Popes, Pastors, and Puritans | A Church History Primer

Depending on where we are, the site of aging, skyline-shaping cathedrals may be beyond the norm. Yet wherever we travel, from New York City to Moscow, we find them. Quiet relics of a day gone by. And though they may seem strange and obsolete, these historic structures represent a timeline of people, places, and events not so distant from you and me.

As modern Christians, we often fail to maintain a historical perspective. It’s not that we're disinterested, we simply don’t think about it very often. But what those timeless buildings like downtown Denver's Trinity United Methodist Church should instill in us is a sense of intimacy with the past.

In the unfolding narrative of time, we are merely the latest in a long history of God’s storied works.

How to Use
Our hope in Children and Families Ministries is to provide resources that support families as you follow God's call to teach, care for, and disciple your children. One way we aim to do this is by offering strategically formulated content that is both relevant and timeless.

Our encouragement to parents is to set aside a couple of mealtimes this month to read over this post with your family, following up with reflection and discussion.

  • Why Church History is Important
  • Notable Figures
    • Polycarp of Smyrna
    • Martin Luther and John Calvin
    • George Müller
  • The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century
  • Where do We Fit in?
  • Conclusion
  • Gospel Impact
  • Family Application
    • Discussion Questions
    • Family Media
Why Church History is Important
History Reveals how God has Been Working.

Christians do two things very well. We study the ancient teachings and events in Scripture, and we take time to think about how God is working today. We even do a good job connecting the two, focusing on how the events of the Bible impact the present. What is oftentimes lost, however, is the in-between.

A failure to marvel at Church history can be a costly one, preventing us from some encountering some of the most captivating people and events the world has ever known—stories to which you and I are deeply connected. From Polycarp’s steadfast obedience (c. 69 AD), to David Brainerd’s bold missionary adventures to the Native Americans (1718), history is a tapestry of God’s faithfulness to His people.

In the New Testament, Jesus promised His disciples He would be with them to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). If Church history teaches us anything, it’s that God has made good on this promise, preserving the Church through every storm and challenge to the gospel in its path.

History is a Schoolmaster
Millard Erickson calls history a “laboratory where the results are already on display.” It’s like having the results of an experiment without needing to do it. If we were to hear that one of our friends had earned detention for using her phone in class, would we not be wise to learn from our friend's mistake and put our own phone away? To this effect, the past can be exceedingly practical in its didactic purpose; it can teach us something. Today, we have the luxury of being able to look back in time and learn from what has happened. In the Church, our access to history helps us avoid damaging heresies and false teachings that have already been proposed, discussed, and condemned by God’s people.

Familiarizing ourselves with the historic controversies of the Church helps ensure we are equipped for when they inevitably reappear. If, for example, churches were to drift towards denying the full deity of Christ, we could point to the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the historic council where this idea has already been dismantled and rejected. We can make similar judgments about other Church practices, such as the sale of indulgences (buying forgiveness) and monasticism (the life of a monk), identifying their merits or concerns. All in all, the Church would suffer a great deal were she to ignore the wisdoms of the past.

Notable Figures
While there is far more to Church history than we could hope to unpack here, we will briefly address a few of its most important figures and notable mile-markers.

Polycarp of Smyrna
Polycarp (c. 69 AD) was an Apostolic Father. This means he was part of the first line of successors to Christ’s apostles. Specifically, Polycarp was a disciple of the beloved friend and disciple of Jesus, the Apostle John. What was especially unique about Polycarp was his unwavering commitment to Christ, even when his life hung in the balance. Though many Christian figures have similarly persevered in the faith, Polycarp’s story stands out among them.

Polycarp lived and served in Smyrna during a time of increased Christian persecution. His role was pastoral, dedicating much of his time to teaching, intercession, and the guarding of the Church against increasing false teaching. Polycarp was notable for his acute wisdom and zeal, an effective combination. Unfortunately, his notoriety would lead to his downfall.

