committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

I

THE ENGLAND OF THE
SEPARATISTS

 

THE England of the sixteenth century cannot be explained apart from the translation of the Scriptures into the tongue of the common people. Through long generations the Word of God had been hidden away in dusty libraries, and in the tongue of the learned. Its simple message had been obscured by notes and explanations of churchmen and schoolmen. The immense majority of the clergy themselves knew but little of the Bible. The great discovery, therefore, of the age was not the New World, but a book in which even the common man might see, as in a mirror, the primitive doctrine, sacraments, and ministry, and compare the astonishing and dazzling vision with what these had come to be. Wyclif, “the morning star” of the English Reformation, in 1380, gave a version in a tongue which, for freedom, vigour, and richness, we can only liken to that of his great contemporary, Chaucer. Revised by his disciple, Purvey, in 1388, it was circulated in fragmentary manuscripts and became the fountainhead of Lollardry. It was passed from hand to hand, read by the “vulgar and by women,” until it was complained that they knew more of the Bible than did the priests themselves. Forbidden and suppressed, it is deeply interesting to note that most of the few remaining copies have been traced to the very districts where the first Separatist Churches arose. As with a magic wand, it called Lollardry into being, and though the new faith was stamped out in fire and blood, and though the desolating Wars of the Roses turned men’s thoughts in other. directions for a hundred years, yet it was so fruitful and so lit with the sunrise of an age to come that it has been truly said, “Out of the floating mass of opinion which bore the name of Lollardry, one great faith gradually evolved itself; a faith in the sole authority of the Bible as a source of religious truth.”

It was in the sixteenth century, however, that the English became a people of one Book. Erasmus, the friend of kings and scholars, issued his Greek version of the New Testament in 1516. The printing-press scattered it far and wide. Its influence was extraordinary. For the first time since the early centuries, men saw Christ, “speaking, healing, dying, rising again, as it were,” in their very presence. In France, in the German States, in Holland, and in our English realm, men searched the Scriptures in vain for the subtleties and superstitions of Rome, but as they followed the footprints of Christ through Galilee and Judea, they found how simple was His Gospel and how complete His sacrifice. They failed to recognise in ignorant priests and tyrannical prelates successors of the apostles whose words were recorded in the Acts and the Epistles. “In what point,” demanded Banner of the yeoman, Robert Smith, who was burnt at Uxbridge in Mary’s reign, “do us differ from the word of God?” The reply was swift and definite, “In hallowing water; in conjuring of the scenes; in baptizing children with anointing and spitting in their mouths, mingled with salt; and many other lewd ceremonies, of which not one point is able to be proved by God’s order.” “By my troth,” said Sir John Mordant, “I never heard the like in all my life. He disalloweth therein holy ointment, salt, and other laudable ceremonies, which no Christian man will deny.” The translation of the Bible carried with it immeasurable changes and the birth of the modern world. Tindale issued his version of the New Testament in 1525. Miles Coverdale gave the English Bible in 1535. The Great English Bible was authorised in 1539. The Bible was placed in every church. It was read aloud in countless homes. It did its own work. Separatism was a part of the inevitable outcome.. If it were possible today to extinguish Separatism with its doctrines and adherents, and the open Bible were yet retained, there would be Baptists and Congregationalists to-morrow.

In this period we enter into a world swayed by theological opinions, passions, and conflicts. The issue in a later generation came to be that of political freedom, but now it was more vital and divine than a question of taxation or the authority of Parliament. The nation became the arena of warring creeds and Churches. It was stirred to its depths by a theological pamphlet. The seething ferment and the endless strife of parties in Church and State, in the palace, at St. Paul’s Cross, among clerics and statesmen, soldiers, traders, and peasants, raged round the royal supremacy, the mass and ecclesiastical vestments. A fresh set of names began to appear in our English history, Papist, Conformist, Non-Conformist, Puritan, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, and Brownist, all with a religious significance, and the story of the time is bound up with them. it is not to be supposed that men were more intent then upon the unseen and the eternal; but life itself, security, conduct, property, wars, and foreign alliances turned on the mysteries of religion and the articles of a creed.

