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Early Christianity in the British Isles

Early Christianity in the British Isles

Glastonbury Tor. Photo by Niklas Weiss on Unsplash


Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-202), bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France). From Wikimedia Commons

The Apostle John was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. John lived to be an old man and had disciples of his own. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian (both leading 2nd Century theologians) tell us that one of John’s disciples was a man called Polycarp. Polycarp was a Christian leader who lived from about 69 -155 AD. He was one of the earliest Christian writers and was known as a church leader and prophetic teacher. Irenaeus was one of the disciples of Polycarp and was ordained by him for ministry. Irenaeus himself went on to teach and lead churches This brings us to Hippolytus of Rome who lived from about 170 to 235 AD.

Photios I of Constantinople describes Hippolytus in his Bibliotheca (cod. 121) as a disciple of Irenaeus. Hippolytus became one of the most important 2nd Century Christian writers and we can see that he was in a direct line of Christian teachers from the Apostle John. It’s important to note that Polycarp, Irenaeus and Hippolytus derived their authority from their connection with John the Apostle not from an institutional church.


Apostle John

Polycarp was John's Disciple

Irenaeus was Polycarp’s Disciple

Hippolytus was Irenaeus’ Disciple


The word Pope, meaning father, was originally applied to all bishops (church leaders) and only later in the fifth century became reserved for the bishop of Rome. Hippolytus would not have regarded himself as a Pope because of Jesus’ injunction not to use the title Father for any earthly religious leader.


[Mat 23:8-9 KJV] 8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, [even] Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no [man] your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.


Hippolytus was often in conflict with the popes of his time over matters of doctrine. This is important because  Hippolytus was not a functionary of the Catholic church. He received his teaching and authority in a direct line from John. One of the smaller works attributed to him was called On the Seventy Apostles of Christ. This work lists the names of seventy of Jesus’ disciples. This list relates to the seventy disciples that Jesus sent out in Luke chapter 10.

Ancient Roman sculpture, maybe of Saint Hippolytus of Rome, found in 1551 at Via Tiburtina, Rome, and now at the Vatican Library.


Skellig Michael By Jerzy Strzelecki - Own work. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons .

[Luk 10:1 KJV] 1  After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.


It’s possible that seventy were sent out because this number relates to the seventy nations listed in the Table of Nations in Genesis chapter 10. Anyway, each of the disciples was appointed a bishop of a particular area. Number 29 on the list was Aristobulus and he was made Bishop of Britain. It is interesting that traditionally, in Ireland, Aristobulus ordered the establishment of a hermitage on the island of Skellig Michael. It remains a site of pilgrimage to this day. 


So, Christianity could have come to the British Isles almost immediately from the time of the gospels. There was a large native church in Ireland well before the time of Patrick, so much so that Palladius was appointed Bishop of Ireland the year before Patrick arrived. I find the story of Skellig Michael fascinating so I have reproduced an extract from its Wikipedia entry to provide more information.


The monastery at Skellig Michael, via Wikimedia Commons

“This establishment of a hermitage on the island was ordered by Arwystli (aka Aristobulus) who was appointed and ordained Bishop of Britain by the Apostle Paul. Arwystli was the spiritual instructor of Bran (Bran The Blessed son of Llyr Llediaith) of the Silurian dynasty.[27] The purpose of the hermitage was the preservation of doctrine and protection of sacred texts of the Culdee church consisting of the full canon of the Essenes brought to Britain by Joseph Of Arimathea circa AD 37.[28] The hermitage remained in use by Culdee anchorites and was visited by all the prominent Christian bards – Dewi, Teilo, and Padarn – for instruction and wisdom before their trip to Jerusalem.[29] The hermitage was visited extensively by Cattwg Ddoeth, who took over its funding and had the first chapel built on the west side of the island. The last Culdee anchorite to live on the island was Gildas, a student of Cattwg Ddoeth. Gildas retired finally to Glastonbury where he wrote his History Of The Britons.[30] The island remains a sacred pilgrimage site for Culdee Christians, particularly for members of the Assembly Of Christian Israelites.”


Extract from Wikipedia entry on Skellig Michael.


There are other reasons to believe that Christianity came to Britain extremely early. The Roman historian Tacitus gives us the story of Caractacus, a British/Welsh chieftain who was taken captive by the Romans and taken to Rome. You can find more on this story if you search the web site for Caractacus. 


