a history of the english baptists
A.D. 1625 - 1640
Charles the first succeeded his father. Unhappily for this monarch, he had been educated in the principles of arbitrary power and religious bigotry. The conduct of James had been productive of general discontent, which his son did not take proper means to remove. Determined to be an absolute monarch, he drove his subjects into rebellion, and fell a victim to his own measures.
It was during this reign that an event took place among the Baptists, which has been commonly, but erroneously considered as the commencement of their history in this country. This was the formation of some churches in London, which many have supposed to be the first of this denomination in the kingdom. But could it even be proved that there were no distinct Baptist churches till this period, it would not follow that there were no Baptists, which however has been confidently stated. We have shown that persons professing similar sentiments with these of the present English Baptists, have been found in every period of the English church; and also that as early as the year 1509, from the testimony of Dr. Some, there were many churches of this description in London and in the country. During the reign of James, we have produced unexceptionable proof that there were great numbers of Baptists who suffered imprisonment in divers counties, and that a petition to the king was signed by many of their ministers. It is thought that the General Baptist church at Canterbury has existed for two hundred and fifty years, and that Joan Boucher, who was burnt in the reign of Edward the sixth, was a member of it. Though this is traditionary only, yet it is rendered probable from her being a Baptist, and being always called "Joan of Kent." It is also said that the church at Eyethorn in the same county has been founded more than two hundred and thirty years, and that pastors of the name of John Knott served it during two hundred years of that period.
It is rather singular that Crosby should pay so little attention to his materials as to overlook these circumstances, and to confirm the common error respecting the origin of the Baptist churches, by the following statement. "In the year 1633, (says he,) the Baptists, who had hitherto been intermixed with other protestant dissenters without distinction, and who consequently shared with the Puritans in the persecutions of those times, began to separate themselves, and form distinct societies of their own. Concerning the first of these, I find the following account collected from a manuscript of Mr. William Kiffin.
"There was a congregation of protestant dissenters of the Independent persuasion in London, gathered in the year 1616, of which Mr. Henry Jacob was the first pastor; and after him succeeded Mr. John Lathorp, who was their minister in 1633. In this society several persons, finding that the congregation kept not to its first principles of separation, and being also convinced that baptism was not to be administered to infants, but to such as professed faith in Christ, desired that they might be dismissed from the communion, and allowed to form a distinct congregation in such order as was most agreeable to their own sentiments.
"The church, considering that they were now grown very numerous, and so more than could in those times of persecution conveniently meet together, and believing also that those persons acted from a principle of conscience, and not from obstinacy, agreed to allow them the liberty they desired, and that they should be constituted a distinct church; which was performed Sep. 12, 1633. And as they believed that baptism was not rightly administered to infants, so they looked upon the baptism they had received at that age as invalid, whereupon most or all of them received a new baptism. Their minister was a Mr. John Spilsbury. What number they were is uncertain, because in the mentioning of about twenty men and women, it is added with divers others.
"In the year 1638, Mr. William Kiffin, Mr. Thomas Wilson, and others, being of the same judgment, were upon their request dismissed to the said Mr. Spilsbury’s congregation. In the year 1639, another congregation of Baptists was formed, whose place of meeting was in Crutched-friars; the chief promoters of which were Mr. Green, Mr. Paul Hobson, and Captain Spencer."
The account of Mr. Spilsbury’s church is said in the margin to have been written from the records of that church; but from any thing that appears there is nothing to justify the conclusion of Crosby, that this was the first Baptist church; as the account relates simply to the origin of that particular church, to state which it is probable was Mr. Kiffin’s design, rather than to relate the origin of the Baptist churches in general, and which he must certainly have known were in existence previously to that period.
It must be admitted that there is some obscurity respecting the manner in which the ancient immersion of adults, which appears to have been discontinued, was restored, when, after the long night of antichristian apostacy, persons were at first baptized on a profession of faith. The very circumstance however of their being called Anabaptists as early as the period of the Reformation, proves that they did, in the opinion of the Pedobaptists, re-baptize, which it is not likely they would do, by pouring or sprinkling, immersion being incontrovertibly the universal practice in the church of England at that time.
