committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER III.

Severity of Elizabeth's Government—Bigotry of James I.—The Hampton Court Conference—Emigration—John Smyth's Church—Their Confessions—Bartholomew Legate—Extracts from Baptist Publications on Liberty of Conscience—The King's Distress at their Increase

 

So great was the severity of Elizabeth’s Government, that the Separatists of all classes were scattered about, and forced to hold their meetings in the utmost privacy. The Baptists, having been especially marked out for expulsion, could scarcely meet at all. Consequently, but little is known of them during the remainder of this reign. There is no doubt, however, of their continued existence. One writer refers to “Anabaptist Conventicles” in London and other places. Another intimates his suspicion that there were some, even in the Church of England, who held their sentiments. A congregation was discovered in London in 1588, whose views and practices point them out as “Anabaptistical.” Strype says, that they were accustomed to meet together on Lord’s Days, and listen to exhortations from the Word of God; that they dined together, collected money to pay for the food, and sent the surplus to such of their brethren as were in prison; that they used no form of prayer; that they refused to regard the Church of England as a true Church: that they denied the authority of the Queen, and of all magistrates, in religious affairs; and that they held it unlawful to baptize children. At a still later period a Baptist is mentioned as being in prison at Norwich, and in peril of death, solely on account of his religious opinions.1

James I. was as bigoted and despotic as Elizabeth. While in Scotland he had affected great zeal for Presbyterianism. When he subscribed the Solemn League and Covenant, in 1590, “he praised God that he was born in the time of the light of the Gospel, and in such a place, as to be king of such a Church, the sincerest [purest] kirk in the world. ‘The Church of Geneva,’ said he, ‘keep Pasch and Yule [Easter and Christmas; what have they for them? They have no institution. As for our neighbour Kirk of England, their service is an evil-said mass in English; they want nothing of the mass but the liftings. I charge you, my good ministers, doctors, elders, nobles, gentlemen, and barons, to stand to your purity, and to exhort the people to do the same; and I, forsooth, as long as I brook my life, shall maintain the same.’”2 But on his rising to the higher dignity of King of Great Britain he suddenly became enamored of Episcopacy. Kingcraft, in which he thought himself an adept, harmonized better with bishops than with presbyters. Bishops seemed to be the natural allies of sovereigns. “No bishop, no king,” was James’s motto. Like all new converts, he evinced remarkable fervor of attachment, and was ready to do anything on behalf of the cause. The Puritan clergy, that is those who wished for more liberty, and desired to assimilate the government of the Church to the Genevan model, asked for a hearing. The result was, the event known in history as the Hampton Court Conference. It was no conference, however, for the King had made up his mind beforehand. His behavior was rude and overbearing. Nine bishops, with other dignitaries, appeared in support of the Church of England and of things as they were; Dr. Raynolds, with three other ministers, represented the Puritans. Their demands were comprised in four particulars : “1. That the doctrines of the Church might be preserved pure, according to God’s Word. 2. That good pastors might be planted in all churches, to preach in the same. 3. That the Book of Common Prayer might be fitted to more increase of piety. 4. That Church government might be sincerely ministered, according to God’s Word.” In support of these requests, Dr. Raynolds adduced many weighty considerations, and argued with great modesty and forbearance, though often interrupted and insulted by the King. “Well, Doctor,” said James, “have you anything else to offer?” “No more,” Dr. Raynolds replied. “If this,” rejoined the King, “be all your party have to say, I will make them conform, or I will harry them out of the land, or else worse.”3

The Puritans saw that there was nothing to hope for from the Government, and took measures accordingly. Many crossed over to Holland. Among them were some of the Brownist persuasion, afterwards called Independents, and now Congregationalists. Churches of that order were established at Leyden, Amsterdam, and other places. Such as could not leave their own country worshipped God in private, and kept themselves quiet, hoping, though as it were against hope, for better times. Of that class were many Baptists. Enoch Clapham, a writer of that age, speaks of them as “leaving the public assemblies, and running into woods and meadows, and meeting in bye stables, barns, and haylofts for service.”

