PERHAPS we shall obtain a clearer view of the actual condition of the Baptists in the reign of Charles II. from the history of one church than from any other source. We are fortunately furnished with such a history. The records of the church at Broadmead, Bristol, have been published by the Hanserd Knollys Society, and more recently in "The Bunyan Library." We will give an extract from the narrative.
This church was founded in 1640. The members met regularly for worship, whether they could obtain the services of a minister or not, the gifted brethren helping by prayer and exhortation. In 1651, Mr. Ewins, who had been a minister in the Episcopal Church, became their pastor. Under his ministry the church prospered. In addition to the Lord's-day exercise, they met on Thursday evenings in private houses for free conference on the Scriptures and mutual exhortation. These meetings were found very profitable.
But in 1661 their troubles began. On the 27th of July in that year, Mr. Ewins was apprehended while preaching. He was released on the 25th of September following, and immediately recommenced his work. Next year he endured another short imprisonment. A heavier trial came upon them in 1663. Mr. Ewins and several others were arrested on the 4th of October, and indicted at the quarter sessions for a riot. Various fines were imposed (Mr. Ewins was fined £50), and the parties were adjudged to lie in prison till the fines were paid. So the prison became the parsonage till the following September, when a compromise was effected, and on payment of part of the money the prisoners were
released. Mr. Ewins had not been idle, however. The people were accustomed to gather around the prison, and their pastor preached to them from the window of the room which he occupied, on the fourth storey. "The word of the Lord was precious in those days."
Hitherto they had met in a "chapel called the Friars" but now they were compelled for a time to worship in private houses. The constables frequently disturbed them, and many were imprisoned and fined. Sometimes, when they learnt that the officers were coming, they evaded them
[A picture of the Bristol Bridge in 1871 is not included]
by taking refuge in a cellar, and sometimes by climbing into a garret. Still they resolutely kept up their assemblies. "In the year 1665," they say, "we had many disturbances, and divers imprisoned, but the Lord helped us through it." Their firmness was remarkably shown by a resolution passed to the effect, that those who absented themselves from worship through fear should be dealt with as disorderly members. The names of all the members were engrossed on parchment, and the roll was called once a month, when they met for the Lord's Supper, "to see who
doth omit their duty." Not many were willing to expose themselves to church censure; but now and then a case occurred, and the delinquents were excluded "for neglecting their duty of assembling, through fear."
When the plague broke out in Bristol, in 1666, a stop was put to the persecution. There was peace for four years. In 1667 the Church obtained another "public meetingplace." It was "a large warehouse, up one pair of stairs." Mr. Ewins died April 26th, 1670. In the following month the police made their appearance again, and took some members of the congregation to the magistrates, who fined them. This was repeated several Lord's-days; but they secured the preacher by breaking a hole in the wall, so that he could stand in a room of the adjoining house, and preach without being seen. Thus their enemies were baffled. The opposition becoming more violent, they adopted another course. They nailed up the doors of the meeting-house; and "we were fain," the record states, "to meet in the lanes and highways for several months."
Another interval of tranquility was enjoyed. They invited Mr. Thomas Hardcastle, who had been preaching some time in London, to become their pastor. He was in prison when the invitation reached him. After his release he visited the Church, and subsequently accepted the charge, in 1671. In that year they procured "the meeting-house at the lower end of Broadmead, where the heretics called Quakers had formerly used to meet; it being four great rooms made into one square room, about sixteen yards long and fifteen yards broad." There Mr. Hardcastle preached upwards of three years without any disturbance.
But in 1674 there came a new bishop to Bristol, "one Guy Carleton" "though aged and gray, a violent man against good people that separated from that which he called the Church." . . . "He resolved to destroy all our meetings, and said he would not leave a track of a meeting in
Bristol; but would make us all come to Church, as he called it." With him was leagued George Hellier, a lawyer, who took up the trade of an informer, and found it more lucrative than his profession. He spent the Lord's-days in going from one meeting-house to another, in search of prey. His chief object was to seize the minister, partly in the hope of suppressing the meetings thereby, and partly for the sake of the heavy fine. Mr. Hardcastle was apprehended Feb. 4th, 1675, and committed to jail for six months. But the meetings were not discontinued, although arrests took place nearly every Lord's-day. In order to protect the preacher, a curtain was prepared, by which, when drawn, a portion of the room was separated. About fifty persons could sit behind the curtain, the preacher being placed among them, undistinguished. Care was taken that a number of "women and maids" should sit on the staircase, "so that the informers could not quickly run up." By this contrivance, whenever Hellier and his minions were approaching, notice was given, the curtain was drawn, the service ceased, and the whole congregation, according to a preconcerted arrangement, commenced singing a psalm. When the informers entered at such a time, they were utterly confused. It was impossible to tell who had been preaching; and singing psalms was no crime. But "justice had fallen in the streets," and they rarely failed to drag away some of the congregation to prison, and to procure the infliction of fines upon them.
