Wherever the Reformation prevailed, Baptist sentiments sprang up with it. So it was in England. In 1534, when Henry VIII. assumed the headship of the English Church, he issued two proclamations against heretics. The first referred to certain persons who had presumed to dispute about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, some of whom were foreigners: these were ordered to depart the realm within eight or ten days. The second stated more explicitly that foreigners who had been baptized in infancy, but had renounced that baptism and had been re-baptized, had entered England, and were spreading their opinions over the kingdom. They were commanded to withdraw within twelve days, on pain of suffering death if they remained. Either some of them did remain, or others visited England the following years, for ten were burnt, by pairs, in different places, in 1535, and fourteen more in 1536. In 1538, six Dutch Baptists were detected and imprisoned; four of them bore faggots at St. Paul’s Cross, and two were burnt. Bishop Latimer refers to these circumstances in a sermon preached before Edward VI., in the year 1549. “The Anabaptists,” says he, “that were burnt here in divers towns in England (as I heard of credible men, I saw them not myself), went to their death even intrepid, as ye will say, without any fear in the world, cheerfully. Well, let them go!”1 That good man was blind on the subject of religious freedom, as the Reformers generally were. He and his fellow-laborers might think for themselves; but if others ventured to do so, and thought themselves into Baptist principles, the fire was ready for them, and even Latimer could say, “Well, let them go!” Let us be thankful that the “times of that ignorance” have passed away.
There is some reason to believe that a Baptist church existed in Cheshire at a much earlier period. If we may credit the traditions of the place, the church at Hill Cliffe is five hundred years old. A tombstone has been lately dug up in the burial-ground belonging to that church, bearing date 1357. The origin of the church is assigned, in the “Baptist Hand-Book,” to the year 1523. This, however, is certain, that a Mr. Warburton, pastor of the church, died there in 1594. How long the church had been then in existence there are no written records to testify.2
Henry VIII. had a keen scent for heresy. He claimed to be an infallible judge in that matter, as free from error as the Pope himself. And so he was, no doubt; the one was as good as the other. Baptists were particularly distasteful to him. In the year 1538, Peter Tasch, a Baptist, was apprehended in the territories of the Landgrave of Hesse. It was discovered on searching him that he was in correspondence with Baptists in England, and expected soon to go thither in order to aid them in propagating their opinions. The Landgrave gave information to the King; who immediately appointed a Commission, of which Cranmer was chairman, charging the Commissioners to adopt severe measures against the alleged heretics if they should be detected, to burn all Baptist books, and, if they did not recant, to burn the Baptists themselves. They were not slow to obey the King’s commandment. On the 24th of November, three men and one woman escaped the fire by bearing faggots at St. Paul’s Cross; that is, they were brought before the people, assembled opposite the great cross outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, and walked in proces?sion, each with a bundle of faggots on the shoulder, to signify that they had deserved to be burnt; after which they con?fessed and renounced their supposed errors. Three days after a man and a woman were committed to the flames in Smithfield. All these were natives of Holland. Fuller, the Church historian, writes of them in his peculiarly quaint style. He says: “Dutchmen flocked faster than formerly into England. Many of these had active souls; so that whilst their hands were busied about their manufactures, their heads were also beating about points of Divinity. Hereof they had many rude notions, too ignorant to manage them themselves, and too proud to crave the direction of others. Their minds had a by-stream of activity more than what sufficed to drive on their vocation; and this waste of their souls they employed in needless speculations, and soon after began to broach their strange opinions, being branded with the general name of Anabaptists.”3 This is amusing enough. And yet it is a melancholy specimen of the ignorance in which some men, otherwise well informed and even learned, have been contented to remain. Instead of examining Baptist sentiments for themselves, they have taken them at second hand, and pronounced them “needless speculations” and “strange opinions.”
The hatred of Baptists was further shown by excepting them from general Acts of pardon. Such Acts were published in 1538, 1540, and 1550; but those who held that “infants ought not to be baptized” were excluded from the benefit. Thieves and vagabonds shared the King’s favor, but Baptists were not to be tolerated.
