400-Year-Old Lessons from English Baptists and Persecution

Article
10.30.2014

Persecution and martyrdom are perennial features of the Church’s existence in this world. Numerous New Testament passages bear out this fact (see, for example, 1 Peter 4:12–19; Acts 14:19–22; John 15:18–21). The experience of the Church down through the centuries has indeed been one of persecution and its concomitant, martyrdom. And although my focus is going to be on one period of this history, we need to recognize that this is not merely an issue of the past. It has been estimated that currently there are thousands martyrs every year around the world.

Now, the period that I wish to look at concerns the era of Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptist origins in the mid-seventeenth century. This Baptist movement had emerged from the womb of British Puritanism, and from seven congregations in London in 1644, they grew to roughly 130 in 1660. This was the era of the English Civil War and the English Republic—when Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) was a prominent political figure and there was religious freedom for those who did not worship at the local Church of England parish. With the death of Cromwell in 1658, however, there was a growing fear of anarchy by the army generals who had fought beside him. In desperation, they committed themselves to the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II (1660–1685), the so-called “Merry Monarch.” Those who came to power with Charles were determined to destroy the power of the Puritans. To achieve their end they passed an extensive piece of legislation known as the Clarendon Code (1661–1673), which included such acts as:

  • The Corporation Act (1661), which required all officials of cities and towns, “for preservation of the public peace both in Church and State,” to swear allegiance to the supremacy of the English monarch and to have taken in the year prior to taking office the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper according to the rites of the Church of England.[1]
  • The Act of Uniformity (1662), which required all worship in England and Wales to be done according to the Book of Common Prayer and required every minister to declare his “unfeigned assent and consent to all and every thing contained and prescribed” in it.
  • The First Conventicle Act (1664) that specified that for the first offence of being present at an illegal conventicle there would be a prison sentence of three months; for a second offence, imprisonment for six months; and for a third offence, exile for seven years unless a fine of £100 were paid.
  • The Five Mile Act (1665) forbade preaching “contrary to the laws and statutes” of England, required all preachers to swear that they would not “endeavour any alteration of government either in Church or State,” and fined any dissenter £40 who came “within five miles of any city” to preach or even to teach at any public or private school.[2]
  • A Second Conventicle Act (1670) proclaimed that “any person of the age of sixteen years or upwards…present at any assembly…under…pretence of any exercise of religion in other manner than…the Church of England” shall be fined 5 shillings; and “every person who shall wittingly…suffer any such conventicle,…to be held in his or her house, outhouse, barn, yard…shall forfeit the sum of twenty pounds.”[3]
  • The First Test Act (1673) again required all civil office holders and those holding commissioned office in the army or navy to take an oath of allegiance to the English monarch and to receive the Lord’s Table according to the rites of the Church of England and to declare that there is “not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”[4]

Other acts after this period regarding burial and marriage made dissenters and non-conformists second-class citizens. This includes Calvinistic Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers. Between 1660 and 1688, the Baptists—together with other Dissenters—who refused to go along with these laws often ended up paying substantial fines or experiencing life-threatening imprisonment.

Let us look briefly at some of those persecuted to see what we can learn regarding how we should respond to persecution.

THE EXPERIENCE OF JOHN BUNYAN (1628–1688)

John Bunyan was one of the first Baptists arrested for preaching. On November 12, 1660, he was scheduled to speak to a small group at a farmhouse in the hamlet called Lower Samsell, near Harlington, Bedfordshire. Even though a warrant had been issued for his arrest, he decided to go ahead and preach, for he was convinced that in preaching he was doing nothing wrong. The state, though, thought otherwise, and he was arrested just after he had opened God’s Word to read the text on which he was going to preach.

When Bunyan was put on trial he was accused of having broken the Elizabethan Conventicle Act of 1593 which specified that anyone who “devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to Church [i.e. the Church of England] to hear Divine Service” and who was an “upholder of . . . unlawful meetings and conventicles” could be held without bail until he or she agreed to submit the authorities of the Anglican Church.[5] In the eyes of the authorities, Bunyan was an uneducated, unordained common “mechanic.” And so it was made clear to Bunyan that he would be released if he promised to desist from preaching.

