Persecution of Baptists in Early England
[Henry VIII, Pre-teen Edward VI, 'Bloody' Mary and Subtle Elizabeth I]
Joseph Jackson Goadby, 1871
BAPTISTS enjoy the enviable distinction of having excited the hostility and suffered from the oppression of every dominant religious party in England, from the days of Henry the Eighth to the days of the Revolution in 1688. It is not difficult to understand how this has happened. The Baptists argued that the Church of God should be a community of godly men; that faith is the gift of God, and not to be compelled by force of arms; that only those rites sanctioned or commanded by Christ and His Apostles are binding upon His people; and that the only Lawgiver of the Church is Christ Himself. Each party had, therefore, its own reason for hating the Baptists; and as each had yet to learn the true nature of religious freedom, each oppressed and persecuted in turn. Believers in national State Churches, in the power of the secular magistrates to punish error, in the authority of bishops or synods to decree rites and ceremonies, and in the supremacy of the Sovereign as Head of the Church, all had their own ground for repugnance to the Baptists. We see this in their persecution by
Henry the Eighth, (1509—1547)
Bitterly as he hated the Papist party, after he had broken with Rome, he was not long before he revealed a still more
bitter hatred of all Baptists, English and Continental. The year in which he became supreme head of the Established Church in England, two proclamations were published against Baptists and the followers of Zwingle. Many of the King's subjects, we are told, "had been induced and encouraged, arrogantly and superstitiously (?) to argue and dispute in open places, taverns, and ale-houses, not only upon baptism, but also upon the sacrament of the altar;" and, to put a stop to these "pestilent fellows," the King declares that, "like a godly and Catholic prince, he abhorreth and detesteth the same sects, and their wicked and abominable errors and opinions, and intendeth to proceed against such of them as be already apprehended, according to their merits, and the laws of the realm." Ten days only were allowed to all who held these "pestilent heresies" to leave the country. Close upon the heels of this followed a second proclamation still more severe. Many strangers in England, "who had been baptized in infancy, but had contemned that holy sacrament, and had presumptuously re-baptized themselves, were spreading everywhere their heresies against God and His Holy Scriptures to the great unquietness of Christendom, and perdition of innumerable Christian souls;" and the King, forsooth, "daily studying and minding above all things to save his loving subjects from falling into any erroneous opinions," warns them to depart from England within twelve days, reminds them that some of their company are already convicted, and will presently "suffer the pains of death," and threatens all other Anabaptists and Zwinglians with the same fate, if they are caught. The following year ten were put to death, and ten saved their lives by recantation. Besides these, fourteen Hollanders were burnt for holding "damnable errors drawn from an indiscreet use of the Scriptures."
Four years past away, when a third proclamation was issued, this time appointing [Thomas] Cranmer and eight others to make diligent search for Anabaptist men, books, and letters. Full power
was given to Cranmer and his party to deal capitally with each obstinate heretic. Books and men were, "at their pleasure," to be committed to the flames. Little seems to have come of this; since a month later a fifth proclamation was issued, forbidding unlicensed books from being imported or printed, and singling out for special condemnation the works of Baptists and Zwinglians. The same month, November 1538, some of these hated and persecuted people were burnt in Smithfield; and the following month, in consequence of the King's letter to the justices of the peace throughout the country, in which increased rigour was enjoined against the unfortunate Baptists, numbers fled to Holland, where they were betrayed. On the 7th of January, 1539, fifteen women were drowned, and sixteen men beheaded. The King, still failing in his efforts, now adopts a milder course. He is pleased to speak of himself, as "like a most loving parent much moved with pity" for the "many simple persons" who have been seduced by Anabaptists and Sacramentarians, and offers "all and singular such persons" his royal forgiveness. This parental feeling did not last many months, since in July, 1540, those who declared "that infants ought not to be baptized," were specially exempted from all benefit in a general pardon. But neither threats nor cajolery prevented the spread of Baptist opinions. Like the Israelites in Egypt, "the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied and grew."
