "modest and retiring man."

point2 In context

His background

He inherited in his theological formation the Romanised Celtic tradition, "with its emphasis on faith and good works, on the holiness of all life and the oneness of all." Consequently, once in Rome, he became impatient with the moral laxity that surrounded him. The Christianization of the Empire was not making true Christians of people, he believed, only "conforming pagans."

This is important to any LDS readers who are expecting to read about a prototype Joseph Smith. I am not saying that Pelagius received new revelation. He was simply a righteous man who could not ignore the most serious falsehoods when he saw them. He did not concern himself with other doctrines. So, for example, he accepted the prevailing beliefs regarding the trinity.

This is rather like the church in the 1830s. An atheist friend of mine used to delight in showing me hymns in the first LDS hymnbook that referred to "three in one". But we must remember God does not reveal all the truth all at once. We could not accept it if he did. Truth must be revealed "line upon line", "milk before meat". Clearly the falsehood of the "trinity" doctrine was less important compared to more pressing matters.

The main focus of his preaching was never theological, but practical moral advice.

point3 His teachings and the opposition they aroused

His teachings

The first hint of theological controversy came around 405, when Pelagius heard someone reading from Augustine's Confessions, "Give me what you command and command what you will." This verse annoyed Pelagius very much; he believed this and other Augustinian teachings contradicted the traditional Christian understanding of grace and free will, turning man into a "mere marionette, a robot." Soon after, he wrote his famous Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, in which he set out his opposition to such Augustinian doctrines as the inherited guilt of original sin, rigid predestination, and the necessity of baptism to spare infants from hell.

Powerful Opposition

Unsurprisingly, Jerome and Augustine were not convinced by the conclusions at Jerusalem and Diospolis. They decided to direct all their energies to attacking Pelagius and the British monk soon found himself "out-maneuvered and out-gunned."

After the Synod of Ephesos in 431, it became a crime to be in possession of any Pelagian works, so they were transmitted under others' names. The great irony of this letter is that for centuries it [Letter to Demetrias] was considered to be one of the works of Jerome and was included in his corpus of writings.

His simple message – righteousness – was a threat to the church

Today, historians of the Church realise that Pelagius was not condemned simply on theological grounds. Rather, Pelagius's teaching was seen as a threat, a "potentially dangerous source of schism in the body social and politic." His central message that there is only one authentic Christian life, the path to perfection, left no room for nominal Christians. If he had gone off into the Syrian or Egyptian desert, he would probably have been a revered "abba." Instead, he clashed with the comfortable Christianity which had become the basis of unity in the Imperial Church, and, as a result, he has gone down as the West's chief heresiarch.

point3 In his own words (in italics)

A great believer in faith, repentance, baptism, and eternal progress

This theme of baptismal rebirth is taken up again as a direct exhortation to the young Demetrias:

Consider, I beseech you, that high rank with which you have been made glorious before God and through which you were reborn in baptism to become a daughter of God.

Another dominant theme from Scripture is Pelagius's stress that progress in the spiritual life is all-important. . . . No hour should go by for a Christian, he insists, without some measure of spiritual growth.

His central teachings: keep the commandments

There is nothing that Pelagius abhors more than people forsaking the path to life because it is too hard or difficult, because "we are but men, we are encompassed by frail flesh" (16:2). To deny, as Augustine and Jerome did, man's innate goodness and capacity to live a holy life is not only moral pessimism, it is real blasphemy: for it means that God does not know what he has done or commanded, or that he does not remember the human frailty which he created, or that God has "commanded something impossible" and therefore seeks not our salvation but our punishment and damnation (16:2).

The Lord of Justice wished man to be free to act and not under compulsion; it was for this reason that 'he left him free to make his own decisions' and set before him life and death, good and evil, and he shall be given whatever pleases him.

