a history of the english baptists
A.D. 1540 - 1602
King Edward VI came to the throne at the age of nine years and six months; "a prince (says Neal) for learning and piety, for acquaintance with the world, and application to business, the very wonder of his age."
The majority of the bishops and inferior clergy were on the side of popery; but the government was in the hands of the chief reformers, who began immediately to relax the horrors of the late reign. Persecution ceased, the prison doors were set open, and several who had been forced to quit the kingdom for religion returned home.
The reforming divines, being delivered from that awe with which the imperiousness of the late king had inspired them, began to preach openly against the abuses of popery; and the people in the many places, inflamed by their addresses, pulled down the images in the churches without authority.
The famous Genevan reformer, Calvin, appears to have felt deeply interested in the reformation that was going forward in England, and set his heart (says Heylin) upon promoting one wherein "the scripture might be made the rule of faith and worship," and offered his assistance to archbishop Cranmer for that purpose. [History of Presbytery, p. 13] He also wrote to the Protector, Lord Seymour, Oct. 29, 1548, encouraging him to go on, notwithstanding the wars, as Hezekiah did, with his reformation. In this he laments the violence of some who professed the gospel, and complains that he heard there were but few gospel sermons preached in England, and that the preachers recited their discourse coldly. Many of the reformers wished to expunge everything from the church which was of popish origin. But Cranmer and Ridley, wishing to prevent discontents, consulted with flesh and blood, and resolved to retain the vests and ceremonies. From this period the papists concluded, and that with strong confidence, that the English church would return back again to Rome. Bishop Bonner said publicly, "Having tasted of our broth, they will ere long eat of our beef." [Advance of the church of England towards Rome, p. 18]
In the year 1549, bishop Burnet says, "there were many Anabaptists in several parts of England. They were generally Germans, whom the revolutions had forced to change their seats. They held that infant baptism was no baptism, and so were rebaptized." [Hist. Ref. Abrig. p. 85] On Apr. 12, a complaint was brought to the council, that with the strangers who were come into England, some of that persuasion were come over, who were disseminating their principles, and making proselytes. "These people, (says Neal,) besides the principle of adult baptism, held several wild opinions about the trinity, and virgin Mary, and the person of Christ." We cannot, however, rely with implicit confidence on all that is said concerning any sect of Christians by their adversaries, since it is well known that many sects have been charged with holding sentiments which they never held, and that caricature representations have been given of their real sentiments.
The account Burnet gives of these persons is as follows. "Upon Luther’s first preaching in Germany, there arose many, who building on some of his principles, carried things much farther than he did. The chief foundation laid down by him was that the scripture was the only rule of Christians." [Hist. Ref. vol. ii. p. 110] If this was the principle they held, it is probable that it was not so much their theological sentiments, as their firmness in resisting all imposition in matters of religion, which exposed them to such violent resentments.
In the articles which were framed in 1547, by a committee of divines appointed to examine and reform the offices of the church, it was enacted, that "in the administration of baptism a cross was to be made on the child’s forehead and breast, and the devil exorcised to go out and enter no more into him. Also that the child was to be dipped three times in the font, on the right and left sides, and on the breast, if not weak. A white garment was to be put on it in token of innocence, and it was to be anointed on the head, with a short prayer for the unction of the Holy Ghost." [Neal, vol. i. p. 64]
Is it to be wondered at, if these absurd notions, so popish and antiscriptural, should have a tendency to encrease the number of Baptists, who had both reason and scripture to plead for their sentiments? But such daring innovators, who presumed to rend the seamless coat of Christ, and refused to worship the idol of uniformity which the reformers had set up, were not to be tolerated in a Christian commonwealth.
We find therefore, that in the year 1549, a commission was given to the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of Ely, Worcester, Chichester, Lincoln, and Rochester, Sir William Petre, Sir Thomas Smith, Dr. May, and some others, any three being a quorum, to examine and search after all Anabaptists, heretics, and contemners of the common prayer. They were to endeavour to reclaim them, and after penance to give them absolution; but if they continued obstinate, they were to excommunicate, imprison, and deliver them over to the secular arm. This was little better than a protestant inquisition. People had generally thought that all the statues for burning heretics had been repealed; but it was now said, that heretics were to be burned by the common law of England, and that the statutes were only for directing the manner of conviction, so that the repealing them did not take away that which was grounded on a writ of common law." [Neal, vol. i. p. 60] Before the commissioners were brought several tradesmen, one of whom, a butcher of the name of Thombe, abjured his principles, of which one was, that the baptism of infants was not profitable, because it went before faith. He was commanded, notwithstanding his abjuration, to carry a faggot at St. Paul’s, when there should be a sermon setting forth his heresy. [Strypes Life of Cranmer, p. 181]
The most awful instance of persecution in this year was the burning of JOAN BOUCHER of Kent. Burnet says, "She denied that Christ was truly incarnate of the virgin, whose flesh being sinful, he could take none of it; but the Word, by consent of the inward man in the virgin, took flesh of her. These were her words. The commissioners took much pains about her, and had many conferences with her; but she was so extravagantly conceited of her own notions that she rejected with scorn all they said: whereupon she was adjudged an obstinate heretic, and so left to the secular power."
