The Baptist Pillar ©      Brandon Bible Baptist Church     1992-Present

"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Persecuted Baptists in England

in the 16th Century

Edward B. Underhill

From Struggles and Triumphs of Religious Liberty, 1848

By the aid of the historian Strype, we discover that not a few Baptists were entangled in the meshes of the sanguinary foe. His information was chiefly gleaned from the papers of the English martyrologist, and it is much to be regretted that from a desire to please the ruling party, or a repugnance to acknowledge the merit of those who came not up to his standard of orthodoxy, Mr. Fox has either omitted altogether any reference to their sufferings, or when he has mentioned them, has suppressed those particulars which would enable us to identify them as belonging to this obnoxious sect.

It will be remembered, that in the previous reign, a congregation of Baptists had been discovered, assembling as they might find convenient, at various place in the counties of Kent and Essex, but especially at Feversham and Hocking. Many of its members were then immured in prison with their two pastors, Mr. Henry Hart and Mr. Humphrey Middleton, but were probably released on the death of Edward. In 1554, those two preachers were again incarcerated, with two other ministers of the same people. (Strype's Cranmer, p. 502)

On the 12th of July, 1555, Mr. Middleton was burnt at Canterbury, with three others. His examinations were on the usual test-doctrine, transubstantiation. He averred that there was no real presence in the mass, that both the sacred emblems ought to be administered to the communicants, and in the English tongue. It was with difficulty that he was brought to answer the questions of his examiners, but he assured them, that he believed in his own God, saying, "My living God, and no dead God." Bound to two stakes, he and his fellow-sufferers passed into the presence of the Lamb from amid the devouring flame. Like true soldiers of Jesus Christ, they gave a constant testimony to the truth of his holy gospel. (Fox, iii. 363, 373, 377)

Mr. Hart, with many others, was, imprisoned in the King's Bench, where also were confined several, who, under the name of gospellers, adhered to the religion established by Edward VI. Among these prisoners of Jesus Christ arose considerable contention and strife. The eternal predestination of the elect, and the ability of man to keep God's commandments were the topics which excited their unseemly divisions. The Baptists were distinguished by the epithets of “free-willers” and “Pelagians.”

The martyr Bradford entered deeply into the subject with them, and more especially with Hart. The latter wrote a piece in defence of his sentiments, to which Bradford replied in a letter to Cranmer, Ridley, and Latymer, at Oxford, he communicates his fears, and sends them both Hart's book and his own. He conceives that these men confounded the effects of salvation with its cause. On the matter of freewill, he deems them plain papists, yea Pelagians. They also utterly contemned all learning. Their holy life, for "they were men of strict and holy lives," commended them to the world, and rendered their sentiments the more dangerous.

To his letter were appended the names of Bishop Ferrar, Taylor, and Philpot. Some yielded to his persuasions; to the rest he showed uniform kindness, alleviating the distress of their imprisonment, from funds confided to his care; for "that he was persuaded of them, that they feared the Lord, and therefore he loved them." Others dealt not so gently with their erring brethren. Archdeacon Philpot was among their opponents. In a letter to John Careless, he calls them schismatics, arrogant and self-willed, blind scatterers, contentious babblers, perverse and intractable. (Strype's Cranmer, 502, 503, 907)

In a long letter to a friend in Newgate, Philpot endeavored to establish the truth of infant baptism. Infants, he says, were included in the command of our Lord, Go ye into all nations, &c., but especially had they the same covenant-right enjoyed by the posterity of Abraham. Evidently feeling these grounds somewhat unstable, he earnestly exhorts his correspondent "to submit to the judgment of the church, for the better understanding the articles of our faith, and of the doubtful sentences of scripture. Therefore," he continues, "let us believe as they have taught us of the scripture, and be at peace with them, according as the true Catholic Church is at this day." (Fox, iii. pp. 606, 607)

To such a surrender of understanding and conscience, the Baptists were and ever have been opposed, inasmuch as they conceive that the marks of infallibility have never yet been discovered, engraven by divine skill, either on the " holy Roman church," or on that constituted by the legislative enactments of King Edward and his successors on the British throne.

Singular, too, is the harmony of sentiment existing between our reformer and his cruel persecutor, Bonner, who this same year (1555) put forth his book of homilies. Their arrows are drawn from the same quiver, and winged on earth, not in heaven. Thus in the homily on the authority of the church, in almost the same language, doth this blood-stained hero of Rome's infallibility proceed to say: "I exhort and beseech all you, good Christian people, that in all doubts, opinions, and controversies, ye would resort to the holy church, and there learn what the same catholic church hath believed and taught, from time to time, concerning doubts or controversies."

And in the exposition of the sacrament of baptism, he gives especial warning against the error of the Baptists; for, says he, "certain heresies have risen up and sprung in our days, against the christening of infants;" which elsewhere he teaches, that "the most wholesome authority of the church doth command." (Edmund, Bishop of London, &c., 1555)

While, then, our reformers endeavored to reduce the Catholic Church to the standard of scripture, appealing to its doctrines and honoring to some extent its commands ; yet were they not free from a papal dread' of too much light. They feared the perfect communication of the word of God to the laity, and dreaded the action of free minds on, its contents.

