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British Biographies
By J. M. Cramp, 1871

John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Spilsbury - Henry Denne - Francis Cornwell, A.M. - Christopher Blackwood - Major-General Harrison - Colonel Hutchinson

It is much to be regretted that we know so little of the personal history of John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Spilsbury. All the information we have been able to gather respecting Mr. Smyth has been already communicated [see here]. We are not able to add much respecting Mr. Helwys, whose settlement in London has been recorded in a former section. He wrote several small treatises, which were much prized. His sentiments on persecution, and on the unlawfulness of the magistrate's interference in religious affairs, were so unacceptable to John Robinson, the celebrated Independent minister, to whose church the New England Pilgrims had belonged, that he published a reply, showing that, though he and his friends suffered so much from that interference, they were not willing to give it up. Mr. Robinson held that the magistrate might "use his lawful power lawfully for the furtherance of Christ's kingdom and laws." He observed: -- "It is true they [the magistrates] have no power against
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the laws, doctrine, and religion of Christ; but for the same, if their power be of God, they may use it lawfully, and against the contrary." 1 This is a surrender of the whole case. Mr. Helwys's views, which were fully expressed in Persecution Judged and Condemned, were far sounder and more Scriptural. Crosby says,
"How long Mr. Helwys lived, and continued the elder of this church of Baptists in London, I cannot find. The books wrote against them at this time show that they went on with great courage and resolution; and, notwithstanding the severities used against them by the civil power, increased very much in their numbers."2
Neither can we satisfy curiosity respecting Mr. John Spilsbury, the pastor of the first Particular or Calvinistic Baptist Church, which met in Broad-street, Wapping, London. We can only say that his signature is affixed to the Confession of Faith published in 1646, and to sundry other public documents, the last being the "Humble Apology of some commonly called Anabaptists," presented to Charles II. in 1660, as a disclaimer of sympathy with Venner's insurrection. We observe that, though he joined William Kiffin in a letter to the Baptists in Dublin, persuading them to submit quietly to the Protectorate, he afterwards united with a number of others in an address to Cromwell, earnestly protesting against his assumption of the kingly title. It may be concluded that Mr. Spilsbury was a man of influence in the denomination. How long he lived after the Restoration does not appear. Hercules Collins became pastor of the church in Broad-street in 1677. Whether he was Mr. Spilsbury's immediate successor, we have not the means of deciding.

Henry Denne was a man of note. He was educated in the University of Cambridge, where he acquired a respectable standing. Having received ordination from the Bishop
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of St. David's, about the year 1630, he was presented to the living of Pyrton, in Hertfordshire, which he held for ten years, greatly to the profit of the inhabitants, by whom he was justly esteemed as an instructive and faithful preacher. In 1641 he was appointed to preach at a visitation held at Baldock, and he determined to embrace the opportunity of exposing the evils which had long grieved and vexed him, particularly "the sin of persecution, the vices of the clergy, and the corruptions in doctrine and worship which he apprehended to be in the Established Church." His text was John v:35. After an ingenious introduction, he proceeded to execute his purpose, and laid on the lash quite freely. The pride and covetousness of the clergy, their pluralities, their neglect of duty by non-residence, and other evils, were held up to view, and reformation boldly demanded. "I must call upon those in authority," he said, "to make diligent search after these foxes. If the courts had been so vigilant to find out these as nonconformable ministers, surely by this time the church would have been as free from them, as the land from wolves. But they have preferred the traditions of men before the commandments of Almighty God. I tell you that conformity hath ever sped the worse for their sakes, who breaking the commandments of God think to make amends with conformity to the traditions of men."3

We cannot be surprised at hearing that soon after this he announced his change of sentiments. In the early part of 1643, he was baptized by Mr. Thomas Lamb, pastor of the church in Bell Alley, Coleman Street, London. His gifts were thankfully recognized by the church, and by their direction he engaged in a mission to the counties of Staffordshire and Cambridgeshire, where he preached the Gospel with great success and formed many churches. This roused the ire of the Presbyterian authorities. He
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was arrested and imprisoned at Cambridge. By the interference of a friend, his case was brought before Parliament, in order to which he was removed to the Peterhouse, Aldersgate Street, London. The notorious Dr. Featly was in the same prison, as a royalist. Mr. Denne challenged him to a disputation. They met and fought, in the usual way, with propositions and syllogisms, till the doctor was tired, and withdrew from the conflict. Mr. Denne carried on the war with his pen, and published a reply to Dr. Featly's famous book, The Dippers Dipt, &c. He was soon released, and was appointed Minister of Eltisley parish, Cambridgeshire, from which place, as a centre, he itinerated in various directions, preaching and baptizing. In 1645 he visited the county of Kent, and his labours were blessed to many.

