Character of Charles II. and James II.Commencement of ProsecutionVenner's RebellionDisclaimer by BaptistsSever SufferingsJohn JamesAct of UniformityThe Aylesbury BaptistsBenjamin Keach PilloriedConventicle ActFive Mile ActTheir Effects
We are now entering upon a dark time. The reigns of Charles II. and James II. were inglorious in all respects. These kings were despicable as men, despotic as rulers. In religion, the first was a hypocrite, the second a bigot. The former was traitorous to British interests, for the sake of his pleasures and his pride; the latter was willing to offer up British freedom on the altar of the Papacy. Martyrdom, in various forms, gained fresh laurels while they occupied the throne of which they were utterly unworthy.
Charles II. had pledged his royal word at Breda, before his restoration, that no man should be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matters of religion, which did not disturb the peace of the kingdom. Like a true son of his father, he broke his promise. It was doubt?less given with a mental reservation which a Jesuit would applaud.
The Savoy Conference, like the Hampton Court Confer?ence in the reign of James I., was a mere sham. The design was, first to cheat and then to insult. The Episco?palians and Presbyterians who attended the Conference, held their meetings, and partially discussed the points at issue, but without any good result. No Baptists were there. The Conference was opened April 15, 1661, and was closed July 25, in the same year.
The religious condition of the kingdom was very peculiar. Ignorant and scandalous ministers had been ejected by wholesale during the Commonwealth and under the Pro?tectorate. Their successors were a motley group. The majority were Episcopalians, but there were many Presby?terians, some Independents, and a few Baptists. A large number of the Presbyterians would have submitted to the restored establishment, if they had been allowed to retain discretionary power with reference to portions of the ritual. They particularly objected to wearing the surplice; to the sign of the cross in baptism; to kneeling at the Lords Supper; to the indiscriminate administration of the Lords Supper to sick persons; to the form of absolution; to the language of the burial service; and to the declaration required of all clergymen that there was nothing in the Common Prayer Book, the Book of Ordination, or the Thirty-nine Articles, contrary to the Word of God. But the temper of the times was rigid and fierce. The hierarchical party, flushed with victory, and confident of complete success, refused all consideration. They would not abate a jot, except in matters of the most trivial importance. A few verbal alterations were made in the Liturgy; a new edition of the Prayer Book was published, containing forms of prayer for the 30th of January and the 29th of May, with other additions; and the Parliament, subservient to the wishes of the King and the priesthood, passed the Act of Uniformity, which came into operation August 24, 1662.
The reader is now prepared for a tale of woe. The history of our denomination from 1660 to 1688 is not so much a history of progress as of endurance. Persecution commenced immediately after the Kings return. The clergymen ejected during the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, with the exception of such as had justified the late Kings murder, or declared against infant-baptism, were restored to their livings by Act of Parliament. Though the High Commission Court was not re-established, it was presumed that the old laws of Elizabeth were in force again, and magistrates in every part of the kingdom were eager to execute them.
The Baptists saw the storm coming, and took measures accordingly. They asked for no indulgence, no emoluments. They sought no office. All they wanted was freedom of worship. They recognized but one course of action in things civil: they were prepared to be obedient subjects. With these views they approached the throne. First, a petition was presented to the King, July 26, 1660, setting forth the sufferings inflicted on the churches in Lincolnshire. We have been much abused, they say, as we pass in the streets, and as we sit in our houses; being threatened to be hanged if but heard praying to our Lord in our own families, and disturbed in our so waiting upon Him, by uncivil beating at our doors and sounding of horns; yea, we have been stoned when going to our meetings; the windows of the place where we have met have been struck down with stones: yea, [we have been] taken as evil-doers, and imprisoned, when peaceably met together to worship the Most high in the use of His most precious ordinances . . . And as if all this were too little, they have, to fill up their measure, very lately indicted many of us at the sessions, and intend, as we are informed, to impose on us the penalty of twenty pounds [each], for not coming to hear such men as they provide us.1
Accompanying this was a Confession of Faith, drawn up by Thomas Grantham, said to be owned and approved by more than twenty thousand. Another petition, entitled, The humble petition and representation of the sufferings of several peaceable and innocent subjects, called by the name of Anabaptists, inhabitants in the county of Kent, and now prisoners in the jail of Maidstone, for the testimony of a good conscience, dated January 25, 1661, not only represented the case of the prisoners, but of their brethren in the county of Kent, who were already suffering severely.2These petitions produced no favorable results. The King, indeed, replied to the first, That it was not his mind that any of his good subjects who lived peaceably should suffer any trouble on account of their opinions in point of religion, and he made fair promises. But the work of violence still went on. Some of the principal Baptist ministers were lodged in prison during the year 1660. In November of that year John Bunyan entered Bedford jail, which was destined to be his abode for twelve years. In every part of England power was leagued with cruelty and lawlessness for the extermination of freedom.