The problem of government for Henry VIII. and his immediate successors was, how to preserve peace in an England containing a Catholic majority, under rulers who rejected the Papal authority. It arose in the instance through one of the accidents of history, and was bound up with the bluff and strong-willed King’s matrimonial affairs, it is not for us to discuss whether the same issue would have arisen if there had been no Catherine of Arragon. It is enough to record that the Defender of the Faith against Luther, the man who hated Protestantism and held every article of the Catholic Creed, who made burning the penalty for the denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, liberated England from the power of Rome, and began the movement which, with swift strides, passed into the Reformation. Henry dissolved the monastic orders, set the Bible free to do its own work, degraded the Church to a department of the State, and demanded from bishops and clergy the acknowledgment of himself as “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” But it was not to be expected that the convictions and sympathies of the people would veer round with equal suddenness and rapidity. Though London was strongly Protestant, and though the reforming zeal burnt more fiercely than ever in the reign of Edward VI., yet the country at large received Mary with enthusiasm and joy. Both Houses of Parliament united in the return to Roman obedience and received the Papal absolution upon their knees. They were not very conscious that they were changing their opinions, and faith. But soon they learnt what submission to Rome meant; the storm of persecution broke; the country beheld the horrifying spectacle of the Primate of all England being burnt at the stake; for the space of three and a half years it lay under a veritable nightmare of un-English cruelty, burnings, appalling agonies, merciless and insane bigotry, and the lesson could not be forgotten. Far into Elizabeth’s reign, however, in the diocese of York, the people kept Romish fasts and festivals and held fast by Romish superstitions. Elizabeth, on the other hand, by the accident of her birth, was bound to resist Rome. If the word of the Pope was law, then she was illegitimate. But she knew her people. She knew that the majority were Catholic. It was true, as the Spanish ambassador said, that while London and the seaports nearest Holland were heretical, yet the Catholic party was in a majority. “I will do as my father did,” she said. She had no scruples, no real religious” convictions. She wanted a via media. This was her sole and only faith, one land, one creed, one ritual, one Church, and one absolute power on the throne.

To the average Englishman of the Elizabethan. period there must have seemed much to justify such a policy. The threatening cloud on the horizon was always the Spanish invasion. Spain was the proudest and greatest empire in the world. Its armies and fleets and argosies, its colonies in the distant West, which the imagination pictured glittering with gold and precious stones, its Inquisition and implacable cruelties, its sieges, sacks, and murderous vengeance in the Low Countries, were the wonder and terror of the time. A Spanish king had been crowned King of England, at Westminster. Fresh from the auto-da-fe of Granada and Seville, he had looked with cold surprise upon the hubbub which a few English martyrdoms had set up. No Englishman could be sure that he would not wake up one day to find the Spanish galleons in the Thames, and the faggots burning again at Smithfield. It was England against Spain all over the world, and anything which seemed to divide the nation was treason and disloyalty. Therefore, whether recusant, or Puritan, or Separatist, all alike felt ere long the pressure of the iron will and the strong hand of the Tudor Queen.

The year 1559 is one to be marked in English history. The first Parliament of Queen Elizabeth passed an Act of Uniformity, one of that dire and miserable succession which put temporal gain in the place of conscience. It introduced a cleavage into our national religious life, which widened until the breach became irreparable. It prescribed the use of the second Prayer Book of Edward VI., “no other or otherwise,” the penalty of disobedience by the clergy being deprivation and imprisonment. Intended at first against the Papist, the penal laws of Elizabeth were easily applied to the Non-Conformist and Separatist. It is significant in the story of the Separatist that penalties were now imposed for non-attendance at church. Power was given to ecclesiastical commissioners to ordain as to vestments and ceremonies. Later on, in 1562, the first Test Act was passed, which required the oath of allegiance to the Queen, and the disavowal of the Pope from all who held secular office as members of Parliament, magistrates, or otherwise in the State. After the Papal Bull of deposition against Elizabeth was launched in 1570 by Pius V., releasing her subjects from their civil obedience, the range of the statute against high treason was greatly enlarged so as to press more heavily on Romanists. In May, 1571, the Thirty-Nine Articles took their present form, and subscription to them was exacted as a wicketgate to all civil authority. Thus, at one stroke of the pen, all power in the State, all emolument and preferment were rigidly confined to the members of the Church of England.