Protestantism nominally flourished in the reign of Edward VI. But there were many un-Protestant doings. The use of the reformed liturgy was enforced by the pains and penalties of law. Ridley, himself a martyr in the next reign, was joined in commission with Gardiner, afterwards notorious as a persecutor of Protestants, to root out Baptists. Among the “Articles of Visitation” issued by Ridley in his own diocese, in 1550, was the following: “Whether any of the Anabaptists’ sect or other use notoriously any unlawful or private conventicles, wherein they do use doctrines or administration of sacraments, separating themselves from the rest of the parish?”4 It may be fairly gathered from this article that there were Baptist churches in the kingdom at that time.
A Royal Commission was issued by Edward VI., empowering thirty-one persons therein named, Cranmer at the head and Latimer as one of its members, to proceed against all heretics and contemners of the Book of Common Prayer. The “wicked opinions” of the Baptists are specifically mentioned, and the Commissioners (or rather Inquisitors, for such they were) were directed, in case the persons accused should not renounce their errors, to deliver them up to the secular power, that is, to death. Joan Boucher, or “Joan of Kent,” as she was sometimes called, was the first victim. She was a Christian lady, well known at Court, and very zealous in her endeavors to introduce Christian truth among its inmates. Strype says, “She was at first a great disperser of Tindal’s New Testaments, translated by him into English, and printed at Colen [Cologne], and was a great reader of Scripture herself; which books she also dispersed in the Court, and so became known to certain women of quality, and was more particularly acquainted with Mrs. Anne Ascue [Anne Askew, cruelly tortured, and afterwards burned alive, in the year 1546]. She used, for the more secrecy, to tie the books in strings under her apparel, and so passed with them into Court.”5 But she maintained the opinion held by many of the foreign Baptists, that the Redeemer, though born of the Virgin Mary, and truly man, did not take flesh of the substance of her body. For this she was condemned to die. A year elapsed between the trial and the execution, during which many efforts were employed, but in vain, to convince her of her error. Archbishop Cranmer, Bishop Ridley, and others visited her frequently for that purpose. It was at length determined to burn her. The final sentence bears his name and that of Latimer. On the 2nd of May, 1550, Joan Boucher was burnt in Smithfield. Bishop Story preached on the occasion, and, as Strype says, “tried to convert her;” but his misrepresentations and calumnies were so gross that she told him he “lied like a rogue,” and bade him “go and read the Scriptures.” It was doubtless needful advice.
John Rogers, who was the first martyr in Mary’s reign, approved this execution. When some one remonstrated with him on the subject, and particularly urged the cruelty of the mode of death, he replied that “burning alive was no cruel death, but easy enough.” Archdeacon Philpot, in his sixth examination before the Queen’s Commissioners, Nov. 6, 1555, six weeks before his own martyrdom, said, “As for Joan of Kent, she was a vain woman (I knew her well), and a heretic indeed, well worthy to be burnt.”6 It is distressing to record such utterances.