Mr. Hardcastle was released from prison at the end of six months; but, on the second Lord's-day after his release, he was apprehended while preaching, and sent to jail again. During this second term of imprisonment he wrote a weekly letter to the Church, which was read at the Lord's-day meetings. These letters have been preserved. They are admirably adapted to the instruction and comfort of a people under such trying circumstances. And they were much
needed. Towards the end of the year the meetings were "grown very poor and lean, through fines, imprisonments, and constant worrying of us every day." On one occasion the bishop himself was among the constables!
From the beginning of 1676 to the middle of 1680 there was a lull in the storm. Mr. Hardcastle died in 1678, and was succeeded by Mr. George Fownes in September, 1679.
Interruption of their worship was resumed in July, 1680, and continued at times through that year and the next. In December, 1681, Mr. Fownes and a large number of the brethren were seized and sent to prison. He preached to them there. Twenty-four of them were brought up at the quarter sessions, and obliged to give bail for their appearance when called on to answer an indictment for a breach of the peace, with which they were most unrighteously threatened. Mr. Fownes was detained, but the brethren were determined to test the legality of his imprisonment, and procured a writ of habeas corpus, by which means his cause was taken to the Court of King's Bench in London, and he was ultimately discharged, although he was still prevented by the operation of the Five Mile Act from preaching in public.
The years 1682 and 1683 were the darkest times to our brethren. They held their meetings in private houses, in the fields, or in the woods, wherever they could best escape the vigilance of the authorities. Mayor, aldermen, and constables could hardly have gone to Church at all in those years, for all their time was spent in hunting after Dissenters meetings. A few brief extracts from the records will show how our ancestors fared.
1682. Jan. 29. The Church met at four different places. Many of them "went in the afternoon on Durdham Down, and got into a cave of a rock towards Clifton, where brother Thomas Whinnell preached to them."
March 12. "Met in the fields by Barton Hundred, and
Mr. Samuel Buttall of Plymouth preached in the fore-part of the day, and brother Whinnell in the evening. It was thought there were near a thousand persons in the morning."
March 19. "Met in the lanes beyond Baptist Mills."
April 13. "Met in the rain in a lane."
April 20. "A day of prayer, from nine till five in the evening, at Mr. Jackson's, over the Down, in peace."
May 4. "Information was brought to a petty session for Gloucestershire, against brother Jennings, for preaching in the lanes, and a warrant granted for levying five pounds, or else goods, or person."
June 11. "Brother Fownes being come from London, but not daring to come into the city because of the Corporation Act, met with us, and preached in Kingswood, near Scruze Hole, under a tree, and endured the rain."
July 2. "Our pastor preached in another place in the wood. Our friends took much pains in the rain, because many informers were ordered out to search ; and we were in peace, though there were near twenty men and boys in search."
July 16. "Brother Fownes first, and Brother Whinnell after; preached under a tree, it being very rainy."
August 20. "Met above Scruze Hole, in our old place, and heard brother Fownes preach twice in peace. Brother Terril had caused a workman to make banks on the side of the hill to sit down on, several of them like a gallery; and there we met also on the 27th, in peace. On both days we sang a psalm in the open woods."
"On the 7th of December we met for our lecture at Mr. Shuter's, on Redcliffe Hill, in peace, taking a great deal of care in going and coming, the women wearing neither white aprons nor patterns."
1683. Jan. 21. "We met at eight in the morning, and though there were seven on horseback and twenty on foot to seek after us, we escaped, having broken up at ten."
March. "This week about 150 Dissenters were convicted by our recorder, on the statute of 23rd Eliz., for £20 a month, for not coming to church."
March 25. Mr. Fownes, though "very ill, went to the meetings in the wood; but after three quarters of an hour we were surrounded by horse and foot, the former in ambush." Mr. Fownes was arrested, and sent to Gloucester jail for six months.
