"The true origin of Anabaptists," says Mosheim, "is hid in the remote depths of antiquity." But there is no reason to doubt that as early as the Third Century Baptists already existed in Britain. At that period "no persons were admitted to baptism by the churches generally" — still to quote Mosheim — "but such as had been previously instructed in the principal points of Christianity, and had also given satisfactory proofs of pious dispositions and upright intentions." Coupling with this testimony the statement of Tertullian, the celebrated African writer, that in 209 "those parts of Britain into which the Roman arms never penetrated have yielded subjection to Christ," we are warranted in saying that the early British Christians were men holding the distinctive principles of Baptists.
We have no further trace of Baptists in these islands until the Fifth Century, although there existed, during the interval, as we learn from various sources, a numerous, well-ordered, and flourishing Christian community. In the year 410, the Britons were not only harassed and oppressed by the Saxons, but were distracted by religious controversies. Pelagius, who had once been a monk at Bangor, in North Wales, succeeded in spreading the poison of his opinions among his fellow-countrymen.
Among these opinions was the belief in the lawfulness and necessity of infant-baptism. Two zealous bishops from the Continent laboured to check the progress of Pelagius' opinions, and many wanderers were reclaimed and baptized in the river Allen, near Chester.
The third trace of Baptists in Britain is found in the time of Ethelbert. Again the Principality claims the honour of having sheltered and preserved, if it did not originate, some of the earliest Baptist confessors in this country; but the claim rests upon an obscure passage in the Chronicle of the Venerable Bede, and upon a version of Bede's words found in Fabyan's New Chronicles of England and France, a book published in the time of Henry the Seventh, and which had the honour of being burnt in the following reign by order of Cardinal Wolsey. We give the story in which the passage occurs, and for two reasons: first, it reveals the Scriptural character of the Christianity of Britain before the time of Romish corruptions; and secondly, it shows with what sturdy independence these early Christians rejected the arrogant pretensions of Rome.
But to the story of Austin and the Monks of Bangor. Austin, or Augustine, the abbot of a monastery founded. in Rome by Gregory the Great (although the pope's title to the term is very questionable), was sent into England in 596 to convert the Saxons. The Abbot proceeded with becoming caution at the outset, lived in a humble and self-denying fashion, and revealed no part of his future policy. His success far exceeded his expectations. Camden tells us that multitudes confessed their belief in his doctrines, and, going into the water, were dipped in the name of the Trinity. So far there was a concession to what was known to have been the practice of the early British Churches. Gregory now sends Austin further help, chiefly monks, with one Mellitus as their abbot. They bring with them presents for King Ethelbert, an archbishop's
pall for Austin, some copies of portions of the Scriptures, certain Romish devotional books, relics to be used in the consecration of new churches, and Gregory's very trenchant replies to Austin's puerile questions. With more liberality, or with more policy than Austin, Gregory, among other things, suggests that in settling the order of the new church which had been founded in England, Austin should not exclusively follow the example of Rome, but should select whatever was good, no matter where he might find it — a sentiment deserving of special notice as coming from the mouth of a Roman bishop.
Austin now makes Canterbury the seat of the first English archbishopric; becomes very zealous, with his new monkish staff of supporters, in winning over the Saxons; sprinkles the heathen temples with holy water, at least such temples as he could obtain; sanctifies them, after the Romish fashion, by making them the shrines of certain relics — bones and rags of Romish saints; converts the said heathen temples into churches; establishes festivals in honour of the saints whose relics are henceforth preserved in them, taking care, as Gregory also advised him, that the times and the ceremonies of these new festivals should be made as palatable as possible to the half-heathenish Saxons, so that they might be the more easily persuaded to substitute the new rites for the old.
Austin's ambition increases with his success. This "pretended apostle and sanctified ruffian," as Jortin styles him, with something of passionate abuse, lusts after the sole and undivided ecclesiastical sway over the whole island. But how was he to secure the realisation of his dreams? A large and flourishing body of British Christians were now living in Wales, whither they had sought refuge from the cruelties of the Saxons. Undisturbed in their liberties and their worship in the fastnesses of Wales, they had waxed stronger and stronger. At Caerleon, in the south, and at Bangor-is-y-coed, in the north, large and flourishing monasteries, or, more properly speaking, missionary stations, were established. Bangor
alone could number, in association with it, over two thousand "brethren." These societies had little in common with Romish monasteries, either of that age or of the following. The greater part of "the brethren" were married laymen, who followed their worldly calling, and those among them who showed aptitude for study and missionary work were permitted to give themselves to the reading of the Scriptures and holy services. All were maintained out of a common fund, and yet a large surplus was distributed in the shape of food and clothing to the neighbouring poor.
Austin's problem was this: how best to obtain ecclesiastical authority over these primitive British Christians? Ethelbert suggested and arranged a conference with some of their leading men. The conference was accordingly held in Worcestershire, near what was still called, in the days of Bede, "Austin's Oak." The British clergy of the province adjoining were invited, and Deynoch, the distinguished. abbot of Bangor, a man in great repute for his piety and learning, came with them. Austin opened the conference by stating his desire that, as good Christian men, the people in Wales should submit themselves to the Pope of Rome, as the Father of fathers, and to himself as his duly accredited representative. Deynoch's reply is every way remarkable: "We are ready to listen to the Church of God, to the Pope of Rome, and to every pious Christian; so that we may show to each, according to his station, perfect love, and uphold him by word and deed. We know not that any other obedience can be required of us towards him whom you call the pope, the Father of fathers. But this obedience we are constantly prepared to render to him, and to every other Christian."
