Are you one of those people who think history is boring? Maybe you think church history is the most boring of all, a tedious list of names and places that you can neither pronounce nor remember. Allow us to recommend a totally different kind of church history book, The Pilgrim Church. Its story will fascinate, inspire, and challenge you. It is simply the account of God’s faithful remnant, which the author calls The Pilgrim Church, from the time of Pentecost until the early twentieth century. Thoroughly researched and very well documented, it shows clearly that God has always preserved a faithful Church. In every stage of history there have been groups of sincere, seeking souls who separated themselves from the world and the religious establishment and sought only to serve God and live like Jesus. In The Pilgrim Church, E.H. Broadbent records the history of many of those groups, documenting their failures as honestly as their successes.
In the first chapter, the author explains his book. Events in the history of the churches in the time of the apostles have been selected and recorded in the Book of Acts in such a way as to provide a permanent pattern for the churches. Departure from this pattern has had disastrous consequences, and all revival and restoration have been due to some return to the pattern and principles in the Scriptures. The following account…shows that there has been a continuous succession of churches composed of believers who have made it their aim to act on the teaching of the New Testament. This succession is not necessarily to be found in any one place; often such churches have been dispersed or have degenerated, but similar ones have appeared in other places. The pattern is so clearly delineated in Scriptures as to have made it possible for churches of this character to spring up in fresh places and among believers who did not know that disciples before them had taken the same path, or that there were some in their own time in other parts of the world.
Very early in the history of the church, men had already complicated the simple message of the Gospel, claimed inappropriate power and authority, and lost sight of some of the most basic Bible truths. Writing about the Lord’s Supper being corrupted into a supposedly miraculous act performed only by a priest, Broadbent says that this was one of several things that …intensified the growing distinction between clergy and laity. The growth of a clerical system under the domination of the bishops, who in turn were ruled by “Metropolitans” controlling extensive territories, substituted a human organization and religious forms for the power and working of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Scriptures…
Sad to say, even in those early days the Church was splintering into many mutually exclusive factions, but one thing they all had in common was persecution. When the Church came into contact with the Roman Empire, a conflict ensued in which all the resources of that mighty power were exhausted in a vain endeavor to vanquish those who never resisted or retaliated…. However much the churches were divided in view and practice, they were united in suffering and victory.
The fourth century saw the first union of Church and State, a lamentable violation of all New Testament teaching on the subject, and within a short time, the so-called Church had all the power of the State at its disposal. But always there were those lovers of the truth who rejected the very idea of such an unholy alliance, and simply sought to follow Jesus Christ. Pagans and professing Church alike viciously persecuted such people for centuries, but the true light was never extinguished. The first three centuries of the Church’s history prove that no earthly power can crush it. It is invincible to attacks from without. The witnesses of its sufferings, and even its persecutors, become its converts and it grows more rapidly than it can be destroyed. …the union of the Church and the State, even when the powers of the mightiest Empire are put into the Church’s hands, do not enable her to save the State from destruction, for, in abandoning the position which her very name implies, of being “called out” of the world and of separation to Christ, she loses the power that comes from subjection to her Lord, exchanging it for an earthly authority that is fatal to herself.
As The Pilgrim Church clearly shows through many chapters, the greatest harm is done to the Church not by persecution, but by the rise of false doctrine from among her own members. Yet as Broadbent affirms, the pattern for the New Testament Church is delineated so clearly in the Acts of the Apostles that a true church can grow up in any place where honest people simply read and obey the Word of God. Some of the most inspiring accounts in this book are of such people, who with no human example to follow, simply accepted the biblical pattern and were used by God in the growth of the Pilgrim Church. Some attempted to reform the corrupt system in which they found themselves, while many others broke away entirely and began anew in faith. Although their beliefs and practices varied somewhat among different groups, most of them had in common a passion to know Christ and become like Him.
Broadbent quotes extensively from the works of many writers through every age of the Pilgrim Church. One of them writes in the seventeenth century about the One Thing Needful: Christendom has become a labyrinth. The faith has been split into a thousand little parts and you are made a heretic if there is one of them you do not accept…What can help? Only the one thing needful: return to Christ, looking to Christ as the only Leader, and walking in His footsteps, setting aside all other ways until we reach the goal, and have come to the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13). As the Heavenly Master built everything on the ground of the Scriptures, so should we leave all particularities of our special confessions and be satisfied with the revealed Word of God which belongs to us all. There is the heartbeat of the Pilgrim Church, the common desire that has bound God’s people together through two millennia.
The author’s estimation of the Anabaptists could well be applied to many other groups: …It was not the form of baptism that gave them courage to suffer as they did. They were aware of immediate communion with their Redeemer; no man and no religious form came between their souls and Him…This fellowship with Him enabled them to understand their communion with those who shared it with them, and in their churches to realize the fellowship of saints. These churches had various beginnings, various histories, and differed according to the character of the persons in them; but all were alike in their desire to adhere to the pattern of primitive Christianity found in the New Testament…. Taking this path they were subject to special temptations, and wherever they yielded to fleshly desires, political aims or covetousness, their fall was great, but by far the greater part were enabled to bear a good testimony to the faithfulness of God.
This book is not the story of a single denomination or a particular group. It spans 1,900 years of history, and records the stories of believers who were known by many different names in dozens of different countries. In addition to well-known groups like the Anabaptists, Moravians, and Waldensians, The Pilgrim Church recounts the history of many long-forgotten assemblies whose stories will inspire and encourage you. Jesus Christ has promised to build His Church, and this book will thrill you with the history of the fulfillment of that promise. In every age, in many places, under widely varying circumstances, among people of all walks of life, He has indeed built His Church.
If you have ever been tempted to despair as you compared modern Christianity’s anemia with the early Church’s fearless power, reading The Pilgrim Church will renew your faith. That desire to return to the truth and find the ‘one thing needful’ is the very thing that has inspired many chapters in the story of the Pilgrim Church. It begins with people like you, accepting the Word of God as it stands instead of in the context of your particular creed or confession. When you are willing to do that, willing to ‘come out from among them’, willing to face ostracism and persecution, and willing to pay any price to be ‘conformed to His image’, then you can join the eternal, triumphant story of The Pilgrim Church.
E.H. Broadbent • Copyright © 1931
Copyright © 1999 • Gospel Folio Press
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Grand Rapids, MI 49501-2041
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