A Radical View of the Eucharist . John Frith’s Reply to Thomas More

Frith, John (1503-1533)

A boke made by Iohan Fryth, prysoner in the Towr of London, answering vnto. M. Mores letter, which he wrote against the fyrst lytle treatyse that Iohan Fryth made concerning the sacrament of the body and bloud of Christ: vnto which boke are added in the ende the artycles of his examination before the bysshoppes of London, Winchester and Lincolne in Paules Churche in London for whych Iohn Frith was condempned and after brente in Smytfelde without Newgate the forth day of Iuly. Anno. 1533 Now newely reuised, corrected and printed in the yeare of our Lord. 1548. the last daye of Iune.

London: By Anthony Scoloker. and Wyllya[m] Seres dwelling wythout Aldersgate, 1548


Octavo: 12.7 x 7.6 cm. [236] p. Collation: A-P8 (with final two blanks)

THIRD EDITION (1st 1533).

A nice copy, bound in 17th c. calf, rebacked, the text in very good condition with minor loss to blank upper corner of first two leaves (not affecting text). Title a little dusty, some side-notes shaved. Text in black letter, woodcut initials. Imprint from colophon (P5v). With a fine, full-page woodcut printer's device (McKerrow 113) on P6r.

John Frith’s important reply to Thomas More’s “Letter impugnynge the erronyouse wrytyng of J. Fryth.”(1533), written while Frith was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Frith’s letter was not published until after his execution at Smithfield in 1533. The first two editions were printed at Antwerp. This is the first edition of the work printed in England.

The evangelical martyr John Frith fled England in the late 1520’s, settling at Antwerp to be with his close friend and collaborator William Tyndale. He wrote a number of provocative works challenging Catholic orthodoxy and when those works met with confutation he in turn wrote polemical responses, going so far as to challenge and refute Thomas More and John Fisher. When Frith returned (surreptitiously) to England in 1531, he was hunted down on the orders of More, who issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of heresy. Frith was locked in the Tower but this did not keep him from writing. While imprisoned, he wrote a short treatise on the Eucharist, which was not meant for distribution. However, it soon came into More’s possession.

“John Frith varied from orthodox Catholic faith in several particulars, but it was his doctrine of the Eucharist that brought him into literary conflict with Thomas More, and here Frith was truly radical. He rejected both the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence, often called ‘consubstantiation.’ Here he followed Zwingli and Oecolampadius, who taught that the elements in the Eucharist only symbolized the body and blood of Christ and that the bread and the wine were neither transformed into body and blood, as Catholics thought, nor joined with the body and blood, as Luther taught... Eventually English Protestants were to adopt a somewhat subtler and more ambiguous form of Frith’s view, but in 1532 no issue created more dissention among them. Tyndale, whose metaphors suggest that he too rejected the doctrine of the real presence, warned Frith to avoid as much as possible any discussion of the issue. Yet Frith could not leave the subject alone.”(Marius)

“In 1533 Thomas More took possession of a manuscript containing an evangelical tract on the topic of transubstantiation written by Frith, ‘A Christen sentence and true iudgement of the moste honorable sacrament of Christes bodye [and] bloud declared both by the auctorite of the holy scriptures and the auncient doctors.’ Despite being unpublished at this time, More felt this text required refutation and penned ‘A Letter impugnynge the erronyouse wrytyng of John Fryth’. More’s concern was the potential dissemination of the work. By the time his answer to Frith’s tract was published he had been able to acquire three manuscript copies, which confirmed to him that the text was being copied, and led him to fear an organized network of evangelicals working together to produce and disseminate texts. He imagined this model of dissemination as a canker spreading through a body.”(Ahnert)

More’s “poignant and eloquent defence of the doctrine of the ‘real presence’ in the sacrament of the altar is the mildest of all his polemical works. Yet the purpose of More’s ‘Letter’ is clear throughout: to show how Frith has erred from orthodoxy and to refute the young man’s errors. Frith’s heresy goes far beyond that of Luther and even Tyndale, More says, for the young man denies the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, though Frith admits that Christ made many statements that make this radical sort of heresy untenable. Thus More sets the course that he will follow throughout the work, acknowledging that although Frith is a bright young man worthy of personal affection, his doctrines place him among the most hated of the English and continental heretics.

“Frith’s response to More was well over three times as large as More’s ‘Letter’ and represents altogether an aggressive restatement of all the arguments made in his ‘A Christen sentence’… He plunges into a point-by-point refutation of More’s work, and by the time he is done, his treatise is as good as a death warrant. His reply is much more learned than ‘A Christen sentence’, particularly in his use of patristic sources, and he argues more sharply and in much greater detail than in his original statement. His arguments, carefully spelled out, are not without interest, especially as they reflect some of the fundamental concerns of people like himself and of the times in general. He makes a list of things God cannot do: he cannot save the unfaithful; he cannot restore lost virginity; he cannot sin…

“He brings up the old stercorian argument, complaining that if we accept the doctrine that we eat the physical body of Christ in the sacrament, it follows that the body of Christ must be defecated, ‘which thing is abominable.’ He steadfastly maintains that Augustine supports his position in the interpretation of the Eucharist. And he holds that the honor and worship shown the Eucharist among Catholics ‘is plaine idolatrye.’… But his clarity was his undoing.”(Marius)

Frith was examined on 20 June 1533. He refused to recant his views of Purgatory and the elements of the Eucharist. He was condemned as a heretic and, because he would not recant, was sentenced to death by burning. On 4 July 1533 Frith was immolated at Smithfield. He was 30 years old

STC (2nd ed.), 11384