At the height of Smyrna’s persecution, both the people and the Roman state begin calling for Polycarp's life. Soon, Polycarp was arrested and brought before the Roman officials for questioning. There, as they had of others, Polycarp's accusers demanded that he renounce Christ and swear allegiance to Caesar. To this, Polycarp is said to have replied, “Eighty-six years I have been [Christ's] servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” When Polycarp was threatened with being fed to wild animals, he remained resolute, saying, “Bring them on then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.” Meaning, ‘Do whatever you want to me, since Christians are not in the habit of turning from what is good to turn to what is bad.”

That day, Polycarp was taken to the stake to be burned for his faith in Christ. It is said that, though the flames surrounded him, they would not burn him, forcing his Roman executioners to kill him themselves. Our modern heroes have little clout in the shadow of Polycarp of Smyrna.

Martin Luther and John Calvin

Martin Luther
I address these two figures together because of their related roles in one of the most—if not thee most—important events since the Bible, the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (1483) is famous for his transition from a German Roman Catholic monk to the central pioneer of Protestant reform. Luther was a dutiful servant of the Church who was in continual spiritual agony over his powerlessness to overcome sin. If there were ever someone who attempted to vanquish sin according to human strength alone, it was Martin Luther. Indeed, it was out of this struggle that the Lord ultimately led Luther to his place of transformation.

Reading Romans 1:17, Luther experienced a moment of intense biblical clarity as the Spirit brought the Apostle Paul’s words to life. We can almost picture a young Martin Luther, driven mad by his sin, bent over his Bible in scrutiny, understanding these words for the first time: “The just shall live by faith.” This epiphany sparked in Luther a fire that would burn and spread throughout the Church for over 500 years, even to today. His revelation was Sola fide, meaning "faith alone," which is the doctrine of justification through faith in Christ Jesus alone. The Roman Catholic Church had abandoned this scriptural teaching, choosing instead to advance a righteousness of personal merit earned by man’s own ability. As we might expect, Luther’s disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church continued to grow, leading to the famous writing of his 95 theses, a vehement objection to the church's sale of indulgences. After writing them, Luther took his complaints and nailed them the church door at Wittenberg Castle in 1517. This event marked what many consider to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. A movement which sought to reorient the Church towards Christ on the foundation of Scripture alone.

John Calvin
If Martin Luther was the hammer of the Reformation, Calvin (1509), 26 years his junior, was the scalpel. John Calvin was a French theologian and pastor best known for his sharp intellectual contributions to the Reformation.

John Calvin was, among many things, a prolific writer. Operating out of Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin developed a verse-by-verse commentary on almost the entire Bible. His authorial legacy rests, however, on his most famous work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. “The Institutes,” as it is commonly known, is a systematic theology volume that covers, with great detail and evidence of the Spirit’s guidance, an expanse of theological issues. But despite his theological endeavors, Calvin existed as more than simply a religious leader. Calvin was an all-around societal force in Geneva, advocating for a Christian ethic and reform across all aspects of life. In the course of his work, Calvin would often preach five or more sermons a week, all the while maintaining his writing, apologetics, and mentoring ministries. After Luther, Calvin's efforts in Church, political, and social spheres earned him wide acclaim as the foremost leader of the Reformation and established Geneva as what many considered the seat of the movement.

Ultimately, John Calvin would be most remembered for his enormous contributions to the Church's understanding of the doctrines of man's will, the nature of grace, and God’s sovereignty. These teachings live on in the form of what we know today as Calvinism.

George Müller
Fast-forward approximately 300 years to a crowded orphanage located in the northern part of Bristol, England. It is here we encounter George Müller (1805).