To the other charges preferred against this good woman by her enemies, who would endeavour to blacken her as much as possible in order to justify their own conduct, it is to be added that she was a Baptist; and perhaps this was the sin which was not to be forgiven. "When the compassionate young king could not be prevailed upon to sign the warrant for her execution, Cranmer, with his superior learning, was employed to persuade him. He argued from the practice of the Jewish church in stoning blasphemers, which rather silenced his highness than satisfied him: for when at last he yielded to the importunity of the archbishop, he told him with tears in his eyes, that if he did wrong, since it was in submission to his authority, he should answer it before God. This struck the archbishop with surprise; but yet he at last suffered the sentence to be executed." [Burnet’s Hist. of Ref. vol. ii. p. 112]
The extraordinary efforts used to bring Joan Boucher to retract her sentiments, prove her to have been a person of note, whose opinions carried more weight and respect than it can be supposed the chimeras of a frantic woman, as she has been sometimes represented, would have done. The account which Mr. Strype gives of her is truly honourable. "She was (he says) a great disperser of Tyndal’s new testament, translated by him into English, and printed at Colen, and was a great reader of scripture herself. Which book also she dispersed in the court, and so became known to certain women of quality, and was particularly acquainted with Mrs. Anne Askew. She used for the greater secresy to tie the books with strings under her apparel, and so pass with them into the court." [Strype’s Eccles. Mem. vol. ii. p. 214] By this it appears that she hazarded her life in dangerous times to bring others to the knowledge of the word of God. To be employed in such a work, and to die in such a cause, is the highest character that could be given to any of the disciples of Christ.
There are some remarks upon this circumstance in Fox’s Latin book of Martyrs, which are omitted in the English from a regard, as is supposed, to the reputation of the Martrys who suffered in the next reign. But Mr. Pierce has given us the following translation in his answer to Nichols, p. 33. "In king Edward’s reign, some were put to death for heresy. One of these was Joan Boucher, or Joan of Kent. Now, says Mr. Fox, when the protestant bishops had resolved to put her to death, a friend of Mr. John Rogers, the divinity-reader in St. Paul’s church, came to him, earnestly desiring him to use his interest with the Archbishop, that the poor woman’s life might be spared, and other means used to prevent the spreading of her opinion, which might be done in time: saying too, that though while she lived, she infected few with her opinion, yet she might bring many to think well of it, by suffering death for it. He pleaded therefore that it was better she should be kept in some prison, without an opportunity of propagating her notion among weak people, and so she would do no harm to others, and might live to repent herself. Rogers on the other hand pleaded, she ought to be put to death. Well then saith his friend, if you are resolved to put an end to her life together with her opinion, chuse some other kind of death, more agreeable to the gentleness and mercy prescribed in the gospel; there being no need, that such tormenting deaths should be taken up, in imitation of the Papists. Rogers answered, that burning alive was no cruel death but easy enough. His friend then hearing these words, which expressed so little regard to poor creatures suffering, answered him with great vehemence, and striking Roger’s hand, which before he held fast, said to him, Well, perhaps, it may so happen, that you yourselves shall have your hands full of this mild burning. And so it came to pass; Mr. Rogers was the first man who was burned in Queen Mary’s reign. I am apt to think (adds Mr. Pierce) that Mr. Roger’s friend was no other than Fox himself." [Crosby, vol. i. p. 61]
The name of TYNDALE having been mentioned, it may not be improper to give a short account of his labours and sufferings in the cause of God. He went young to Oxford, and had part of his education there, and part at Cambridge. After leaving the university, he settled for a time in Gloucestershire; but was obliged to leave his native country on account of persecution. On the continent he translated the new testament into English, and printed it in 1526. This edition was bought up by Sir Thomas More and bishop Tonstall. With the money procured from this source, it was republished in 1530: but as this also contained some reflections on the English bishops and clergy, they commanded that it should be purchased and burnt. In 1532, Tyndale and his associates translated and printed the whole bible; but while he was preparing a second edition, he was apprehended and burnt for heresy in Flanders. [Note: For a fuller and more precise report on William Tyndale and his translation efforts and the timing of the various editions of his Bibles, see Annals of the English Bible by Christopher Anderson. This can be located at the Way of Life web site under the Electronic Baptist History Library. Anderson, who meticulously researched his subject, published his book 34 years after Ivimey published his history of English Baptists. D.W. Cloud]
He was a great reformer. It is generally supposed he was born on the borders of Wales. Mr. Thomas thinks this to be very probable, as "Mr. Llewelyn Tyndal and his son Hezekiah were reputable members of the Baptist church at Llanwenarth near Abergavenny, about the year 1700, as appeared by the old church book, and there were some of the same family in those parts still remaining." It is probable, therefore, that Tyndale might derive his superior light from some of the Wickliffites about Hereford and the adjoining counties, where we have already proved that much scriptural truth was for ages deposited. To this great man we are under great obligations for our emancipation from the fetters of popery, as it is not likely these would ever have been broken off, but by the hammer of God’s Word.
