Persecution of Early Unitarian Churches in Malabar, Abyssinia and Ireland

Courtesy: Excerpted from "For Christ's Sake" by Ahmad Thomson, Copyright 1997.

It is important to remember that whatever the different names used to describe the Paulicians during different periods and in different places, theirs was a single and unified living movement. Like a plant, the seed of their teaching was continually sown, grown, flowered, fruited, withered, and almost dead, only to take root and spring up elsewhere.

The movement of the Paulicians was extensive. Wherever there are accounts of 'the destruction of the heretics', if they do not describe the persecution of the Arians or Donatists, then they are quite probably describing the persecution of a group of the Paulicians, or of a group of people who were influenced by them.

The Nestorian Church, for example, was greatly influenced by the teaching which was transmitted through Paul of Samosata and the Paulicians. It spread as far east as China and eventually spread back the way it had come. Under the reign of the Muslim Khalifs, who tolerated anyone who wished to practise Christianity in peace, the Nestorian Church was diffused from China to Jerusalem and Cyprus. Their numbers, with those of the Jacobites who were another Christian sect, were computed to surpass the members of the Greek and Latin official churches. Unitarian Christians flourished under the protection of the Muslims.

The Nestorian Church was also well-established further afield. In Malabar, in India, they united with the followers of St Thomas who is reputed to be buried near Madras. They were hardly bothered by anyone until the sea routes to the East were opened up in the sixteenth century [by this time Muslims had ruled major parts of India for six centuries]:

When the Portuguese first opened the navigation of India, the Christians of St. Thomas had been seated for ages on the coast of Malabar. Their religion would have rendered them the firmest and most cordial allies of the Portuguese, but the inquisitors soon discerned in the Christians of St. Thomas, the unpardonable guilt of a 'heresy'....Instead of owning themselves the subjects of the Roman pontiff, the spiritual and temporal monarch of the globe, they adhered, like their ancestors, to the communion of the Nestorian patriarch....they united their adoration of the two persons of Christ; the title of Mother of God was offensive to the ear, and they measured with scrupulous avarice the honours of the Virgin Mary, whom the superstition of the Latins had almost exalted to the rank of a goddess. When her image was first presented to the disciples of St. Thomas, they indignantly exclaimed, 'We are Christians, not idolaters!'....Their separation from the western world had left them in ignorance of the improvements or corruptions of a thousand years. [1]

The leaders of the Nestorian Church in Malabar were killed by drowning, and the remainder were 'converted' to Roman Catholicism by the Jesuits, whose leader was Alexes de Menezes. After sixty years the Portuguese official clergy were driven out, and the Nestorian pattern of worship was reestablished.

A similar story is revealed about the Nestorian Church in Abyssinia. The Jesuits arrived there in 1557 and in 1626 their leader, Alphonso Mendez,'converted' the Abyssinian emperor and his subjects to the official religion of Rome:

A new baptism, a new ordination, was inflicted on the natives; and they trembled with horror when the most holy of the dead were torn from their graves, when the most illustrious of the living were excommunicated by a foreign priest. In the defence of their religion and their liberty, the Abyssinians rose in arms, with desperate but unsuccessful zeal. Five rebellions were extinguished in the blood of the insurgents...neither merit, nor rank, nor sex, could save from an ignominious death the enemies of Rome. [2]

The Jesuits, however, were finally driven from Abyssinia, and its inhabitants returned to Unitarian worship.

It is also quite possible that some of the first Christians in Great Britain were Paulicians, although it is more likely that they were Arians. In the reign of Theodosius, for example, two Arian bishops, who were followers of Priscillian, were banished to the isles of Scilly. Worship of the Divine Unity in Great Britain may well have spread through them, or by means of other earlier Unitarian exiles.

Certainly the first form of Christianity in Great Britain was Unitarian, and England was one of the last countries to be taken over by the Roman Catholic Church. As we have seen, Roman Catholicism was not well established in this country until the late seventh century.

Toland's description of the Unitarian Christians of Ireland in his book, 'Nazarenus', bears a marked resemblance to the Paulicians whose ways are described in The Key of Truth [3]. Toland says that the first Christians in Ireland believed in One God, and not in the doctrine of the Trinity. There were no images in their places of worship. They had no doctrine of transubstantiation. They had no doctrine of confession, and believed that no-one had the power to absolve wrong actions except God. Their gospel was written in their native tongue, and was not one of the four gospels officially approved by the Official Church. Their saints were not the same as those of the Church, and they were not canonised. Their marriage ceremonies were not necessarily in the church. There was no doctrine of celibacy. All their leaders married and had families. They practised temperance at all times, and usually ate only once a day. They regarded their church not as a political empire or as an organisation, but as a congregation of faithful men and women who were present throughout the world. They called themselves the Children of the Church.

When the first Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Ireland, they denounced the Irish Unitarians as 'pagans' and 'heretics', and set about changing their way of life. The chief leader of the Catholic missionaries was called Patrick (390- 460). His success is demonstrated by the fact that today he is ironically regarded as the apostle and patron saint of Ireland. He was responsible for burning more than three hundred of the Celtic gospels. No Irish Unitarian gospel exists today. As with the Gothic alphabet, the Gaelic alphabet is no longer alive today.

These three brief examples of the Unitarian Churches in Malabar, Abyssinia and Ireland, indicate the probable extent of the influence of the Paulicians. However their main activity was in and around Europe, and it was there that they were persecuted more severely.


[1] E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VI, p. 64.

[2] Ibid, p. 84.

[3] E.C. Conybeare, The Key of Truth.


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