In Edward VI.’s time Hooper was appointed Bishop of Gloucester. His consecration was delayed for some months on account of his scruples against the Episcopal habits, which he justly regarded as Popish. He had learnt the truth, which is known now as an elementary principle, but then little understood, except by Baptists, that in the service of the Church nothing should be admitted for which we cannot adduce Apostolic precept or precedent, or which is contrary to any Apostolic teaching. He was unwilling to defer to Church authority or long-continued custom. Ridley was astonished at his brother’s difficulties. In writing on the subject he affected to be very logical, and he was not sparing in rhetorical flourishes; but there was more sophistical declamation than either logic or rhetoric. Thus the Bishop writes: “If this reason should take place, ‘The Apostles used it not, ergo it is not lawful for us to use it’—or this either, ‘They did it, ergo we must needs do it’—then all Christians must have no place abiding, all must, under pain of damnation, depart with [part from] their possessions, as Peter said they did [‘Behold, we have left all things,’ &c.]; we may have no ministration of Christ’s sacraments in churches, for they had no churches, but were fain to do all in their own houses; we must baptize abroad in the fields, as the Apostles did; we may not receive the holy communion but at supper, and with the table furnished with other meats, as the Anabaptists do now stiffly and obstinately affirm that it should be; our naming of the child in baptism, our prayer upon him, our crossing, and our threefold ab-renunciation, and our white chrisom [or vesture], all must be left, for these we cannot prove by God’s Word that the Apostles did use them. And, if to do anything which we cannot prove they did be sin, then a greatest part is sin that we do daily in baptism. What followeth then other things, than to receive the Anabaptists’ opinion, and to be baptized anew? O, wicked folly and blind ignorancy!”7
Ridley’s argument was, “If you take such ground, you had better become an Anabaptist at once. But that would be a shocking thing. Therefore you must admit in these things the authority of the Church, and yield submission to it.” So, in utter contradiction to the principles of true Protestantism, did the Bishop reason. The other alternative, viz., that the Baptists were right, which ought to have been granted, he either had not eyes to see, or was not honest enough to admit.
One point adverted to by Ridley may require explanation. The Baptists, according to him, taught that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated at the close of a meal. Their practice, it is to be supposed, agreed with the theory. They observed that the ordinance was instituted while our Lord and His Apostles were still at the Passover Supper-table; and they inferred that the Lord’s Supper should be preceded by a meal, taken in common by the assembled disciples. We may think them mistaken, but this is clear, that the Baptists evinced therein their scrupulous regard to the directions, express or implied, of the Word of God. Posi?tive institutions should be observed, in their judgment (and were they not right?), as nearly as possible in the exact manner in which they were enjoined. The original precept should be literally obeyed, the original precedents followed. This is the characteristic distinction of the Baptist body. Can it be controverted?
George Van Pare, a Dutch Baptist, was burnt in Smithfield on the 13th of January, 1551. He was charged with Arianism; but it is testified that he was a man of fervent piety and active benevolence. His behavior at the stake was eminently Christian. The condemnatory sentence was signed by Cranmer, Ridley, and Coverdale!
Whatever opinion we may entertain respecting the doctrinal views held by Joan Boucher and Van Pare, there can be no difficulty in deciding on the conduct of Cranmer and his associates. Nor need we seek excuses for them. It is customary to plead in their behalf the general prevalence, in that age, of Church and State; principles of the most ultra kind, and to maintain that at a time when everybody believed that the magistrate was bound to do the Church’s bidding, and, therefore, to rid the country of those whom the Church might condemn, it could not be expected that any ecclesiastics would differ from their brethren, or be dis?inclined to carry out the common policy. We are not disposed to admit the force of this reasoning. The Apostle Paul “verily thought within himself that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9); but neither did he, after he became a Christian, nor do we, who walk in the light of the nineteenth century, justify the desolation he caused at Jerusalem, on the ground of his ignorance and prejudice. He might and he ought to have known better, and it was his sin that he did not inquire impartially respecting Christianity before he persecuted it. So it was with Cranmer, Calvin, and the other Protestant persecutors. Rome had trained them in savageness. But she had also brought them up in the fooleries of her superstition, and instructed them to cleave to will-worship and merit. When they forsook those sandy foundations, that they might build on Christ, it was because they had learnt from the New Testament the doctrine of justification by faith. Why did they not also derive from the same New Testament the great truth that the kingdom of the Saviour is “not of this world,” and that, therefore, the use of carnal weapons in its propagation or defense is absolutely forbidden? These truths were as fully taught by the Apostles as were the doctrines of faith and grace. The Baptists were clear on these subjects. They understood the nature and the limitations of magisterial rule. They anticipated Dr. Watts:
“Let Caesar’s dues be ever paid
To Caesar and his throne;
But consciences and souls were made
To be the Lord’s alone.”
