Pelagius, The Welsh Monk: An Understanding of the Pelagian Heresy

A 17th-century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius: The caption says: "Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse Man's foul Concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Originall, or that The Love of GOD did Man predestinate."

Pelagius was a monk who challenged the great machine of the Roman Catholic Church. His beliefs and followers were so wide spread that he could not be ignored.

Pelagius was generally labled a monk, but it is unknown whether or not he was a Roman Catholic since his teachings were so generally Celtic Christian in nature. What we have of Pelagius writing and life are sparse. Born in Wales, this one man created a wave of revolution in the land of the Gauls (modern day France), Scotland, Wales and most of Europe.

The time of Pelagius was filled with a great deal of unrest, the volcano Krakatau erupted causing widespread chaos. John of Ephesis, a Syrian Bishop said of the time, ” The Sun became dark and…was only a feeble shadow.” Comets were seen in the heavens, and drought was followed by the appearance of the Black Death and other plagues. The people began looking for understanding in the seeming destruction all around them; they saw God speaking in the elements. They were hungry for the right kind of changes, and men such as Pelagius, who while affirming his own faith also began calling The Roman Catholic Church on the carpet for it’s moral apathy. His writings make it clear that he was seeking to clarify simple doctrines. Pelagius beliefs that clashed the views of the main church were these:

  • Man has free agency, a right to choose between good and evil.
  • Works and deeds must be accompanied by faith in God to save man.
  • Men are punished for their own sins-not because Adam fell.
  • There is no predestination. Our fate is firmly in our hands as we choose good or evil.
  • We are accountable for our choices.
  • The body must be controlled-not broken.

Soon his followers were so numerous that Rome had to take notice. Not to mention a feud had that been heating up between Pelagius, and one of the church’s most brilliant orators, St. Augustine. The same man might rival our best politicians for his ability to “spin” for the church in his day. Interestingly enough, this arch enemy of Pelagius once remarked that he was “a holy man, who, I am told, has made no small progress in the Christian life.”

In contradiction Pelagius spoke of Augustine’s teachings, “The theory of human depravity is a cowardly shifting to God [for] man’s sins.”

Teaming up, Augustine and another bishop named Gerome, began systematically trying to destroy all of Pelagius arguments, and with some success they and 3 other Bishops succeeded in getting Pelagius tried for heresy. Funny thing though, the trial was carried on without Pelagius! It was no surprise to find that he was also condemned by Pope Innocent I at that time.

Almost imediately he fired a letter back to the Pope, defending himself. Luckily for him, Innocent had died and Pope Zosimus rescinded the papal order and found him innocent of heresy.

Infuriated that the monk was not condemned, Augustine and Gerome worked to have Pelagius tried for his beliefs yet again in the Councils of Carthage. They agreed that Pelagianism must be condemned for it’s teachings for the good of the Church as a body, and as a political engine.

In the the end we are left with a great deal of speculation, as Pelagius literally dissapears off the pages of history. There are rumors of his death, and rumors of his wherabouts for twenty years or better. Was his movement quietly extinguished? Perhaps, but his spirit lives on.