4

John Smyth had been a clergyman of the Church of England, and held the living of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. On leaving that Church he became a minister among the Brownists, who esteemed him so highly that Bishop Hall calls him their “oracle in general.” After a toilsome and perilous service of about fifteen years, during which he and his friends had suffered much from Elizabethan tyranny, it was deemed necessary to abandon the field, in order to preserve life and liberty. In the year 1606 he joined a party of emigrants who settled in Amsterdam. There they united with an English Church which had been formed some time before. But Mr. Smyth’s connection with that Church was not of long duration. He had left “the Church of England for the Brownists, and now more mature reflection led him to take another step. The Brownists denied that the Church of England was a true Church, and therefore they re-ordained all ministers who went over to them from that Church, accounting its ordinances null and void. But they did not re-baptize. This appeared to Mr. Smyth an inconsistency. He thought that if the ordination was invalid, the baptism was no less so. Investigation followed, which was extended to the whole question of baptism, and issued in the conviction that believers are the only subjects of the ordinance, and that immersion is essential to it. Some of Mr. Smyth’s friends shared in the conviction. There has been much dispute respecting the manner in which they proceeded, some maintaining that Smyth baptized himself and then baptized the others. It is a thing of small consequence. Baptists do not believe in Apostolic succession, as it is commonly held. But the probability is, that one of the brethren baptized Mr. Smyth, and that he then baptized the others. The number of these brethren soon increased greatly. A Church was formed, of which Mr. Smyth was chosen pastor. At his death, which took place in 1611, Mr. Thomas Helwys was appointed in his place. In the above-mentioned year, before Mr. Smyth’s death, the Church published a Confession of Faith, in twenty-six articles. We will transcribe those which relate to the constitution of a Church, and to the ordinances.

“10. That the Church of Christ is a company of faithful people, separated from the world by the Word and Spirit of God, being knit unto the Lord, and one unto another, by baptism, upon their own confession of the faith and sins” (1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; 2 Cor. 6:17; 1 Cor. 12:13; Acts 8:37; Matthew 3:6).

“11. That though in respect of Christ the Church be one, yet it consisteth of divers particular congregations, even so many as there shall be in the world; every of which congregation, though they be but two or three, have Christ given them, with all the means of their salvation, are the body of Christ, and a whole Church, and therefore may, and ought, when they are come together, to pray, prophesy, break bread, and administer in all the holy ordinances, although as yet they have no officers, or that their officers should be in prison, or sick, or by any other means hindered from the Church” (Eph. 4:4; Matthew 18:20; Rom. 8:32; 1 Cor. 3:22, 12:27, 14:23; 1 Peter 4:10, 2:5).

“12. That as one congregation hath Christ, so have all. And that the Word of God cometh not out from any one, neither to any one congregation in particular, but unto every particular Church, as it doth unto all the world. And therefore no Church ought to challenge any prerogative over any other” (2 Cor. 10:7; 1 Cor. 14:36; Col. 1:5, 6).

“13. That every Church is to receive in all their members by baptism, upon the confession of their faith and sins wrought by the preaching of the Gospel, according to the primitive institution and practice. And, therefore, Churches constituted after any other manner, or of any persons, are not according to Christ’s testament” (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41).

“14. That baptism, or washing with water, is the outward manifestation of dying unto sin, and walking in newness of life; and therefore in nowise appertaineth to infants” (Rom. 6:2, 3, 4).

“15. That the Lord’s Supper is the outward manifestation of the spiritual communion between Christ and the faithful, mutually to declare His death until He come” (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 11:26).

“19. That every Church ought, according to the example of Christ’s disciples and primitive Churches, upon every first day of the week, being Lord’s Day, to assemble together, to pray, prophesy, praise God, and break bread, and perform all other parts of spiritual communion, for the worship of God, their own mutual edification, and the preservation of true religion and piety in the Church (John 20:19; Acts 2:42, 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). And they ought not to labor in their callings, according to the equity of the moral law, which Christ came not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Ex. 20:8, &c.).

“20. That the officers of every Church or congregation are either elders, who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls; or deacons, men and women, who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren, concerning their bodies” (Acts 20:28; 2 Peter 5:2, 3; Acts 6:1, 4).

“21. That these officers are to be chosen when there are persons qualified according to the rules in Christ’s Testament, by election and approbation of that Church or congregation whereof they are members, with fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands; and there being but one rule for elders, therefore but one sort of elders” (2 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6, 9; Acts 6:3, 4, 13:3, 14:23).