They acted on their convictions, and withdrew from a corrupt church to worship God according to His Word. In doing so they committed no crime against the State. For that act they were responsible to God only. The State had no control over them. As long as they were peaceable subjects and obeyed the laws, they rightfully claimed protection. In regard to religion, they rightfully demanded freedom and independence. The Reformers had put forth the same demand in seceding from Rome. It is true that they coupled with it the false step of asking leave of the civil magistrate to secede, and having fallen into that error required that no one should secede from then, because the magistrate, as tutored by them, forbade it. But, we ask again, where was the New Testament all the while? and how was it that they did not see in it the spiritual Church, and the spiritual King, and the absolute unlawfulness of calling for “fire from heaven,” or devising other mischief against those who differed from them? The Baptists saw all this. Cranmer and his party might have seen it. In refusing to see it they were guilty of treachery to Protestant principles.
But they could not put down the Baptists, who grew and flourished in spite of them. Congregations were discovered at Bocking, in Essex, at Faversham, in Kent, and other places. Their number must have been considerable, as four ministers were arrested when the discovery was made. The names of the ministers were Humphrey Middleton, Henry Hart, George Brodebridge, and —— Cole. At the time of their apprehension they were assembled at Bocking. Besides the ministers, about sixty members of the congregation were apprehended. Their Christian organization appears to have been correct and complete. They met regularly for worship and instruction; the ordinances of the Gospel were attended to; contributions were made for the support of the cause; and so great was their zeal that those who lived in Kent were known to go occasionally into Essex to meet the brethren there—a journey of fourscore miles, which, in the sixteenth century, was no small undertaking. When they were brought into the ecclesiastical court they were examined on forty-six articles, and charged with Pelagianism and other errors. Their religious sentiments, or those imputed to them, would be now called Arminian. This, however, is clear, that they were “Anabaptists.” They held also “that we are not to communicate with sinners.” In other words, they advocated believers’ baptism, and contended for the purity of Christian churches. What became of the others we do not know, but Mr. Mid?dleton was committed to prison, where he remained till the death of Edward VI. The Kentish members of these congregations suffered continual annoyance and persecution in various ways. Cranmer did all he could to suppress the Baptist movement.
We cannot but regret that so little is known of this interesting band of disciples. Strype asserts that they “were the first that made separation from the Reformed Church of England, having gathered congregations of their own.” As they confessed that they had not communed in the parish churches for two years, their separation must have taken place about the year 1548, which was before the Presbyterians or the Independents were known in England. The Baptists were the vanguard of the Protestant Dissenters in this country.8
There were many Baptists among the sufferers in Queen Mary’s reign. Some endured painful imprisonments; some passed to heaven through the fire. Humphrey Middleton, one of the ministers mentioned above, was burnt at Canterbury, July 12, 1555. We should have known more about these good men had the historians of the times been more faithful. Even the venerable John Fox allowed his prejudices so far to influence him that he kept back information respecting Baptist martyrs. But “their record is on high.”
Bishop Bonner bestirred himself diligently. In his “Articles of Visitation,” issued in the year 1554, he directed inquiry to be made, “whether there be any that is a Sacramentary or Anabaptist, or Libertine, either in reiterating baptism again, or in holding any of the opinions of the Anabaptists, especially that a Christian man or woman ought not to swear before a judge, nor one to sue another in the law for his right, and that all things should be common.”9 The last item, it is not necessary to say, was a calumny—or rather, perhaps, a misapprehension of the brotherly hospitality that prevailed among the Baptists. In a “Declaration to be published to the lay people of his diocese concerning their reconciliation,” he affirmed that England had been “grievously vexed” and “sore infested” with “sundry sorts of sects of heresies,” among which he expressly mentions “Anabaptists.”10 Next year he published a book of homilies, in one of which he warned the people against the Baptists. “Certain heresies,” said he, “have risen up and sprung in our days, against the christening of infants,”—a practice which “the most wholesome authority of the Church doth command.”11
Bishop Gardiner was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. In 1555 he published fifteen articles, which were to be signed by all persons desirous of enjoying the privileges of the University. The fourth was to this effect that “baptism is necessary to salvation, even for infants; that all sin, actual as well as original, is taken away and entirely destroyed, in baptism; and that the said baptism is never to be repeated.”12 This language betrays the existence of Baptists in Cambridge, and the Bishop’s fear lest persons holding their opinions should repair thither for education from other parts of the kingdom.