Nor did the position of Baptists much improve under the reign of
Edward the Sixth (1547—1553)
In the first year of Edward's reign, [Nicholas] Ridley and [Stephen] Gardiner united together in a commission to deal with two Baptists in Kent. A Protestant Inquisition was established, with [Thomas] Cranmer at its head. They were to pull up "the noxious weeds of heresy." Their work was to be done with the forms of justice and in secret. They might fine, imprison, torture, and, in all
cases of obstinate heretics, hand them over to the civil power to be burnt. Four years later this commission was renewed, and in the same year Baptists were a second time excluded from a general pardon. It was this Inquisition that condemned Joan Bocher, and scattered, or tried to scatter, the congregagations of Baptists gathered in Kent. Still their numbers increased. Strype tells us that "their opinions were believed by many honest meaning people ; " and another writer affirms, that the articles of religion, issued just before the King's death, "were principally designed to vindicate the English Reformation from that slur and disgrace which the Anabaptists' tenets had brought upon it," a clear proof that the Baptists were, at that period, neither few nor unimportant.
The sour bigot, who next occupied the English throne, made matters worse, although Baptists were now partly lost in the common ranks of Protestants.
regarded herself as a "virgin sent from heaven to rule and tame the people of England." How faithfully she executed her pretended mission, a long array of martyrs too surely testifies. Essex had the honour of yielding scores of Baptist martyrs during this gloomy reign. Humphrey Middleton, and three others, were burnt at Canterbury in 1535. "Would to God," wrote the Commissioners who visited Essex, and especially the district around Colchester, to find fresh victims for the martyr's stake—"Would to God the Honourable Council saw the face of Essex as we do see it. We have such obstinate heretics, Anabaptists, and other unruly persons here as never was heard of. If we should give it off in the midst" [that is, cease their disgraceful work], "we should set the country in such a roar, that my estimation, [reputation] and that of the Commissioners, shall ever be lost."
That some who avowed their belief in the doctrines commonly held by the Baptists recanted, when the rack dislocated
their limbs, and the shadow of the stake fell upon them, is no more than one might expect. It is not every woman that can bear to have her joints cracked, "and lie still and not cry," as Ann Askew did; and " even suffer her bones and joints to be plucked asunder in such sort that she was nigh unto death," without breathing a single syllable of recantation. It is not every man who can face his scowling judges, when they were athirst for his blood, and extort the declaration from one of them, " that he was the most unshamefaced heretic he ever saw;" and then, after being "baited," now by one inquisitor, and now by another, go back to his prison cell, and write cheery notes to his wife, sending therewith "a threepenny token and comfits for little Katherine; two nutmegs, " a poor prisoner's gift," to some friends;" two pieces of Spanish money, and a key-log for a token to his wife, wishing " she could make means for her money to send a cheese to Peter ;" and in the midst of these touching traits of human affection and home feeling, bursting out into a passionate petition, "Be fervent in prayer. Pray, pray, pray! that God would, of His mercy, put up His sword, and look on His people!" But though some could not endure the ordeal of fire, many showed, like Robert Smith, a yeoman of the guard at Windsor, the heroism of their faith.
Another instance may be given. Robert Smith had declared to Bonner, that "it was a shameful blasphemy to use such mingle-mangle" as holy oil, salt, and other things, "in baptizing young infants." John Denby shook the nerves of the same irate bishop by assuring him "that the christening of children, as then used in the Church of England, was not good, nor allowable by God's Word, but against it; likewise confirming children, giving of orders, saying of matins and evensongs, anointing of persons, making of holy bread and holy water." Denby, and his friend Newman, both of Maidstone, were pounced upon by an arch and bitter enemy of the Baptists. The persecutor had just returned from the burning of some
heretics either at Raleigh or Rochford, when he fell in with these friends, then visiting in Essex. "Even as I saw them I suspected them," says this sleuth-hound of Bonner. "And when I did examine and search them, and found about them certain letters, which I have sent you, and also a certain writing in paper what their faith is. And they confessed to me that they had forsaken and fled out of their country for religion's sake." Denby and his friend were hurried off to Bonner's palace, where both remain firm to their faith. "As touching the christening, the sacrament of baptism, which is christening of children," said Denby, "it is altered and changed. For St. John used nothing but the preaching of the Word and water, as it doth appear when Christ required to be baptized of him, and others also, who came to John to be baptized of him, as it appeareth in Matthew, iii., Mark i., Luke iii. and Acts i. The chamberlain said, 'See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?' It appeareth here, that Philip had preached to him : for he said, 'Here is water.' "We do not read that he asked for any cream, oil, or spittle, or conjured water, or conjured wax, no croysom, no salt, for it seemeth that Philip had preached no such things to him; for he would as well have asked for them as water; and the water was not conjured, but even as it was before. Also Acts x., 'Then answered Peter, Can any forbid water, that these should not be baptized?' Acts xvi., 'And Paul and Silas preached unto him the Word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house; and he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds; and so was he baptized, and all them of his household straightway: "where you see nothing but preaching and the Word."
