Nov 12, 2019

Looking Back: Anniversaries Dates in 2020

Christian History Institute looks back at interesting and significant dates from centuries and half-centuries ago.

[Detail from an icon featuring Gregory the Wonderworker]

EACH YEAR CHI staff sift through church events to find interesting and significant anniversaries in fifty-year and one-hundred-year increments. This year we decided to blog them for the benefit of all our readers. Links in the text will take you to stories and videos about the entries.

The study of the early church is fascinating for its martyrs and church growth. 1,750 YEARS AGO, on 14 February 270, Valentine, a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, was beheaded along the Flaminian Way. Various legends sprang up about him and led to the tradition of Valentine’s Day on which love letters are exchanged. On 17 November 270Gregory the Wonderworker died, having evangelized his native Caesarea (in modern Turkey)

In Armenia, 1,700 YEARS AGO, shortly before Constantine’s triumphs made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire, his rival, Licinius, reverted to persecuting Christians. A group of soldiers who refused to renounce Christ were exposed on a frozen lake on 9 March 320, becoming known as the Forty Martyrs of Sevaste.    

Caesarea was still a major center of Christianity a hundred years after the death of Gregory the Wonderworker when, 1,650 YEARS AGO, on 14 June 370, Basil “the Great” succeeded to the see of Caesarea where he became famous for innovations such as hostels, hospitals, and soup kitchens. Missionaries were still advancing the gospel throughout Europe that year. One was Regulus, who wrecked off the coast of Scotland with the bones of St. Andrew on 29 October 370. Not surprisingly, with a tale like that, Scotland relied on St. Andrew as its patron saint. A site near the wreck became the seat of the most powerful bishops of Scotland. 

The death of a significant scholar happened on 30 September 4201,600 YEARS AGO, when Jerome died. He had translated the Bible from its original languages into Latin, creating a common-language version—the Vulgate—that became the authoritative text of the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries. 

On 7 July 1220 (800 YEARS AGO) the English dedicated a golden shrine in Canterbury to display the effigy of Thomas à Becket, a stiff-necked bishop killed at the behest of his former friend, King Henry II, a descendant of William the Conqueror. Because of Becket, Canterbury had become a major destination for pilgrims, and one such pilgrimage inspired the famed Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.

Looking eastward, the effects of the Mongol invasion were apparent. 700 YEARS AGO, on 6 September 1320,the remains of St. Michael, Prince of Tver (Russia), who had been martyred by a Khan, were placed in a church he had built in honor of Christ’s Transfiguration. 

600 YEARS AGO, nearer the heart of Europe, Bohemia was in rebellion. Bloodthirsty churchmen and a duplicitous emperor had murdered Bohemian reformer Jan Hus. (For more on Hus, watch the videos A Journey of No ReturnJan Hus, and Truth Prevails). Bohemia’s brilliant general Jan Ziska (Blind Courage) won a victory when he defeated Emperor Sigismund at the Battle of Sudomer, the second major battle of the Hussite wars, on 25 March 1420.

Another major effort at reform broke out a century later in Germany, spearheaded by the writings and preaching of Martin Luther (for more on Luther, read “Here I Stand” or watch the videos Here I StandWhere Luther WalkedOpen the Door to Luther, or Luther: His Life, His Path, His Legacy). With the Reformation in full swing, 500 YEARS AGO, on 18 August 1520, Luther published one of his most influential books: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. It called the laity, as spiritual priests, to carry out reforms neglected by the pope and the established church. Soon the pope responded with a bull demanding that Luther recant. Luther’s response, on 10 December 1520, was to burn the papal bull, and afterward to say no man could be saved unless he renounced the rule of the pope. (Luther also published On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On the Freedom of a Christian that busy year.)

A murderous effort by a Catholic bishop in Sweden to destroy his opposition took place in Stockholm that same year on 8 November 1520. It roused such fierce pushback that Gustav Vasa was able to become Sweden’s king and usher in its Reformation.            

England had stumbled into the Reformation through the urgent need of King Henry VIII to get a divorce so he could produce a legitimate male heir. He did finally get a son as well as daughters. When the son, Edward, died young, his daughter Mary ascended the throne, followed by Elizabeth. Mary attempted to return England to Catholicism, but Elizabeth pursued a cautious Protestant line. Pope Pius V attempted to overthrow her, forbidding her subjects to obey her on threat of excommunication in 1570, 450 YEARS AGO. Elizabeth retained her throne despite all efforts to oust her—including an Armada sent by Spain—going down in history as one of England’s greatest monarchs.