His central argument, though, is from the Old Testament; he produces a lengthy roll-call of the patriarchs and Old Testament saints (5:1ff) whose examples of holiness prove that it is possible to follow the commandments. Again, Pelagius emphasizes the practical moral implications of this doctrine of human goodness:

We can never enter upon the path of virtue, unless we have hope as our guide and companion and if every effort expended in seeking something is nullified in effect by despair of ever finding it.

The view of his opponents that there is something in nature which compels human beings to sin strikes Pelagius as "blaming nature" for what is really the choice of free human persons. He writes:

If it should be thought to be nature's fault that some have been unrighteous, I shall use the evidence of the scriptures, which everywhere lay upon sinners the heavy weight of the charge of having used their own will and do not excuse them for having acted only under the constraint of nature.

For the British monk, it was not true to say as Augustine did that all men sinned in Adam and thus inherit his guilt; human beings of their own free will simply imitate Adam and re-enact the Fall in themselves.

point4 What he did NOT say


Some of those who heard him were so impressed that they went further. So it is important to note that Pelagius did not go as far as some "Pelagians" who denied the central role of God’s grace in salvation. And he did not agree with his friend Celestius who believed that, since we are not guilty of "original sin", then Adam was just like us and was mortal right from the start. In fact, most of what we know about Pelagius comes from his enemies, so we have to be very careful what we attribute to him.

Few churchmen have been so maligned as Pelagius in the Christian West. For nearly 1,500 years, all that anyone has known of the British monk's theology has come from what his opponents said about him — and when one's opponents are as eminent as Augustine and Jerome, the chance of getting a fair hearing is not great. Consequently, it has been easy to lay all manner of pernicious heresies at Pelagius's doorstep. Only in the last couple of decades have scholars been able to recover and examine Pelagius's works directly. What they have found is that very little of what has historically passed for "Pelagian" heresy was actually taught by him.

He did not make wild claims

I did indeed say that a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes, for this ability has been given to him by God. However, I did not say that any man can be found who has never sinned from his infancy up to his old age, but that, having been converted from his sins, he can be without sin by his own efforts and God's grace, yet not even by this means is he incapable of change for the future.

While he was totally committed to the possibility of a completely sinless life, Pelagius was thus reluctant to admit anyone had ever achieved it.

Pelagius is remembered as an ascetic - one who lives on the simplest of material goods and fasts a great deal. But even here he did not go to extremes.

The reason for moderation is clear: "the body has to be controlled, not broken" (21:2).

point5 Conclusion

Pelagius - Morgan the Briton - was the only man who could usefully oppose the great Augustine. His message was profoundly positive. You are a child of God. You are not basically evil, and you can live righteously if you choose. He preached this for twenty years in Rome. But Rome did not want it. Pelagius was condemned him as a heretic and his writings were banned. Like Ezekiel a thousand years before, he had stood as the watchman. He had seen the approaching destruction and had warned the people. What more could he do?

In summary

He began preaching with the fervent desire to lead everyone to live an authentic Christian life according to the Gospel. Pelagius believed that the grace and renewing power of baptism had brought the opportunity to struggle on the path to perfection; but instead, he saw Christians squandering their baptism and "lapsing back into their old, comfortable habits of self-indulgence and careless pursuit of Mammon."

A hundred years after he was silenced, there was one last attempt to reform the church

Pelagius's lonely and thankless struggle against the novel doctrines of Augustine and Jerome was eventually taken up by monks in southern Gaul. … They saw the Augustinian theological system as a threat to grace as synergy, as a partnership between God and man. … These noble Gallic monks were later branded "Semi-Pelagians," and their doctrine of synergy was condemned at the Synod of Orange in 529.


Celtic Christianity


For more details, see "A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius" on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library server, from Wheaton College at http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers/NPNF1-05/c5.1.htm

The Celtic Orthodox Christianity website at http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~ai598/pelagius.htm with a similar article at http://www.brojed.org/pelagius.html

the bottom line

God did not leave the world helpless to its fate. Even at its eleventh hour, he sent a teacher of righteousness. But he was ignored and rejected, as were the prophets who were before him.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 08:41