Denby was condemned and burnt at Uxbridge. He gave expression to his joy, even in suffering; but a fanatical persecutor, urged by Dr. Story, hurled a faggot at his face: "wherewith, being so burnt that his face bled, he left singing, and clapt both his hands upon his face." "Truly," said the inhuman
doctor to the man who obeyed his malicious command, "Truly thou hast marred a good song." The brutal jest was only half true. [John] Denby recovered himself; and "stretching his hands abroad, whilst the flames were licking off the skin and flesh, he burst into another song, and then resigned his soul into the hands of God, through Jesus Christ." Newman did not long survive his friend. He was burnt at the end of the same month at Saffron Walden.
Many of the Baptists who perished during this reign are purposely hidden by [John] Fox in the crowd of other sufferers. Either from a desire to please the ruling party in his day, or from dislike to the men who could not sound his shibboleth, the Martyrologist has slighted the Baptists. He commonly omits all reference to their sufferings, or suppresses the particulars by which we could identify them as belonging to the "sect everywhere spoken against."
The last of the Tudors treated the Baptists with very little pity.
Elizabeth the First (1558—1603)
had scarcely been on the throne four years, before Baptists, "natural born people of the land and foreigners," were ordered to depart within twenty days, upon pain of imprisonment and loss of goods. This was a terrible blow, since many exiles, full of hope for future liberty and peace in their own land, had returned from their places of sojourn abroad. The "bright occidental star," whose rising had been hailed at home and abroad, heralded nothing but evil to the much-defamed Anabaptists. They crept out of their numerous hiding-places "an exceeding great army,"* but only to find themselves in the
* The remorseless butcheries of Alva had driven many Dutch Baptists into England. "The realm," said Dr. Parker, "was full of Anabaptists, Arians," &c. Many Anglican divines of the same period give similar testimony. Aylmer speaks of "Anabaptists, with infinite swarms of other Satanistes;" Jewel, of "large and inauspicious crops of Arians and Anabaptists;" and Some, of "Anabaptist conventicles in London, and elsewhere."
presence of peril and suffering from Protestant persecutors. The virulent misrepresentations of the trimming Cranmer, the sturdy Latimer, the gentle Hooper, and the able Ridley of earlier days, were now repeated, with variations, by the judicious Hooker, the vehement and impetuous Knox, and many men of inferior reputation. The Queen's proclamation against Anabaptists was seconded by her obsequious bishops, although Parkhurst, Bishop of Norwich, forms an honourable exception. He was still regarded as "winking at heretics and Anabaptists," and special inquiry was therefore ordered to be made in his diocese.
In 1568 the Queen ordered a general visitation to be made in every parish through England, wherever strangers congregated, to hunt out Anabaptists and other teachers of what she deemed "evil doctrine." Many Germans and Flemings suffered in consequence of these repressive measures. Numbers of English Baptists also fled to the Continent for safety. About seven years after this visitation, two Dutchmen were burnt in Smithfield—Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters—with the story of whose end everyone is familiar. The old and barbarous writ against heretics (de hceretico comburendo), which had been passed at a Parliament held in Leicester a century and a half before, had been hung up by the Queen as a menace, but it was now put into execution. Terwoort and Pieters were the only two victims who perished at the stake; but many languished in loathsome dungeons, and more Baptists were expelled from England during Elizabeth's reign, than during the reign of any other sovereign that ever sat on the throne of these realms.
The Baptists fared but badly under the Tudors; they fared little better under the Stuarts.
[From Joseph Jackson Goadby, Bye-Paths in Baptist History, 1871; reprint 1987, pp. 72-79. Subtitle and names in [ ] supplied. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More British Baptist Histories
Baptist History Homepage