The Rev Professor W. H. C. Frend

Historian of the early Christian church who used archaeology to reconstruct the past
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The Independent Online

The death of W.H.C. Frend marks the end of a career of service to the history of the early Christian church, especially its social and archaeological aspects, which was notable for breadth of learning, creative interpretation and some pugnacious controversy.

William Hugh Clifford Frend was born in 1916, the son of a vicarage. Educated at Fernden and Haileybury, he graduated at Keble College, Oxford, with a First in Modern History in 1937, picked up a Craven Fellowship, and won his DPhil in 1940. Six months of 1938 he spent attending Hans Lietzmann's seminar in Berlin, which profoundly affected his outlook. The War Office began him on a career in military intelligence, which linked him with the Polish forces and took him to North Africa, Italy and Austria. He continued an officer in the Territorial Army until 1967.

The chances of war brought him close to some archaeological sites, including not only in North Africa but at the last stages of the excavations under St Peter's in Rome: he was always a "lucky" archaeologist. From 1947 to 1951 he was working on German Foreign Ministry documents. After a short spell at Nottingham University, his academic career flowered in a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1956-69, where he was Director of Studies in Archaeology and lectured in the Divinity Faculty (taking a BD and being enrolled as a Lay Reader in the process).

To this period belongs his work in Nubia, where large vestiges of the medieval Nubian church were discovered and rescued as part of the archaeological operations when the Aswan Dam was built. He had by now published two major books, and Oxford gave him the DD in 1966 (Edinburgh would do the same honoris causa in 1974). While at Cambridge, he campaigned for national and international funding for early Christian archaeology, perhaps too abrasively to be successful.

From 1969 to 1984 he was Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Glasgow University, including three years as Dean of the Divinity Faculty. Here the conflicting strains in his personality affected his work. He was impatient of regulations which seemed to him to impede the progress of his subject or of students he favoured; he was always at his stimulating best with small Honours groups. He had a sense of mission to bring modern history and theology to Glasgow, where many colleagues rightly thought that Scotland did not need this persuasion. So while his research and numerous international commitments flourished, institutional disagreements were continual.

He added to his longstanding honours as Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Historical Society a number of high offices in the Ecclesiastical History Society, the Association Internationale d'Etudes Patristiques, and the International Commission for the Comparative Study of Ecclesiastical History, and a string of visiting fellowships and professorships in South Africa and the United States. He still managed to edit The Modern Churchman, 1969-82, and was Scottish President of the Association of University Teachers for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, living at Aberfoyle, he served as Lay Reader in the little Episcopal Church there, and was ordained to the non-stipendiary ministry as Deacon and Priest (1982/83). In Scotland, he would have needed further training to be appointed to a parish, but Douglas Feaver, the Bishop of Peterborough, nevertheless arranged for him to be offered on retirement the Northamptonshire living of Barnwell with Thurning and Luddington, where he served 1984-90. Here his affability and willingness to be directed by lay people made up for deficiencies in knowledge of the workings of the Church. He finally retired to Little Wilbraham near Cambridge, where he continued to write (he was especially fluent as a book-reviewer) and worked as a part-time priest. His marriage to Mary Crook lasted from 1951 to her death in 2002.

In July of this year he sent a message of encouragement to the first meeting of a British Patristics Conference. Frend saw himself as revolutionary: "It may well be that the archaeologist will eventually face the theologian with greater problems than those raised by Biblical criticism in the last [19th] century. To some extent the mantle of the Higher Critic has now descended on the archaeologist." So an early paper, republished in 1980.

Each of his larger volumes reflects his understanding that the events of Church history were determined by non-theological factors: nationalism, social pressures, worldly ambition and the revolt of the poor, and that the concrete data for reconstructing this history lay as much in the physical remains as in the written record, subject as that was to ecclesiastical control. In almost every case his breadth and enterprise in putting together disciplines previously kept separate were praised, and the mere scale of his output was admired.

The Donatist Church (1952) remains basic, but was criticised by classicists for over-emphasis on Berber nationalism; and by theologians for underestimating the religious nature of the dispute. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1965) remains an indispensable compendium, but one secular specialist savaged it for errors in Roman history. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (1982) is similarly notable for its breadth of material, but was criticised for hastiness.

The Rise of Christianity (1984) outlines the whole history from the beginning to AD 600, and is a splendid work of reference. The Archaeology of Early Christianity: a history (1996) traces the history of modern research, focusing on North Africa, Nubia and Phrygia. Various smaller publications pursue the same lines, such as Town and Country in the Early Christian Centuries (1980), and History and Archaeology in the Study of Early Christianity (1988). To understand the man, one might begin with his last book, From Dogma to History: how our understanding of the Early Church developed (2003). He outlines, with some autobiography interlarded, the work of the great scholars who influenced him and his ideal of freeing scientific history from dogmatic control. This laudable ideal now has a dated ring to it. We all use history, and there is no reason why some of those purposes should not be explicitly godly.

Frend's own commitment to the Church both as a contemporary institution and as a subject of study outweighs some of his apparently negative theses about its past.

Stuart G. Hall