The sentiments of this celebrated man on the subject of baptism may be collected from the following extract from his works. After reprobating severely the conduct of the Romish clergy for using a latin form of words, he says, "the washing without the word helpeth not; but threw the word it purifieth and cleanseth us, as thou readest Eph. 6. How Christ cleanseth the congregation in the fountain of water threw the word: the word is the promise which God hath made. Now as a preacher, in preaching the word of God saveth the hearers that believe so doeth the washing in that it preacheth and representeth to us the promise that God hath made unto us in Christ, the washing preacheth unto us that we are cleansed with Christ’s blood shedding which was an offering and a satisfaction for the sin of all that repent and believe consenting and submitting themselves unto the will of God. The plunging into the water signifieth that we die and are buried with Christ as concerning the old life of sin which is Ada. And the pulling out again signifieth that we rise again with Christ in anew life full of the Holy Ghost which shall teach us, and guide us, and work the will of God in us; as thou seest Rom. 6." [The obedience of all degrees proved by God’s worde imprinted by Wyllyam Copland at London 1561] [Note from the Publisher of this electronic edition of Ivimey: We have modernized the spelling of Tyndale’s words to facilitate ease of understanding for current readers.]
Whether Tyndale baptized persons on a profession of faith or not, it is certain that his sentiments would naturally lead him to the practice; as what is said of the subject of this ordinance in this quotation, can in no sense apply to infants; who cannot be said to "repent and believe, consenting and submitting themselves unto the will of God." As it relates to the manner in which baptism was at that time administered, his statement is so plain that it requires no comment.
To return to events which took place in England during the reign of Edward VI, we learn from Burnet, that about the end of December 1550, after many cavils in the parliament, an act passed for the king’s general pardon, from the benefits of which the Anabaptists were excluded. "Last of all (says he came the king’s general pardon; out of which those in the tower and other prisons on account of the state, as also all Anabaptists, were excepted." This is a plain intimation that the Baptists were so numerous as to claim the attention of government, and so obnoxious as to be placed on a level with those who were imprisoned as enemies to the state.
In the same year a visitation of the diocese of London was made by Ridley, the new bishop. Among other questions put to the inferior clergy was the following: "Whether any Anabaptists, or others, used private conventicles, with different opinions and forms from those established." There were also questions about baptism and marriage. Burnet says, "these articles are in bishop Sparrow’s collection." [Hist. of Refor. vol. ii. p. 143-158]
An event which took place in the next year shows that the Baptists were still offensive to those in power. On April 6, 1551, GEORGE VAN-PARE, a Dutchman, was condemned, and on the twenty-fifth of the same month was burnt at Smithfield. Speaking of this person, Neal remarks, "He was a man of strict and virtuous life, and very devout: he suffered with great constancy of mind, kissing the stake and faggots that were to burn him." Burnet says, that "the eminent character which he had for piety and devotion, and the fortitude and constancy that he manifested at the stake, tended more to expose Cranmer than any event which had happened. It was now said by the papists, that men of harmless lives might be put to death for heresy by the confession of the reformers themselves. In all the books published in queen Mary’s days, these instances were always produced; and when Cranmer himself was brought to the stake, the people called it a just retaliation." [Neal, vol. i. p. 61]
Mr. Strype says that on Sept. 27, 1552, a letter was sent to the Archbishop, to examine a sect newly sprung up in Kent. He says it appears not what this sect was; he supposes they may be the family of love, or David George’s sect; but these conjectures of his have no good foundation. "I am persuaded, says Mr. Pierce, this sect was no other than some good honest dissenters, who having been grieved to see so much of popery retained attempted a further reformation themselves, which would be a very displeasing thing to our bishops who expect all men to wait their leisure." [Answer to Nichol. p. 56] Mr. Strype in his life of Cranmer p. 208, says expressly that these persons were Anabaptists. In all probability many of these came to Joan Boucher’s end, as no argument could convince the divines of this age of the absurdity and wickedness of putting men to death for conscience sake.
Burnet seems to think that the sufferings of these persons was on account of their erroneous opinions respecting the person of Christ; and says that "the other sort of Anabaptists, who only denied infant baptism, had no severities used against them; but that several books were written against them, to justify infant baptism; and the practice of the church so early begun, and so universally spread, was thought a good plea, especially being grounded on such arguments in scripture, as did demonstrate, at least the lawfulness of it." [Burnet Abridg. part ii. p. 87] However this might be, we are hereby furnished with an important piece of information, proving, that there were persons among them who were able to defend their principles, and who were not afraid to do so, though they thereby exposed themselves to imprisonment and death.
