Frome the beginning of the Montanist and Novatian protests and separations, in the second and third centuries, on to the great Reformation of the sixteenth, there were many godly men and women who joined in the movements for reform, and raised up large bodies of earnest, witnessing Christians. Prominent among these courageous Reformers were Montanus, who flourished about 170 A. D.; Novatian, about 250 A. D.; Donatus, about 305 A. D.; Ambrose, about 374 A. 9.; and Constantine of the Paulicians, about 700 A. D. Claudius, Bishop of Turin, preached in the valleys of Piedmont from 817 to 839. Peter Waldo, the dauntless leader of the Waldenses, labored from 1160 to 1179. Joachim of Italy lived between the years 1145-1201; and Wycliffe, scholar and reformer in England, between 1320-1384. Militz of Bohemia made himself known about 1363-1374; and Matthias of Janow, Bohemia, between 1381-1394. John Huss of Bohemia lived from 1369-1415; Savonarola of Italy, 1452-1498; and Martin Luther of Germany, 1483-1546.
During the whole of this long, tragic period there was an irrepressible conflict between the papacy and the Reformers. Divine light was penetrating the hearts of sincere men and women who longed for salvation, and who walked in the faint rays of the light that had already shone upon them. The Lord had a few names that had not defiled their garments. They walked with Him in white, for they were worthy. Rev. 3:4.
The Lord knew and loved these people, even in their manifest errors and mistakes. He vindicated them, and led them by many marked providences. He gave them fortitude to endure numberless persecutions inflicted upon them. There is historical witness that, even in this long, dark period, He made Himself known to some in visions and spoke to them in dreams, as He made promise through the prophet Joel, and confirmed it through the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost. As we have found in the preceding centuries, men and women appeared from time to
time as divinely called teachers and leaders of the people. Many were alluded to by Christian writers and historians of the times.
Reliable information concerning the work of some of those who thus became God's spokesmen is not available. On others the testimony is very meager, and is often biased or conflicting. The presence of the false was often intermingled with the true, bringing odium upon all to whom the prophetic office was imputed or by whom it was claimed. The attitude of the Roman Church was not only to restrain the exercise of the gift, but also to declare officially that the prophetic office had ceased with the close of the Scripture canon. For this reason it sought to destroy the writings of the reformers and testimony concerning them.
The history of God's people during the ages of darkness that followed upon Rome's supremacy, is written in heaven, but they have little place in human records.The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, p. 61.
While holding to our conviction that the bestowal of the prophetic gift was, in the purpose of God, to abide through the centuries to the end of the gospel dispensation, we do not deem it advisable to undertake in this brief treatise to establish the genuineness of the calling of this individual or that to the prophetic office. There is historical testimony through the centuries from the fourth to the eighteenth that seems convincing enough in a considerable number of instances; but we regard it unwise to introduce names about which there might be some legitimate question, and thus obscure the larger principle we are pursuing.
We shall therefore content ourselves at this juncture, first by reaffirming our belief that light from heaven shone here and there all through the darkness of this benighted period, not only from the Holy Scriptures themselves, but also from God's chosen way of communicating with His spokesmen through the prophetic gift; and, second, by presenting testimony of a general character in support of this conviction.
God's way of dealing with His messengers of light in every generation is pointedly set forth in the words of another:
In every generation God has sent His servants to rebuke sin, both in the world and in the church. But the people desire smooth things spoken to them, and the pure, unvarnished truth is not acceptable. Many reformers, in entering upon their work, determined to exercise great prudence in attacking the sins of the church and the nation. They hoped, by the example of a pure Christian life, to lead the people back to the doctrines of the Bible. But the Spirit of God came upon them as it came upon Elijah, moving him to rebuke the sins of a wicked king and an apostate people; they could not refrain from preaching the plain utterances of the Bible,doctrines which they had been reluctant to present. They were impelled to zealously declare the truth, and the danger which threatened souls. The words which the Lord gave them they uttered, fearless of consequences, and the people were compelled to hear the warning.Id., p. 606.
As we near the great Reformation of the sixteenth century, we find preparatory movements springing up in many parts of the world. These were led by zealous Christian men to whom there came a clear view of primitive Christianity, together with great alarm concerning the fallen state of the Catholic Church.