The ridiculous affair called Venners Rebellion occurred on the 7th January, 1661. Thomas Venner preached in a small meeting-house in Coleman Street, London. He warmed his admirers with passionate expectations of a fifth universal monarchy under the personal reign of King Jesus upon earth, and that the saints were to take the kingdom themselves. On the day above mentioned, about fifty of them marched out of their meeting-house, well armed, with a resolution to subvert the present government or die in the attempt. In the tumult that followed, they lost about half their number. The remainder surrendered. Venner and one of his officers were hanged before their meetinghouse door, January 19, and a few days after nine more were executed in divers parts of the city. A proclamation was issued the day after the insurrection prohibiting all meetings of Baptists, Quakers, and Fifth Monarchy men, for religious worship, unless in the parish churches, or in private houses, and then limited to the persons there inhabiting. The reason assigned was, that the parties above mentioned had met under religious pretexts, but in reality for treacherous purposes; and the insurrection gave a plausible color to the proceeding. But the proclamation, though not issued till after the rebellion, had been ordered five days before; and the rebellion was eagerly laid hold of in justification of the act, which was manifestly an unauthorized stretch of power. That, however, gave little concern to Charles II. or his unscrupulous advisers. The document was a characteristic specimen of Stuart knavery and audacity.3
The Baptists hastened to disclaim all sympathy with Venner. A Humble Apology of some commonly called Anabaptists, in behalf of themselves, and others of the same judgment with them, with their protestation against the late wicked and most horrid treasonable insurrection and rebellion, signed by thirty ministers and others, at the head of whom were William Kiffin and Henry Denne, was presented to the King the day after the outbreak. But none of their number were compromised, and Venner himself had declared that if he succeeded the Baptists should know that infant-baptism was an ordinance of Jesus Christ.4
Two publications were issued in 1661. The objects of both were the same, namely, to establish the iniquity of persecution, to claim for the Baptists the rights of religious freedom, and to declare their willingness, as loyal subjects, to obey the King and his officers in all things lawful.
The first was entitled, A Plea for Toleration of Opinions and Persuasions in Matters of Religion, differing from the Church of England. It was written by John Sturgion, a member of the baptized people. The reasons against persecution are concisely given, and are expressed in a bold, nervous style.
The second pamphlet was entitled, Sions groans for her distressed; or, sober endeavors to prevent innocent blood, &c. The names of seven Baptist ministers are appended to the Epistle to the Reader. They were all sufferers as well as laborers. One of them, Joseph Wright, spent no less than twenty years in prison for the truths sake. The others were, Thomas Monck, who laboured in Buckinghamshire; George Hammon and William Jeffrey, who laboured in Kent; Francis Stanley, who laboured in Northamptonshire; William Reynolds, who laboured in Lincolnshire; and Francis Smith.
It is not likely that the King saw these or any other publications in which the principles of the Baptists were explained and advocated. Nor is it probable that, had he seen them, they would have induced him to change his policy. Immediately after Venners insurrection, Hanserd Knollys and many more were apprehended and lodged in Newgate and other large prisons. Above four hundred, says Crosby, were crowded into Newgate, besides many more in the other prisons belonging to the city and parts adjacent. Vavasor Powell, then preaching in Wales, was treated in the same manner, and many of his brethren in the principality shared his fate. Throughout the kingdom the Baptists were exposed to outrage. They have been haled from their peaceable habitations, says John Sturgion, and thrust into prisons, almost in all counties in England, and many are still detained, to the utter undoing of them?selves and families, and most of them are poor men, whose livelihood, under God, depends upon the labour of their hands. So that they lie under a more than ordinary calamity, there being so many thrust into little rooms to?gether, that they are an annoyance each to other, especially in the City of London, where the Lord Mayor crowds them very close together, that it hath been observed, the keepers have complained they have had too many guests. And whilst they suffer there, some of their wives and tender babies want bread at home.5
The execution of John James was a horrible illustration of royal malice. John James was a Sabbatarian Baptist. His meeting-house was in Bulstrake Alley, Whitechapel, London. On the 19th October, 1661, he was dragged from his pulpit and committed to Newgate, on the charge of uttering treasonable words against the King. The principal witness against him was one Tipler, a journeyman pipe-maker, a man whose character was so well known, that the magistrate before whom Mr. James was taken refused to receive his deposition, unless some other witness would corroborate it. Others were found, who confirmed Tiplers testimony; but one of them afterwards confessed that he had sworn against Mr. James he knew not what. In fact, there can be little doubt that the witnesses were suborned, probably bribed, to commit perjury. There is the more reason to believe this, because when the Lieutenant of the Tower read the information laid against Mr. James in the presence of his congregation, and asked them how they could hear such doctrines, they all replied, that they never heard such words, as they shall answer it before the Lord, and they durst not lie. But the death of the victim was predetermined. It was no difficult matter to procure a verdict against him. He was tried and convicted on the 19th of November, and sentenced the next day to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
So flagrant was the injustice, that his wife was advised by her friends to present a petition to the King for his life, setting forth the facts which have been mentioned, and entreating his Majestys interposition. But they had miscalculated. Charles treated the heart-broken woman with gross brutality. With some difficulty she met the King, and presented him with the paper, acquainting him who she was. To whom he held up his finger, and said, Oh! Mr. Jameshe is a sweet, gentleman; but following him for some further answer, the door was shut against her. The next morning she attended again, and an opportunity soon presenting, she implored his Majestys answer to her request. Who then replied, That he was a rogue, and should be hanged. One of the lords attending him asked him of whom she spake. The King answered, Of John James, that rogue; he shall be hanged; yea, he shall be hanged.6
On the 26th of November, Mr. James was dragged, after the manner of traitors, from Newgate to Tyburn, the place of execution. His behavior under these awful circumstances was dignified and Christian. In his address to the multitude, referring to his denominational sentiments, he said, I do own the title of a baptized believer. I own the ordinances and appointments of Jesus Christ. I own all the principles in Hebrews 6:1, 2. He charged his friends to continue their religious assemblies, at all risk. His closing exhortations were remarkably solemn and impressive, reminding the people of the days of the old martyrs. This is a happy day, said one of his friends. I bless the Lord, he replied, it is so. When all was ready, he lifted up his hands; and exclaimed, with a loud voice, Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit. So he died. His quarters were placed over the city gates, and his head was set upon a pole, opposite the meetinghouse in which he had preached the Gospel.7
We have mentioned the Act of Uniformity. It received the royal assent on the 19th of May, 1662, and came into operation on the 24th of August following. By this Act, five things were required of all ministers then in possession of livings, as essential to their continuance in the Establishment. 1. Re-ordination, if they had not been episcopally ordained before. 2. A declaration of unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer, and administration of the sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the Church (a new and corrected edition of which was then published, but which great numbers of the clergy could not possibly see before the time specified), affirming that there was nothing in it contrary to the Word of God; with a promise to use the prescribed form and no other. 3. An oath of canonical obedience and subjection to the bishop. 4. Abjuration of the Solemn League and Covenant. 5. A declaration of the unlawfulness of taking up arms against the King and Government upon any pretence whatsoever.
The interval that elapsed between the time when the Act was passed, and the day on which it was to take effect, was a period of anxious suspense, both to the people and their ministers. It was a trial of character. Some came to an immediate decision, and left their livings before the ap?pointed day; others waited till the time had expired; and when at length the 24th of August came, there were found more than two thousand worthy, learned, pious ministers, ready to say, We ought to obey God rather than men. And they acted on the principle. Regardless of conse?quences, they sacrificed all to truth and to God, and cast themselves on Providence for supply and defense, exhibit?ing to the world and to future ages a noble example of dis?interested virtue and conscientious integrity. The loss which they sustained was by no means trivial. They were not only forbidden to exercise their ministry under severe penalties, but they were left without any visible means of subsistence. No provision was made for them, no mercy was shown to them: on the contrary, one persecuting decree was followed by another, and the governing powers seemed only to be engaged in racking their brains to devise some new method of vexing and tormenting their more worthy fellow-countrymen.
On the list of the ejected ministers stand the names of Richard Baxter, John Howe, Joseph Alleine, John Owen, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel, and many more, whose writings are still rendering service to the cause of God. About thirty of the ejected belonged to the Baptist denomi?nation. The Church of England sustained a blow from that ejectment from which she has scarcely yet recovered. Her best men were driven away. Uniformity was the idol set up, and all who would not bow down to it were sacri?ficed without mercy.
The hand of power was heavy on the Nonconformists in every part of England. In Buckinghamshire the persecu?tion raged with intolerable fierceness. So numerous were the prisoners, that the magistrates were obliged to hire two large houses for their accommodation, the county jail being too small. On one occasion, in 1664, the Baptist minister of Aylesbury and eleven of his congregation were seized, among whom were two women. They were placed before the justices at the Quarter Sessions, and advantage was taken of the 35th of Queen Elizabeth to require them either to conform to the Church of England and take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, or to abjure the realm; and they were told that if they would not do either, they would be declared guilty of felony, and sentence of death would be passed on them. Unawed by this prospect, they replied, that as they could not comply with the requisitions, they threw themselves on the mercy of the court; on which they were sentenced to be hanged, and sent back to jail till the day of execution. The sentence would have been executed, had not measures been promptly taken to lay the case before the King, and obtain his interference. The son of one of the condemned persons hastened to London, and by the assistance of William Kiffin procured an interview with the Lord Chancellor, who immediately proceeded to the King. Implacable as Charles had proved himself to be in John Jamess case, he saw that the wholesale murder contem?plated at Aylesbury would bring his government into dis?repute, and might stir up resentment not easily to be ap?peased. He was willing enough to worry his subjects into submission, or at least to attempt to do so, by confiscation and the dungeon; but the thought of sacrificing twelve lives at once to the demon of intolerance was too shocking, even for Charles II. A reprieve was placed in the hands of the applicant, and at the next assizes his Majestys pardon was produced by the presiding judge, and the prisoners were released.
Let us now give an instance of interference with the freedom of the press. Benjamin Keach, a Baptist minister, wrote a small book for children, entitled, The Childs In?structor; or, a New and Easy Primer. In the catechetical portion of the book Baptist sentiments were inculcated. It was affirmed that believers, or godly men and women only, who can make confession of their faith and repentance, should be baptized. The personal reign of the Saviour on earth for a thousand years, held at the time by some Bap?tists, was taught. And, which was peculiarly offensive, Mr. Keach said, that Christs true ministers have not their learning and wisdom from men, or from universities, or human schools; for human learning, arts and sciences, are not essential to the making of a true minister; but only the gift of God, which cannot be bought with silver or gold. And also, as they have freely received the gift of God, so they do freely administer; they do not preach for hire, for gain or filthy lucre; they are not like false teachers, who look for gain from their quarters, who eat the fat, and clothe themselves with the wool, and kill them that are fed: those that put not into their mouths they prepare war against. Also, they are not lords over Gods heritage; they rule them not by force and cruelty, neither have they power to force and compel men to believe and obey their doctrine, but are only to persuade and entreat; thus is the way of the Gospel, as Christ taught them.
For this he was indicted at the assizes. The language of the indictment may amuse the reader. Thou art here indicted by the name of Benjamin Keach, of Winslow, in the county of Bucks, for that thou, being a seditious, heretical, and schismatical person, evilly and maliciously disposed, and disaffected to his Majestys government of the Church of England, didst maliciously and wickedly, on the first day of May, in the sixteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord the King, write, print, and publish, or cause to be written, printed, and published, one seditious and veno?mous book, entitled, The Childs Instructor; or, a New and Easy Primer; wherein are contained, by way of question and answer, these damnable positions, contrary to the Book of Common Prayer, and the Liturgy of the Church of England.
The trial took place October 9, 1664. Chief justice Hyde, afterwards Lord Clarendon, presided, and conducted himself with a malignity wholly unbefitting his office. Under his direction, a verdict of Guilty was recorded, and the judge then proceeded to pass sentence, in the following terms:Benjamin Keach, you are here convicted for writing, printing, and publishing a seditious and schismatical book, for which the courts judgment is this, and the court doth award: That you shall go to jail for a fortnight, without bail or mainprise; and the next Saturday to stand upon the pillory at Aylesbury, in the open market, for the space of two hours, from eleven of the clock to one, with a paper upon your head with this inscription:For writing, printing, and publishing a schismatical book, entitled, The Childs Instructor ; or, a New and Easy Primer. And the next Thursday to stand in the same manner, and for the same time, in the market of Winslow; and there your book shall be openly burnt, before your face, by the common hangman, in disgrace of you and your doctrine. And you shall forfeit to the Kings Majesty the sum of twenty pounds, and shall remain in jail until you find sureties for your good behavior, and appearance at the next assizes, there to renounce your doctrines, and make such public submission as shall be enjoined you.
The punishment of the pillory was abolished by Act of Parliament in the year 1837. The instrument so called was an upright frame placed on a scaffold, upon which the offender stood, his head appearing through one hole of the frame, and his hands fixed in two others. As this punishment was generally reserved for persons guilty of perjury and other infamous crimes, the mob were accustomed to pelt them with rotten eggs or various kinds of filth, and even with stones and brickbats, so that death sometimes ensued. To such an exposure the Lord Chief justice of England delivered up a worthy minister of the Gospel. The sentence was duly carried into execution, and the sheriff, who was himself a fierce opposer of the truth, took care that the judges directions should be obeyed to the very letter.
It was market-day at Aylesbury. The town was thronged. People flocked thither from all parts of the country to see the new and strange spectacle. But though many of them were prepared to deride and sneer, the usual expressions of popular indignation were wanting. Hitherto the pillory had been reserved for the vilest criminals. But Mr. Keach was a good man, and a preacher of the Gospel. They could not find it in their hearts to pelt him.8
Precisely at eleven oclock he was placed in the pillory. Many friends attended him, and stood around the instrument of torture for the purpose of sympathy and encouragement. And there, too, stood his wife, and frequently spoke in vindication of her husband, and of the principles for which he suffered. A true helpmeet!
Good people, said he, I am not ashamed to stand here this day, with this paper on my head; my Lord Jesus was not ashamed to suffer on the cross for me; and it is for His cause that I am made a gazing-stock. It is not for any wickedness that I stand here, but for writing and publishing His truth. No! exclaimed an Episcopal clergyman, who was standing by; it is for writing and publishing errors. Sir, replied Mr. Keach, can you prove them errors? He would have answered, but he was too well known by the multitude. One told him of his being pulled drunk out of a ditch. Another upbraided him with being lately found drunk under a haycock. At this all the people fell to laughing, and turned their diversion from the sufferer in the pillory to the drunken priest; insomuch that he hastened away with the utmost disgrace and shame.
When the uproar had subsided, the voice from the pillory was heard again. Having somehow slipped one of his hands out of the hole, he took his Bible from his pocket and said, Take notice, that the things which I have written and published, and for which I stand here this day a spectacle to men and angels, are all contained in this book. The jailer snatched the book from him, and replaced his hand in the hole.
Still the voice came from the pillory. A great concernment for souls was that which moved me to write and publish those things for which I now suffer, and for which I could suffer far greater things than these. It concerns you therefore to be very careful, otherwise it will be very sad with you, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven; for we must all appear before His tribunal.
The officers interposed, and he was compelled to be silent for a time. But again he ventured. Oh! did you but experience the great love of God, and the excellences that are in Him, it would make you willing to go through any sufferings for His sake. And I do account this the greatest honor that ever the Lord was pleased to confer upon me.
The sheriff was furious, and declared that he should be gagged if he did not hold his tongue. So he refrained from speaking. Yet he could not forbear uttering these few words:This one yoke of Christ, which I can experience, is easy to me, and a burden which He doth make light.
When the two hours had expired, he was released, and blessed God with a loud voice for His great goodness unto him.
That day week he was exposed to the same indignity at Winslow, where he lived, and bore it with equal patience and manliness. There also his book was publicly burnt, according to the sentence.9
In 1664, the Conventicle Act was passed. The principal clause was to this effect:That if any person above the age of sixteen shall be present at any meeting, under color or pretence of any exercise of religion, in any other manner than is allowed by the liturgy or practice of the Church of England, where shall be five or more persons than the household, he shall for the first offence suffer three months imprisonment upon record made upon oath, under the hand and seal of a justice of peace, or pay a sum not exceeding five pounds: for the second offence, six months imprisonment, or ten pounds: and for the third offence, the offender to be banished to some of the American plantations for seven years, or pay one hundred pounds, excepting New England or Virginia; and in case they return, or make their escape, such persons are to be adjudged felons, and suffer death without benefit of clergy.10
The proceedings under this Act were summary. There was no trial by jury. A single justice of the peace was empowered to levy the fines, or commit the offenders to jail, or even banish them for seven years; and there was no appeal from his decision. Under the operation of this law, vast numbers suffered in every part of the kingdom. Those who were banished were sent to the West Indies, where they endured very hard treatment.
Next year the Five Mile Act was passed. It was entitled, An Act to restrain Nonconformists from inhabiting Corporations. All Nonconformist ministers were required to take the following oath: I, A. B., do swear, that it is not lawful upon any pretence whatsoever to take arms against the King; and that I do abhor that traitorous position of taking arms by his authority against his person, or against those that are commissioned by him, in pursuance of such commissions; and that I will not at any time endeavor any alteration of government, either in Church or State. The Earl of Southampton justly observed, that this was an oath which no honest man could take. But those ministers who refused to take it were forbidden to go within five miles of any city or town that sent members to Parliament, or within five miles of any place where they had formerly ex?ercised their ministry, before their ejectment. The fine for every offence was forty pounds. They were also declared incapable of teaching any public or private schools: fine, forty pounds. And in addition to the fines, any two justices of the peace might commit the offender to prison for six months.
The object of this inhuman Act was to silence the ministers, or compel them to conform for fear of starvation. But the body of Nonconformist ministers refused the oath, choosing rather to leave their habitations, their relations and friends, and all visible support, than destroy the peace of their consciences. Those ministers who had some little estate or substance of their own retired to remote and obscure villages, or such little market towns as were not corporations, and more than five miles from the places where they had preached; but in many counties it was difficult to find such places of retirement, for either there were no houses un?tenanted, or they were annexed to farms which the ministers were not capable of using, or the people were afraid to admit the ministers into their houses, lest they should be sus?pected as favorers of nonconformity. Some took advantage of the ministers necessities, and raised their rents beyond what they were able to give. Great numbers were thus buried in obscurity; but others, who had neither money nor friends, went on preaching as they could, till they were sent to prison, thinking it more eligible to perish in a jail than to starve out of one, especially when by this means they had some occasional relief from their hearers, and hopes that their wives and children might be supported after their death. Many who lay concealed in distant places from their flocks in the day-time, rode thirty or forty miles to preach to them in the night, and retired again before daylight. These hardships tempted some few to conform (says Mr. Baxter), contrary to their former judgments; but the body of Dissenters remained steadfast to their principles, and the Church gained neither reputation nor numbers.11
The Conventicle Act having failed to accomplish its purpose, and the time specified for its operation having expired, a severer law was passed in the spring of 1670. All persons attending conventicles were to be fined five shillings for the first offence, ten shillings for the second; the preachers were to be fined twenty pounds for the first offence, forty pounds for the second; the owners of the houses, barns, buildings, or yards, in which the meetings were held, were to be fined twenty pounds each time; the fines were to be levied by distress and sale of the offenders goods and chattels; the money was to be divided into three partsone-third for the King, one-third for the poor, and the other third to the informer or his assistants, regard being had to their diligence and industry in discovering, dispersing, and punishing the said conventicles; and in case of the poverty of the ministers, the fines imposed on them were to be levied on the goods and chattels of any other present. Any justice of the peace refusing to carry the Act into execution was to be fined five pounds; and it was expressly declared, That all clauses in the Act should be construed most largely and beneficially for the suppressing of conventicles, and for the justification and encouragement of all persons to be employed in the execution thereof.12
If the first Act scourged the Dissenters with whips, the second was a scorpion plague. They were plundered and imprisoned without remorse. To their disgrace be it spoken, Archbishop Sheldon and many of the bishops exerted themselves in every possible way to enforce the Act. They sent circulars to the clergy, directing them to stimulate and aid the civil authorities: and some of the bishops went in person to the places where meetings were supposed to be held, in order to encourage the constables, or insure the rigorous discharge of their duty.
The activity of the informers was excited by the promised share of the penalties. Their infamous trade became lucrative; and many of them amassed large sums, mercilessly filched from the servants of God. A more degrading and detestable occupation cannot well be imagined. They spent their time in prowling about the retired streets and bye-lanes of towns, or in exploring the recesses of woods, and wild, desolate places, if haply they might hear the voice of singing or prayer, or watch the movements of some straggler hastening to join his brethren. With savage glee they darted upon the secret assemblies, gloating over their confusion and distress, and specially rejoicing when they seized the preacher, because of the heavier fine. They accompanied the constables when they executed warrants of distress on property; and they attended the sales of the goods seized, taking care to get bargains for themselves. They scrupled not to take the bed from under the sick. They robbed children of their bread, whose fathers were languishing in prison. The law created their calling, and encouraged them in diligently pursuing it. Magistrates urged them on. Clergymen and country squires applauded their cleverness, and judges on the bench commended them for their zeal. There was an unholy alliance against truth and righteousness, in which the titled and the learned were willing to associate themselves with the meanest, the wickedest, and the most brutal of men.
The prisons were crowded. Families were ruined. Houses were desolated. Estates were impoverished or abandoned. Numbers fled their native shores, and sought in Holland or in the American wilderness for freedom to worship God.
We will give the details of one case. On Lords-day, the 29th of May, 1670, the Baptists of Lewes, in Sussex, met for worship in a house about a mile from the town. Two persons watched them and became informers. The minister was fined twenty pounds, and forty of the hearers five shillings each; but as the minister was poor, his fine was imposed on five members of the congregation. All the fines were recovered by levying distresses on property, which was done forthwith.
Walter Brett was a grocer; his fine, six pounds five shillings. The constables took from him two barrels of sugar, which cost him more than fifteen pounds.
Thomas Barnard was fined six pounds five shillings, and his brother five pounds five shillings. Six cows were taken from them, worth twenty-seven pounds.
Richard White, brazier, was fined three pounds fifteen shillings; for which, brass kettles and other articles were seized, the value of which was upwards of ten pounds.
John Tabrets fine was two pounds fifteen shillings; a cow was taken for it.
John Price and his wife were fined ten shillings, to pay which sum four cheeses were taken. Price told the constables that he never sold anything to so great an advantage, for this would bring him an hundred fold. (See Matthew 19:29.)
The same system of excessive and heartless distraint was pursued in levying the fines of five shillings each upon the other hearers. Five pairs of shoes were taken from one shoemaker; three pairs from another; three hats from a haberdasher; a horse from a butcher; the sheets from a poor masons bed, and his wifes under-appareland so on.
Shortly after this a meeting was held in a house about three miles from Lewes. The owner was fined twenty pounds, and to meet it they took from him the whole of his stock, being six cows, two young bullocks, and a horse.13
1 Ivimey, i. p. 276.
2 Tracts on Liberty of Conscience, pp. 297-308.
3 Documentary Annals, ii. p. 302. Tracts, pp. 313-316. Neals Puritans, iv. p. 310.
4 Crosby, ii. p. 65. Confessions of Faith, &e., pp. 343-348.
5 Tracts, p. 328.
6 Crosby, ii. p. 17.
7 Ivimey, i. pp. 325-327.
8 See Frontispiece.
9 Crosby, ii. pp. 186-208.
10 Neal, iv. p. 394.
11 Neal, iv. p. 402.
12 Ibid. p. 426.
13 Ivimey, i. pp. 366-377.
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