"Persecution - Religious Liberty"
By Henry Holcombe Tucker
IT was on Easter day, April 3,1575, that a congregation of Flemish Baptists, numbering some thirty persons, men and women, assembled in a private house in the suburbs of London, just without Aldgate Bars. The slaughterings and devastations of the Duke of Alva, in the Low Countries, had caused severe distress and loss of trade. Urged by the desire of obtaining a livelihood for their wives and children, and liberty to worship God in the simplicity of faith and love, these exiles had left Flanders for England. Outcasts and strangers, they sought a heavenly citizenship, and in their sojourn met to comfort each other, and to unite their prayers at the throne of grace. Their meeting was espied by the neighbors, although conducted with secresy. While commending each other to God, their devotions were suddenly interrupted by the entrance of a constable, who, addressing them as devils, demanded which was their teacher. Seven-and-twenty names were put down at his command, and taking their promise to remain, he proceeded with a few to the magistrate. He shortly returned, and with opprobrious and cruel words drove the rest before him to the gaol. Two escaped on the way; the rest were "led as sheep to tho slaughter." On the third day they were released, heavy bail being taken for their appearance, whenever and wherever it should please the authorities to determine.
Information of the capture was conveyed to the Queen's council; and at the suggestion, apparently, of Archbishop Parker, a commission was issued on the 27th of April, to Sandys, the Bishop of London, assisted by several civilians and judges, "to confer with the accused, and to proceed judicially, if the case so required." But a few days elapsed before the summonses to appear were issued, and these poor people stood criminally arraigned, for worshipping God according to their convictions. The court assembled in the consistory of St. Paul's; for it was a case of heresy. Besides the commissioners, certain members of the Dutch congregation were present as interpreters, a French preacher, and two aldermen. The prisoners first laid before the court a confession of their faith. The Bishop was not satisfied. He produced four articles, requiring their subscription; if obstinate in their refusal, they should be burnt alive. Such were the instructions he had received.
"They proposed to us four questions," says one of the prisoners, "telling us to say yea or nay: -
"1. Whether Christ had not taken his flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary?
"We answered, He is the son of the living God.
"2. Ought not little children to be baptized?
"We answered, Not so; we find it not written in Holy Scripture.
"3. May a Christian serve the office of a magistrate?
"We answered, That it did not oblige
our consciences; but, as we read, we esteemed it an ordinance of God.
"4. Whether a Christian, if needs be, may not swear?
"We answered, That it also obliged not our consciences; for Christ has said, in Matthew, Let your words be yea, yea; nay, nay. Then we were silent.
"But the Bishop said, that our misdeeds therein were so great, that we could not enjoy the favor of God. O Lord! avenge it not. He then said to us all, that we should be imprisoned in the Marshalsea."
Many threats were uttered during the examination; they were vexed with subtle questions, and urged to recant on peril of a cruel death. That they might expect no favor, the Bishop sternly informed them of the firm determination of the Queen and her council to compel all strangers to sign a renunciation of these articles. The conforming might remain in the land, and be free from taxes; but the uncompliant should die a frightful death. The prisoners were unmoved, and were conveyed to the Marshalsea for the testimony of Christ. One young brother, the first questioned, was sent into solitary confinement at Westminster, for his bold attestation to the truth.
And now severe trials and temptations beset them. Private friendships, the arguments of learned men, and the dark background of a fearful death, combined to shake their constancy. " Master Joris came to us and said, If we would join the church, that is, the Dutch church, our chains should be struck off, and our bonds loosed. The Bishop, he said, had given him command so to do. But we remained steadfast to the truth of Jesus Christ. He is indeed our Captain, and no other; yea, in Him is all our trust. My dear brethren and sweet sisters, let us bravely persevere until we conquer. The Lord will then give us to drink of the new wine. O Lord, strengthen our faith. As we have received the Lord Jesus Christ, let us go forward courageously, trusting in Him."