Nothing came of this conference, so far as Austin was concerned. The Welsh asked that, previous to deciding what further reply to give, a larger number of their own party might be present. A second conference was, therefore, determined upon; but before attending it, the Welsh consulted a pious
hermit, who was held by them in the greatest veneration. "May we obey this Austin?" asked the simple-minded Welsh. "Yes," answered the hermit, "if he be a man of God." "But how are we to know that?" The hermit answered, "If he be meek and lowly in spirit, after the pattern of our Lord, he will himself, being a disciple of Christ, bear the Master's yoke, and, put no heavier burden upon you. But if he be violent, and of overbearing spirit, it is plain that he is not born of God; and you will do well not to heed his words." Still the enquirers were not satisfied. Like so many others, they wanted some outward and visible sign by which to judge of Austin's character; and again they pressed the hermit to help them. "By what token, or sign, shall we know that he is a meek and holy man?" The hermit, evidently with a shrewd guess at the sort of man they had to deal with in Austin, responded: "Permit Austin and his attendants to enter first the place of meeting. If, on your entrance, he should at once rise to receive you, he is a servant of Christ. But if he should still remain sitting, notwithstanding the size and character of your company, you cannot so account him." Of course Austin neither answered to the hermit's description of a disciple of Christ, nor showed the hermit's sign of courtesy and humility. He sat stiffly up in his chair of state when the Welsh entered, and at once proceeded to the business of the conference. But the Welsh were in no humour to enter upon any agreement, or even quietly to discuss its terms. The hermit had rightly divined the character of Austin, and the Welsh did not conceal their uneasiness in the prelate's presence. Austin first tries what can be done by concession. "We know, at Rome," said he, "that many of your customs are contrary to ours; but if you will only consent to these three things, we will say nothing about the rest: (1) Alter your time of observing Easter; (2) Administer baptism according to the custom of the Roman Church; (3) And join with me in preaching to the Saxons." Still the Welsh hung back, little loth, by putting their necks under a foreign yoke, to lose their
dearly-bought independence. Austin now changes his tone, and more than justifies the hermit's description of one "not born of God." Cajolery has failed; he will try menace. "Well, well," said Austin, with ill-concealed anger, "if you will not have my blessing, and be brethren, you shall have my curse, and the Saxon's sword." Whereupon the council abruptly broke up, the monks returned to their quiet homes, and Austin comes back to the Saxons to foment further ill-will between them and the Welsh. There is little doubt that, indirectly, Austin is responsible for the cold-blooded massacre by Ethelfrid of upwards of a thousand unarmed monks of Bangor, although, when the dastardly deed was done, the ambitious and revengeful Austin was slumbering in his grave.
Let us now turn, for a moment, to the passage in Bede's Chronicle, on account of which the claim already mentioned is set up by the Welsh. It runs as follows: "Ut ministerium baptisandi, quo Deo renascimur, juxta sanctae Romanae Apostolicae eccleaiae, compleatis." ("That you shall duly administer the rite of baptism, by which we are born again unto God, after the manner of the holy Roman Apostolic Church.") From these words it is evident that there was a marked difference between the mode of administering baptism in use among the Welsh, and that generally adopted by the Roman Church; but what precisely that difference was it is by no means easy to discover. Lingard, the Roman Catholic historian, gives an explanation which Hook, in his Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, contends that he has no actual warrant for making. Lingard says the difference lay in the necessity for confirmation after baptism. Baxter and others contend that it refers to the use in baptism of white garments, milk, and honey. But most Baptists argue that the difference was, not at all as to the mode of baptism, but as to the subjects who should submit to that ordinance. It is, unquestionably, true, as Gregory the Great tells us, that he himself, and others in Italy, administered baptism by trine immersion ("nos tertio mergimus"),
but they also administered it to infants. Whether, however, this last was an actual point in dispute between Austin and the monks of Bangor, we cannot learn from the words of Bede. Dr. Evans and others with him, regard the collateral evidence on the question as distinctly pointing to this issue.
Perhaps the mode of baptism would have been the only question raised by the words of Bede, if D'Anvers had not pointed out that, in the translation of Bede's account given by Fabyan, the second condition of agreement laid down by Austin to the Welsh was this: "That ye given Christendom to children." D'Anvers therefore concluded that Austin wished to force infant baptism upon the Welsh, and this was evidently Fabyan's opinion. Many writers since the days of D'Anvers have followed in his wake; but, in our judgment, none have succeeded in making more than probable the early Baptist reputation of the Welsh people at the time of the brave old Deynoch and the imperious and bigoted Austin. ==========
[From J. J. Goadby, Bye-Paths in Baptist History, London, 1871; rpt. 1987, pp. 1-7. Scanned by Jim Duvall.]
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