I used to be a regular listener to the White Horse Inn radio show. If you aren’t familiar with it, Michael Horton, Kim Riddlebarger, and Rod Rosenbladt, two URC men and a Lutheran, discuss the trends in theology and practice being transmitted through the various joints and muscle groups of the body of Christ. I stopped listening to the show not because I didn’t enjoy it, which I did, but because it was a Sunday show and Sundays eventually became days for visiting family, and my quiet hour with a beer and the White Horse simply winked out of routine.
So, when Dr. Van Raalte gave us a list of proposed Church History paper topics in January and I saw that topic number 15 was “the importance of the White Horse Inn to the Reformation,” I went ahead and chose number 15. I immediately thought of the intro to the show, which includes the following historical preamble explaining its name and purpose:
“Five centuries ago in taverns and public houses across Europe, the masses would gather for discussion and debate over the latest ideas sweeping the land. From one such meeting place, a small Cambridge inn called the White Horse, the Reformation came to the English-speaking world. Carrying on the tradition, welcome to the White Horse Inn.”
These meetings at the White Horse Inn took place at Cambridge University in the 1520’s. I had to explore, then, what connection they had to the Reformation, if any, and if that connection was at all a significant one.
Now, you’d be hard pressed to find any historical claim that isn’t contested; in fact, “uncontested historical claim” is probably as much a punch line as “healthy Big Mac” or “talented punk band.” So it shouldn’t surprise you that there are historians who don’t think the Reformation came to the English-speaking world through the White Horse Inn. G.R. Evans is one of them, and he wrote of the White Horse meetings that “these first rumblings of attack played no part in bringing about the Reformation; but for the political revolution they would have been stamped out.” He’s saying that the English Reformation began with King Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530’s, an event completely unrelated to the meetings at the White Horse in the 1520’s. If he’s right, and when I began my research I was inclined to think so, then my conclusion would have been that the radio show’s preamble was incorrect.
Then there are disputes about who exactly attended the meetings. One historian, A.G. Dickens, makes quite the claim: “The great majority of the men who led the first generation of English Protestants were in residence at Cambridge during the years when the White Horse meetings were in progress. This is true of Tyndale, Joye, Roy, Barnes, Coverdale, Bilney, Latimer, Cranmer, Frith, Lambert, Ridley, Rowland Taylor, Thomas Arthur, Matthew Parker, and many others.” In that list you’ve got two future archbishops of Canterbury and two men who’d earn fame for their translations of the Bible into English. It’s something of a Reformation dream team, which means it’s the sort of too-good-to-be-true historical claim that raises red flags. Another historian, Daniel Dennet, is having none of it. In response to the above list, he writes, “What an assembly of saints! What debates must the White Horse have known! The names peal down the centuries. Unfortunately… the hard evidence that any of them, in Cambridge, were ever in the same place at the same time, never mind together in the snug of a Tudor pub, is minimal.”
So those were roughly the questions facing me as I went into the paper. Who was at the meetings, and what connection did those meetings have to the broader Reformation? I managed to tease an answer from the sources, and it was not the answer I initially thought it was. If you’re interested in what that answer was, and in how it was that I argued for it, then you are welcome to read the rest of my blandly titled paper: