Baptists in England
Cromwell and the Stuarts
"We are cheered by the rays from former generations, and live in the sunny reflection of all their light."
Monuments rise all along the stream of time, whose summits, like the fabled statue, kindled beneath the light, give out cheering music, and over the deep sorrows of humanity throw a halo of hope and joy. We can thus look up the dark current in its ever onward, desolating sweep, bearing on its flood the wreck of nations and systems; can behold the rocky towers where our fathers have stood, and the deep indented footprints crimsoned with their blood; and can hear above the deep silence the sublime echo of their voices. We are their children. They link us to the past. Their histories, like the tombstones of our parents, speak lovingly to us from their graves.
Such a monument, a link in our common brotherhood, was Hanserd Knollys, a Baptist preacher, who was imprisoned in New England by virtue of a warrant from the Court of Commission, a Protestant inquisition, which followed him with its persecutions till the day of his death. Around him were numerous Baptists. Such men as Clarke and Holmes battled and suffered by his side. They had fled in search of freedom to this New World, but their tracks were followed, and their first church-meeting, near boston, broken up, and they were hauled to prison by the agents of the law. Eighteen years after the landing of the Mayflower, when every man in the colony was English born, and before Roger Williams was baptized, a Church of Baptists was formed in America. Where did they come from?
Let us trace the connecting link across the Atlantic, from New England to Old England.
Hanserd Knollys was born in Lincoln, England, 1598. He graduated with honour at Cambridge University. Having joined the Baptists, he became the object of Episcopal hate. He passed over to New England, where persecutions still followed him. When the news reached him of the revolution which brought Charles I. to the block, in 1648, he returned to England. Says Crosby:
"A few years after his return from America, we find Mr. Knollys discharging his public ministry to a congregation of his own gathering, in Great St. Helen's, London, where the people flocked in crowds to hear him, and he had generally a thousand auditors. This roused the jealousy of the Presbyterians, and the landlord was prevailed on to refuse them the use of the place any longer.
"The life of this good man was one continued scene of vexation and trouble. Soon after the Restoration, in 1660, Mr. Knollys, with many other innocent persons, was dragged from his own dwelling-house, and committed to Newgate, where he was kept in close custody for eighteen weeks, until delivered by an Act of grace upon the king's coronation. At that time, four hundred persons were confined in the same prison for refusing to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. A royal proclamation, occasioned by the rebellion of a person of the name of Venner, was issued at this time, prohibiting Anabaptists and other sectaries from worshipping God in public, except at their parish church. This cruel edict was the signal for persecution, and the forerunner of those sanguinary laws which disgraced the reigns of the Stuarts; and to these things we must attribute the frequent removals of Mr. Knollys, mentioned in a former part of this memoir. During his absence in Holland and Germany, his property was confiscated to the Crown; and, when the law did not favour the monarch's pretensions, a party of soldiers were dispatched to take forcible possession of Mr. Knollys's premises, which had cost him upward of £700."
The old man died in poverty at the age of ninety-three after spending at different times nine years of imprisonment, besides fines and banishments. In a brief review of his life, as immortality was about to break in upon him, he wrote:
"I confess that many of the Lord's ministers have excelled me, with whom he has not taken so much pains as he hath with me. I am an unprofitable servant; but, 'by the grace of God, I am what I am.'"
The brief visit of Hanserd Knollys to America, and his return to England, together with sacrifices and suffering - amid which he stood like a tower, unawed and unbowed beneath the thunder-storm, give to his character peculiar interest. But, beyond this, the age in which he lived will ever be memorable to Baptists. It was the age of Tombs, of Collier, of Kiffin, and of Bunyan, a day of trial and triumph. Let us listen to the historian, Macaulay, speaking of these men:
"Bunyan had been bred a tinker, and had served as a private soldier in the parliamentary army. Early in his life he had been fearfully tortured by remorse for his youthful sins, the worst of which seem, however, to have been such as the world thinks venial. from the depths of despair, the penitent passed to a state of serene felicity. An irresistible impulse now urged him to impart to others the blessings of which he was himself possessed. He joined the Baptists, and became a preacher and writer. His education had been that of mechanic. He knew no language but the English, as it was spoken by the common people. Yet his rude oratory roused and melted hearers, who listened without interest to the laboured discourses of great logicians and Hebraists. His works were widely circulated among the humbler classes. One of them, the Pilgrim's Progress, in his own lifetime, was translated into several languages.