Henry Hart, one of Humphrey Middleton’s colleagues, was committed to the King’s Bench Prison, London, with other Baptists. The prisons of the metropolis were crowded with Protestants at that time, many of whom, such as Bradford, Philpot, and others, glorified God in the flames. But the spirit of disputation was so powerful in them that there was hot controversy in the very gaols. Mr. Hart and his friends, as has been before observed, differed from other Reformers on what is called the Arminian question. Those differences led to fierce disputes, and occasioned consider?able loss of temper. Ridley, Bradford, and Philpot were men eminent for piety; we venerate them to this day; their names will be fragrant in all time coming. But in their zeal for truth they sometimes forgot the claims of charity, and in reference to baptism they held and inculcated tenets of a truly un-Protestant character. Philpot must surely have felt the weakness of his cause when he pleaded thus “Since all truth was taught and revealed to the Primitive Church, which is our mother, let us all that be obedient children of God submit ourselves to the judgment of the Church for the better understanding of the articles of our faith and of the doubtful sentences of the Scripture. Let us not go about to show in us, by following any private man’s interpretation upon the Word, another spirit than they of the Primitive Church had, lest we deceive ourselves; for there is but one faith and one Spirit, which is not con?trary to Himself, neither otherwise now teacheth us than He did them. Therefore let us believe as they have taught us of the Scriptures, and be at peace with them, according as the true Catholic Church is at this day.”13
Notwithstanding the vigilant ferocity of Bonner and his associates, the Baptists held their ground in Kent and Essex, and it was found impossible to root them out. Commissioners were sent to Colchester in 1558, with full power to proceed against heretics; and they had entered on their duties with activity and ardor, hoping to make a thorough clearance, when, for some unexplained reason, a letter of recall was dispatched. Dr. Chedsey, one of the Commissioners, expressed his feelings on the occasion in the language of an inquisitor’s regret. He was vexed at the loss of his prey. “We be now,” he said, writing to the Privy Council, “in the midst of our examination and articulation. And if we should give it off in the midst, we should set the country in such a roar, that my estimation, and the residue of the Commissioners, shall be for ever lost . . . Would to God the honorable Council saw the face of Essex as we do see! We have such obstinate heretics, Anabaptists, and other unruly persons here as never was heard of.”14
Bradford, as we have said, was one of those who disputed, while in prison, with his fellow-sufferers. He was ingenuous enough to acknowledge that, though he regarded them as heterodox in their opinions, they were men of unquestionable and even signal piety: “He was persuaded of them, that they feared the Lord, and therefore he loved them.”
No sooner had Elizabeth ascended the throne than she began to display the despotic tendencies by which her reign was distinguished. In that respect she closely resembled her father. She would reform, to a certain extent, but not so far as to allow her subjects to think and act for themselves. She would prescribe to them what they should believe, and how they should worship, under penalty of her high displeasure if they dared to go beyond the allotted bounds. The nation generally submitted in meekness. Some few chafed under the yoke, yet continued to wear it. Others remonstrated against ecclesiastical impositions, and asked for freedom in things indifferent. It seemed to them a monstrous thing, especially at a time when there were so few able and faithful ministers, to demand rigorous uniformity, not only in theological opinions, but also in the cut and wear of caps and gowns, and in liturgical services. But Elizabeth was not to be diverted from her purpose. She had made up her mind to go so far and no farther. And she was determined, as far as lay in her power, to check the progress of her subjects. The “Act of Uniformity,” passed in the year 1559, declared her will, and defined their duty. The Puritan clergy grumbled, but the Queen said, “Silence!” And so it was. They must be silent or withdraw; and if, having withdrawn, they reduced their reforming principles to practice, they incurred all the terrors of the High Commission Court.