In Eastern Europe, Protestants struggled for leverage. Polish reformers recognized they would have to pull together or go down to separate defeats. On 14 April 1570, they ironed out differences, and even produced a unified statement about the ever-controversial Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). However, despite their efforts, Protestantism faltered in the largely Catholic nation.

Protestantism took hold in the New World, however, with formative power (see Saints and Strangers). On 20 February 1620 (400YEARS AGO), Rasmus Jensen died in Hudson Bay. He had been the first Lutheran pastor to come to North America. A more permanent Protestant influence would soon be on its way to the New World when the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth, England, on 6 September 1620. Two months later, in November 1620, they signed the famous Mayflower Compact, pledging themselves, “solemnly mutually in the presence of God and one another,” to “covenant, and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.”

1620 also marked the birth of one of Russia’s many colorful characters, Avvakum. Eventually he would become an archpriest, persecuted, exiled, and burned to death for his adherence to the old Russian Orthodox rites. But death did not silence him before he wrote an extraordinary, faith-filled autobiography that is considered a literary masterpiece, introducing a new and more colloquial style.

Persecution of Christians by Christians was still in play 350 YEARS AGO in 1670 when Jan Amos Comenius died peaceably in exile in Amsterdam on 15 November 1670 (see “The Labyrinth of the World…” and Vision Video’s digital download Jan Amos Comenius). He had been an influential author, educator, and leader of the banished Moravians. That same year Quaker William Penn was arrested for preaching in London’s streets. English jurors refused to convict him, although the judge in the case imprisoned, starved, and abused them. Consequently, a precedent was set that English jurors might not be coerced to return a desired verdict—and the rights of religious expression widened in England. 

Penn went on to found the colony of Pennsylvania in the future United States. There, 250 YEARS AGO, on 28 June 1770, another Quaker—slavery opponent Anthony Benezet—opened a school for African Americans in Philadelphia. Five years later he would go on to form the first abolitionist society in North America. (For more on the influence and teaching of Quakers, watch That of God in Everyone or read The Surprising Quakers.)

The American colonies, meanwhile, had experienced revival (the Great Awakening), in large part owing to Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. Whitefield preached his last sermon on 29 September 1770, dying early the next morning. (Learn more about the revival in Gospel of Liberty and Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening.) America’s Methodists were a lively and innovative lot, establishing America’s first-known “watch-night” service at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, on 31 December 1770, to ring in the new year.

A little more than 200 YEARS AGO the United States began sending missionaries worldwide. One of them, Pliny Fisk, reached Smyrna on 15 January 1820, commencing missionary labors in the Middle East that would take him to Alexandria, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Tripoli, and Beirut. He would distribute thousands of Scriptures and tracts. His work was just one instance of evangelical fervor spreading around the globe. Isaac Milner, a clergyman, mathematician, educator, and theological writer had made Queen’s College “a nursery of evangelical neophytes” when he was its president. He died in London 1 April 1820. Moravians saw fruit in Jamaica that same year, dedicating a church at New Eden on 14 May 1820. Designed to hold 500 worshipers, it could not accommodate the 900 who tried to crowd in. Russia was about to get an infusion of Protestant ideas, too, because on 30 July 1820 Johann Gossner, a German evangelical, preached his first sermon in Russian to a jammed church in St. Petersburg. Many Russians would convert through his influence. 

Women rose to prominence in missions as the nineteenth century progressed. Where before they had been expected to serve with a male companion, increasingly they worked independently. 150 YEARS AGO, on 7 January 1870, Isabella Thoburn of Ohio arrived in India where she became a great missionary-educator, opening India’s first Christian school for women within three months of her arrival. That same month, on 20 January 1870, Clara Swain arrived at Bareilly, India, and began medical work the same day. 

Americans of many denominations had turned their eyes to the advancing western frontier. Among them was Episcopalian Bishop Jackson Kemper, who died 24 May 1870, having served much of his life evangelizing on the American frontier and among the Indians of the Midwest. Not far behind him was Cyrus Kingsbury, a Presbyterian missionary to the Choctaw Indians, who died 27 June 1870. Kingsbury had also raised money to buy African Americans out of slavery. 