"To the unlearned and laity," says Roger Hutchinson, in 1552, "the publishing them without interpretation is a like matter as if a man would give to young children whole nuts; which, when they have tumbled long up and down in their mouths, and licked the hard shell, being not able to come to their sweetness, at last they spit out, and cast away both the shell and the kernel. The eternal God, to help the infirmity of man's capacity and understanding herein, hath ordained two honorable and most necessary offices in his church: the office of preaching, and the office dreading and interpreting."

To these must the humble man resort; so great is the hardness and difficulty of holy writ, that without a teacher none can wade through it. (Works, pp. 91, 94. Parker Society’s edit.)

Great therefore was the dismay of Ridley and others, when, as he says, these imprisoned Baptists rejected an open, that is, an established ministry, as not necessary; when the sacraments were regarded as only "badges and tokens of Christian men's profession:" or, as Ridley puts it, they made no difference between the Lord's Table and their own; yet more amazed was he, that they refused to attend the ministry, or submit to any Christian rite from the hands of any clergyman, however pure his succession, who was not known as a man of God by his holy life, and the fruits of piety.

In such cases of schismatic folly, Ridley counselled a resort to coercion. Since conviction could not be produced by persuasion, force must be applied. To quote the more gentle Hutchinson:

"If there be any suspected to be an Anabaptist, I would to God well-learned preachers were authorized to compel and call such to render account of their faith—if it were found Anabaptistical, that the preacher enter into disputation with him, and openly convict him by the Scriptures and elder fathers; and if he remain obstinate, the same preacher to excommunicate him; and then to meddle no further with him, but give knowledge thereof to the temporal magistrate, which, for civil consideration, may punish him with imprisonment, death, or otherwise." (Works, p. 201)

Hence the opprobrious epithets, the passionate language and bitter invective that marked the controversies of these fellow-sufferers for the truth.

Not the least among the opponents of the Baptists was Mr. John Careless, an eminent martyr, and their fellow-prisoner in the King's Bench. He had much conference with them, but failed; to his great grief, in convincing them. In 1556, Careless wrote a confession of his faith, especially favoring absolute predestination against free-will. It was generally concurred in by the protestant prisoners in Newgate and the King's Bench, where he lay. A copy fell into Mr. Hart's hands, and on the back of it he wrote his sentiments. His colleague Mr. Chamberlain also wrote against it.

Strype mentions only one article of this document, from which may be inferred the opposing sentiment of the Baptists. "That the second book of Common Prayer, set forth in King Edward's days, was good and godly, but that the church of Christ hath authority to enlarge and diminish things in the same book, so far forth as it is agreeable to Scripture." This reply of Hart fell into the hands of the Catholic party, and gave rise to scoffs at the divisions and various opinions of the professors of the gospel. It ended in the disownment of the Baptists by the gospellers, and a breach of all intercourse and unity between them. (Strype’s Cranmer, p. 505)

The friends of the prisoners sought to comfort and cheer them by letters. One of these is preserved. Strype thinks the writer was Mr. Hart, but it is evidently written from the country to those in London who were suffering for the truth, and, as Mr. Hart was one of them, it must have come from some other person.

The writer prays that his imprisoned friends may be endued with all wisdom and spiritual understanding. He urges them to walk as the children of the light, and to be fruitful in all good works; to have no fellowship with unrighteousness, to walk circumspectly, to "use well the-time, for it is a miserable time, yea, and such a time that if it were possible, the very chosen and elect should be brought into errors;" therefore, they must watch, search diligently the Scriptures, and take gladly the yoke of Christ upon them.

The writer then proceeds to argue from the precepts given by Christ to keep his commandments, and to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, that we are able to observe them; that God has given us understanding and reason for the purpose, and that life and death are set before men freely to choose.

He concludes:

"Wherefore, dearly beloved, let us look earnestly to the commandments of the Lord, and let us go about to keep them, before we say that we be not able to keep them. Let us not play the slothful servants, but let us be willing to go about to do them, and then no doubt God shall assist and strengthen us, that we shall bring them to conclusion. And always, dearly beloved, have the fear of the Lord before your eyes, for whoso feareth the Lord walketh in the right path....and at the last God shall reward every man according to his deeds." (Strype, Memor III. ii. 321-329)

How these followers of Jesus fared after this period, we have no means of ascertaining. The last mention of their persecutions in this reign is that of the sudden recall of certain inquisitors, who in the year 1558 visited Essex, and especially the district around Colchester, for the purpose of feeding the languishing flames of the martyr's pile, with fresh living fuel. With regret the commissioners obeyed the Council's commands.

"Would to God," they write, "the honorable Council saw the face of Essex as we do see; 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, we should set the country in such a roar, that my estimation, and the residue of the commissioners, shall be forever lost."(Strype, Memor. III. ii. 125, 126)

The country' began to groan over the ashes of the dead, and to regard with horror the cruelties of bigotry and Rome. On the 17th of November Mary died, and this darkest period of our national annals, and of the reformed faith in this land, yielded to a brighter day.