"It may be doubted whether any English Dissenter had suffered more severely under the penal laws than John Bunyan. Of the twenty-seven years which had elapsed since the Restoration, he had passed twelve in confinement. He still persisted in preaching; but, that he might preach, he was under the necessity of disguising himself like a carter. He was often introduced into meetings through back doors, with a smock frock on his back, and a whip in his hand. If he had thought only of his own ease and safety, he would have hailed the indulgence with delight. He was now, at length, free to pray and exhort in open day. His congregation rapidly increased; thousands hung upon his words; and at Bedford, where he ordinarily resided, money was plentifully contributed to build a meeting-house for him. His influence among the common people was such that the government would willingly have bestowed on him some municipal office; but his vigorous understanding and his stout English heart were proof against all delusion and all temptation. He felt assured that the proffered toleration was merely a bait intended to lure the Puritan party to destruction; nor would he, by accepting a place for which he was not legally qualified, recognize the validity of the dispensing power. One of the last acts of his virtuous life was to decline an interview to which he was invited by an agent of the government." (The Continuation of Bunyan's Life, appended to his "Grace Abounding.")
"Great as was the authority of Bunyan with the Baptists, that of William Kiffin was still greater. Kiffin was the first man among them in wealth and station. He was in the habit of exercising his spiritual gifts at their meetings; but he did not live by preaching. He traded largely; his credit on the Exchange of London stood high; and he had accumulated an ample fortune. Perhaps no man could, at that juncture, have rendered more valuable services to the court. But between him and the court was interposed the remembrance of one terrible event. He was the grandfather of the two Hewlings, those gallant youths who, of all the victims of the bloody Assizes, had been the most generally lamented. For the sad fate of one of them, James was in a peculiar manner responsible. Jeffreys had respited the younger brother. The poor lad's sister had been ushered by Churchill into the royal presence, and had begged for mercy; but the king's heart had been obdurate. The misery of the whole family had been great; but Kiffin was most to be pitied. He was seventy years old when he was left desolate, the survivor of those who should have survived him. The heartless and venal sycophants of Whitehall, judging by themselves, thought that the old man would be easily propitiated by an alderman's gown, an by some compensation in money for the property which his grandson had forfeited." (Macaulay's History, vol. 2 p. 175).
Of Thomas Collier, a passing word is all that can be given. He preached at Guernsey, where he had many converts; but his cruel persecutors would not allow him to enjoy peace. They banished him and many of his followers from the place, and cast him into prison at Portsmouth; but how long he remained in confinement we are not informed. On account of his incessant labours and extensive usefulness, he is represented by his adversaries as having done much hurt in Lymington, Hampton, Waltham, and all along the west country. "This Collier," ways Edwards, one of his Pedobaptist contemporaries, "is a great sectary in the west of England, a mechanical fellow, and a great emissary, and a dipper, who goes about Surrey, Hampshire, and those countries, preaching and dipping." (Sketches of Early Baptists).
But time would fail to speak of Bamfield, of Denne, and of Tombs, the antagonist of Baxter, of Jessey, also, and of Goswold, whose congregation in London, even at that day, was three thousand, and whose pulpit powers no man in England surpassed.
This was in 1660. There were then, even in the midst of all this persecution, two hundred and seventeen (217) Baptist churches in England; and a fearless avowal of their convictions, long afterward known as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, was published and circulated, among whose signers were Kiffin, and Tombs, and Knollys.
It was a dark, and yet a glorious day, for the Baptist denomination; for the blackest clouds send forth the brightest lightnings. Charles I. was dethroned in 1648, and royalty, nobility, episcopacy, and the whole tribe of dead formalities were swept like rotting leaves from the realm. But the Stuarts had returned, and with sin a treason in their train, marched with garments rolled in blood and crime over the rights of a prostrate people. Episcopacy, ever the deadly foe of Christianity and soul-freedom, was again enthroned and clad in scarlet. It plied at once its engines of oppression and cruelty. But there were those whom the power of the Bishops could neither bend nor crush. Above their thunder rose, with fearless front, the forms of Bunyan, of Kiffin, of thousands more, whose names are found only in heaven's martyr-roll; Baptists, whose fidelity to their principles was, like those principles themselves - DEATHLESS.
From 1649 to 1659 was a kind of twilight hour of hope; and most valiantly did the Baptists press upon the attention of the world their principles of soul-freedom. These principles, previously sheltered in obscurity, became the property of the people. The parliamentary army, whose splendid victories won freedom for England, and struck terror to the tyrants of Europe, was composed, to a great extent, of Baptists. An army, not of hireling fighters, but of true men, battling for freedom. Says Carlyle:
"In dark, inextricable difficulties, Cromwell's officers used to assemble and pray alternatively for hours, for days, till some definite resolution arose among them. Consider that - in tears, in fervent prayers, and cries to the great God to have pity on them, to make His light shine before them. A little band of Christian brothers, who had drawn the sword against a black, devouring world, they cried to God in their straits, in their extreme need, not to forsake the cause that was His. The light that now rose upon them, how could a human soul by any means get better light? To them it was as the shining of heaven's own splendour into the vast howling darkness."
Never before had the world seen such an army, whose "officers preached," and whose privates were constantly "busy in searching the Scriptures."
Major General Harrison, one of the most distinguished leaders, was a Baptist. To the cause of freedom his life had been given; and his death on the scaffold, on the return of Charles II., was that of a pious Christian hero. Ludlow, Tilburn, and Overton, the friend of Milton, and Col. Mason, the governor of the Isle of Jersey, were Baptists. And such was their increase and influence, that Baxter, the Presbyterian, complained that many of the soldiers became Baptists as a means of promotion. He laments, that "those who at first were but a few in the city and army, had, within three years, grown into a multitude." To them he traces the invasion of Scotland, the downfall of monarchy, and the establishment of a Republic. (Baxter's Works, xx. p. 255). In Cromwell's own family their influence was felt; and the genius of Milton shunned not to avow these sentiments. No wonder that Bunyan, who once served in the army against the king; not wonder that Baptists, generally, were the victims of hate and cruelty, from kings, bishops, and presbyters. They were, as their antagonist, Hawks, has said, "Republicans from principle." In the destruction of the throne of Charles, they were the principal actors. During that brief hour of freedom, they multiplied by thousands. But we must pass a little farther up the stream. To our inquiry - Where did the Baptist come from?
The confession or declaration of principles, to which reference has been made, was published during the reign of Charles I., in 1643. Thirty-two years previous, when the burning rage of Episcopal persecution was at its height, a similar avowal of their faith, a bold confession of their immortal principles, was published to the world. (Rippon's Register, No. 8). A reference to these Confessions of Faith often curls the lip of ignorance into a heartless sneer. But let the eye glance a moment on the situation of those who signed a sent forth these confessions; let their sorrows, their foes, the dangers menacing them, be seen, - and the man who does not honour the real heroism displayed in the fearless, outspoken avowal of their principles, is one destitute of the noble instincts of humanity.
A sublime scene was that, when, in the old hall in Philadelphia, with the roar of the British lion in their ears, feeble, and unorganized, and an ignominious death the certain consequence of defeat, man after man moved calmly forward and placed his name to that immortal document, the Declaration of Independence. Is there any comparison? Let us see.
THE BAPTISTS OF ENGLAND WERE POOR. Into their situation we can have an insight by an extract from a tract, put forth by one of them in 1613. A tract which, if we will reflect a moment, we will acknowledge to be a deep tone of sorrow, wrung from crushed, yet trusting, fearless hearts. The extract is from a little work published by Leonard Busher, citizen of London, entitled "A Plea for Liberty of Conscience, presented to King James." Busher, toward the close of his treatise, says:
"Another reason why so many good people are now deceived, is, because w that have most truth are persecuted, and therefore most poor; whereby we are unable to write and print, as we would, against the adversaries of truth. It is hard to get our daily bread with our weak bodies and feeble hands. How, then, should we have means to defray other charges, and to write and print? I have, through the help of God, out of his Word, made a scourage of small cords, whereby antichrist and his ministers might be driven out of the temple of God. Also a declaration of certain false translations in the New Testament. But I want wherewith to print and publish them. Therefore must they rest till the Lord seeth good to supply it."
Ah, poor Busher! And yet dare he and the Baptist of his day, three years after King James' version was sent forth, attempt to show up the false translations of our present version. Then, alas, they were too poor to print the corrections which truth required. But they did not and do not despair.
When Busher thus lifted his voice, the ashes of Edward Wightman were still being borne about by the winds; for, he was burned at the stake at Litchfield for being Baptist just three years before. He was charged with affirming "that the baptizing of infants is an abominable custom; that the Lord's Supper and baptism are not to be celebrated as they now are in the Church of England; and that Christianity is not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England, but only in part." For these, Episcopacy doomed him to death. It was the year 1612, April 11, that Wightman was sent to the stake; one year after James' version was given to the world. And that almost canonized head of the Episcopal church thus, in the name of Christ, authorized poor Wightman's death.
"Whereas, the reverend father in Christ, Richard by Divine providence, of Coventry and Litchfield, bishop, hath signified unto us, that he, judicially proceeding, according to the exigence of the ecclesiastical canons, and of the laws and customs of this our kingdom of England, against one Edward Wightman, of the parish of Burton-upon-Trent, in the diocese of Coventry and Litchfield, and upon the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manus, Manichees, Photinus, and of the ANABAPTISTS.
