Tract II (Part 1): When Did Anglicanism Begin?

This entry is part 4 of 16 in the series Erlandson: Tracts for the Times 2.0

Tracts for the Times 2.0

In my first Tracts for the Times 2.0, I provided a nuanced definition of Anglicanism that I hope will provide an anchor and encouragement in these fractured and fractious times. A definition of Anglicanism was the place to begin because in times of confusion, contestation, and fragmentation, issues of identity come to the foreground. The question of who we are as Anglicans has become a primary concern for many of us.

A second, high-interest issue that is related to the issue of Anglican identity is the question of just when Anglicanism began.
If you say “with Henry VIII” in any of the classes I teach at Cranmer Theological House, I will threaten you with either an automatic F or a pile of remedial work. Many incorrectly assume that the Church in England began with Henry VIII’s desire for Anne Boleyn and the male heir she might possibly give him. But clearly there was an English Church before Henry VIII declared himself the head of the English Church in 1534. In fact, one of the unique distinctives of the English Reformation is that it is the one Protestant Reformation in which an entire national church was reformed.

Some who know that Anglicanism and the Church of England didn’t begin with Henry VIII have read enough to believe that the Church of England was established in A.D. 597 when Pope Gregory sent Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the British Isles. However, when Augustine showed up on British soil, he discovered that an indigenous church, complete with bishops and differing customs, already existed there. We will need to look much further back than A.D. 597 if we want to see the origins of Anglicanism.

Before I examine the Church in the British Isles before 597, I want to highlight the importance of this pursuit. Many assume that the Church in England began in 597 and continued as a part of the Roman Catholic Church until 1533, when Henry VIII selfishly wrested the English Church from Rome. This narrative strongly suggests that Henry’s actions were illegal and immoral and that the true home of the English Church is in the arms of the Church of Rome.

However, the historical facts tell a different story in three parts. The first part of the history is the history of the Church in England before the Church was incorporated to a large degree within the life of the Roman Catholic Church. I will present compelling evidence in this tract that the Church in England was independent of the Church of Rome for roughly five and half centuries (and for four centuries at a minimum). The second part of the story, which I’ll tell in the next Tracts for the Times 2.0, is the story of how the English Church became more closely identified with the Roman Catholic Church, while at the same time frequently protesting her ancient independence from Rome. The third part of the story is the now nearly 500 years of the independence of the English Church from the Roman Catholic Church.

When we tell the historical story this way, the Roman Catholic Church looks like the usurper, and not Henry VIII. Anglicanism can rightfully claim an ancient lineage and one that is largely independent of Rome. We have no need to become Roman Catholics to be apostolic, catholic, or ancient. It would be a tragedy if Anglicans sold their birthright as an ancient Church with her own beautiful treasures by being ingested and digested by the Roman Church.

Finally, I will be using the term “Anglicanism” to mean just what I said in Tract #1: “the life of the Catholic Church that was planted in England in the first few centuries after Christ; reshaped decisively by the English Reformation that reformed the received Catholic traditions and also renewed by the Evangelical and Catholic Revivals and other historical movements of the Spirit; and that has now been inculturated into independent, global churches.” This definition allows us to see the continuity of contemporary Anglicanism with all that has gone before it in the life of the Church in England from the time of its first planting until the present age. It’s fashionable to assert that “Anglicanism” should only apply to the English Church and its offspring, post-1533. For example, the recent, state-of-the-art, five-volume Oxford History of Anglicanism begins, in spite of filling five volumes, with 1520. But it’s important to remember the historical continuity with all that went before, including elements of a distinctive English spirituality that to some degree still inhabit and inform the present.

Discerning the earliest origins of the Church in the British Isles in incredibly difficult, although the evidence becomes clearer beginning in the fourth century. This is in part because evidence of Christianity in the first and second centuries is relatively scarce throughout the world, and not just in Britain. Evidence for Christianity also becomes more salient after Constantine issued his Edict of toleration in 313.

An impressive array of scholars and councils held that the English Church was the first among the nations to receive the gospel, based on Joseph of Arimathea’s having landed there in the first century. This includes Roman Catholic historians and scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries. Even more impressive is the fact that at the Councils of Pisa (1409), Constance (1417), Sienna (1424) and Basle (1434) the antiquity of the English Church (equal to France, Spain, and Italy) was asserted, at least in part, by an appeal to Joseph of Arimathea. Modern scholarship almost unanimously believes that the legends surrounding Joseph date to the Gesta Regum Anglorum (History of The Kings of England, finished in 1125), in which William of Malmesbury wrote that Glastonbury Abbey was built by preachers sent by Pope Eleuterus to Britain. Later additions included Joseph, unlike the original. In this case, the legend that Joseph came to Britain may be a 12th-century addition; however, the claim that Christianity arrived in England very early is a claim with much earlier and broader historical support. Claims that the gospel came to Britain early are quite numerous, including many from sources before Augustine landed there: however, none of these mention Joseph of Arimathea.

Before I proceed, I want to offer a brief note on my methodology. I’ve spent considerable time combing through the available evidence, attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff. The number of books and websites discussing the early Church in Britain is remarkable. However, many of these sources are amateur ones who often copy information and references from previous sources, without bothering to authenticate them. I have chosen in this Tract to focus on that which has been best substantiated. Together, the evidence paints a compelling portrait of a British Church that was fairly substantial and vigorous and which had intercourse with the Roman Church and yet developed its own indigenous brand of Christianity that did not see itself as Roman Catholic.