As we have seen, these laws and penalties were originally directed against Papists, but they must all be looked upon as part of the policy of a queen in whom there was no bigotry, and very little religious conviction, to secure and maintain one people, one Church, and one faith. But another party was rising in the State. Other foreign influences were at work besides those of Rome and Spain; The flight of the Marian exiles to the Continent and their intercourse with the Protestant Reformers were destined to bear fruit in the most surprising way. Some of them came back pledged .to the Reformed doctrine and practice. They were under the spell of the genius of Calvin. They corresponded with the reforming leaders of Fran kfort, Zurich, and Geneva. When controversies arose between themselves and Parker or Whitgift, they sought the advice of Gualto, Bullinger, or Calvin. It is vital to note that the Puritans were within the Church Of England. Many of them not only accepted episcopacy but believed in it. The quarrel was not yet as to doctrine, it was purely a question of music and vestments, of the difference between a surplice and the black Genevan gown, of ceremonies which were a “cloaked papistry or a mingle-mangle.” Their claim was not for uniformity, but for the toleration of such simpler usages and dress as seemed good to the party of the exile. But Archbishop Parker slowly and steadily forced upon the English Church one ritual and dress, and gave as his ultimatum, the surplice, kneeling at the communion, and the wafer-bread. The Non-Conformists wavered and then yielded, but the battle was only begun. It was inevitable that it should quickly become a question affecting the orders, discipline, and doctrine of the State Church. The returned exiles, with the pattern of Geneva before them, were not willing to regard episcopal ordination as essential to the Christian ministry. Every fresh act of prelatic aggression, each attempt to enforce uniformity and subscription, drove tMm into closer alliance with the Presbyterians. To conform became more and more difficult. New leaders arose among the Puritans. Under Cartwright a system was attempted within the Establishment itself, which, if successful, would have been the farewell to the entire hierarchy. It was advocated with a bitterness and bigotry which were not surpassed by Rome. The six propositions which were sent from Cambridge to the Chancellor, said to have been drawn up by Cartwright himself, did not touch questions of ritual or vestment, but only the constitution and ministry of the Church. A number of the Puritan leaders instituted the Presbyterian “Orders of Wandsworth,” and extended the Presbyterian organisation in the very heart of the English Church. The answer of Whitgift was the reappointment of the ecclesiastical commission for the discipline of the Puritans. All the engines which had been devised against Romanists were now directed against the other wing also in their attack upon national unity. The struggle was well begun, and its issue was the great rebellion and the secession of 1662.

It seems strange to us that the Puritans should have been so resolved to remain in the Church of England. Would it not have been both braver and wiser for the Non-Conformists to have quitted an organ isation with which they were in growing antagonism? But we must remember that separation from a historic and visible Church was not a familiar shape. Every wise man will try if possible to reform an institution from the inside. Only the weak and violent withdraw from a great cause or society, except as a last resort. Even the Continental reformers, so long as the conflict raged round garments, advised the Puritan leaders to conform rather than suffer deprivation. Moreover, there must have been the lingering hope in their minds that in the final issue their cause would triumph. Each crisis in the Church had coincided with the accession of a new monarch or archbishop. A single generation had witnessed the sudden break with Rome; it had seen an archbishop, who had burnt a Protestant martyr, himself perish at the stake for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation ; the reforming zeal of Edward VI. had been followed by the Marian recantation and submission; even if Parker and Whitgift had sought to crush it, Grrndal had smiled upon Puritan usage.  The question was, what would be its final gape when the English Church issued from the fires, and Non-Conformists, as they began to be called, may be pardoned for having cherished the hope that they would play a more effective part in the struggle by remaining within than by leaving the Church of the realm.

There were some, however, who did not take this view of the situation and of their duty. There began to be an increasing party in the State of those who carried their Non-Conformity far beyond the Prayer Book, semi-Romish garments, or episcopacy. They rejected the Genevan gown. They looked with intense distrust upon the Reformists. Some of them denied the right of the civil power of kings and magistrates to meddle with faith and conscience, or to impose any articles or forms of worship upon the Church. They taught the doctrine of a separate and regenerate Church, in contradistinction to the mixed parish assemblies of the Establishment. It was a portentous spectacle when Henry VIII. introduced the right of private judgment, as against the colossal power of Rome, and you cannot stop a great reform just when you have had enough of it. Men’s thoughts had been prisoned and chained for centuries, but they began now to expand in a new universe. The Separatists, the Baptists, the Brownists, the Barrowists, as they were called in contempt, saw plainly that the true Church could not be coincident with the whole baptized population. Despised and proscribed by all, expressly excluded from every act of toleration, they were yet the children of freedom and light. To account for them fully, we must deal briefly with certain communities and individuals who were precursors and heralds, whose work was rudimentary or suggestive, but who cannot accurately be termed Baptists or Congregationalists.