It has not been uncommon for the enemies of the Baptists to reproach them with the manner in which this practice was restored. In a work published at the close of the seventeenth century by Mr. John Wall, entitled "Baptism anatomizaed," the writer says, "Their baptism is not from heaven, but will-worship, and so to be abhorred by all Christians; for they received their baptism from one Mr. Smyth who baptized himself; one who was cast out of a church, and endeavoured to deprive the church of Christ of the use of the bible."
To this charge, made with so much asperity, Hercules Collins, a Baptist minister at Wapping, replies with great indignation in a work entitled, "Believers’ baptism from heaven, and of divine institution: Infant baptism from earth, and of human invention:" Published in 1691. Mr. Collins denies that the English Baptists received their baptism from Mr. John Smyth, and says, "It is absolutely untrue, it being well known to some who are yet alive how false this assertion is; and if J.W. will but give a meeting to any of us, and bring whom he please with him, we shall sufficiently shew the falsity of what is asserted by him in this matter, and in many other things which he hath unchristianly asserted."
It is to be regretted that Mr. Collins did not give the account which is here referred to. This defect is however in some measure supplied in a work published by Mr. Edward Hutchinson in 1676, entitled, "A Treatise concerning the covenant and baptism." The dedication is addressed "to the spiritual seed of Abraham, especially those of the baptized congregation." He says, "Your beginning in these nations (of late years) was but small; yet when it pleased the Lord to dispel those clouds that overshadowed us, and to scatter some beams of the gospel amongst us, he gave you so great an increase that Sion may say with admiration, Who hath begotten me these?
"Nor is it less observable, that whereas other reformations have been carried on by the secular arm, and the countenance and allowance of the magistrate, as in Luther’s time by several German princes; the protestant reformation in England by King Edward, Queen Elizabeth, &c.; and the Presbyterian reformation by a parliament, committed of estates, and assembly of divines, besides the favour and assistance of great personages; you have had none of these to take you by the hand; but your progress was against the impetuous current of human opposition, and attended with such external discouragements as bespeak your embracing this despised truth to be an effect of heart-sincerity, void of all mercenary considerations. Yea, how active has the accuser of the brethren been to represent yoou in such frightful figures, exposing you by that mischievous artifice to popular odium and the lash of the magistracy; insomuch that the name of an Anabaptist was crime enough, which doubtless was a heavy obstacle in the way of many pious souls!
"What our dissenting brethren have to answer on that account, who instead of taking up, have laid stumbling-blocks in the way of reformation, will appear another day. Yet notwithstanding the strenuous oppositions of those great and learned ones, the mighty God of Jacob hath taken you by the hand, and said, Be strong.
"Besides, it has a considerable tendency to the advancement of divine grace, if we consider the way and manner of the reviving of this costly truth. When the professors of these nations had been a long time wearied with the yoke of superstitious ceremonies, traditions of men, and corrupt mixtures in the work and service of God; it pleased the Lord to break those yokes, and by a very strong impulse of his Spirit on the hearts of his people to convince them of the necessity of reformation. Divers pious and very gracious people, having often sought the Lord by fasting and prayer that he would show them the pattern of his house, and the goings out and comings in thereof, resolved by the grace of God not to receive or practise any piece of positive worship which had not precept nor example from the word of God. Infant baptism coming of course under consideration, after long search and many debates it was found to have no footing in the scriptures, (the only rule and standard to try doctrines by,) but on the contrary a mere innovation, yea, the profamation of an ordinance of God. And though it was purposed to be laid aside, yet what fears, tremblings, and temptations, did attend them, lest they should be mistaken, considering how many learned and godly men were of an opposite persuasion! How gladly would they have had the rest of their brethren gone along with them! But when there was no hope, they concluded that a christian’s faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, and that every one must give an account of himself to God; and so resolved to practise according to their light. The great objection was the want of an Administrator, which as I have heard was removed by sending certain messengers to Holland, whence they were supplied. So that this little cloud of witnesses hath the Lord by his grace so greatly increased, that it is spread over our horizon, though opposed and contradicted by men of all sorts."
