Christian History

This Week in Christian History

February 22, 1906: Black itinerant evangelist William J. Seymour arrives in Los Angeles to lead a Holiness mission. The group grew larger as word spread of its revival meetings and speaking in tongues, and it eventually moved to a rundown building on Azusa Street. The church’s revival is often cited as one of the birthplaces of Pentecostalism.

February 21, 1109: Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury recognized as the “founder of Scholasticism,” dies. One of the most profound thinkers of the Middle Ages, his treatise Why Did God Become Man was the greatest medieval treatise on the atonement. He is also known for his ontological argument for the existence of God.

February 21, 1142: Medieval French philosopher, teacher, and theologian Peter Abelard dies. Perhaps best known for his (chaste) love affair with nun Heloise, Abelard made his most important contribution in establishing a critical methodology for theology. Irritated with some of the unreasoning pietism of other monks, he wrote Yes and No, compiling the (sometimes conflicting) sayings of the Bible and church fathers on various controversial subjects.

February 21, 1173: Pope Alexander III canonizes Thomas a Becket three years after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s martyrdom at the hands of King Henry II’s knights.

February 21, 1431: Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, begins his interrogation of young Joan of Arc. She was eventually condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.

February 21, 1801: John Henry Newman, Anglican leader of the Oxford Movement, is born in London. The movement sought to reform the Church of England in a “high church” direction, but Newman left the church in 1845 to become a Catholic—a choice he explained in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864).

February 21, 1945: Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympian whose story is told in the film Chariots of Fire, dies of a brain tumor. In 1925, he had joined the staff of the Anglo-Chinese Christian College in Tientsin, China (his birthplace). He was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and died just before his scheduled release.

February 21, 2018: Billy Graham, the most well-known and effective evangelist of the twentieth century, dies at 99. “America’s pastor” preached to millions and saw throngs come to Christ during his evangelistic “crusades” through the United States and across the globe. Graham also advised numerous American presidents and was the driving force behind establishing Evangelicalism as a movement within American Protestant Christianity and beyond.

February 20, 1469: Thomasso de Vio Cajetan, the most learned of the Roman Catholic dignitaries sent to silence Martin Luther in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, is born. He was also one of the cardinals who convinced Pope Clement VII to reject Henry VIII’s request to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

February 20, 1895: Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the first African-American to hold high political office, dies. After escaping to freedom in 1838, he became the most prominent black abolitionist. Critical of the “Christianity of this land,” which accepted (or at least tolerated) slavery, he considered himself a devotee of “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ”.

February 19, 843: Empress Theodora reinstates icons once and for all in the Eastern churches, effectively ending the medieval iconoclastic controversy. A council in 787 had allowed the veneration of icons, but opponents of images still controlled most of the government and much of the church leadership. The controversy continued, however, and was one of the reasons for the Great Schism between Catholics and the Orthodox in 1054.

February 19, 1377: John Wycliffe stands trial in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral for his criticism of the church. He argued against the sale of indulgences, the worship of saints, the veneration of relics, the “emptiness” of some church traditions, and the indolence of clerics. In spite of five papal bulls ordering his arrest, he was never convicted as a heretic.

February 19, 1401: William Sawtrey, an English priest who followed the teachings of John Wycliffe, is burned for heresy, becoming the first “Lollard” (critic of the church) martyr in England.

February 19, 1473: Astronomer and cleric Nicolaus Copernicus, whose “heliocentric” concept of the solar system became the foundation of modern astronomy, is born in Poland. Both Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic hierarchy condemned the theory (his revolutionary book was banned until 1758), but Copernicus remained a faithful member of the Catholic Church. He was even a member of the clergy at Frauenburg Cathedral, where his uncle was bishop. “[It is our] loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason,” he wrote.

February 19, 1569: Miles Coverdale, translator and publisher of the first complete English Bible, dies. Parts of his Bible were revisions of Tyndale’s, but unlike his predecessor (with whom he once worked), he included no contentious prefaces or notes; instead, he penned an obsequious dedication to the king.

February 19, 1812: Congregational missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson set sail from Massachusetts for Calcutta, India. From there, they went to Burma and became two of the most famous American missionaries of their day.

February 18, 1546: German reformer Martin Luther dies in Eisleben. In one of his pockets he had placed the beginning of a projected manuscript against Roman Catholics. In another pocket was a slip of paper reminding him, “We are beggars, that’s the truth”.

February 18, 1564: Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Italian Renaissance artist whose works include the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, dies.

February 18, 1678: Puritan preacher John Bunyan publishes The Pilgrim’s Progress, the best-selling book (apart from the Bible) in history. The allegorical tale, which describes Bunyan’s own conversion process, begins, “I saw a man clothed with rags … a book in his hand and a great burden upon his back”.

February 18, 1688: Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issue America’s first formal protest of slavery.