The next year it was resolved in council to reform the doctrine of the church. Archbishop Cranmer and Bishop Ridley were appointed to this work, who framed forty-two articles upon the chief points of the Christian faith. These were entitled, "Articles agreed upon by the bishops and other learned men, in the convocation held in London, in the year 1552, for the avoiding diversity of opinions, and establishing consent touching true religion: Published by the king’s authority." Neal does not notice the alteration in the twenty eighth article, which now stood as follows. "The custom of the church for baptizing young children, is both to be commended, and by all means to be retained in the church." [Crosby, vol. i. p. 54] It is worthy of observation, that infant baptism was not retained because it was commanded by Christ, or practised by the apostles and first Christians, but as the custom of the church.
The excellent young king was a friend to toleration. John a Lasco, who was the pastor of a foreign church, published a work which was dedicated to Sigismund, king of Poland, 1555; in which it is said, that "King Edward desired that the rites and ceremonies used under popery, should be purged out by degrees; and that strangers should have churches to observe all things according to apostolical observation only; that by these means the English churches might be excited to embrace apostolical purity with the unanimous consent of the states of the kingdom." He adds, that "the king was at the head of this project, and that Cranmer promoted it; but that some great persons stood in the way." Martin Bucer, a German divine, and professor of divinity in Cambridge, a person in high estimation with the young king, drew up a plan and presented it to his majesty, in which he wrote largely on ecclesiastical discipline. The king having read it, set himself to write a general discourse about reformation, but did not live to finish it. His death, which happened in 1553, in the sixteenth year of his age, and the seventh of his reign, put an end to all his noble designs for perfecting the reformation. Dr. Leighton says, when speaking of his premature death, "This king, a gracious plant whereof the soil was not worthy, like another Josiah, setting himself with all his might to promote the reformation, abhorred and forbid that any mass should be permitted to his sister. Further, he was desirous not to leave a hoof of the Romish beast in his Kingdom, as he was taught by some of the sincerer sort. But as he wanted instruments to effect this good, so he was mightily opposed in all his good designs by the prelatists, which caused him in his godly jealousy, in the very anguish of his soul, to pour out his soul in tears." [An appeal to the parliament, &c.] Neal says, "He was an incomparable prince, of most promising expectations; and in the judgment of most impartial persons, the very phoenix of his age. It was more than whispered that he was poisoned." [Neal, vol. i. p. 81]
During the reign of the sanguinary MARY, who succeeded him, it is not to be doubted that the Baptists came in for their full share of suffering, and that many of the martyrs were of that denomination, which was then numerous, although their sentiments have not been handed down to us upon that subject.
In the first year of her reign, 1553, we have an account of the examination of Mr. Woodman before the bishop of Winchester, in the church of St. Mary Overy’s, in which the bishop said, "Hold him a book: if he refuse to swear, he is an Anabaptist, and shall be excommunicated." Also in the examination of Mr. Philpot before the lords of the council, Nov. 5, 1555, Rich said to him, "All heretics boast of the Spirit of God, and every one would have a church by himself, as Joan of Kent and the Anabaptists."
Spanhemius, in his account of David George of Delpt in Holland, who was driven from his own country by persecution, and died in London, and was honourably interred in St. Lawrence’s church, informs us, that three years afterwards, it was discovered that he was an Anabaptist; upon which his followers were sought after; a certain number of divines and lawyers were appointed to examine them; his opinions were condemned by an ordinance; his picture was carried about and burnt; and his corps taken up and burnt likewise. [Crosby vol. i. p. 63,64] It is probable that David George was a member of a church of foreign Baptists that was formed in London in the former reign.
Brandt assures us that "in the year 1553, the low country exiles, who in the time of Edward VI had gathered a congregation at London (which upon his death was scattered by Queen Mary) after a dreadful northern journey in which they suffered much from the Lutherans, found at Wismar two distinct communities of Anabaptists." [Hist. Refor. vol. i. book. iv]
These persecutions appear to have inspired the Baptists with additional fortitude in avowing their attachment to their despised tenets; for in 1557, we find that many were imprisoned, being charged with holding the following opinions.--(1.) That infant baptism is anti-scriptural--(2.) That it is commanded by the pope--(3.) That Christ commanded teaching to go before baptism. These are sentiments which the Baptists still profess, and which they conceive have never been disproved. There was also a complaint exhibited against such as favoured the gospel at Ipswich, to the Queen’s Council held at Beccles in Suffolk May 18, 1556, and among the crimes enumerated we find that four women were accused of refusing to have their children dipped in the Fonts at St. Peter’s church. One of these is said to be a midwife, and it is particularly requested that "none might be suffered to be midwives but such as are catholic, because of evil council as such times require a number of women assembled." [Fox, vol. iii. p. 791]
This cruel and bigotted princess died Nov. 17, 1558. Her death put a close to a succession of cruelties which none have fully described, many hundreds having suffered death for religion; and there being but one instance in which a reprieve was granted to a person condemned for heresy. "Her reign (says Neal) was in every respect calamitous to the nation, and ought to be transmitted down to posterity in letters of blood."