Crosby says that this agrees with an account given of the matter in an old manuscript said to be written by Mr. William Kiffin. This relates, that "several sober and pious persons belonging to the congregations of the dissenters about London were convinced that believers were the only proper subjects of baptism, and that it ought to be administered by immersion, or dipping the whole body into the water, in resemblance of a burial and resurrection, according to Rom. 6:4, and Col. 2:12. That they often met together to pray and confer about this matter, and consult what methods they should take to enjoy this ordinance in its primitive purity. That they could not be satisfied about any administrator in England to begin this practice, because, though some in this nation rejected the baptism of infants, yet they had not, as they knew of, revived the ancient custom of immersion. But hearing that some in the Netherlands practised it, they agreed to send over one Mr. Richard Blount, who understood the Dutch language; that he went accordingly, carrying letters of recommendation with him, and was kindly received both by the church there, and by Mr. John Batte their teacher; that on his return he baptized Mr. Samuel Blacklock, a minister, and these two baptized the rest of their company, whose names are in the manuscript to the number of fifty three."
"But the greatest number of the English Baptists, (says Crosby,) and the more judicious, esteemed all this but needless trouble, and what proceeded from the old popish doctrine of right to administer sacraments by an uninterrupted succession, which neither the church of Rome nor the church of England, much less the modern dissenters, could prove to be with them. They affirmed therefore, and practised accordingly, that after a general corruption of baptism, an unbaptized person might warrantably baptize, and so begin a reformation."
These testimonies to a matter of fact by such men as Hutchinson, Collins, and Kiffin, may be safely relied on, as they were all eminent Baptist ministers at a time when they could easily procure information from their aged members concerning it. At the time when Hutchinson and Collins wrote, Mr. Kiffin was still living; and from his perfect knowledge of all things in the denomination almost from the very first, he was doubtless one of the persons from whom they had received their information, and to whom Mr. Collins probably referred, who would give Mr. Wall every necessary information on the subject.
That Mr. Kiffin was well acquainted with this affair, there can be no doubt. He joined Mr. Lathorp’s church very soon after the division had taken place in it, when he was about seventeen years of age; and five years afterwards was dismissed from it to Mr. Spilsbury’s church, which was founded at Wapping.
It may perhaps be thought that this statement is incompatible with the history of the Baptists already given. What occasion, it may be objected, was there to send out of the kingdom a person to be baptized by immersion, if there were at the same time so many persons in it who had been baptized in the same manner? Might not one of them have been the administrator?
One answer to this objection is, that by violent persecutions almost all the Baptists had been driven out of the kingdom, so that in the beginning of thereign of Charles the first, it would have been a difficult matter to find a minister who had been baptized by immersion. The conjecture of Crosby however is very probable, that if such a one or many such could have been found, yet the old popish doctrine, not yet fully effaced from the mind even of nonconformists, that the right of administrating the sacraments descended by uninterrupted succession, would prevent persons desiring baptism from applying to any but a regularly ordained minister, who had been baptized on a profession of faith by a person to be found in the Netherlands, whose baptism they thought, and perhaps with truth, had regularly descended from the Waldensian Christians, and therefore, it is not to be wondered at that they should apply to that quarter.
It is farther to be observed, that the account which Mr. Kiffin gives does not relate to the people who left Mr. Lathorp’s church in 1633, and who settled at Wapping under the care of Mr. Spilsbury; but to "many sober and pious people belonging to the congregations of dissenters about London, who sent Mr. Blount to Holland, and were afterwards baptized by him and Mr. Samuel Blacklock, to the number of fifty-three." It is not known at what precise period this happened, but it is evident that these were not Mr. Spilsbury’s people. Edwards, in his Gangraena, speaking of this church, associates with Mr. Blount the names of Emmes and Wrighters, as its ministers, and calls it "one of the first and prime churches of Anabaptists now in these latter times."
Still it may be asked, AS Mr. Helwisse had formed a church in London prior to the year 1615, and had been baptized by Mr. Smyth, how was it that they did not receive baptism from him, or from his successors?
To this it is replied, that the church of which Mr. Helwisse was pastor, was of the General Baptist denomination, and was composed of Arminians, whereas the persons desiring baptism were probably Calvinists, between which denominations there never was much fellowship or religious intercourse, nor is there to the present day. Admitting then that there were ministers of this description, it is not probable that Calvinists would repair to them for an administrator of baptism. But as we are told that the greater number of Baptists, and the more judicious of them, considered all this to be needless trouble, it is highly probable that this account refers to a few people, rather than to the Baptists in general.
These observations are made for the purpose of explaining and reconciling matters of fact which have been generally misstated, and not as an apology for the conduct of our predecessors; since the Baptists of the present day unite with the greater part, and the more judicious of that time, in maintaining, that after a general corruption of baptism, an unbaptized person may warrantably baptize, and so begin a reformation.
During the period of which we have been treating, the church of England was under the government of Archbishop Laud. This prelate, who wanted nothing but the name to constitute him a pope, manifested the most implacable and bigoted spirit towards the dissenters, and all who ventured to expose the pride and oppression of the ruling clergy. The sufferings of Prynne, Burton, and Bastwick, in 1633, are proofs of this assertion. The Star-chamber and High commission exceeded not only all the bounds of law and equity, but even of humanity itself. Those gentlemen being suspected of employing their time in prison in writing against the hierarchy, were cited a second time before the Star-chamber. Though the charges against them then were not proved, and they were not permitted to speak in their defence, yet the following sentence was passed against them: "That Mr. Burton be deprived of his living, and degraded from his ministry (as Prynne and Bastwick had been from their professions of law and medicine;) that each of them be fined five thousand pounds; that they stand in the pillory at Westminster, and have their ears cut off;" and because Mr. Prynne had already lost his ears by sentence of the court, 1633, it was ordered that "the remainder of the stumps should be cut off, and that he should be stigmatized on both cheeks with the letters S.I.;" after which all three were to suffer confinement in the remotest prisons of the kingdom. This sentence was executed upon them June 30, 1637; the hangman father sawing off the remainder of Prynne’s ears then cutting them off. After this they were sent to the islands of Scilly, Guernsey, and Jersey, without pen, ink, or paper, or the access of friends: here they continued till released by the Long Parliament.
Mr. Lilburne, an eminent brewer in London, afterwards a colonel in the army, and the person to whom Mr. Kiffin was apprenticed, for refusing to take an oath to answer all interrogatories concerning his importing and publishing seditious libels, was fined five hundred pounds, and to be whipped through the streets from the Fleet to the pillory before Westminster =-hall gate, April 8, 1638. While he was in the pillory, he uttered many bold and passionate speeches against the tyranny of the bishops, on which the court of Star-chamber, then sitting, ordered him to be gagged, which was done accordingly; and when carried back to prison, it was ordered that he should be laid alone, with irons on his hands and legs, in the wards of the Fleet, where the basest of the prisoners were put, and that no person should be admitted to see him. Here he continued in a most forlorn and miserable condition till the meeting of the Long Parliament.
During this year many ministers were suspended and shut up in prison. Among these was a Mr. Brewer, a Baptist minister, who lay in prison fourteen years. [Neal, vol. ii. p. 329]
The approaches of Laud towards popery may be discovered from his superstitious conduct in consecrating the church of St. Catherine Cree, which had been lately repaired. On a sabbath morning, the bishop, attended by several of the High commission and some civilians, approaching to the west door of the church, which as shut, and guarded by haldberdeers, some who were appointed for that purpose cried with a loud voice, "Open, open, ye everlasting doors, that the king of glory may come in!" Presently the doors being opened, the bishop with some doctors and principal men entered. As soon as they were come within the place, his lordship fell down on his knees, and with eyes lifted up and his arms spread abroad, said, "This place is holy: the ground is holy! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I pronounce it holy!" Then walking up the middle aisle towards the chancel, he took up some of the dust and threw it in the air several times. When he approached near the vail of the communion table, he bowed towards it five or six times; and returning, went round the church with his attendants in procession, saying first the hundredth, and then the nineteenth psalm, as prescribed in the Roman pontifical. He then read several collects, in one of which he prayed God to accept of that beautiful building; and he concluded thus:--"We consecrate this church, and separate it unto thee as holy ground, not to be profaned any more to common use." In another he prayed, "that all who should hereafter be buried within the circuit of this holy and sacred place may rest in their sepulchers in peace, till Christ’s coming to judgment, and may then rise to eternal life and happiness." After this the bishop, sitting under a cloth of state in the aisle of the church near the communion table, took a written book in his hand, and pronounced curses upon those who should hereafter profane that holy place by musters of soldiers, or keeping profane law-courts, by carrying burdens through it; and at the end of every curse, he bowed to the east, and said, "Let all the people say amen!" When the curses were ended, which were about twenty, he pronounced a like number of blessings upon all that had any hand in framing and building that beautiful church, and on those who had given or should hereafter give any chalices, plate, ornaments, or other utensils; and at the end of every blessing he bowed to the east, and said, "Let all the people say amen!" After this followed the sermon, and then the sacrament, which the bishop consecrated and administered after the following manner.
As he approached the altar, he made five or six low bows; and coming to the side of it, where the bread and wine were covered, he bowed seven times. Then after reading many prayers, he came near the bread, and gently lifting up the corner of the napkin, beheld it; and immediately letting fall the napkin, he retreated hastily a step or two, and made three low obeisances. His lordship then advanced; and having uncovered the bread, bowed three times as before. Then he laid his hand on the cup which was full of wine, with a cover upon it, which having let go, he stepped back, and bowed three times towards it: he then came near again, and lifting up the cover of the cup, looked into it; and seeing the wine, he let fall the cover again, retired back, and bowed as before. Then the elements were consecrated; and the bishop having first received, gave it to some principal men in their surplices, hoods, and tippets: after this, many prayers being said, the solemnity of he consecration ended.
The pride of the clergy at this time grew to such a pitch, that in the year 1636, a member of the House of Commons said, that "the clergy were so exalted, that a gentleman might not come near the tail of their mules; and that one of them had declared openly, that he hoped to see the day when a clergyman should be as good a man as any upstart jack gentleman in the kingdom."
The church had now reached the summit of its height and splendour, and was determined on crushing all who dissented from the establishment. In the convocation, which was held in 1640, with more pomp than the troublesome situation of the times justified, seventeen canons were published June 30, which treated upon by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, presidents of the convocation for their respective provinces, and the rest of the bishops and clergy of those provinced, and agreed upon by the King’s majesty’s licence, in their several synods begun at London and York, 1640."
Under the pretext of discouraging popery, but evidently with the design of crushing the dissenters, it was enacted, that "all ecclesiastical persons within their several parishes and jurisdictions shall confer privately with popish recusants; but if private conference prevail not, the church must and shall come to her censures; and to make way for them, such persons shall be presented at the next visitation who come not to church, and refuse to receive the holy eucharist, or who either hear or say mass; and if they remain obstinate after citation, they shall be excommunicated. But if neither conference nor censures prevail, the church shall then complain of them to the civil power, and this sacred synod does earnestly intreat the reverend justices of assize to be careful in executing the laws as they will answer it to God.
"The synod further declares, that the canon abovementioned against papists shall be in full force against all Anabaptists, Brownists, Separatists, and other sectaries, as far as they are applicable." [Neal, vol. ii. p. 348,349]
From this sketch of the history of this period, we may form a tolerable idea of the difficulties which attended the meetings of the Dissenters. It certainly shows also the zeal of those excellent men who were willing to risk all the horrors of excommunication, rather than meet to worship God in a way which they considered agreeable to his holy word. There is no doubt but many of the Baptists suffered persecution at this time. We have an account of one who was a celebrated preacher amongst them, who was excommunicated for refusing to attend the parish churches, and who doubtless remained obstinate, as this canon denominates those who were honest enough to resist its decrees. This was Samuel Howe, otherwise called Cobbler Howe, who, dying while he was under the sentence of excommunication, was refused Christian burial. The history of this excellent man will be more fully related in the next chapter, which will record great alterations both in church and state. Nor will this appear surprising when the superstition, bigotry, cruelty, and tyranny of the ruling parties are considered. Oppression, which Solomon says makes a wise man mad, drove the people into rebellion, and produced all its natural and terrible consequences.
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