5

Shortly after the publication of the Confession, Mr. Helwys, accompanied by most of the members of the Church, returned to England. They feared that if they remained longer abroad in a foreign country their conduct would be regarded as cowardice. They considered, too, the circumstances of the brethren who had continued in their own land, and who were “as sheep without a shepherd.” So they went back to their native shores, and established themselves in London, meeting for worship in strict privacy. They had encountered a great risk in returning at such a time. The fires of persecution had been lighted again, and men burnt to ashes for heresy. On the 18th of March, 1612, Bartholomew Legate, an Arian, suffered at the stake in Smithfield; on the 11th of April, in the same year, Edward Wightman was put to death at Lichfield, in the same manner. This man, if the warrant for his execution may be believed, was a wholesale heretic, for he was charged with “the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinus, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, of Manes, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists, and other arch-heretics; and, moreover, of other cursed opinions, by the instinct of Satan excogitated, and heretofore unheard of.” He maintained “that the baptism of infants is an abominable custom,” and “that Christianity is not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England, but in part.” There was his real delinquency. But the public, even in those days, would have protested against burning a man merely for his Baptist and anti-Church of England principles. It was found necessary, therefore, to blacken the victim to such an extent that he might appear perfectly hideous and fit only for the fire. But Bishop Neile, of Lichfield, and his coadjutors, who acted as Royal Commissioners on the occasion, were manifestly “forgers of lies.” No sane man could possibly hold the multifarious opinions imputed to Wightman. Crosby appropriately remarks that “many of the heresies they charge upon him are so foolish and inconsistent, that it very much discredits what they say;” and that “if he really held such opinions he must either be an idiot or a madman, and ought rather to have had their prayers and assistance than be put to such a cruel death.”

6

Another person, said to be a “Spanish Arian,” was also condemned to die; but so much sympathy had been expressed by the people at the other executions, that “he was suffered to linger out his life in Newgate, where he ended the same;” for “King James politically preferred,” says Thomas Fuller, “that heretics hereafter, though condemned, should silently and privately waste themselves away in the prison, rather than to grace them, and amuse others, with the solemnity of a public execution, which in popular judgment usurped the honor of a persecution.” Fuller had before observed that “such burning of heretics much startled common people,” and that “the purblind eyes of common judgments looked only on what was next to them (the suffering itself), which they beheld with compassion, not minding the demerits of the guilt, which deserved the same.”7 Thus wrote a Protestant clergyman of the seventeenth century; but murder is murder, however perpetrated, whether by the sword, the fire, or the slower process of the dungeon.

Though the Baptists were debarred the use of the pulpit, the press did them good service. Two tracts, published by them soon after the events just recorded, were honorable alike to their good sense and pious feeling. The first appeared in 1614. It was entitled, “Religion’s Peace; or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience,” and is the earliest published work on the subject in the English language. Of the author, Leonard Busher, no account has been preserved. It may be gathered from the tract itself, that he had formerly belonged to the Brownists. He was acquainted with the Greek original of the New Testament, and was a diligent student of the sacred volume. Two other tracts were written by him, which poverty prevented him from printing. One of these was entitled, “A Scourge of Small Cords, wherewith Antichrist and his Ministers might be driven out of the Temple of God!” the other, “A Declaration of certain False Translations in the New Testament.” Our Authorized Version had been published but three years, and here was revision already threatened! Many of these works were very ably written, and if we had room for extracts from them, they would serve to show that our Baptist forefathers were distinguished for mental vigor and independence. They had shot ahead of their religious contemporaries, too many of whom, instead of sympathizing with them, caricatured their principles and excited popular fury against their persons.

How severely the Baptists suffered in the reign of James I., may be gathered from a statement made by one of them in 1620. “Our miseries are long and lingering imprisonments for many years in divers counties of England, in which many have died and left behind them widows, and many small children; taking away our goods, and others the like, of which we can make good probation; not for any disloyalty to your Majesty, nor hurt to any mortal man, our adversaries themselves being judges; but only because we dare not assent unto, and practice in the worship of God, such things as we have not faith in, because it is sin against the Most High.” This passage is taken from a tract entitled, “A most Humble Supplication of many of the King’s Majesty’s loyal subjects, ready to testify all civil obedience, by the oath of allegiance, or otherwise, and that of conscience; who are persecuted (only for differing in religion), contrary to Divine and human testimonies.”