QUEEN ELIZABETH succeeded her sister. In her reign there was much persecution. She was, however, preferable to Mary, though she seems to have been more than half a papist, and exercised a despotic sway over the lives of her subjects. The same severities which Mary exercised towards dissenters from the establishment when it was popish, were used towards them by Elizabeth when it became protestant. Protestants were persecuted by both;--by Mary, for refusing to subscribe to the absurd notions of transubstantiation and purgatory; by Elizabeth, for remonstrating against archbishops, and lord bishops; against the maintenance of the priesthood by tithes; against the kingdom of Christ being a kingdom of this world; against an unpreaching ministry; against the square cap and surplice; and against rites and ceremonies and ecclesiastical canons of human invention and imposition. Some of the dissenters objected to all these; others to only a part.
The zeal of the bishops during this period was principally directed towards the support of ceremonies. To refuse a compliance with the injunctions of the queen respecting these popish inventions, was considered reason sufficient to deprive the most eminent divines of their station in the church, of their liberty, and of their life; at a time too when there were but few ministers of the gospel in England, and the people were perishing for lack of knowledge.
The spirit of the times may be judged of by the following circumstance. The plague being in London and several parts of the country in the summer of 1562, a little stop was thereby put to the zeal for uniformity, yet none were preferred in the church who scrupled the habits. In proof of this we may produce the examples of two of the worthiest and most learned divines of the age. The first of these was the venerable Miles Coverdale, formerly bishop of Exeter. This excellent man had been long employed in assisting Tyndale in the translation of the bible. He was born in Yorkshire, was educated at Cambridge, and proceeded doctor in the university of Tubingen. Returning to England in the time of king Edward, he was made bishop of Exeter, 1551. Upon the accession of Queen Mary, he was imprisoned, and would have been burnt; but by the intercession of the king of Denmark, he was sent over into that country. When Elizabeth came to the throne, he returned to England, and assisted at the consecration of her first archbishop of Canterbury: yet because he would not comply with the ceremonies and habits, he was neglected, and had no preferment. "This reverend man (says Mr. Strype) being now old and poor, Grindal, bishop of London, gave him the small living of St. Magnus at the Bridge-foot, where he preached quietly about two years. But not coming up to the uniformity required, he was persecuted thence, and obliged to relinquish his parish a little before his death, which took place May 20, 1567, at the age of eighty-one years. He was a celebrated preacher, admired and followed by all the puritans." [Life of Parker, p. 149]
The other was that venerable man, Mr. John Fox the martyrologist, a grave, learned, and laborious divine, and an exile for religion. While banished from his native country, he employed his time in writing the "Acts and Monuments" of that church which would hardly receive him into her bosom, and in collecting materials relative to the martyrdom of those who suffered for religion in the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary. This he published first in Latin for the benefit of foreigners, and then in English for the use of his own countrymen, in 1561. This book gave a most severe blow to popery. It was dedicated to the queen, and was in such high reputation that it was ordered to be placed in the churches, where it raised in the people an invincible horror and detestation of that religion which had shed so much innocent blood.
The queen professed a particular regard for Mr. Fox, and used to call him father: but as he refused to subscribe to her articles and ceremonies, he had no promotion for a considerable time. At length, through the influence of a friend, he procured a prebend in the cathedral of Sarum. This good old man would not submit to such impositions. When he was called upon to subscribe, he took his Greek testament from his pocket, and said, "To this will I subscribe." When they offered him the canons, he refused, saying, "I have nothing in the church but a prebend at Salisbury; and, if you take it away from me, much good may it do you." In a letter to his friend Dr. Humphreys, he thus pleasantly reproached the ingratitude of the times in which he lived. "I still wear the same clothes, and remain in the same sordid condition, that England received me in when I first came home out of Germany; nor do I change my degree or order, which is that of the mendicants, or if you please of the friars preachers." [Wilson’s Hist. of Dissenting Churches, vol. i. p. 10]
That no favour would be shown to the Baptists in such times as these, is what might naturally be expected. The share they had in the cruelties inflicted on dissenters will appear in a few instances which the historians of those times have preserved. Mr. Fuller says, "Now began the Anabaptists wonderfully to encrease in the land; and as we are sorry that any countrymen should be seduced by that opinion, so we are glad that the English as yet were free from that infection: for on Easter day was disclosed a congregation of Dutch Anabaptists, without Aldgate in London; whereof seven-and-twenty were taken and imprisoned; and four, bearing faggots at Paul’s cross, solemnly recanted their dangerous opinions. Next month, one Dutchman and ten women were condemned; of whom one woman was persuaded to renounce her error; eight were banished the land; and two more were so obstinate that command was issued out for their burning in Smithfield." [Church Hist. Cent. 16, p. 164]
What this writer says of the English being previously free from this infection, shows how little he was acquainted with the history of the church, as the numerous instances we have mentioned abundantly prove. The account, however, which is here given, is an evidence of the stedfastness of these people in holding their opinions, as but five were influenced by threats and promises to recant; and one of these, a woman, not till after she had been condemned to be executed. This sentence two of the men cheerfully suffered, rather than deny Him who has said, "Whosoever loveth his own life more than me is not worthy of me; and whosoever loseth his life for my sake, the same shall find it."