April 22. "We went out at four in the morning, and were in peace."
November 14. "A day of prayer, having some hours together in the wood, between London and Sodbury Road: the enemy came upon us unawares, and seized about eight persons; but the brethren escaped to admiration. The bushes were of great service to us." A number of the sisters were taken: "they got justice Fitz-Herbert to come, and upon examination he could get little out of them, and could not learn who was the preacher; so they were let go."
December 20. "Watkins, the marshal, and others, went with warrants from Justice Herbert to brother John Morgan, in Temple Street, and took his yarn and what goods they could find, for seven pounds ten shillings. And the day before took away Margaret Seymour's trunk and clothes, with about thirty pounds, for seven pounds odd money, for being at our meeting in the fields."
December 30. "Being a hard frost, and snow on the ground, we met in the wood, and though we stood in the snow the sun shone upon us, and we were in peace."
1684. March 4. "We took our sad state into consideration; and brother Terrill signified, that our duty lay in three things: 1st. To watch over one another, that none draw back to the world's worship. 2nd. That every one sanctify the Lords-day. 3rd. That we endeavour to edify one another as members, and also do what we can for others' souls. And, considering what is above, and
that writs are daily expected to levy £20 a month, £240 per annum a man, upon us, for not coming to church, or imprison us if it be not be paid, there being thirteen brethren present, we agreed to have circular meetings at five places, where the brethren were to exercise their gifts, and twice in a day, at nine in the morning, and at one in the afternoon. These five places were. 1st, brother Dickson, or Davis; 2nd, brother Clark or Robert Lewis; 3rd, brother Whinnell; 4th, brother Ellis or J. Coirnhs [Cornish]; 5th, brother Terrill. And also three places for prayer and repetition; viz. brother Gwilliam's, brother Bodenham's, brother Reeve's. And because some might be sick or otherwise detained, we appointed six or seven to a place, and the first four were to be taken in, and that those that were shut out were to go to the places of repetition. And none were to go to a place but once a day, and not to the same place every Lord's-day; but round, so they came to the same once in five weeks. And by this means near one hundred might hear every Lord's-day, and in a few weeks have the benefit of all the Church's gifts. And besides, brother Whinnell would repeat again at some house in the evening, and on week-days at other places. Thus we kept within the law, which allowed four besides the family. And on the ninth of March we began this circular meeting."
April 10. "Brother Warren was fined £10 for a riot, being at a meeting near Roe Gate, and fees 47s., which he paid in the hall at Gloucester. But Lugg was forsworn in it, for he swore it was on the 27th, and it was on the 29th day that the meeting was. Old brother Cornish was bound to appear again next sessions, and several others. Some were fined 40s. and their fees, and released. Sister Fowles was put in prison at Gloucester. Some were fined five marks, as Mr. Jos. Wey; some £5, as the justices pleased, and to lie in prison till paid. About this time Pug Read died miserably, being an informer about twenty years old:
had his skull broke, as was said, by one of his companions; he was one that broke into Mr. Terrill's house."
September 16. "Several of our brethren, brother Hunt, William Dickason, &c., and many more, were summoned by the apparitor to the bishop's court, for not receiving the Lord's Supper."
October 7. "Nearly twenty more friends were indicted for eleven months' not coming to church." . . . "And brother Fownes being brought into court, was by Powell, the chairman, called a ringleader, turbulent, seditious, and told he must find six hundred pounds' bail to appear next sessions at Bristol, and be of good behavior, or lie in prison."
October 10. "New mayor and sheriff being chosen, James Twyford, sheriff, threatens to find out our little meetings, and he would be like death, spare none."
1685. January 13. "At the quarter sessions, brother Fownes was treated as before, and Justice Powell, the chairman, told him, Sir Richard Hart, of Bristol, should say he was a dangerous man. So they still kept him there at Gloucester, prisoner."
"On the 29th of November, 1685, our pastor, brother Fownes, died in Gloucester jail, having been kept there for two years and about nine months a prisoner, unjustly and maliciously, for the testimony of Jesus and preaching the Gospel." He was originally committed for six months, but they would not release him unless he would give bond for his good behavior, which meant, that he would not preach again. This, of course, he would not do.
Thus the enemy prevailed, and the servants of God were brought low. Truly, they were "perilous times."
[From J. M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Present Time, 1871; rpt, 1987, pp. 304-312. - jrd]
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