It is entirely unhistorical and misleading to confuse the English Baptists with the Anabaptists. That there was an indebtedness no one can deny, but they were marked off from each other by differences of origin, doctrine, social and political ideals. One point of likeness, the rejection of infant baptism, has blotted out, for many historical writers, the whole field of difference. “It is not fair,” says Bishop Creighton, “to associate the English Baptists with the fanatical sects that infested Germany in the early part of the sixteenth century.” The first appearance of sects in England is in 1535, when ten Dutchmen, “who were counted for Anabaptists,"  were burnt in London. There were many, however, who came over among the refugees as the tide of emigration set strongly away from the Low Countries to the English shores. They were very numerous in Kent, London, and East Anglia. They certainly formed Churches at Canterbury, Eythorne, Faversham, and elsewhere. Some ‘English names occur, but, to quote Williston Walker, “they made few direct disciples during the sixteenth century on English soil.” One of the most famous of them, Robert Cooke, has been largely ignored because he dealt less with baptism than with  predestination, but he was a man of note in his day, holding office under Catherine Parr, and a courtier as late as 1753. Knox replied to him in his Confutation of tke Careless by Necessitie. His teaching anticipated the views of John Smyth fifty years later. The words Anabaptist and Baptist have been flung about in the loosest way, and the evidence must always be examined. Thus, Anne Askew has been called a Baptist, though she was simply a Protestant who was condemned for denying transubstantiation; and Robert Smith, the yeoman of the guard, though he accepted the baptism of infants if separated from Romish ceremonies (Foxe’s Acts, 1583 Ed.); and Joan Boucher, or Joan of Kent, though she was an Anabaptist who was burnt for denying that Christ took flesh of the Virgin Mary; and the Church at Bocking has been called the first Baptist Church in England simply because Strype says that a number of persons there, “a sort of Anabaptists,” met to talk about the Bible. The term “ Baptist Pioneers” is used in this book to denote the English Separatists, Congregationalist in Church polity and anti-p?obaptist in practice, who gave rise to indigenous Churches in this country, and with whom the English Baptists of to-day are in historical, theological, and spiritual succession. The term Anabaptist should be reserved for that semi-social and semi-religious movement which took its rise in Switzerland out of the death-throes of the Peasants’ War, spread rapidly over Germany and the Netherlands, became sporadic in England, and which has been described as the “Revolt of the Common Man.” Socially, it ran to grave excesses at the outset in its rejection of civil authority and order. Religiously, one distinctive mark of the Anabaptist is always the denial that Christ took flesk of the Virgin Mary. Its views, in tbiu respect, have never been adoptedf Baptists. After the great congress at Buckholt, in Westphalia, In 1536, the learned and pious Frisian priest, Merino Simons, rescued from the wreck of Anabaptism its sane and healthy elements, and originated the Mennonite Church, with which the first English Baptist Churches at the beginning of the seventeenth century were in oommunion. The truth is that, while the Anabaptists in EngLand raised the question of baptism, they were almost entirely a foreign importation, an alien element; and the rise of the Baptist Churches was wholly independent of them.

Again, it must be borne in mind that there was Separatism prior to, and distinct from, Congregationalism. First of all, there was the Separatism of Queen Mary’s reign, which was simply Protestant, and amounted to no more than a refusal to go to mass, and an attempt to continue the use of the second Prayer Book of Edward VI. We are indebted to Foxe’s Acts and Monuments for the story of one such congregation in London. The names of its five ministers are given, of whom the first became Bishop of Peterborough, and the last Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. John Rough was one of the five, and Cuthbert Sympson was a deacon; both were burnt alive, the torture of the rack having failed to extract from the deacon the list of the members. Rough was a Scotch friar, and a friend of Knox, who became an English clergyman, having been beneficed at Hull by the Lord Protector Somerset. He fled to Friesland on the accession of Mary, but incautiously returned and joined the London Separatists. The Church dissolved when Mary died, for the system it desired was re-established It is quite inexcusable even to suggest that it was a Congregational Church. “That which they add,” says Robinson in his Justification of Separation, of sundry secret congregations in Queen Mary’s days in many parts of tile land is but a boast. There were very few of them in any. . . There was not one congregation in Queen Mary’s days that remained in queen Elizabeth’s. The congregations were dissolved, and the persons in them bestowed themseIves in their several parishes, where their livings and estates lay.”

A more serious claim, though a mistaken one, has been made to discover the origin of Congregationalism in the Separatism of the early years of Queen Elizabeth. Thus, Dr. Stoughton says, “A Congregational Church existed in London s early as 1368.” Such a statement takes a great deal for granted. The reference is to the Church of which ritz was a minister, and Bolton a deacon, which met, under the guise of a wedding, at the Plumbers’ Hall, Cannon Street, and was broken up in June, 1567. It consisted of some persons who were dissatisfled with the “leavings of popery” contained ih the Prayer Book, and who, disliking the religious settlement which Elizabeth had made, took the extreme step of Separatism. In the Three Articles of their Confession, they demanded the preaching of the Word, pure sacraments, and a scriptural discipline; probably they meant the Genevan discipline. At any rate, they used a Prayer Book which had been arranged in Geneva, and examined and approved by Calvin himself. Under examination before the patient and gentle Grindal, they objected to the hierarchy and to certain forms of worship. Dr. Dexter justly argues that there is no “evidence that they had elaborated for themselves any system whatsoever.” All Puritanism was naturally on the verge of Separatism, but these Separatists were not propagandists; they published nothing, they elaborated no system of Church polity, and, at once,.they disappeared from history.

If we are to understand by the founder of modern Congregationalism one who formulated its principles, expounded its polity, and established, by mutual and solemn covenant, a particular Church of the Congregational order, which was succeeded by others organised on the same lines, then we must look elsewhere than to these anticipations of an approaching dawn.

 
 
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