The opposition Mr. Denne met with issued in his leaving Eltisley. He then entered the army, and served several years. But he did not desist from preaching, nor was it necessary, for praying and preaching were no strange things among the Parliamentary soldiers. "Cornet Denne" was his military title, but "Parson Denne" was the appellation by which he was known among his associates. We cannot say whether he saw any fighting or not, nor in what parts of England the regiment to which he was attached was from time to time quartered. The only recorded event is his narrow escape from death as a mutineer. In May, 1649, he took part in a mutiny of the troops, partly occasioned by the men's unwillingness to join the expedition to Ireland, and partly by discontent with the existing state of affairs. Prompt measures were taken, and the revolt was quelled; but Mr. Denne and three others were sentenced to be shot.

"Cornet Denne, being a man of parts, and one who has been esteemed for piety and honesty, received his sentence with great manliness and fortitude of spirit, yet with so
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much relenting and acknowledgment of the just hand of God, the justice of the sentence, and his submission thereunto, that he seemed to rejoice with willingness to suffer under so righteous a sentence, and he professed openly, that although his heart could not accuse him of an evil meaning, yet he was convinced of the evil of the action, and dangerous consequences of it; that if they had but continued three or four days longer, the land had been plunged in misery and ruin." Cornet Tompson and Corporals Church and Perkins were shot; and "Cornet Denne being called out, came with much composure of spirit, expecting to die, but the general having commanded the Lieutenant-general Cromwell to let him know at the place of execution that his excellency had extended mercy to him, he soberly and suddenly replied, 'I am not worthy of such a mercy; I am more ashamed to live than afraid to die' weeping bitterly."4 He afterwards endeavoured to repair the mischief by publishing a pamphlet in which the origin and objects of the mutiny were stated, and the deplorable consequences which would have followed if it had not been suppressed were faithfully set forth.

It is not likely that he continued long in the army after this. We next find him in his place as a member of the church at Fenstanton, in 1653, taking part in certain disciplinary proceedings. At one of their meetings, Henry Denne began to speak, saying, "Brethren, I desire you to consider the Word of Christ, saying, Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe whatsoever things I have commanded you, and lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (Matthew xxviii:19); which last words are often used by us, yet I think not too often. But I desire that we may seriously consider the former, viz., Go, teach all nations, baptizing them, &c. [or] as Mark saith, Go,
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preach the Gospel to every creature: and so, whether we are not as much bound to observe them as any. And if it appeareth that we are, then I pray consider whether we are not in a great fault, in being so negligent in sending forth persons to divulge the Gospel, in those many places that are ignorant thereof. Truly, I conceive that we are much to blame, and especially seeing there are many towns hereabouts that have no teacher; and who can tell but that the Lord may work in this opportunity."5 The result was that Mr. Denne and another member were sent out on a missionary excursion, an account of which was given to the church on their return. Next year he went again into Kent, and spent some time at Canterbury. His labours there were so acceptable that the church invited him to settle among them. The Fenstanton Church consented, appointed another brother to attend him on the journey, and "money and horses were provided for them." He arrived in safety, and was received with gladness. "He is provided of an house," the Canterbury Church said, in a letter to that at Fenstanton, dated February 19th, 1655, "and we doubt not of a comfortable being and subsistence amongst us."6 He was regarded as one of the chief men of the denomination. In 1658 he was engaged in a disputation on baptism with Dr. Gunning, a celebrated divine of the day, afterwards bishop, successively, of Chichester and Ely. It was held in the church of St. Clement Dane's, Strand, and was attended by some thousands of persons. Mr. Denne published an account of it, and soon after baptized the lady at whose instance the disputation took place. Her doubts were removed by Mr. Denne's arguments.

Nothing more is known of Mr. Denne, except the publication of two small pamphlets. His signature appears among those to the Humble Apology, &c., issued after Venner's insurrection. Crosby supposes that he died in the year
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1661, and states that an episcopal clergyman composed the following epitaph for his tomb: --
"To tell his wisdom, learning, goodness unto men,
I need to say no more-but here lies Henry Denne."7