8 After an interval of several years, a parliament was about to assemble. The “Humble Supplication” was written on that occasion, and it was hoped that the patriotic men, who had signified their intention to seek redress of all grievances and the restoration of freedom, would hear the complaints of persecuted Christians. The treatise was probably written by the author of “Persecution Judged and Condemned;” but the arguments are more systematically arranged than in that work.

“The author of these arguments against persecutions,” says Roger Williams, “as I have been informed, being committed by some then in power close prisoner to Newgate, for the witness of some truths of Jesus, and having not the use of pen and ink, wrote these arguments in milk, on sheets of paper brought him by the woman, his keeper, from a friend in London, as the stopples of his milk bottle.”

“In such paper, written with milk, nothing will appear; but the way of reading it by fire being known to this friend who received the papers, he transcribed and kept together the papers, although the author himself could not correct nor view what himself had written.”

9

This appeal was presented in vain. The persecution continued. Messrs. Dodd and Cleaver, two authors of the time, who published in partnership a pamphlet, in 1621, entitled, “The Patrimony of Christian Children,” assign as reasons for engaging in this controversy, “that those of the contrary opinion were very industrious, and took great pains to propagate their doctrine; that divers persons of good note for piety had been prevailed upon by them; that several had entreated their help and assistance; and that they had been engaged already in private debates about this matter.”10 Another person, writing in 1662, states, “that they [the Baptists] separated from the Church, and writ many books in defense of their principles, and had multitudes of disciples; that it was their custom to produce a great number of Scriptures to prove their doctrines; that they were in appearance more holy than those of the Established Church.”11

It would appear, therefore, that the Baptists were an active and growing body. This is further evident from a letter addressed to the clergy by Archbishop Abbot in 1622, in which he tells them that his Majesty was “much troubled and grieved at the heart, to hear every day of so much defection from our religion, both to Popery and Anabaptism, or other points of separation, in some parts of this kingdom;” and that he attributed these defections, in great measure, to the lightness, affectedness, and unprofitableness of that kind of preaching which bath been of late years too much taken up in court, university, city, and country. “The usual scope of very many preachers,” it is added, “is noted to be a soaring up in points of divinity, too deep for the capacity of the people, or a mustering up of much reading, or the displaying of their own wit, or an ignorant meddling with civil matters, as well in the private of several parishes and corporations, as in the public of the kingdom, or a venting of their own distastes, or a smoothing up of those idle fancies, which in this blessed time of a long peace do boil in the brains of unadvised people; or lastly, a rude or indecent railing, not against the doctrines (which when the text shall occasion the same is not only approved, but much commended by his royal Majesty), but against the persons of Papists and Puritans. Now the people bred up with this kind of teaching, and never instructed in the catechism, and fundamental grounds of religion, are for all this airy nourishment no better than ‘abras?tabul?’ new table books, ready to be filled up with the manuals and catechisms of the Popish priests, or the papers and pamphlets of Anabaptists, Brownists, and Puritans.”

12

We think the King was right. The preachers of the day had not been educated, for the most part, in the best school, and knew not how to engage the sympathies of the people. Puritans and Baptists were much more likely to gain the popular ear. It was said of our Lord, that “the common people heard Him gladly.”

 

  1  Broadmead Records, Introduction, pp. lxxii. Ixxiii.

  2  Neal’s History of the Puritans, ii. p. 2.

  3  Neal, ut sup. p. 10.

  4  Crosby, i. p. 88.

  5  Confessions of Faith (Hanserd Knollys Society), pp, 1-10.

  6  History, i. p. 108, Appendix; pp. 1-7.

  7  Church History, book x. cent. 17, sect. 14.

  8  Tracts, p. 190.

  9  Bloody Tenant of Persecution, p. 36. Hanserd Knollys Society.

10  Crosby, i. p. 141

11  Ibid. p. 139.

12  Documentary Annals, ii. p. 204.

 
 
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