George Müller was a Prussian born Englishman and humble disciple of Christ. He endeavored tirelessly, both as an evangelist and as the founder and director of the Ashley Down Orphanage for children. What made George Müller so special was his radical perspective on faith and Christian charity. There was nothing more important to Müller than the prioritization of God’s gift of faith, and he sincerely believed everything he had flowed from God’s mercy and grace. This reality necessitated his ultimate attention be placed on the acknowledgment of, and hope in, God as his provider. What this looked like as the director of an orphanage was a refusal on Müller’s part to ever solicit donations from anyone but God. This may seem unusual to us today when it is not uncommon, nor is it necessarily wrong, for Christian organizations to openly ask for help. Müller, however, was convicted that this was not the way.

“The first and primary object of the work was, (and still is) that God might be magnified by the fact, that the orphans under my care are provided, with all they need, only by prayer and faith, without anyone being asked by me or my fellow-laborers, whereby it may be seen, that God is FAITHFUL STILL, and HEARS PRAYER STILL.” - George Müller

George Müller believed so fervently in God’s priority over everything that he committed himself first to God's glory and second to the needs of the orphans. Müller understood that his life, be he a beggar or a king, was to be focused on serving and worshipping the Lord. What George Müller’s convictions represent is something universal. If we rightfully put God first, our secondary needs will benefit. This is why husbands and wives promise to put Christ first in their marriages, they recognize that this approach is the best and most biblical way to honor one another as well.

As history records, Müller’s faith was rewarded. On one significant occasion, Müller and his team had prepared the children for the day, but there was no food in the cupboards. The children stood dressed and ready for school, but their stomachs sat empty. Nevertheless, Müller instructed the children to take their seats in the dining hall, praying over the "meal.” In his prayer, Müller expressed genuine faith that God would provide, just as He always had. Moments later, both a baker and a milkman were knocking on the orphanage door...

The baker explained that, during his morning's baking, he had thought of the hungry orphans and the thought filled him with compassion. He then decided to bake enough bread to feed them all. Meanwhile, the milkman's cart had suffered a broken wheel. With his cart stranded near the orphanage, the milkman was glad to have the milk go to the children rather than spoil. That morning, because of Müller’s faithfulness, the children enjoyed a breakfast of bread and milk. A somewhat meager ration, perhaps, but a soul-warming gift for 300 hungry children.

George Müller’s legacy lives on according to his radical life of faith and the application of his trust in God’s provision. Today, many Christian charities and organizations similarly refuse to make requests for donations, opting instead to turn directly to God. Some of these organizations are considered the most widely respected and successful in operation.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century
For many of us, October means crisp autumn weather, jeans, and jackets; the chance to bundle up provides a welcome change from the summer's heat. In the season's spirit, there are many leaves to crunch and pumpkins to hold as fall festivals and Halloween activities fill our calendars. For the savvy Christian, however, October holds a deeper treasure than bonfires and pumpkin-flavored beverages. October is Reformation Month.

October 31st, the day most of the country spends observing Halloween, is actually Reformation Day. It was October 31st, 1517 that Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg Castle.

This event, propelled by the invention of the printing press, threw the Church world into revolution. The abuses of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the handling of Scripture had spread to every aspect of the church. False teaching abounded, the lowly were oppressed, and people were even being killed. In short, the gospel had been nearly lost. The cry was for reform, which was not an intended dismantling of the church, but a life-giving transformation from the inside out that entailed a realignment with Scripture and the gospel.

The Reformation was built on these principles known as the five solas:
Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) - Scripture alone is our highest authority.
Sola Fide (faith alone) - We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Sola Gratia (grace alone) - We are saved by the grace of God alone.
Solus Christus (Christ alone) - Christ alone is our savior and King.
Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone) - We exist for the glory of God alone.

The Roman Catholic Church had deviated from these in favor of a salvation based on man’s efforts. By God’s grace, the early protestant reformers—and even its forerunners such as John Wycliffe (~1320) and Jan Huss (1372)—recognized the Church’s trajectory and were determined to correct it. This is where the name “Protestant” comes from: the protests made by our forefathers against the teachings of Rome. From these errors, the Roman Catholic Church has largely never corrected.