Five, however, yielded to the solicitations of the Netherland preachers, quailing at the fearful prospect set before them. They consented to forego their convictions, and subscribe the articles. Notwithstanding the Bishop's promise, that subscription should release them from all pains and penalties, they were brought to St. Paul's Cross on the 25th of May, to make a public recantation. Taken in their toils, these recovered sheep were not gently lifted on the shepherds' shoulders, and brought home with joyful shouts, as Christ teaches us the good pastor will do; but before many thousands of people, in the church-yard of St. Paul's, they were set for a gazing stock, a fagot bound on each one's shoulder, as a sign that they were worthy of the fire. At the close of the Bishop's sermon, their prescribed recantation was read. They declared themselves to have been seduced by the spirit of error, and that their renounced opinions were damnable and detestable heresies; but that the whole doctrine and religion established in England, as also that received and practised by the Dutch congregation in London, was sound, true, and according to the word of God. It was afterwards repeated in the Dutch Church, to which they promised to unite, and bail taken for the performance of the vow.
Two several times were the rest taken before their inquisitors, and for three weeks endured rigorous imprisonment, the sore chafing of iron fetters, with mingled entreaties and threats, to induce them to a renunciation of their faith. On the 11th May a further commission was issued, to proceed to their condemnation. On Whitsun-eve, the 21st, ten women and one man were formally condemned to the fire, one female shrank from the trial. A few days after the public penance at St. Paul's, the remainder were again brought up to the bishop's court, the place of Bonner's savage cruelties in Queen Mary's time. Day was just dawning, when, bound
two and two, they entered the place of doom. "We remember the word of the Lord," says Gerrit van Byler, "When they shall lead you before lords and princes, fear not what you shall say, for in that hour it shall be given you. So we trusted in the Lord. The questions were again proposed, and subscription demanded; but we said, That we would cleave to the word of the Lord."
In the plenitude of royal authority - dare any one call it apostolical? - delegated to him, the Bishop sentenced them to excision from the church of Christ, and to death; and formally delivered them to the secular arm for punishment.
Fourteen women and a youth, bound together, were led away to Newgate; the remaining five were kept in the Bishop's custody. And now for five or six days they suffered great anxiety and temptation. Oft threatened with a cruel and fiery death, they feared from day to day, the hour of their offering up was at hand. They were severely treated, and compelled to hear the blasphemies of tho vilest criminals. Ten days thus passed, when on the eve of the first of June, about ten o'clock, the gaoler, with his officers, entered their place of confinement, noted down their goods, and bid them prepare to die on the morrow. Seeing that their courage, and faith in God, remained unshaken, he then announced to them, that the Queen, in her clemency, had commanded a milder penalty - banishment.
In the morning, surrounded by halberdiers, they were led by the sheriffs to the water-side, and put on board a ship at St. Catherine's. The youth followed, tied to a cart's tail, and was whipped to the place of embarkation. Thus the ties of nature were severed; some of the poor exiles had to mourn in anguish over husbands and fathers, left in the hands of their persecutors, for whom yet more cruel severities were reserved.
The next day, June 2nd, the five men, who remained of this company, were again led bound into the consistory. The terrors of the stake were vividly set before them; their only escape, subscription to the articles. They were urged, they were threatened; it was unavailing. "It is a small matter thus to die," said Jan Peters, with a courageous mmd. The Bishop sharply inquired, "What does he say?" Peters replied. The Bishop listened with some moderation, and then stoutly said, "We must shave such heretics, and cut them off as an evil thing from the church." Said Hendrik Terwoot, "How canst thou cut us off from your church, since we are not of it?" The Bishop, "It was all the same; there were none in England who were not members of the church of God." And now were these friends of Christ unjustly condemned, and led away to Newgate to await the day of death.
Here they were strongly secured, heavily ironed, and thrown into a deep and noisome den, swarming with foul and disgusting vermin. "Then we thought ourselves," says Byler, "within one or two days of the end, after which we earnestly longed, for the prison was grievous; but it was not yet the Lord's will. After eight days, one of our brethren was released by death, trusting in God; his dying testimony filled us with joy." Even the society of thieves and malefactors was deemed too pure for them, both the Bishop and a preacher saying, that care must be taken lest the criminals should be corrupted by the association. Great, indeed, must have been the horror their opinions had inspired, when an English preacher, occasionally visiting their dungeon, would lay his hands upon them, and falling upon his knees, cry aloud, "Sirs, be ye converted;" and then, exorcising the devil within them, exclaim, "Hence, depart, thou evil fiend ?"