There are a group of medieval documents known as The Welsh Triads which have preserved some fragments of Welsh history. According to the Triads Caractacus was allowed to return home to Britain but his family were kept behind in Rome. His father Bran was detained in Caesar’s household and while there he converted to Christianity. He was allowed to return to Britain in 58 AD bringing the Christian faith with him. Consequently it is possible that Christianity spread to Britain from the time of the early church as recorded in the Book of Acts.

Caradoc (Caractacus) Before the Roman Emperor.  Illustrations and photographs of places and events in Welsh history from a children's book called 'Flame Bearers of Welsh History'. From Wikimedia Commons

Early Christianity in thr British Isles Part 2

Early Christianity in thr British Isles Part 2. Video


William of Malmesbury has been described as the foremost English historian of the 12th Century. He was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, England. He is remembered for his historical works and in particular his  Gesta Regum Anglorum ("Deeds of the English Kings"),


Here we are concerned with one of his works called De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (63–1126 AD) (The Ancient Church of Glastonbury). In this work he tells us that Philip, presumably meaning the disciple of Jesus, sent twelve of his disciples to teach God’s Word. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in A.D. 63, the fifteenth year after the assumption of the Blessed Mary, and confidently began to preach the faith of Christ.” Soon after which, “the saints were incited by a vision of the Archangel Gabriel to build a church [at Glastonbury] in honor of the Virgin Mary … making the lower part of all of its walls of twisted wattle, an unsightly construction no doubt, but one adorned by God with many miracles.” 

Stained glass window showing William, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1928. From Wikimedia Commons


Statue of Saint-Gildas. It on the shore line in a small bay near the "Grand-Mont" (Morbihan, France)

Clearly, William gives his own version of this legend but he must have got the story from somewhere. He is not the only medieval writer to talk of Joseph coming to Britain. During the late 12th century, Joseph became connected with the Arthurian stories, appearing in them as the first keeper of the Holy Grail. This idea first appears in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain.


So far we are still in the realm of legend but we also have accounts of the early arrival of Christianity from other more verifiable sources.


The 6th Century British monk Gildas wrote an history called On the ruin of Britain where he describes the trials the British people were undergoing at the hands of the invading Anglo-Saxons. He believed the difficulties the British were going through were largely a result of the impieties of their kings. In his account he claims that Christianity came to Britain during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius reigned from from 14 AD until 37 AD.


The early Christian writer Tertullian (c. 155 - c. 220 AD)  wrote in Adversus Judaeos that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime, writing, "all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons—inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ."


Another early Christian writer, Eusebius of Caesarea (writing in the 3rd Century AD)  wrote of Christ's disciples in Demonstratio Evangelica, saying that "some have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain.”


So we can see that there is evidence to support the idea that Christianity reached Britain from the time of the Apostles. God’s Word reaches to the ends of the earth. As the Apostle Paul wrote.


[Rom 10:17-18 KJV] 17 So then faith [cometh] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. 18 But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.

Allegoric wood engraving featuring Tertullian, excerpt from ''Vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens'' by André Thevet (Lyons, 1584)


Glastonbury Abbey. Site of what William of Malmesbury claimed was the oldest church in England.  Around 1130, William of Malmesbury described Glastonbury’s ancient ‘brushwood’ church. He suggested that missionaries founded it in AD 166. William thought it could even date back to the time of Christ’s apostles.

The reason that all this is important is that many people think that the gospel came to the British Isles under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church.


However I believe that God made sure that the gospel spread out all over the world through the work of the Lord’s Apostles. A native Christian church existed in the Britain and Ireland before the Catholic Church institutionalised the Christian faith in the British Isles.


Anybody can become a Christian simply by believing in Jesus Christ. There is only one church and that is the church of all believers. The Catholic church brought in a religious system that told ordinary people that the way to Salvation was through the Catholic Church and that they could only find God through using a priest as an intermediary. However very often the priests themselves were not born again believers.


The Pharisees Question Jesus. James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This clash between institutional religion and true believers goes back to the time of Jesus which is why our Lord said to the religious people of his time:


[Luk 11:52 KJV] 52 Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.


In other words they had the scriptures but didn’t understand them and couldn’t lead anyone else to salvation.


This is the situation that we are still facing today. There is always a true church (built by God) and an institutional church which is in the process of being transformed into a one world religion, combining with all the other religions. This situation will continue up until the  time of the Harvest


[Mat 13:30 KJV] 30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

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