The form of abjuration made by these Walloon Baptists is a curious document, as it proves to what lengths the prelatists wished persons professing these sentiments to go. It was taken before Dr. De Laune, in 1575, in the eighteenth year of Elizabeth, in the Dutch church, Austin frairs, London, of which the doctor was minister. It is as follows: "Whereas we being seduced by the devil, the spirit of error, and by false teachers, have fallen into the most damnable errors; that Christ took not flesh of the substance of the virgin Mary, that the infants of the faithful ought not to be baptized, that a christian may not be a magistrate, or bear the sword and office of authority, and that it is not lawful for a christian man to take an oath. Now by the grace of God, and the assistance of good and learned ministers of Christ’s church, we understand the same to be most damnable and detestable heresies; and do ask God, before his church, mercy for the said former errors; and do forsake, recant, and renounce them; and we abjure them from the bottom of our hearts, protesting we certainly believe the contrary. And further, we confess that the whole doctrine established and published in the church of England, and also that which is received by the Dutch church in London, is found true according to God’s word. Whereunto in all things we submit ourselves, and will be most gladly members of the said Dutch church; from henceforth utterly abandoning and forsaking all and every Anabaptistical error." [Crosby, vol. i. p. 69]
From this account we learn what were the errors they were charged with, and nothing but a formal recantation of which would preserve them from either banishment or death. To prevent those from being executed who were condemned, Fuller says, that a grave divine sent a melting letter to the queen, begging they might not be burnt. "This was written, (he adds) in elegant latin by Mr. John Fox, from whose hand I transcribed it. He was very loth that Smithfield, formerly consecrated with martyr’s ashes, should now be profaned with heretics, and desirous that the papists might enjoy their own monopoly of cruelty in burning condemned persons."
The following is the translation of this letter, which does credit to the heart of the writer.--"Most serene and happy princess, most illustrious queen, the honour of our country, and honour of our age. As nothing hath ever been farther from my thoughts and expectation than ever to trouble your most excellent majesty by my troublesome interruption; so it grieves me very much that I must break that silence which has hitherto been the result of my mind. But so it now happens, by I know not what infelicity, that the present time obliges me, contrary to my hope and opinion, to that which of all things in the world I least desired; and though hitherto I have been troublesome to nobody, I am now, contrary to my inclination, constrained to be importunate, even with my princess; not in any matter or cause of my own, but through the calamity brought upon others; and by how much the more sharp and lamentable that is, by so much the more I am spurred on to deprecate it.
"I understand there are some here in England, not English but come hither from Holland, I suppose both men and women, who having been tried according to law, and having publicly declared their repentance, are happily reclaimed. Many others are condemned to exile; a right sentence in my opinion. But I hear there are one or two of these who are appointed to the most severe of punishments, viz. burning, except your clemency prevent. Now in this one affair I conceive there are two things to be considered; the one is the wickedness of their errors, the other, the sharpness of their punishment. As to their errors, indeed, no man of sense can deny that they are most absurd, and I wonder that such monstrous opinions could come into the mind of any Christian; but such is the state of human weakness, if we are left never so little awhile destitute of the divine light, whither is it we do not fall? And we have great reason to give God thanks that I hear not of any Englishman that is inclined to this madness. As to these fanatical sects, therefore, it is certain they are by no means to be countenanced in a commonwealth, but in my opinion ought to be suppressed by proper correction. But to roast alive the bodies of poor wretches, that offend rather through blindness of judgment than perverseness of will, in fire and flames, raging with pitch and brimstone, is a hard-hearted thing, and more agreeable to the practice of the Romanists than the custom of the gospellers; yea, is evidently of the same kind, as if it had flowed from the Romish priests, from the first author of such cruelty, Innocent the third. Oh, that none had ever brought such a Phalarian bull into the meek church of Christ! I do not speak such things because I am pleased with their wickedness, or favour the errors of any man; but seeing that I myself am a man, I must therefore favour the life of man; not that he should err, but that he should repent. Nay, my pity extends not only to the life of man, but also to the beasts.