But exertions of another kind were not wanting on their behalf. Strenuous efforts were made to bring their case before the Queen. An earnest supplication, and a confession of their faith on the four articles, were prepared, but
the attempt to present them to her was met with a stern and passionate rebuke to the ladies of her court, who ventured to intrude on the royal prerogative. Reports of the most unjust kind were rumored about; that they disowned God and Christ, and rejected all government and authority of magistrates. Her majesty was not free from these impressions, and they were sedulously fostered in her mind, by parties thirsting for innocent blood. The Bishop was next applied to. A nobleman. Lord de Bodley, undertook to plead their cause, and, if possible, move his compassion. A simple confession of their faith was laid before him. But Bishop Sandys refused to interfere. He even demanded their assent to the doctrine, that a Christian magistrate may rightly punish the obstinate heretic with the sword.
A month's reprieve was, however, granted them, at the earnest suit of the venerable martyrologist, John Fox. His pious admiration of the Marian martyrs was shocked at the thought, that the scene of their triumphs would be defiled with the blood of these fanatic and miserable wretches. To roast alive was more accordant to papal practices, he said, than to the custom of the gospellers. He therefore urged upon her majesty the adoption of some other mode of punishment. Might not close imprisonment, or bonds, or perpetual banishment, or burning of the hand, or scourging, or even slavery, suffice? Any or all of these would be preferable to death by fire. But not one word does her "Father Fox" breathe of tenderness for the rights of conscience. He also addressed the victims. He labored to persuade them to acknowledge their error, and bow to the voice of Scripture; to cease "to cultivate certain fanatic conceptions, nay, rather deceptions," of their own minds; "for it is sufficiently apparent, that for long you have disturbed the church by your great scandal and offence." To the lord chief justice Monson, one of their judges, he sent a copy of his letters to the Queen and council, further reprobating the punishment of death, and advocating a milder punishment. The sufferers highly estimated his kindly interference; but while they thanked him for his condescension, they endeavored to change his unfavorable opinion.
The month expired, without any alteration in the resolution of these servants of God, or in their fidelity to the truths they had received. Early in tho month of July, it was intimated to two of them that they must die. Incarcerated in separate cells, they were not permitted to enjoy each other's society, and words of love. On the 15th, tho Queen signed at Gorhambury the warrant and writ for the execution to proceed. Jan Peters and Hendrik Terwoort were the two selected.
Jan Peters was an aged man, and poor, with nine children. His first wife, some years before, had been burnt for her religion, at Ghent, in Flanders; and his then wife had lost her first husband by martyrdom for the truth. They had fled to England, hoping there to worship without danger. His circumstances were laid before the Bishop, and he had earnestly entreated permission to leave tho country with his wife and children ; but the Bishop was inexorable.
Hendrik Terwoort was a man of good estate, five or six-and-twenty years of age, and a goldsmith by trade. He had been married about eight or ten weeks before his imprisonment. But neither domestic affection, nor the solicitations of his friends, nor the dread of death, weakened his resolution.
On Sunday, the 17th, tidings were brought them, that within three days they would be burnt, unless they desired delay. To this Terwoort replied, "Since this your design must come to pass, so we wish you to speed the more quickly with the matter, for we would indeed rather die than live, to be released from this frightful den." He, however, asked till Friday. We again quote the
affecting narrative of their companion in tribulation. "Upon Tuesday a stake was set up in Smithfield, but the execution was not that day. On Wednesday many people were gathered together to witness the death of our two friends, but it was again deferred. This was done to terrify and draw our friends and us from the faith. But on Friday our two friends, Hendirk Terwoort and Jan Peters, being brought cut from their prison, were led to the sacrifice. As they went forth, Jan Peters said, "The holy prophets, and also Christ, our Saviour, have gone this way before us, even from the beginning, from Abel until now.'"
It was early morning when they reached the scene of their triumph. They were fastened to one stake, neither strangling nor gunpowder being used to diminish their torture. As defenceless sheep of Christ, following the footsteps of their master, resolutely, for the name of Christ, they went to die. An English preacher was present, to embitter, if possible, by his cruel mockings, the closing moments of their martyr-life and martyr-death. Before all the people he exclaimed, "These men believe not on God." Saith Jan Peters, "We believe in one God, our heavenly Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ his Son." While standing bound at the stake, the articles were again, for the last time, presented to them, and pardon promised on subscription. Peters again spake, " You have labored hard to drive us to you, but now, when placed at the stake, it is labor in vain. One of the preachers attempted an excuse: "That all such matters were determined by the council, and that it was the Queen's intention they should die." But, said Peters, "You are the teachers of the Queen, whom it behooves you to instruct better, therefore shall our blood bo required at your hands."
And now with courage they entered on the conflict, and fought through the trial, in the midst of the burning flame; an oblation to the Lord, which they living offered unto him. Accepting not of deliverance, for the truth's sake, they counted not their lives dear unto them, that they might finish their course with joy:
"For what were thy terrors, O Death?
And where was thy trinmph, O Grave?
When the vest of pure white, and the conquering wreath
Were the prize of the scorner and slave?"
But what was the crime of which these victims of intolerance so dreadful were guilty? Did they aim at the Queen's life? Did they assemble to plot the ruin of the State which sheltered them? Did they league with any whose glory is in their shame, to assassinate, to rob, to violate the rights of their neighbor? Let us hear them speak from their abyss of sorrow, "We, poor and despised strangers, who are in persecution for the testimony of Jesus Christ, entreat from God fur all men, of every race and degree, that the Lord may grant perpetual peace and every happiness, and that we may live among them in peace and godliness, to the praise and glory of the Lord. Our fatherland, our friendships, our property, have wo been compelled to forsake, through great tyranny, and as lambs before wolves, have fled, only for the pure evangelic truth of Christ, and not for uproars and seditions, as we are accused.
* * * *
We know that we follow no strange gods, neither have we an heretical faith, contrary to the word of Christ. But we believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of the heavens and the earth; in one Jesus Christ, his only beloved Son; who was conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the undefiled Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he arose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and is sitting at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he will come again to judge the
quick and the dead. We believe in the Holy Ghost. We believe that Jesus Christ is true God and man.
* * * *
We do not boast ourselves to be free from sin, but confess that every moment we are sinners before God. But we must abstain from wilful sins if we would be saved, viz: from adultery, fornication, witchcraft, sedition, bloodshed, cursing and stealing,
* * * *
hatred and envy. They who do such things shall not possess the kingdom of God." Here we leave this noble evangelic confession of the martyr, Hendrik Terwoort. He hath fairly won the martyr's crown. Although despised, trampled upon, and his name held accursed among men, hie is the palmbranch of victory, and the white robe, washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.
Not less nobly does he plead the rights of conscience. "Observe well the command of God: Thou shall love the stranger as thyself. Should he then who is in misery, and dwelling in a strange land, be driven thence with his companions, to their great damage? Of this Christ speaks, Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Oh! that they would deal with us according to natural reasonableness, and evangelic truth, of which our persecutors so highly boast. For Christ and his disciples persecuted no one; but, on the contrary, Jesus hath thus taught, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, &c. This doctrine Christ left behind with his apostles, as they testify. Thus Paul, Unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; and labor, working with our own hands: being reviled, we Mess; being persecuted, we suffer it. From all this it is clear, that those who have the one true gospel doctrine and faith will persecute no one, but will themselves be persecuted.
The reader is now able to judge of the truth of the innumerable crimes laid to the charge of these the Lord's afflicted ones, the Baptists of that age. Thus runs the accusation of the celebrated Whitgift: They give honor and reverence to none in authority; they seek the overthrow of commonwealths and states of government; they are full of pride and contempt; their whole intent is schismatic, and to be free from all laws, to live as they list; they feign an austerity of life and manners, and are great hypocrites, &c. But the same high authority, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, adds these following particulars as aggravations of their guilt. In all their doings they pretend the glory of God, the edifying of the church, and the purity of the gospel; when punished for their errors, they greatly complain, that nothing is used but violence; that the truth is oppressed, innocent and godly men, who would have all things reformed according to the word of God, cannot be heard, nor have liberty to speak, and that their mouths are stopped, not by God's word, but by the authority of the magistrate; they assert, that the civil magistrate has no authority in ecclesiastical matters, and ought not to meddle in causes of religion and faith, and that no man ought to be compelled to faith and religion; and lastly, they complain much of persecution, and brag that they defend their cause, not with words only, but by the shedding of their blood.
These were the high crimes and misdemeanors of which the Baptists were accused. They need neither counsel nor apologist. The indictment is at the same time their accusation and their acquittal. Their deeds were noble; their sentiments just, Their affliction and triumphant deaths reflect glory on the holy truths of humanity's Great Martyr, in whose footsteps of blood they trod; but shame upon the men, who, with loud professions of fidelity to Him, slew the servants he had sent.
"But what was the cause of the unanimous hostility which these despised people encountered? Papist and protestant, puritan and Brownist, with one consent, laid aside their differences, to condemn and punish a sect, a heresy, an opinion, which threw prostrate their favorite church, their politico-ecclesiastical power, their extravagant assumptions, and their unscriptural theories. The papist abhorred them: for, if this heresy prevailed, a church hoary with age, laden with the spoils of many lands, rich in the merchandise of souls, must be utterly broken and destroyed. The protestants hated them: for their cherished headship, their worldly alliances, the pomps and circumstances of a state religion, must be debased before the kingly crown of Jesus. The puritans defamed them: for Baptist sentiments were too liberal and free for those who sought a papal authority over conscience, and desired the sword of the higher powers to enforce their "holy discipline" on an unconverted people. The Brownists avoided them: for their principle of liberty was too broad, and to this they added the crime of rejecting the "Lord's little ones" from the fold.
Thus the Baptists became the first and only propounders of "absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty." For this they suffered and died. They proclaimed it by their deeds, they propagated it in their writings. In almost every country of Europe, amid tempests of wrath, stirred up by their faith, and their manly adherence to the truth, they were the indefatigable, consistent primal apostles of liberty in this latter age. We honor them. We reverence them. And humble though they be, we welcome the republication of the first English writings which sounded the note of freedom for conscience as man's birthright, in this land of the free; they are sanctified by holy tears and the martyr's blood.
The above extracts are taken from a volume entitled, "Struggles and Triumphs of Religious Liberty," a historical survey of controversies pertaining to the rights of consciences, from the English Reformation to the settlement of New England, by Edward B. Underhill, Esq., London, England, with an introduction by S. S. Cutting, now Professor of Rhetoric in Rochester University; a volume without which no Baptist should consider his library complete. It has been supposed by many who have not taken the trouble to investigate, that Roger Williams was the first in modern times to advocate the doctrine of religious liberty. Bancroft speaks of him as the "discoverer" of the principle, (Bancroft, Hist. U.S. I., 371) and Hildreth speaks of the doctrine as "wholly novel," (Hildreth. U. S. I., 223.) But these writers, in their loose compliments to Williams, have done serious injustice to the Baptist denomination, and have grossly violated the facts of history. Williams was indeed the first who became conspicuous for the advocacy of the doctrine on this continent, but it had been a favorite principle with the Baptists from time immemorial. Hendrick Terwoort maintained the rights of conscience, and sealed his testimony with his blood in 1575, which was 24 years before Roger Williams was born. Nor was Terwoort by any means a pioneer. Thousands of Baptists had been slaughtered before his day, for advocating the same principle. In the last number of the "Memorial," an account was given of Thomas Muncer, who maintained similar views seventy-five years before the birth of Williams.
Henry Holcombe Tucker
[From American Baptist Memorial , February, 1856, pp. 33-39. Document from Google Books. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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