Francis Cornwell, A.M., was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Neal says that "he was one of the most learned divines that espoused the cause of the Baptists." This took place under singular circumstances. Mr. Cornwell was vicar of Marden, Kent, where he had refused to conform to certain ceremonies imposed by Archbishop Laud, and for his refusal was committed to Maidstone jail. While there, a woman who visited him intimated that she had some doubts respecting the lawfulness of infant baptism. He endeavoured to remove them by the best arguments he could think of, but failed to satisfy her. This led him to further enquiry, the result of which was, that he abandoned infant baptism, and was baptized by Mr. William Jeffery, an eminent Baptist minister. After his release from prison, he was called on to preach a sermon at a meeting of ministers at Cranbrook. This was in 1644. He chose for his text Mark vii:7, and "took the liberty of declaring his sentiments freely on this point; and told them Pedobaptism was an anti-Christian innovation, a human tradition, and a practice for which there was neither precept nor true deduction from the Word of God."8 Much discussion followed, and great indignation was manifested; but Mr. C. Blackwood, one of the ministers present, who had taken down the sermon in shorthand, having promised to furnish a reply to it, the further consideration of the subject was postponed till their next meeting. Instead of replying, however, Mr. Blackwood followed Mr. Cornwell's example, finding it impossible to refute him, and was also baptized by Mr. Jeffery. Mr. Cornwell was very zealous for Baptist principles. His work on baptism, entitled, A Vindication
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of the Royal Commission of King Jesus, was distributed among the members of the House of Commons, and produced great excitement. He soon left the Establishment, and formed a Baptist Church in the neighborhood of Cranbrook, over which he presided till his death.

Christopher Blackwood was an able preacher. He was born in 1606, graduated at Cambridge in 1624, and became curate of Rye, in Sussex. When he embraced Baptist principles, he became pastor of a church which met at Spillshill House, near Staplehurst, Kent. After labouring there some years, he went into the army, accompanied the forces sent to Ireland, and was for some time pastor of a church at Dublin, exercising, as it would seem, a general superintendence over the other Baptist Churches in that country. In a letter sent to Secretary Thurloe, in the year 1655, he is styled, "The Oracle of the Anabaptists in Ireland." He appears to have returned to England about the time of the Restoration, as his name is affixed to the Baptist declaration against Venner's rebellion. In 1661 he went to Holland, where he remained a year. Shortly after his return he resumed his residence in Dublin, where he died in 1670. He was a learned man, well read in the fathers. Both he and Mr. Cornwell were warm advocates of soul-freedom, and protested in their writings against the intolerance of the Presbyterian party. His first publication was entitled, The Storming of Antichrist in his two Last and Strongest Garrisons, -- Compulsion of Conscience and Infants' Baptism.9

Major-General Harrison was one of Cromwell's best soldiers, and for a time enjoyed his entire confidence. He commanded the troop of horse appointed to convey Charles I from the Isle of Wight to Hurst Castle. He was one of the King's judges. He assisted Cromwell in dissolving the Long Parliament. He was a member of the Council of
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State under the Commonwealth. But he was a stern republican, and therefore entirely opposed to the Protectorate. He had also embraced Fifth Monarchy principles. On these accounts Cromwell degraded him and placed him in confinement. At the Restoration he was excepted from clemency. Ten of the regicides (as the King's judges were called) were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Major-General Harrison was one of them. He suffered with great calmness and intrepidity, declaring at the place of execution "that he was fully persuaded that what he had done was the cause and work of God, which he was confident God would own and raise up again, how much soever it suffered at that time."

Mr. Ivimey says that "though Major-General Harrison was a Baptist at the time of his trial and execution, yet he was not at the period of the King's death;" and that "there is no evidence of any Baptist being among the King's judges."10 This is not quite clear. Thurloe, in his State Papers, referring to Harrison's refusal to submit to the Protectorate, in December 1654, calls him "the most eminent man of the Anabaptist party." He could scarcely have been worthy of that appellation if he had not been for some time connected with the Baptist denomination.

Harrison is generally described by historians as a fanatic. It is certain that he was an impulsive being, and somewhat tinctured with vanity. But there can be no doubt that he was sincerely and soberly in earnest, although it may be admitted that he was a singular man even in those singular times. We must not measure the seventeenth century by the nineteenth. A modern writer says of Harrison: "For the integrity of his life, and the Christian heroism with which he endured a cruel and ignominious death, he may deservedly be classed, if he may not challenge priority, with a More, a Russell, a Sydney."11
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Here is an extract from a letter written by him to Cromwell on occasion of his taking the command of the army sent to invade Scotland in 1650: -- "Oh! that a spirit of faith and supplication may be poured forth on you and your army! There is more to be had in this poor simple way than even most saints expect. My Lord, let waiting upon Jehovah be the greatest and most considerable business you have every day; reckon it so, more than to eat, sleep, or counsel together. Run aside sometimes from your company, and get a word with the Lord. Why should you not have three or four precious souls always standing at your elbow, with whom you might now and then turn into a corner? I have found refreshment and mercy in such a way. Ah! the Lord of compassion own, pity your burdens, care for you, stand by and refresh your heart each moment! I would I could in any kind do you good. My heart is with you, and my poor prayers to my God for you." In a former part of the letter he had said, "I doubt not your success; but I think faith and prayer must be the chief engines."12

Cromwell loved such talk. "In such spirit," says Carlyle, "goes Oliver Cromwell to the wars. 'A God-intoxicated man,' as Novalis elsewhere phrases it. I have asked myself, if anywhere in modern European history, or even in ancient Asiatic, there was found a man practising this mean world's affairs with a heart more filled with the idea of the Highest! Bathed in the eternal splendors, -- it is so he walks our dim earth. This man is one of few. He is projected with a terrible force out of the eternities, and in the times and their arenas there is nothing that can withstand him."13