"For so it is perhaps a folly in my; but I speak the truth, that I can hardly pass by a slaughter-house where cattle are killing, but my mind shrinks back with a secret sense of their pains. And truly I greatly admire the clemency of God in this, who had such respect to the mean brute creatures formerly prepared for sacrifices, that they must not be committed to the flames before their blood had been poured out at the foot of the altar. Whence we may gather, that in inflicting of punishments, though just, we must not be over rigorous, but temper the sharpness of rigour with clemency. Wherefore, if I may be so bold with the majesty of so great a princess, I humbly beg of your royal highnesss, for the sake of Christ, who was consecrated to suffer for the lives of many, this favour at my request, which even the divine clemency would engage you to; that if it may be, (and what cannot your authority do in these cases?) these miserable wretches may be spared; at least that a stop may be put to the horror, by changing the punishment into some other kind. There are excommunications, and close imprisonments; there are bonds; there is perpetual banishment, burning of the hand and whipping, or even slavery itself. This one thing I most earnestly beg, that the flames of Smithfield, so long ago extinguished by your happy government, may not be again revived. But if I may not obtain this, I pray with the greatest earnestness that out of your great pity you would grant us a month or two in which we may try whether the Lord will give them grace to turn from their dangerous errors, lest with the destruction of their bodies their souls be in danger of eternal ruin."
This melting pathetic letter had but little effect upon the high and bigotted spirit of Elizabeth. She answered, "That if after a month’s reprieve, and conference with divines, they would not recant their errors, they should certainly suffer." This they refused to do, and hereupon the writ De haeretico comburendo, which for seventeen years had only hung up in terrorem, was now put in execution; and these two Baptists, John Wielmaker and Henry Tor Woort, were burnt in Smithfield, July 22.
In the year 1589, Dr. Some, a man of great note, and a violent churchman, published a treatise against some of the puritans, Greenwood, Barrow, Penry, and others. In this he attempts to show what agreement there was between them and the English Anabaptists. The opinions he charges the Anabaptists with, when, as Crosby says, they are stripped of the dress which he had put upon them, are as follow--"That the ministers of the gospel ought to be maintained by the voluntary contributions of the people--that the civil power has no right to make and impose ecclesiastical laws--that the high commission court was an anti-christian usurpation--that those who are qualified to teach ought not to be hindered by the civil power--that though the Lord’s prayer be a rule and foundation of prayer, yet it is not to be used as a form and that no forms of prayer ought to be imposed on the church--that the baptism administered by the church of Rome is invalid--that a true constitution and discipline are essential to a true church, and that the worship of God in the church of England is in many things defective."--The doctor touches but briefly, says Crosby, on their opinion of baptizing believers only, and brings up the rear of his accusations with saying, "they esteem it blasphemy for any man to arrogate to himself the title of Doctor of Divinity" that is, as he explains it, to be called Rabbi, or master of other men’s faith. [Crosby, vol. i. p. 77]
Who does not see in these articles the genuine principles of the new testament, and the true ground upon which as protestant dissenters we ought to take our stand? The right of the magistrate to interfere in religious matters being denied, religious establishments, which are founded upon the assumption of that principle, must be necessarily dissented from, and, if the principle can be proved to be false, must fall with it.
The Baptists of the present day have no reason to be ashamed of these sentiments of their predecessors, who at a time when the principles of dissent were so imperfectly understood, had such clear ideas on the subject, and sealed the truth with their blood.
From Dr. Some we learn also that at the time when he wrote, 1589, "There were several Anabaptistical conventicles in London and other places." It seems then the Baptists had at this early period formed distinct churches of persons of their own sentiments, both in London, and in different parts of the country. He adds, "Some persons of these sentiments have been bred at our universities." That is to say, some of the zealous puritanical divines had pursued their principles to their legitimate consequences, and had rejected infant baptism, with the other ceremonies of the church. The doctor, to expose the Baptists, relates a story of one whom he calls T.L., "who at a conventicle in London took upon him to expound the scriptures, conceive long prayers on a sudden, and to excommunicate two persons who were formerly of that brotherhood, but had now left them." Who this T.L. was we know not; but it clearly appears that he was the pastor of the church, and that in their name, he declared that some persons who had left them were no longer of their communion. His explaining the scriptures and praying without the use of a form, will not now be considered as either unaccountable or heretical. We are much obliged to Dr. Some for enabling us to trace the history of our churches in England, since the Reformation, to a period almost as early as that of the presbyterian churches, the first of which in England was founded at Wandsworth in the year 1572.
The persons against whom Dr. Some wrote were men of respectable talents, and their names shine with distinguished lustre in the annals of the puritans. They were eminent divines, and illustrious martyrs in the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ. Barrow and Greenwood, after being kept in prison for many months, and there exposed to all the severities of cold, hunger, and nakedness, were, on the last day of March 1592, brought to Tyburn in a cart, and exposed under the gallows a long time, to see whether the terrors of death would affright them; but remaining constant, they were taken back to Newgate, and on April 6, they were carried a second time to Tyburn and executed. At the place of execution they gave such testimonies of their unfeigned piety towards God, and loyalty to the queen, and prayed so earnestly for her long and prosperous reign, that when Dr. Reynolds, who attended them, reported their behaviour to her majesty, she is said to have expressed her sorrow that she had yielded to their death.