"We command thee, that thou cause the said Edward Wightman, being in thy custody, to be committed to the fire in some public and open place, below the city aforesaid, for the cause aforesaid, before the people; and the same Edward Wightman, in the same fire, cause really to be burned, in the detestation of the said crime; and for manifest example of other Christians, that they may not fall into the same crime. And this no ways omit, under the peril that shall follow thereon. ("Witnesses, etc., James, Rex.")
And the Episcopal historian, Dr. Fuller, a contemporary with these events, says: "God may seem well pleased with these seasonable severities."
It was in the midst of such circumstances as these: poor, calumniated, fined, banished, burned at the stake, that Baptists had the courage to make public confession of the truths they held, and for which they were ready to die. Fearlessly, without equivocation or compromise in the face of danger and death, they penned, they signed, they published, and circulated what they professed and confessed. Let heartless, faithless scoffers scoff at it and such as them. Their privilege to scoff was won by the blood of these men.
But we must take a few more hurried steps along the upward pathway. "In 1589, Dr. Some, an Episcopal writer of that day, "there were several Anabaptist conventicles in London and other places." This was in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, as the fires of Smithfield, which lit up the bloody reign of her sister Mary were dying out; and yet their slumbering flames were fed with the bodies of inoffensive Baptists, whose dooms were sealed by "the most Protestant virgin Queen."
A congregation of Baptists was discovered on Easter day without Aldergate, London, in 1570, seven and twenty of whom were taken and imprisoned, where they wasted and died in filthy dungeons. And during the same year John Wielmaker and Henry Torwoort were burned at Smithfield. (Hume, Crosby, Cobbett).
Passing by the years of Mary's reign, which were marked by the indiscriminate murders of Protestants, we may pause over the illustrious years of the young and pious Edward VI., in which the foundation of Episcopacy was laid; when kingcraft and priestcraft united to force upon Protestants a creed and a ritual still venerated and followed in America by the offshoots of that Antichristian hierarchy, Protestant Episcopacy and Methodist Episcopacy.
Cranmer, the father of English Episcopacy, ruled young Edward and England. "There were, at this time," says Fox, in his
Book of Martyrs, "numerous Anabaptists in England, who, with other errors, objected to infant baptism and to the manner of it, by sprinkling, instead of dipping. Among them was one George Van Parre. He had led a very exemplary life, and suffered with great composure of mind." He was burned to death. A Protestant inquisition was established in 1549, with Cranmer at its head, and hundreds of Baptists were the victims of its cruelty. Among these, an illustrious and heroic example will ever awaken the sympathies of mankind.
Joan Boucher, of Kent, was a female of illustrious character and family distinction. Her education was far beyond that of the most eminent of her country-women of her age. The commission was granted to the bishops to search out and apprehend the heretical Baptists. Joan was selected as an illustrious victim. She was tried before these Protestant bishops and condemned. The venerable archbishop who framed many of the prayers still read in the Episcopal and Methodist Churches brought the warrant to the youthful Edward to sign. He doubted, even declined. The bishop plied him with arguments and arts. The king still thought it was an instance of the same spirit of cruelty for which the Reformers condemned the Papists. But Papist and Protestant Episcopacies, through their ramifications, are one in origin, form, and tyranny. Edward was silenced, not convinced. With tears in his eyes, he signed the death warrant.
A year, within three days, transpired between her condemnation and death. Every effort was made to pervert her from the truth. At length, on the 2nd of May, 1550, she was bound to a stake in Smithfield, and died in fearless triumph. Her persecutors tried to sully her memory by attributing opinions to her which she never held. She was a Baptist; a member of the Baptist Church then existing at Canterbury, and which exists to this hour. Her memory is deathless, and the crime of her murder stains with blackness, and stamps FALSEHOOD on the front of Episcopacy.
We here approach those stirring times when society burst forth into new life; when the magic charm which wrapped Europe in the sleep of ages was broken, and the light of truth dawned like a new morning of creation on the world. Amid the struggle and the conflict of heart and mind, of truth with fiction, of the oppressed with tyrants, Baptists were everywhere mingling in the battle, foremost, fearless, numerous, in England, Spain, Germany, France, lifting up their voices, yielding up their lives; pleading for soul-freedom, and embalming it with their blood. The Reformation, a memorable milestone in the path of time, records ten thousand Baptist martyrdoms.
Did they originate in the great Protestant Reformation?
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