Colonel Hutchinson was a man of noble mind and warm heart. He is immortalized in the Memoirs written by his widow, and well known to all students of English history.
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It is valuable, on historical accounts, as elucidating sundry misty paragraphs in other writers. But its great charm consists in the exquisite delineations of character with which it abounds. Mrs. Hutchinson gives us a full length portraiture of her excellent husband, drawn, it is true, with the hand of affection, and therefore some may be disposed to deem it flattering; but there is such an air of truthfulness in the narrative that it is impossible to doubt the general correctness of the picture. There are also many discriminating sketches of other persons who figured prominently in the scenes of that struggle for freedom which Clarendon calls "The Great Rebellion."

The Colonel was for some time Governor of Nottingham, under the Parliament. He afterwards sat in the House of Commons, where he was always listened to with great respect. Having been one of the King's judges, he was in great peril at the Restoration. But he had powerful connections, and he had conciliated the regard of his enemies by acts of moderation and kindness when he was in office. His life was spared; yet he was treated as a suspected person, whom any one might vex and annoy with impunity, and whom, on any pretext, the Government might put in durance. So it proved. He was suddenly apprehended, on a charge of complicity in some treasonable plot, and committed to the Tower, whence he was conveyed to Sandown Castle, near Deal. There was no legal investigation -- no trial. The accusation was utterly false: but it was determined to put him out of the way. The keen air of the sea-coast was ill-suited to the delicate state of his health; added to which, the accommodations of the prison were of the most miserable kind. The physician declared that "the place killed him." He died in confinement, September 11, 1664.

Mrs. Hutchinson has given an account of the manner in which she and her husband were converted to Baptist principles. It occurred at Nottingham in the year 1647.
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"When formerly the Presbyterian ministers had forced him, for quietness' sake, to go and break up a private meeting in the cannonier's chamber, there were found some notes concerning Paedobaptism, which were brought into the governor's lodgings; and his wife having then more leisure to read than he, having perused them and compared them with the Scriptures, found not what to say against the truths they asserted, concerning the misapplication of that ordinance to infants; but being then young and modest, she thought it a kind of virtue to submit to the judgment and practice of most Churches, rather than to defend a singular opinion of her own, she not being then enlightened in that great mistake of the National Churches. But in this year she, happening to be with child, communicated her doubts to her husband, and desired him to endeavour her satisfaction; which while he did, he himself became as unsatisfied, or rather satisfied against it. First, therefore, he diligently searched the Scriptures alone, and could find in them no ground at all for that practice; then he bought and read all the eminent treatises on both sides, which at that time came thick from the presses, and was still more satisfied of the error of the Paedobaptists. After this, his wife being brought to bed, that he might, if possible, give the religious party no offence, he invited all the ministers to dinner, and propounded his doubt and the ground thereof to them. None of them could defend their practice with any satisfactory reason, but the tradition of the Church from the primitive times, and their main buckler of federal holiness, which Tombes and Denne had so excellently overthrown. He and his wife then, professing themselves unsatisfied with the practice, desired their opinions, what they ought to do. Most answered, to conform to the general practice of other Christians, how dark soever it were to themselves; but Mr. Foxcraft, one of the assembly, said, that except they were convinced of the warrant of that practice from
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the Word, they sinned in doing it: whereupon that infant was not baptized. And now the governor and his wife, notwithstanding that they forsook not their assemblies, nor retracted their benevolences and civilities from them, yet were they reviled by them, called fanatics and Anabaptists, and often glanced at in their public sermons. And not only the ministers, but all their zealous sectaries, conceived implacable malice against them upon this account; which was carried on with a spirit of envy and persecution to the last, though he, on his side, might well have said to them, as his Master said to the old Pharisees: 'Many good works have I done among you: for which of these do you hate me?'"14


1 Tracts, p. 92.
2 History, i. p. 275.
3 Crosby, i. 298-301
4 Fenstanton Records, Introductory Notice, pp. xii., xiii.
5 Fenstanton Records, p. 71.
6 Ibid. p. 135.
7 History, i, p. 306.
8 History, i. p. 346.
9 See Baptist Magazine for June, July, August, and September, 1867, for a valuable collection of letters written by Mr. Blackwood.
10 History, i. p. 293.
11 Burton's Diary, by Rutt, iv. p. 432, note.
12 Fenstanton Records, pp. 315-317.
13 Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, ii. p. 173.
14 Memoirs of Col. Hutchinson, pp. 299-301.


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[From J. M. Cramp, Baptist History, 1871; reprint, 1987, pp. 344-356. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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