THE short account given in the following pages of three of the |Friends of God| of the fourteenth century is but a small fragment of a history which would form in itself a voluminous library, the History of the |Brethren| of the Middle Ages, known to us under many names, but in England chiefly as the Lollards or Boni Homines. Any account of these widely scattered and persecuted Christians must necessarily be a very imperfect one, as their history is told us chiefly by enemies, who were both ignorant of their true principles, and eager to malign them. And when, as in the histories that follow, they were themselves the narrators, we find that their writings were altered and enlarged by copyists who had an interest in doing so, or who imagined they rendered them more edifying by additions of their own. It is therefore necessary to remark that, though historical accuracy has been faithfully aimed at in the following stories, and though no addition whatever has been made by the writer to the original accounts, and though, further, the actual words of the |Friends of God| have been employed in making extracts from their writings, the history may yet be open to correction from further researches which are now being made by painstaking historians. The authors who have been followed in the account now given are, besides the three |Friends of God| themselves, Dr. Carl Schmidt, whose histories of Tauler, and of Nicholas of Basle, are the result of great labour and research; and Dr. Ludwig Keller, whose book, most interesting for German readers, |The Reformation, and the Older Reforming Bodies, described in their connection with one another,| will well repay a careful study.| A few words from his preface may not be out of place on the present occasion.
|The bodies thus connected were, as the following pages will show, those communities of Brethren' which under various names are well known as existing during many centuries, but whose true history lies hidden under the veil which the orthodox Churches, for good reason, spread over the fate of these persecuted Christians, who were called by them heretics, or sectaries,' and against whom they waged war by fire and sword.
|The history of these communities of Brethren,' who called themselves simply Christians,' reminds us, in a remarkable manner, in the mode by which they are described, and in the course of their destiny, of the incidents of the earliest Christian centuries. For it was just those Christians,' who were represented by the chief authors of antiquity as the offscouring of all things,' who were hated and persecuted as sectaries by the Jewish and heathen priesthood -- we may recall that Paul himself was brought to trial as a leader of the sect of the Nazarenes' -- it was just those despised men who were the beginning of a new era for the heathen and the Jewish world.
|In accordance with the prediction of Christ, If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you,' the true Christians' have in all ages been persecuted as being a sect, or sectaries; have been calumniated and hated. But according to the further prediction of the Redeemer, they have arisen as it were from the ashes, and the hatred of the world has been of no avail.|
Thus, though an exterminating war was carried on against these earlier Reformers, we find that two centuries after the events related in the stories that follow, the hidden stream of life burst forth afresh into the daylight, and Martin Luther rejoiced to reprint and circulate the writings of the |Friends of God.|
It is right to observe that there are some historians who are not fully satisfied that the great preacher converted by means of the |Friend of God from the Oberland| was really Dr. Tauler.
Others, again, deny the identity of the |Friend of God from the Oberland| with Nicholas of Basle.
But having examined these various theories, that of Dr. Carl Schmidt, who has devoted many years to careful investigation of these questions, appears to be conclusive. He admits, however, an uncertainty as to the date of the conversion of Dr. Tauler, as it is given variously in manuscripts and in the first printed accounts.
The history of Henry Suso is not that of a man recognised as belonging to the communities of |Brethren.| But it was to them that he belonged in heart, far more than in external observances, and was recognised as a |Friend of God,| by those who used the term (as it was mostly used) to express a true relation with God as to spiritual life, whether within or without the outward pale of the Roman Church.
Thus do |Friends of God,| who stood in immediate connection with Waldensian |Brethren,| speak of him, and he was probably far more free from Roman superstitions than the writer of his life, who seems to have coloured him according to her own thoughts of Catholic orthodoxy. His own words are the best and surest indication of his right to be classed with the sect of all sects, |that which is everywhere spoken against.| If any, who read the history of the labours and persecutions of the three |Friends,| still groping more or less in the ignorance and darkness of Popish superstition, should thereby be stirred up to truer devotedness to Him who has in His grace granted us fuller light and knowledge, the prayers of the writer will be answered.
And may we learn, in reading of the patience, the tenderness, and the love, with which the Lord welcomed and taught His ignorant children, with which He bore their ways of willfulness and superstition, and led them on to fuller knowledge of Himself, to bear with the ignorance and the folly of His people now. Indifference to error, and patience with ignorance, are two different things. We cannot force light into the soul, but we are not therefore to be satisfied to see the people of God wandering from His way by evil teaching. And let us look to ourselves lest we too should be yet in ignorance less excusable than that of the |Friends of God.|
In conclusion, it will be well if these histories lead us to realise, as never before, the Presence on the earth, of Him who was sent down to |teach all things| to believing souls. The living personal intercourse of the Holy Ghost with these sheep of God, who were otherwise without a Shepherd, is almost startling to us in these days when we are apt to look to human teachers, and human books. It should not surprise us that the Lord condescended to teach them from time to time by dreams, or by vivid pictures presented to the mind, which they regarded as visions. Such modes of teaching are not uncommon in our days amongst the ignorant and illiterate, and the Lord has used them apparently more or less in all ages. But it would be well if all of us knew more of that simple and direct communication with God, which Nicholas of Basle and Henry Suso attempted to explain in words, but which none who have known it can really or adequately express.
Whilst men are ready to believe in spiritualism or in any delusions of the evil one, or of the mind of man, they are utterly blind to the fact that the real, true, and supernatural intercourse with God is the privilege and experience of all those who have believed in Jesus. We who believe may well humble ourselves that we know so little of it, but that it is the standing fulfillment of the great promises of John xiv, xv, and xvi we know well, unless indeed we are so wanting in the faith which appropriates those glorious promises, that we have yet to learn what it is to hear the voice of God. In order to give a true and vivid account of the simple, childlike communication with God, granted to these saints of old, care has been taken to keep as closely as possible to their actual words and expressions, even when such expressions betray the ignorance which marks mediaeval Christianity. We may some day know better than we now know, how much ignorance marks the Christianity of the nineteenth century. Yet we cannot deny that God in His grace has given us light through the free circulation of His Word, which the believers of the Middle ages never had. The difficulty of rendering mediaeval German in modern English makes it impossible to give the full force of many passages, and in such cases the sense, rather than the actual words, has been aimed at in the translation. The extracts, therefore, either from Dr. Tauler's sermons, or from his history of his conversion, or from the autobiographies of Nicholas of Basle, and of Suso, are given as literally as possible, with the desire to convey the actual words, or if that should be impossible on account of the want of English equivalents, the actual sense of every passage. A short, but interesting, life of Suso may be found in Ullman's |Reformers before the Reformation,| taken from Diepenbrock's |Life of Suso,| which is a reproduction of the old German biography by Elizabeth Staglin.
It should further be borne in mind that the following pages aim rather at recording the light and teaching vouchsafed by the Lord to His servants, than furnishing a complete biography of either of them, which would necessarily comprise much which to modern readers would be of little profit, though doubtless of historical interest to some. Much more might be recorded, as matter of history, but the present account is rather that of their intercourse with God, than of their place in mediaeval history, which would include a great variety of details, entirely apart from the purpose of the present record.