Heritage of Freedom: Introduction

‘ALL CHANGE IN HISTORY, all advance, comes from the nonconformists. If there had been no trouble-makers, no Dissenters, we should still be living in caves.’ Professor Taylor’s judgment summarizes the theme of this book, which is an illustrated guide to radical movements in Christian history.

The twenty-one chapters cover a remarkable range of movements. What connects Francis and his friars with William Booth and his Salvation Army? Is there any conceivable link between the exuberance of today’s Pentecostals and the sober austerity of the desert monks seventeen centuries before them? The thread that holds them together is that they have all acted as ‘ginger groups’ within the Christian church. Each movement has had something fresh and important to say, which the established church has not been fully open to hear. But in the end each distinctive message has penetrated the fabric of worldwide Christianity and made a lasting impact on the world.

Why have these movements put their stamp on the church and society, so that we remember them, while others never really broke through? This book suggests several possible answers. And a deeper knowledge of these and other movements (which space excluded) would refine those answers. But the crux is people.

Each movement has thrown up key personalities, who shaped its development. There is plenty in this book about people such as Martin Luther, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer - all rugged nonconformists who have permanently changed the way we see things. But thousands of ordinary people threw in their lot with these groups, and this book is about them too. What was it like to be a follower of John Hus in fifteenth-century Bohemia, for example? What gave these people such joy in their beliefs and such courage in face of persecution? Where did they find the freedom to live as their consciences led them?

They would answer that it all came ultimately from believing in Jesus of Nazareth. In the words of the Shaker hymn:

It’s a gift to be simple, 
It’s a gift to be free.

Heritage of Freedom is a celebration of that gift, in many of the different ways it has been received and experienced through the centuries.

 
By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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