I don’t have time in this tract to review each claim to an early origin of Christianity in England (there are many of these)[1], so I will mention only Aristobulus, whom a few early writers cite as having arrived in Britain in the first century. On the Seventy Apostles of Christ is attributed to Pseudo-Hippolytus, which, even though probably spuriously attributed to Hippolytus, seems to have been written around the time of Hippolytus, who died in 235. This work lists Aristobulus (commonly associated with the Aristobulus of Romans 16:10) as one of the 70 mentioned in the Gospels, and, in fact, a bishop of Britain. The Orthodox churches believe Saint Paul made Aristobulus a bishop and sent him to preach the Gospel in Britain, and he is honored on two days in their calendar.[2]

Several of the Church Fathers testify to the fact that Christianity came to the British Isles at an early date. Tertullian (155-240) wrote: “The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.” Origen (writing in 240-245) wrote: “For when, before the arrival of Christ, did the land of Britain agree together in the worship of the one God?” St. Chrysostom (349-407) makes a reference in which he assumes that churches already exist in the British Isles.[3]

In a stunning passage, Jerome (347-420) not only speaks of a church in Britain but also that the British church has the same faith as all the other churches and that all bishops have equal dignity and are equally successors of the apostles. In his letter to Evangelus, he writes: “Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and observe one rule of truth. If you ask for authority, the world outweighs its capital. Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Engubium, whether it be at Constantinople or at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is one. Neither the command of wealth nor the lowliness of poverty makes him more a bishop or less a bishop. All alike are successors of the apostles.”

Since I want these Tracts to be a manageable size, I will conclude Tract #2, Part 1 here. Next time, I’ll look at what four early Church historians say, the presence of British bishops at early councils, and physical evidence for British churches in the fourth century.

  1. I don’t have time, for example, to examine the claims that in A.D. 165 King Lucius King Lucius declared Britain to be a Christian nation.

  2. Many sources also cite that Dorotheus of Tyre claimed (c. 300) that Aristobulus was a bishop of Britain. However, my preliminary research indicates that these claims erroneously attribute this quote to a work of Dorotheus that may not even exist.

  3. I have not yet found confirming evidence for another, more enticing quote by St. Chrysostom.

Series Navigation<< Tract I: What Is Anglicanism?Tract II (Part II): Where Did Anglicanism Begin? >>

Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several recent books: Orthodox Anglican Identity, Love Me, Love My Wife, and Take This Cup.

'Tract II (Part 1): When Did Anglicanism Begin?' have 8 comments

  1. October 10, 2019 @ 10:16 am Mark

    Have you researched Gildas claim to when the light of Christ arrived in England. In his work On the Destruction and ruin of Britain.


  2. October 10, 2019 @ 10:34 am Br Gregory

    Didn’t the Celtic church fit into the formation of the Church of England? Or was that completely different?


  3. October 10, 2019 @ 8:05 pm Greg

    This is another great essay Fr Erlandson! Have you considered putting the final product together in booklet form for distribution in Anglican parishes, schools and other ministries? I would certainly put it to good use in the Anglican school where I teach, as I’m sure would many others in a variety of contexts.


  4. October 11, 2019 @ 4:04 am Charlotte

    I look forward to your substantiation of the phrase “brand of Christianity that did not see itself as Roman Catholic” in future posts.


  5. October 18, 2019 @ 3:24 pm Michael McKinnon

    While I was researching the beginning of Christianity in England, I too found real direct evidence to be scarce, but there nonetheless. Keep in mind that the population of England was very small in the first century, so it wasn’t exactly like there were lots of scribes running around to log everything down, they were probably busy trying to figure out how to eat, make clothes, and stay alive. What I did find interesting was the non-direct evidence to be plentiful, e.g. there appears to be displaced Christian refugees pushing ahead of the advancing Romans in Europe, with many making there way across the channel from Gaul in 177 when Christian persecutions were on the rise. Then again, the drama around English Bishops in accepting money from the Romans to attend the Council of Rimini, and how some of the Bishops refused financial help tells me that by 359 there must have been a well established church in England, and all this happened before 598 when St. Augustine arrived.


  6. February 3, 2020 @ 10:42 pm Paul Thompson

    Excellent tract, Father. I’d like to use this in my adult Sunday school class. While reading your tract I remembered St. Patrick who was of British descent and supposedly his father was a Bishop, so very obviously there was a church in Britain before Augustine of Canterbury arrived.


  7. February 19, 2023 @ 6:03 pm Eileen Smyth

    “If you say ‘with Henry VIII’ in any of the classes I teach at Cranmer Theological House, I will threaten you with either an automatic F or a pile of remedial work.”

    Ah, I see there are those who still gleefully inflict psychic pain upon their students under the guise of pedagogy. It’s often said that academics are so bitter precisely because the stakes are so low, and the little window voluntarily, even proudly, opened up by Fr. Erlandson on his own classroom seems to bear this out. (Whether it also bears out Lucretius’s assertion that despite universal promises of hope and love, the true underpinning of every religion is actually cruelty, I’ll leave to my fellow readers to speculate.)


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