In the different countries of Europe men were moved by the Spirit of God to search for the truth as for hid treasures. Providentially guided to the Holy Scriptures, they studied the sacred pages with intense interest. They were willing to accept the light, at any cost to themselves. Though they did not see all things clearly, they were enabled to perceive many long-buried truths. As Heaven-sent messengers they went forth, rending asunder the chains of error and superstition, and calling upon those who had been so long enslaved, to arise and assert their liberty.Id., p. 79.
The unusual experiences that came to these leaders led them to believe that God was speaking to them and laying upon them the responsibility of proclaiming the need of a great spiritual revival and reformation. Such a movement was begun in England during the fourteenth century.
Of all who gave their lives to lead the human race out of the darkness, superstition, and cruelty of the world's midnight, none, perhaps, contributed more than John Wycliffe of England.
He was born in Yorkshire, in the year 1320, and died a peaceful death in his rectory on the last day of December, 1384. Wylie, one of the very readable historians of the beginnings, developments, and triumphs of Protestantism, left on record a remarkable statement regarding Wycliffe. He says:
Wycliffe stands apart, distinctly marked off from all the men in Christendom. Bursting suddenly upon a dark age, he stands before it in a light not borrowed from the schools, nor from the doctors of the church, but from the Bible. He came preaching a scheme of reinstitution and reformation so comprehensive, that no reformer since has been able to add to it any one essential principle. On these solid grounds he is entitled to be regarded as the Father of the Reformation. With his rise the night of Christendom came to an end, and the day broke which has ever since continued to brighten.The History of Protestantism, Vol. I, p. 124.
Concerning Wycliffe's work of reform, Mrs. E. G. White makes this significant statement:
God had appointed to Wycliffe his work. He had put the word of truth in his mouth, and He set a guard about him that this word might come to the people. His life was protected, and his labors were prolonged, until a foundation was laid for the great work of the Reformation.
Wycliffe came from the obscurity of the Dark Ages. There were none who went before him from whose work he could shape his system of reform. Raised up like John the Baptist to accomplish a special mission, he was the herald of a new era. Yet in the system of truth which he presented there was a unity and completeness which reformers who followed him did not exceed, and which some did not reach, even a hundred years later. So broad and deep was laid the foundation, so firm and true was the framework, that it needed not to be reconstructed by those who came after him.The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, p. 93.
While the Reformation was under way in England during the time of Wycliffe, seeds of reform were springing up also in Bohemia. Of the beginnings of the work there, Neander says:
The great reformatory movement in Bohemia dates back to Militz, the individual who gave the first impulse to it. We see his influence continuing still to operate through his disciples, Matthias of Janow and John Huss.General History Of the Christian Religion and Church, Vol. IX, part 1, p. 250, para. 1. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1858.
The experience of these early reformers is thus summed up:
Before the days of Huss, there were men in Bohemia who rose up to condemn openly the corruption in the church and the profligacy of the people. Their labors excited widespread interest. The fears of the hierarchy were roused, and persecution was opened against the disciples of the gospel.The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, p. 97.
Rome had decreed that the light of God's word should be extinguished, and forbade the conduct of worship in the Bohemian tongue. In the Chapel of Bethlehem in Prague, John Huss denounced these and other evils unsparingly, and appealed to the word of God to enforce the principles of truth and purity. Another citizen of Prague, Jerome, made a visit to England and brought with him the writings of Wycliffe. These had a profound influence on the work of Huss and Jerome as they later became intimately associated in the work of reform, in defense of which they both yielded up their lives in the flames of Romish persecution.
Concerning their work, the purpose and the method of God are revealed in these instructive words:
God permitted great light to shine upon the minds of these chosen men, revealing to them many of the errors of Rome; but they did not receive all the light that was to be given to the world. Through these, His servants, God was leading the people out of the darkness of Romanism; but there were many and great obstacles for them to meet, and He led them on, step by step, as they could bear it. They were not prepared to receive all the light at once. Like the full glory of the noontide sun to those who have long dwelt in darkness, it would, if presented, have caused them to turn away. Therefore He revealed it to the leaders, little by little, as it could be received by the people.Id., p. 103.
That this is God's method of dealing with His chosen leaders in other generations is made clear in the next sentence:
From century to century, other faithful workers were to follow, to lead the people on still farther in the path of reform.Idem.
It is easy to infer from these illuminating statements that
we may not be too exacting of reformers in expecting or requiring that they
should have and impart all the light as we have it now in the full blaze of
gospel glory. God has many times used men to meet the exigencies of the period
in which they lived, who may not have had a full knowledge of the truth as we
know it today.