The persecution of those who separated from the church of England, was from this time to end of the queen’s reign very severe.
Many of them on this account left the kingdom; and those who remained in it were perpetually harassed and tormented by fines and imprisonment. That the Baptists were deeply involved in the suffering of these times, may be gathered from the supplication of the justices of the peace for the county of Norfolk. A complaint had been made to them of the long and illegal imprisonment of a puritan, the Rev. Robert Wright, and hereupon their worships were pleased to address Aylmer, bishop of London, on his behalf. This so offended his lordship, that he drew up twelve articles of impeachment against the justices themselves, and caused them to be summoned before the queen and council to answer for their misdemeanors.
These high proceedings of the bishop disgusted both the clergy and the whole country; and the justices, notwithstanding his late citation of them before the council, wrote to their honours, praying them to interpose in behalf of divers godly ministers. The words of this supplication, says Neal, are worth remembering, because they discover the cruelty of the commissioners; who made no distinction between the vilest of criminals and conscientious ministers.--"The faithful ministers of the word (say they) are marshalled with the worst malefactors; presented, indicted, arraigned, and condemned, for matters, as we presume, of very slender moment, some for leaving the holidays unbidden; some for singing the psalm Nune Dimittis in the morning; some for turning the questions in baptism concerning faith, from the infants to the godfathers, which is but you for thou; some for leaving out the cross in baptism; some for leaving out the ring in marriage. A most pitiful thing it is to see the back of the law turned to the adversary [the papists] and the edge with all its sharpness laid upon the sound and true-hearted subject.
"We regard order to be the rule of the Spirit of God, and desire uniformity in all the duties of the church, according to the proportion of faith: but if these weak ceremonies are so indifferent as to be left to the discretion of ministers, we think it (under correction) very hard to have them go under so hard handling, to the utter discredit of their whole ministry, and the profession of the truth.
"We serve her majesty and the country [as justices of the peace] according to law. We reverence the law, and lawmaker: when the law speaks, we keep silence: when it commandeth, we obey. By law we proceed against all offenders: we touch none that the law spareth, and spare none that the law toucheth. We allow not of papists; of the family of Love; of Anabaptists, or Brownists. No, we punish all these. Yet we are christened with the odious name of puritans; a term compounded of the heresies above mentioned, which we disclaim. The papists pretend to be immaculate: the family of Love cannot sin, they being deified, as they say, in God. But we groan under the burden of our sins, and confess them to God; and at the same time we labour to keep ourselves and our profession unblamable. This is our puritanism; a name given to such magistrates and ministers, and others, as have a strict eye upon their juggling.
"We think ourselves bound in duty to unfold these matters to your lordships; and if you shall please to call us to the proof of them, it is the thing we most desire."
When such severities were practised against men who ventured to alter a pronoun in the baptismal service, for the relief of burdened consciences, it is certain that those called Anabaptists, who rejected the rite itself, would not escape chastisement. Even the justices of Norfolk say, "we punish these." It is remarkable, that while they mention some things that made other sects odious, they say nothing to the discredit of the Baptists. May we not infer that their only error was a denial of infant baptism? But for this crime they were considered as unfit to reside in a Christian country among Christian people, and therefore the queen published a royal proclamation commanding all Anabaptists and other heretics to leave the kingdom, whether they were natives or foreigners, under the penalties of imprisonment and loss of goods. Consequently all Baptists were obliged either to conceal their sentiments, or fly into those countries where they might without molestation worship God according to the dictates of conscience. Many of them went over to Holland; so that there were perhaps fewer dissenters in England of all denominations at this time than at any period since the reformation. The terrors of the Star chamber, and the High commission court, or as it has been more properly called, the English inquisition, operated so powerfully as almost to exterminate all those who had the simplicity and godly sincerity to oppose that church, which with bold effrontery had declared, "The church hath power to decree rites and ceremonies, and authority in matters of faith;" to which might have been added,--and a disposition to punish those who will not implicitly receive her dogmas.
Things were in this state at that time of the queen’s death, which took place March 24, 1602, in the seventieth year of her age, and the forty-fifth of her reign. Neal says, "As to her religion, she affected a middle way between popery and puritanism, though she was more inclined to the former. She understood not the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and is therefore justly charged with persecuting principles. More sanguinary laws were made in her reign than in those of any of her predecessors. Her hands were stained with the blood of papists and puritans: the former were executed for denying her supremacy, and the latter for sedition and non-conformity."
Volume I - A.D. 45 - 1685
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved