committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER I.

Rise of the Reformation—Opinions held by the Baptists—Misrepresented by the
Reformers—Their Wonderful Increase—Support under Sufferings.

 

The period on which we are now entering is one of wondrous interest. The shackles with which the nations had been long bound were broken, and it was said “to the prisoners, Go forth, to them that were in darkness, Show yourselves.” A great revival of religion took place all over Europe. Popery was renounced by a large portion of the German people, by the Swiss, the Dutch, the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the English, Welsh, and Scotch, and by great numbers in Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Bavaria, Italy, and France.

When Luther blew the trumpet of religious freedom, the sound was heard far and wide, and the Baptists came out of their hiding places, to share in the general gladness, and to take part in the conflict. For years they had lived in concealment, worshipped God by stealth, and practiced the social duties of Christianity in the best manner they could, under the most unfavorable circumstances. Now, they hoped for peace and enlargement, and fondly expected to enjoy the cooperation of the Reformers in carrying into effect those changes which they knew were required in order to restore Christian churches to Primitive purity. They were doomed to bitter disappointment. The Reformers had no sympathy with Baptist principles, but strove to suppress them. Papists and Protestants, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, treated them in the same manner. The Baptists traveled too fast and went too far: if they could not be stopped by other means, the fire must be lighted or the headsman’s axe employed. Thus the men were silenced: the Emperor Charles V., whom historians have delighted to honor, ordered the women to be drowned, or buried alive. Hundreds were sent out of the world by these methods; thousands more lost their lives by the slower processes of penury and innumerable hardships. The demon of persecution reaped an immense harvest in those days.

Although there was not absolute uniformity of opinion among the Baptists, for they were shy of creeds, knowing how they had been used to serve the purposes of soul-bondage, certain important truths were viewed by all of them in the same light. Modes of expression varied, but they were substantially of one mind, those of Poland only excepted, who leaned to the system which was afterwards termed “Socinianism.” Baptist theology harmonized with that of the Reformation in regard to the leading doctrines of the Gospel, such as justification by faith, the necessity of Divine influence, &c. The belief in the sole authority of Scripture in matters of religion was carried out to its legitimate issues, and everything was rejected which would not abide the test, so that all rites and observances that were not expressly enjoined in the Word of God were swept away at once. Steadfastly maintaining that believers, and believers only, were the proper subjects of baptism, they pleaded for a pure church. The Reformers were astonished at this demand. They said that the thing was impossible; that there always had been tares among the wheat, and that so it would be till the end of time; that the good and the bad must be indiscriminately mixed in the Christian commonwealth. We need not wonder at this. Popery and P?obaptism had blinded their eyes. They had never seen a New Testament Church, and they practically kept out of sight the teachings of the New Testament on the subject, as it is quite necessary to do when the P?obaptist theory is fully admitted; for if infants are baptized, and all who are baptized may claim church-fellowship, the church which is so formed must be a very different organization from that which was instituted at Jerusalem, when “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” Children, it will be perceived, are not mentioned. The historian seems to take special pains to exclude them, as if he desired his readers to note the difference between Judaism and Christianity, the former being the establishment of a national institute, which was kept up by the ordinary increase of the population, the latter the gathering together of individual servants of the Saviour, who “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13). One point more may be alluded to. The Baptists sternly asserted the rights of conscience. All men might believe and act in religion as they pleased, without the interference of the civil magistrate. His duties, they said, were confined to the preservation of order and the protection of property and life; God had not given him the power to regulate religious affairs, nor authorized him to impose any mode of worship, or to punish such as might refuse to admit his usurpation. We have mentioned these principles before, but it seems desirable to repeat the statement, because the Baptists of the sixteenth century have been singularly misrepresented.

In some other particulars there were also great differences between them and other dissidents from Rome. They would not take an oath. While they obeyed magistrates in all things civil, they regarded the magistrate’s office as altogether needless among Christians, who, they said, would not commit crime, and therefore such officers would not be wanted among them; and besides, a magistrate could not discharge his duties but by force, which is not allowable to Christ’s servants. Neither would they engage in war. They denounced it as utterly unlawful. The use of carnal weapons, whether for attack or defense, was abjured by them. Hence they never resisted their persecutors. When the oppressions exercised by the rich and noble engendered hatred of the higher orders, some of the Baptists were disposed to plead for a general equality, or at any rate for such restraint on power and wealth as would take away the means of doing mischief. Among themselves, too, the spirit of true brotherhood so prevailed, in acts of sympathy and kindness, that they were regarded as advocates of the community of goods and opponents of separate personal property. On these accounts they were treated as enemies of civil society, fit only to be exterminated. But though they were more scrupulous than most religionists are now, their very peculiarities sprang from the love of peace. Such men could not be dangerous to the commonwealth. All they asked was to be let alone, that they might serve God according to their consciences. And yet they were hunted like wild beasts.

Impartiality requires us to mention one opinion which some of them held. Unable to conceive how the Lord Jesus could be the Child of the Virgin without partaking of human depravity, they imagined that, though born of Mary, He did not “take flesh” of His mother. Joan Boucher was burned alive in the time of Edward VI. for maintaining this alleged heresy. It is not necessary to trouble the reader with any observations on it. It is often better to confess ignorance than to dogmatize. Suffice it to say, that among the Baptists of those days the opinion in question was a harmless speculation. They believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was “God manifest in the flesh.” That was enough. If they did not choose to adopt the current modes of expression, they were at any rate sound at heart. We ought to be very careful how we make a man “an offender for a word.”