Bunyan, though, had a higher loyalty than obedience to an earthly monarch—obedience to King Jesus. Like the majority of his fellow Baptists, he believed in obedience to the laws of the state and he emphasised that he looked upon it as his duty to behave himself under the king’s government both as becomes a man and a Christian. But Bunyan knew the Spirit of God had given him a gift for preaching, a gift that been confirmed by the congregation of which he was a member. In Bunyan’s own words: “The Holy Ghost never intended that men who have gifts and abilities should bury them in the earth.”[6] For Bunyan, those imbued with the gifts of the Holy Spirit to preach had no choice but to exercise the gifts that God had given them.

During his trial, Bunyan defended his right to preach by quoting 1 Peter 4:10–11. Those judging his case maintained that only those ordained by the Church of England could lawfully preach. Bunyan’s disagreement was rooted in the fact that for him the ultimate authority in religious matters was not human tradition or human laws, but the Scriptures and their author, God. Bunyan had to obey his God; otherwise he would be counted a traitor to Christ on the day of judgment.

All told, Bunyan spent twelve years in prison. Years after his release, Bunyan recalled his possible demise by hanging as he sat in prison during the 1660s: “Oft I was as if I was on the ladder, with the rope about my neck.”[7] As his imprisonment wore on year after year, Bunyan sought a deeper meaning for the suffering that he was going through. He eventually came to the conviction that “the church in the fire of persecution is like Esther in the perfuming chamber” (see Esther 2:12–13), being made “fit for the presence of the king.”

THE EXPERIENCE OF WILLIAM MITCHEL (1662-1705)[8] 

A good example of this understanding of persecution is Bunyan’s fellow Baptist, William Mitchel, a tireless evangelist in the Pennines, a range of mountains and hills separating North West England from Yorkshire and North East England. Mitchel was born in 1662 at Heptonstall, not far from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. Nothing is really known about his upbringing. His conversion came at the age of nineteen after the death of a brother. Although he was genuinely converted, Mitchel played what he later regarded as the part of a Jonah as he sought to go into business as a clothier and become wealthy.

But God frustrated his worldly ambitions and drew him out as a preacher of the gospel. Within four years of his conversion, he began to preach as an itinerant evangelist. His cousin, David Crosley (1669–1744), a stonemason turned preacher, tells us that Mitchel’s aim in his preaching was to “chiefly set forth the exceeding rich and free grace of the gospel, which toward him had been made so exceeding abundant.” At the same time, we are told that his Christian life was one of unwearied diligence in “reading, meditation, and prayer.”

Mitchel would travel with Crosley and others over the Pennines, often during the night so as to reach preaching venues in towns and villages by early morning. Crosley remembered the toil it took to walk “many miles in dark nights and over dismal mountains.” But he also never forgot Mitchel’s “savoury and edifying” preaching that took place anywhere Mitchel could get an audience, “on mountains, and in fields and woods.” Though Mitchel was not a polished speaker, crowds would press to hear him. Many merely came out of curiosity, some came to scoff. But later, when their hearts and consciences had been impacted by Mitchel’s gospel preaching, they confessed, “the Lord is with him of a truth.”

According to the Second Conventicle Act (1670) what Mitchel was doing was illegal. This act forbade any one over the age of sixteen from taking part in a religious assembly of more than five people, apart from those sanctioned by the Church of England. The act gave wide powers to local magistrates and judges to “suppress and dissolve” such “unlawful meetings” and arrest whomsoever they saw fit to achieve this end. Mitchel was twice arrested under this law during the reign of James II (r.1685–1688), who succeeded Charles II in 1685. On the first occasion he was treated with deliberate roughness and spent three months in jail at Goodshaw. On the second occasion he was arrested near Bradford and imprisoned for six months in York Castle.

The enemies of the gospel who imprisoned Mitchel might have thought they were shutting him up in a dismal dungeon. To Mitchel, though, as he told his friends in a letter written from York in the spring of 1687, the dungeon was a veritable “paradise, because the glorious presence of God is with me, and the Spirit of glory and of God rests on me” [see 1 Peter 4:14]. He had been given such a “glorious sight of [God’s] countenance, [and] bright splendour of his love,” that he was quite willing to “suffer afflictions with the people of God, and for his glorious Truth.”

In another letter, written to a Daniel Moore during this same imprisonment, Mitchel told him he had heard that James II had issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which pardoned all who had been imprisoned under the penal laws of the Clarendon Code. But he had yet to see it. Whatever the outcome, he told Moore, “the Lord’s will be done, let him order things as may stand with his glory.” This sentence speaks volumes about the frame of mind in which Mitchel had approached his time of imprisonment. He was God’s servant. God would do with him as he sovereignly thought best. And Mitchel was quite content with that, for, in his heart, he longed for his life to reflect above all God’s glory.

THE EXPERIENCE OF ABRAHAM CHEARE (D.1668)[9] 

Abraham Cheare, pastor of the Calvinistic Baptist church at Plymouth, was a native of Plymouth. He had been a fuller, that is, one who cleans and thickens cloth. Unlike many men during the Civil War, he had taken no part in the fighting. He seems to have become a Baptist in 1648 and shortly after became the minister of the Calvinistic Baptist Church there. At the time the Church had 150 members, though there is no knowledge of how long it had existed, or who had pastored it before Cheare.

First imprisoned in 1661 for his Baptist convictions, he was to be in prison for the greater part of the time till his death in 1668. He was first imprisoned for three months in the county jail in Exeter. This jail was described by a contemporary as “a living tomb, a sink of filth, profaneness, and profligacy.” He was set at liberty on Easter that year. On August 24, 1662, he was forced to leave his church by the Act of Uniformity and subsequently re-arrested. He spent the next three years in prison in Exeter until he was released again in August 1665. But when he resumed preaching in Plymouth he was once again arrested and incarcerated on Drake’s Island in Plymouth Sound where he died after some months of illness in 1668. After his death some letters of his were published in a volume over his name, entitled Words in Season (1668).

In the letters he reflected a very clear theology of suffering under persecution and his concern for growth in holiness among his correspondents. In August 1663 he wrote to a friend, recently released from prison, of how important it was “to get the heart established in grace, drawn into a more substantial and experimental communion with Jesus Christ,” and asserted that those who would seek such a deeper experience “may have more advantage from the retirement of a nasty prison, than…from being left to walk in a large place.”

In line with this he had written to another friend in the previous September to answer a question about whether congregations should continue to meet during a time of persecution. Cheare insisted that the question was not whether there were grounds for continuing to meet but whether there could be any justification, having taken reasonable care to avoid arrest, for not meeting. Hence, in July 1664, he could write to a friend who had recently been arrested at a meeting for worship telling him of his “real opportunity to exalt Jesus Christ in suffering for his name’s sake.”

On the other hand, Cheare was fully aware that many people had been deeply disturbed by the onset of persecution, and some had fallen away. In one letter he had a picture of them like a fleet of merchantmen, “who set out of their port beautifully equipped, laden, trimmed, in consortship” but met a storm. Some hastened to their home port “with design to adventure such storms no more”; more were utterly wrecked and castaway; some anchored where they were and wished for the storm to abate. Only a few pressed on to the port for which they had set out in obedience to their Owner’s desires.

Yet in the same letter Cheare, who was not a boastful man, could say of his own case, after more than five years imprisonment:

I have never yet seen the least reason and (I praise Christ my Lord) never been under an hour’s temptation, to relinquish or repent of my testimony in word or deed to any one persecuted truth of Christ for which I suffer.

OUR EXPERIENCE, TODAY

There are countless lessons we can learn from saints long-dead, particularly should our times increasingly approximate theirs. Like Paul speaking of Old Testament Israel to the church at Corinth: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). He says something similar to the Christians in Rome: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

So it is with our 17th-century English Baptist brethren. They were determined to obey God where God had spoken clearly no matter the cost; they recognized that suffering is a means that God uses to sanctify us; they were conscious that no persecutor is ever able to hurt physically any of God’s children without divine sovereign permission; and they were aware that suffering for Christ’s sake is a means of bringing glory to their great Savior. For all of these reasons, they would have regarded persecution and even martyrdom as a gift to the Church.

May their persevering lives in the midst of persecution and suffering instruct us, as perhaps even now we endure, or are preparing to endure.

 

[1] Andrew Browning, ed., English Historical Documents 1660–1714 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 375.

[2] Browning, ed., English Historical Documents 1660–1714, 383.

[3] Browning, ed., English Historical Documents 1660–1714, 384–385.

[4] Browning, ed., English Historical Documents 1660–1714, 291.

[5] W.R. Owens, ed. John Bunyan: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1987), 127, n.137.

[6]Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners 270.

[7] Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners 335.

[8] The quotes in this section come from unpublished letters of William Mitchel in the “Mitchel/Crosley Letters in the Papers of Dr William Farrer” (Local Studies Unit Archives, Manchester Central Library, Manchester, UK).

[9] On Cheare, see Brian L. Hanson with Michael A.G. Haykin, Waiting on the Spirit of Promise: The Life and Theology of Suffering of Abraham Cheare (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). The quotes below come from this book.