That said, the Reformation was more than a war of ideas. Blood was spilled on both sides and over many years. Families were divided and whole people groups were subject to persecution. However, we must recognize the Reformation as what it was, God’s work in history. The preservation of His Word and the purity of the gospel have always been at the heart of God’s interests in humanity. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the men and women who gave their lives for this noble cause and to the sovereign God of creation who ensured their success.

Where do We Fit in?
You and I might not be the next John Calvin or George Müller, but God uses each of His children according to His purposes.

When you read of these men, events, and women too (Anne Askew), I encourage you not to let their unique historical contexts diminish the connection you feel to them. Someday, what we consider the present—our lives—will fill several pages in the story of God’s Church. As we can see, God is working through His Church in miraculous ways now and always. We are therefore invited into that story to take up the work of those who have gone before us. The thing about you and me is, George Müller didn’t have George Müller to read about, and neither did Martin Luther have Martin Luther to look back on. But we do.

Martin Luther was 34 when the Reformation Started, and Charles Spurgeon preached his first sermon when he was 16. Never allow your youth to exclude you from recognizing and taking part in God’s grand story. You never know if, someday, someone might sit down and write about you. Whether we live in obscurity or leave a historical legacy, let us resolve to live as our forefathers, seeking God’s glory above all else.

On the 6th of October, the Christian world remembers William Tyndale (1494). What you should know about William Tyndale is, if the Bible on your nightstand is in English, you have him to blame. In 1526, Tyndale translated the Bible into English, an act at the time punishable by death. His translation, along with several other offenses, placed William Tyndale gravely at odds with King Henry VIII (the eighth). It is said that Tyndale promised he would make sure that the lowest plow-pushing farmer knew more of Scripture than the clergy. And in many ways, his promise held true. Because of his disfavor with King Henry VIII, Tyndale was convicted of heresy, strangled, and burned at the stake. In his last moments, Tyndale pleaded with God, “Lord! Open the King of England's eyes!” And, as God would have it, approximately four years later, King Henry VIII ordered the printing of the Bible in English, making it accessible to all within his kingdom.

As contemporary people, we are often prisoners of the moment, unable to fully appreciate our place in the unceasing march of time, yet all the previous events in the Church have led us to where we are today.

A poetic rendering of one of the early Church Fathers’ words, Tertullian, reads, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This means that, through the sacrifice of our fellow-workmen in Christ, God has built and preserved His Church. As faithful Christians, we ought to thirst for insight into our own backstory, looking astern to see how God has orchestrated His purposes through both human heroics and suffering alike.

History is a display of God’s faithfulness. He is never idle. In fact, He has been exceedingly busy.

Gospel Impact
Looking at Church history, we find ourselves numbered among a triumphant people, a people who have stood the test of time. What we must keep in mind, although, is that none of what has been accomplished would be so without God's Spirit. God has been working in and through people for the glory of His name and the good of His Church since time began. The important thing to know is we have that same power. The Spirit that gave Müller his faith, Polycarp his strength, and Luther his boldness is the same power that brought Jesus from the grave. And this power is ours (Romans 8:11). The whole Church is connected in this way according to the Holy Spirit. We can therefore rest secure in God's unending power and His promise to see us through to the very end.

Family Application
Church history might seem like a steep and complex hill to climb with our families. Taken in small doses, however, even children will be recalling the names and events from Christianity past. Consider how you can make Church history a part of your family's worship this month.

Discussion Questions
  1. How can we benefit from Church history today?
  2. What is an "Apostolic Father?"
  3. What important lesson does Luther teach us about salvation?
  4. Who was the Frenchman who became the leader of the Reformation after Martin Luther?
  5. What was unique about George Müller's approach to running an orphanage? What can we learn from this?
  6. Who translated the Bible into English and at what cost?
  7. What's a Protestant? Are you one?
  8. Is God still at work in the Church's story today? If yes, how so?

Family Media
This month, consider learning and singing Martin Luther's famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. This hymn became known as the battle hymn of the Reformation.


A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God's own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever

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