It was not to be expected that Baptists would find any favor with Elizabeth. Many had fled from foreign countries to England, hoping to enjoy there the peace and freedom elsewhere denied them. They had settled chiefly in London and “other maritime towns.” But the Queen would not suffer them to remain. A proclamation was issued September 2nd, 1560, declaring that her Majesty “willeth and chargeth all manner of persons, born either in foreign parts or in her Majesty’s dominions, that have conceived any manner of such heretical opinion as the Anabaptists do hold, and mean not by charitable teaching to be reconciled, to depart out of this realm within twenty days after this proclamation, upon pain of forfeiture of all their goods and chattels, and to be imprisoned and further punished as by the laws, either ecclesiastical or temporal, in such case is provided.”15 This was a severe and cruel measure. In those days of slow traveling the proclamation would not reach some of the outposts till the twenty days had nearly expired; and the poor people would have little time to dispose of their immovable property, and of such goods as they could not conveniently take away with them. In all cases there was doubtless a great sacrifice.
Bishop jewel supposed that the hated sectarians were effectually got rid of. Writing to Peter Martyr, under date of November 6, 1560, he said:—“We found at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth a large and inauspicious corps of Arians, Anabaptists, and other pests, which I know not how, but as mushrooms spring up in the night and in darkness, so these sprang up in that darkness and unhappy night of the Marian times. These, I am informed, and I hope it is the fact, have retreated before the light of purer doctrine, like owls at the sight of the sun, and are now nowhere to be found; or, at least, if anywhere, they are no longer troublesome to our churches.”16 But he was mistaken. Many Baptists contrived to elude the proclamation. Next year, Parkhurst, Bishop of Norwich, was complained of by Secretary Cecil for “winking at schismatics and Anabaptists.”17 Six years after, 1567, “Articles of Visitation” were issued by Archbishop Parker, in which it was directed that inquiry should be made whether any persons did “say, teach, or maintain that children, being infants, should not be baptized.”18 It is evident, therefore, that persons holding those views were still in the realm. And they continued to seek shelter in England from persecution, while the Queen and her minions were indefatigable in their attempts to ferret them out and drive them away. Another proclamation appeared in 1568, in which it is stated that “great numbers of strangers from the parts beyond the seas,” some of whom were supposed to be “Anabaptists,” did “daily repair to her Majesty’s dominions, but that she did ‘in nowise mean to permit any refuge’ to them.”19 Permitted or not, however, they were there, and they were neither idle nor unsuccessful. Collier, the ecclesiastical historian, says, “The Dutch Anabaptists held private conventicles in London, and perverted a great many.”20
1 Sermons, p. 160. Parker Society’s Edition.
2 These statements are made on the authority of the Rev. A. Kenworthy, the present pastor of the church.
3 Church History, book v. sect. I, II.
4 Cardwell’s Documentary Annals of the Church of England, i, p. 91.
5 Memorials of the Reformation, ii. p. 368. Edit. 1816.
6 Examinations and Writings, p. 55. Parker Society’s Edition.
7 Reply to Bishop Hooper in Bradford’s Letters, Treatises, &c., p. 382. Parker Society.
8 Strype’s Memorials, ii. p. 381. Baptist Magazine, February, 1866, pp. 113-115.
9 Documentary Annals, ii. p. 156.
10 Documentary Annals, ii. p. 170.
11 Dr. Underhill’s “Historical Introduction” to Tracts on Liberty of Conscience, p. 125.
12 Documentary Annals, i. p. 195.
13 Examinations and Writings, p. 273.
14 Strype’s Memorials, v. p. 265.
15 Documentary Annals, i. p. 293.
16 Zurich’s Letters, i. p. 92. Parker Society.
17 Documentary Annals, i. p. 338.
18 Ibid. p. 340.
19 Documentary Annals, p. 343.
20 Ecclesiastical History of England; vi. p. 162.
Joan Boutcher of Kent