One slave who didn’t purchase freedom was James Pennington; he made a daring dash for liberty on his own feet. After learning to read and write, he penned an interesting autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, and wrote what is thought to be the first history of Africans in America. After serving many years as a preacher, he died 18 July 1870. With the end of slavery after the American Civil War, African-Americans rose to increased notice. Among them was Amanda Smith, who feeling dull, on 20 November 1870, saw a vision saying, “Go Preach.” She became a well-known African-American evangelist who traveled worldwide, worked in Nigeria, and sang in church services and at camp meetings while in the United States. On 15 December 1870, African-American Methodists from eight local conferences met in Jackson, Tennessee, where they founded the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church).

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, hard-pressed in Italy, convoked a council that declared papal infallibility. Catholics who opposed the dogma broke from the church on 18 July 1870, calling themselves Old Catholics. 

The rise of Communism led to a situation 100 YEARS AGO in which Russia’s Communists suppressed the church and killed many Christian workers. One name must stand for a host of others: Orthodox deacon Constantine Zverev was cut to pieces with sabers, 11 December 1920, because he defended a priest. Peter Dyneka, who would help found the Russian Gospel Association to alleviate the religious hunger of Eastern Europe, gave his heart to Christ in Chicago on 18 January 1920. He experienced such a total transformation that his landlord accused him of being drunk. 

Another mission founder, George S. Fisher of the Gospel Missionary Union, died 22 March 1920, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, of typhoid fever. Notable that year was the death of H. G. C. Moule, British New Testament scholar, on 8 May 1920. In Hong Kong the funeral for Catholic priest Leong Chi Hing took place 18 May 1920. He had been active in China’s Christian community as well as in missionary and linguistic work. On 6 August 1920, an extensive service was held in Atlanta’s West Mitchell Street Colored Methodist Episcopal Church for the burial of Bishop L. H. Holsey who had been a great builder and orator in his denomination. 

Protestantism came of age in Africa and Asia with the emergence of national Christian leaders. On 31 October 1920 Spetume Florence Njangali was baptized in Uganda where she became a leader in the effort to obtain theological education for women and their ordination as deaconesses in the Anglican Church. Meanwhile in China, on 21 November 1920, Wang Ming-Dao listed his sins, vowing to leave them. He had already been a Christian for many years but would go on to become an important national leader and innovator in the house church movement.       

Back in Europe that year, an old wound was alleviated on 16 May 1920 when French heroine Joan of Arc (or see Christian History article here) was canonized five hundred years after her politically-motivated execution. 

50 YEARS AGO, on 15 April 1970, Wang Liming died in a Communist labor camp in China, where she had been imprisoned on spurious evidence. When taken from her family she declared, “I am carrying the cross of Jesus Christ.” Wang headed the Chinese branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was active in women’s causes. 16 April 1970, the Greek Orthodox elder Amphilochios Makris died. An ascetic, he had founded a women’s monastery at Patmos, and services for orphans and pregnant women. On 3 November 1970, Charles Chidongo Chinula, a pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi, died. He had translated Pilgrim’s Progress into the Tumbuka language, been expelled from the Presbyterian church for his combative spirit, and founded a free church, but eventually rejoined the Presbyterians, deploring the schism he had caused. More widely noticed was the death, on 11 June 1970, of missionary Frank Laubach. His successful phonetics literacy program, used in many countries, insisted that those who had already learned to read teach others.

The Orthodox looked backward to a giant of faith who had died in 1837 when Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral on Kodiak Island, Alaska, glorified St. Herman, the “Wonderworker of All America,” with a solemn liturgy on 9 August 1970. Other Orthodox centers held simultaneous rites in honor of this Russian missionary who nurtured Orthodoxy in much of Alaska. Catholics also looked back—in their case to a heroine of the fourteenth century when, on 4 October 1970, Pope Paul VI declared Catherine of Siena a doctor of the church, only the second woman (after Teresa of Ávila) to receive that distinction. The same pope narrowly escaped assassination the following month, 27 November 1970, when Benjamín Mendoza y Amor Flores, dressed in a black clerical outfit, attempted to stab him during the pontiff’s visit to Manila, nicking his chest. The pope proceeded to read some prepared remarks as if nothing had happened. 

On 29 November 1970, in a rare move (given the centuries-old tendency of the church to split, a tendency that greatly increased after the Reformation), six church bodies in India—the Anglicans, the United Church of Northern India, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Church of the Brethren, and the Disciples of Christ—merged to form the Church of North India. (For more on the church in India, read A Faith of Many Colors.)

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