The Baptists of the sixteenth century, generally, were a goodly, upright, honorable race. They hated no man. But all men hated them. And why? Because they testified against the abominations of the times, and wished to accomplish changes which would indeed have revolutionized society, because it was constructed on anti-Christian principles, but which were in accordance with the Word of God. An outcry was raised against them, as if they were “the off-scouring of all things,” and their blood was poured out like water. Even the Reformers wrote and acted against them. The writers of that age searched out the most degrading and insulting epithets that the language afforded, and applied them with malignant gratification. Latimer speaks of the “pernicious” and “devilish” opinions of the Baptists. Hooper calls those opinions “damnable.” Becon inveighs against the “wicked,” “apish Anabaptists,” “foxish hypocrites,” that “damnable sect,” “liars,” “bloody murderers both of soul ,and body,” whose religious system he denounces as a “pestiferous plague,” with many other foul-mouthed expressions which we will not copy. Bullinger designates them as “obstinate,” “rebellious,” “brain-sick,” “frantic,” “filthy knaves.” Zuingli speaks of the “pestiferous seed of their doctrine,” their “hypocritical humility,” their speech, “more bitter than gall.” But enough of this. These men could, notwithstanding all, appeal to those who witnessed their sufferings, and boldly declare, with the axe or the stake in view, none venturing to contradict, that they were not put to death for any evil deeds, but solely for the sake of the Gospel.

It has been a common practice to ascribe to a whole community the follies or wrong-doings of a few. In the controversial works of the period now before us, the reader will meet with heaps upon heaps of representations respecting the opinions and conduct of the Baptists, which, if true at all, can only affect individuals, and ought not to be imputed to the body.

Notwithstanding the deadly onset that was made upon them from all quarters, they spread and increased most astonishingly. Leonard Bouwens, an eminent Baptist minister in Holland, who died in 1578, left in writing a list of upwards of ten thousand persons whom he had baptized. Menno Simon and other laborers in the cause introduced “great multitudes” into the churches. The spirit of reform must have taken fast hold of the minds of the people, or they would not have embraced so readily a system, the profession of which was a sure passport to persecution in its most painful and revolting forms. Luther and his coadjutors opened the door of the temple of freedom to others, but remained themselves in the porch. They feared to penetrate into the interior. The Baptists passed by them, entered in, and explored the recesses of the hallowed place. For this they were reviled and oppressed. Thousands of them fell in the fight. But multitudes pressed after them, to be “baptized for the dead;” and each could say,

“I’ll hail reproach and welcome shame,
If Thou remember me.”

See how the Lord blessed His faithful servants. Algerius was burned at Rome in the year 1557. Thus he writes, a short time before his martyrdom:—

“I will relate an incredible thing: that I have found infinite sweetness in the lion’s bowels. Who will believe that which I shall relate? Who can believe it? In a dark hole I have found cheerfulness; in a place of bitterness and death, rest and hope of salvation; in the abyss or depth of hell, joy. Where others weep, I have found laughter; where others fear, I have found strength. Who will ever believe that in a state of misery I have had great pleasure; that in a lonely corner I have had glorious company; and in the hardest bonds, perfect repose? All these things (ye, my companions in Jesus Christ), the bountiful hand of God has granted me. Behold! He who at first stood far from me is now with me; and Him whom I imperfectly knew, I now see clearly; Him whom I formerly saw afar off, I now contemplate as present; He for whom I longed, now stretches forth His hand; He comforts me; He fills me with joy; He drives bitterness from me, and renews my strength and consolation; He gives me health; He supports me; He helps me up; He makes me strong. Oh, how good the Lord is, who suffers not His servants to be tempted beyond their ability! Oh, how light, pleasant, and sweet is His yoke! Is any like unto God most high, who supports and refreshes the tempted, who heals the stricken and wounded, and restores them altogether? None is like unto Him. Learn, my most beloved brethren, how gracious the Lord is; how faithful and compassionate is He who visits His servants in their trials; He who humbles Himself, and condescends to stand by us in our huts and mean abodes. He grants us a cheerful mind and a peaceful heart.” The letter is dated “from the most delightful pleasure-garden, the prison called Leonia, the 12th of July, 1557.”1

The reader will peruse with much interest the following extracts from letters addressed by a pious mother to her children, “written hastily”—in prison—“trembling with cold:”—

“Love one another without strife or wrangling. Be affectionate the one to the other. The wisest must bear with the dull, and admonish them with kindness. The strong must have compassion on the weak, and assist him with all his power from love . . . Love your enemies, and pray for them that speak evil of you, and make you suffer. Rather suffer wrong than do wrong. Endure rather grief than put another to grief. Be yourselves reproached rather than reproach another. Be rather belied than belie ano?ther. Let what is yours be taken from you rather than take what is another’s. Be rather stricken than strike another . . . Oh, my dear lambs, mind that you spend not your youthful days in vanity and pride; nor in tippling or feasting; but in sobriety and humility, in the fear of God, diligent in all good works, that you may be clothed with the adorning of the saints; that God may make you meet, by His grace, to enter into the marriage of the Lamb, and that we may see you there with joy. Your father and I have shown you the way, with many others besides. Take the example of the prophets and apostles. Even Christ Him?self went this way; and where the Head has gone before, there must the members follow.”2

The husband of this good woman had won the crown of martyrdom before her. She followed soon after, and joined her companion before the throne. There “the noble army of martyrs” praise God. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

 

1  Baptist Martyrology, published by the Hanserd Knollys Society, ii. pp. 114, 122.

2  Baptist Martyrology, pp. 289-301.

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved