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Persecution was still rife. In the year 1611, it increased to such a degree, that some Baptists left the country, and fled to America,* of whom honourable mention is made in Cotton Mather's history of America. The Baptists at home were not silent, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical hostility to their principles. They employed the pen and the press in their maintenance. In the year 1615, Mr. Helwis and his church in London, published a treatise, entitled “PERSECUTION FOR RELIGION, JUDGED AND CONDEMNED.” It is true there is no author's name to it, but at the end of “ The Epistle,” instead of names subscribed, there are the following words:
“BY CHRIST'S UNWORTHY WITNESSES, HIS MAJESTY'S MOST FAITHFUL SUBJECTS, COMMONLY (BUT MOST FALSELY) CALLED, ANABAPTISTS.”
That this treatise appears to be their’s is obvious, for towards the end of the book, to clear themselves from those gross errors held by some Anabaptists, and to prove their orthodoxy on the points of Christ's incarnation and the lawfulness of magistracy, they refer the reader to the Confession of Faith of 1611, before adverted to, and call it THEIR Confession.
This interesting and timely enunciation of the principles of religious freedom went on to prove. “BY THE LAW OF GOD, AND BY KING JAMES'S MANY DECLARATIONS, THAT NO MAN OUGHT TO BE PERSECUTED FOR HIS RELIGION, SO HE TESTIFYS HIS ALLEGIANCE BY THE OATH APPOINTED BY LAW.” “ The style of the treatise,” observes Neal,* “is easy, correct, and, considering the age when it was composed, very perspicuous, the reasoning strong and conclusive, and the dialogue well maintained. It is in the form of a dialogue, supposed to be by “ A Christian,” “An Anti-Christian,” and “ An Indifferent Person.” The principles of Disseuters and of the Baptists are clearly stated.
But the principal glory of this piece, is the manly and explicit avowal which the authors make of the true principles of Christian liberty; at a time WHEN THEY WERE EITHER UNKNOWN, or opposed by almost every other party. A somewhat lengthened reference to this highly important topic must be permitted. In this Treatise is preserved a just distinction between civil and religious concerns, and while they fully allow the magistrate his proper authority in the former, they boldly maintain every man's right to judge and act for himself in the latter.
In a dedication to all that truly wish Jerusalem prosperity, and Babylon destruction, it is declared :-“We do unfeignedly adhere to the authority of earthly magistrates, God's blessed ordinance, and
* Backin's History of Baptists, 3 vols. 8vo.
that all earthly rule and command appertain unto them; let them command what they will, we must obey, either to do, or to suffer; but all men must let God alone, with his right, who is to be the Lord and lawgiver of the soul, and not command obedience for God, when he commanded man.” “If I take,” says Christian, in the Treatise,) “any authority from the king's majesty, let me be judged worthy of my dessert; but if I defend the authority of Jesus Christ over men's souls, which appertaineth to no mortal man whatsoever, then know you, that whoever would rob him of that honour, which is not of this world, he will tread them under foot. Earthly authority belongs to kings; but spiritual authority belongeth to that spiritual king, who is king of kings."
“When we consider the state of the times,” observes Neal,-“This intrepid and dignified language must excite our just admiration.” Ivimey is desirous that Baptists should occupy their right position, as the asscrters of great principles, and maintains, that “they were the first to propagate the principles of UNRESTRICTED religious liberty;" and also asserts," that they never violated them, by abridging others of that liberty which they claimed for themselves.” +
That the Baptists were the pioneers of religious freedom is further stated by a well-known CATHOLIC Writer. “It is observable,” says Mr. Charles Butler, “that this DENOMINATION (THE BAPTISTS) FIRST PROPAGATED THE PRINCIPLES OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.”+
It may be affirmed, that the Baptists desire not unduly to occupy vantage ground over those who differ from them upon some points: adult or believer's Baptism, is with them a distinguishing peculiarity authorised by the sacred scriptures. Their views of religious freedom are derived only from the same infallible standard, which inculcates this divine principle, “whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them, for this is the law and the prophets.”
* “ Persecution, judged and condemned," republished in a volume of the Hansards Knolly's Society's tracts on liberty of conscience, &c.-Hadden, London, 1846.
† Within the last three or four years, no ordinary means have been employed to endeavour to prove that “The Independents ” were the first to assert liberty of conscience It is not within the scope of the design of these pages to discuss at length that question. Mr. E. B. Underhill has. in a masterly manner, entered into the suhject to prove that “The Independents” were “NOT THE FIRST, asserters of the principle of full liberty of conscience.” The result of Mr. Underhill's investigation, with his historical authorities, will be read with interest,they are entitle t to an extensive circulation amongst both Baptists and Independents, whilst the general reader may derive information upon the subject. A cheap edition of the Pamphlet is published by J. Heaton, Briggate, Leeds.
Butler's Historical Memoirs, p. 325.
If professing Christians acted under the influence of this heavenly precept, all persecution would cease. Dost thou desire religious freedom for thyself? Let others enjoy the same liberty. This sentiment carried out to its legitimate limits, would annihilate all sectarian preeminence; and, with regard to each other, would place all persons upon an equality in matters of belief, and in the enjoyment of their religious rights, COMBINED WITH A DUE REGARD FOR, AND OBEDIENCE TO THEIR CIVIL OBLIGATIONS.
There should be no misunderstanding, as to either the NATURE OR EXTENT of the religious freedom which may appear to be advocated.
It is a freedom or liberty, in relation to man and his Maker, the rendering of that homage and worship by the creature to the Creator, which conscience alone dictates, “ without let or hindrance.”
The liberty referred to HAS NO RESPECT to, and in fact is incompatible with the dangerous claims of a “Society," which wears THE GARB, and assumes THE NAME, of religion; but whose “secret instructions”* are at variance with it; a confederation in which neither religion, nor piety, nor worship, nor conscience, is concerned ; a combination in which there is one SETTLED PURPOSE AND OBJECT — UNIVERSAL DOMINATION,
ANY SYSTEM under the name or pretence of religion, whose principles and tendencies it can be shewn and proved, strike at the peace, the morality, the security, and the well-being of society, must be closely watched-against such a system the community may demand AMPLE SAFEGUARDS; and it has A RIGHT TO EXPECT
This is but common protection and prevention. Who will for a moment imagine that there is persecution in this ! The foregoing views are not incompatible with the sentiments which have been previously declared upon true religious freedom.
But to return to the order of date. In 1620, the Baptists presented "a humble supplication to the king.” It is divided into 10 parts: the seventh section, runs thus:
“ Persecution for conscience is against the profession and practice of famous princes,” and they reminded the king of his own sentiments on this subject. f
Without remarking upon the profession and practice of James I., with regard to religious freedom, the uncommon intrepidity of the Baptists is evinced, by their making a solemn appeal to the king and his parliament, at a time when they were exposed to all their resentments. The Baptists, by their own principles, were prevented from attempting to escape the storm that threatened them.
* See Gavin's Master Key to Popery.
+ 1 vol. Ivimey, see p. 129.
From this petition it appears that there were Baptists in many parts of the kingdom, for it states that they “had suffered imprisonment for many years, in divers counties in England;" but notwithstanding all they had greatly increased in this country in the reign of this king.
James I. died in 1625. Neal says,—"he was certainly the meanest prince that ever sat upon the British throne. England never sunk so low in its reputation, nor was so much exposed to the scorn and ridicule of its neighbours as in this reign.”
Rapin also observes of James I.,“ he was neither a sound Protestant nor a good Catholic, but had formed a plan of uniting both churches, which must have effectually ruined the Protestant interest, for which, indeed, he never expressed any real concern."
Charles the First succeeded his father. Unhappily for this monarch, he had been educated in the principles of arbitrary power, and religious bigotry. The conduct of James had been productive of much general discontent, which his son did not take proper means to remove. Determined to be an absolute monarch, he drove his subjects into rebellion, and fell a victim to his own measures.
It was during this reign that an event took place among the Baptists which has been commonly, but erroneously, considered as the commencement of their history in this country. This was the formation of some churches in London, which many have supposed to be the first of this denomination in the kingdom. But could it even be proved that there were no distinct Baptist churches till this period, it would not follow that there were no Baptists, which however has been confidently stated. It has been shewn that persons professing similar sentiments with those of the present English Baptists, have been found in every period of the English Church; and also that as early as the year 1509, there were, from the testimony of Dr. Some, many churches of this description in London, and in the country.
There has been produced unexceptionable proof that during the reign of James there were great numbers of Baptists who suffered imprisonment in divers counties, and that a petition to the king was signed by many of their ministers.*
The period has now arrived to notice the Baptists in a denominational character. There appears to be somewhat of variance of statement by different writers, as to the date to which the first formation or existence of distinct Baptist churches can be traced.
* Ivimey, vol. 1, p. 137.
Crosby, says,—"In the year 1633, the Baptists, who had hitherto been intermixed with other Protestant dissenters, without distinction, and who consequently shared with the puritans in the persecutions of those times, began to form distinct societies of their own. Mr. Spilsbury is mentioned, and the meeting house was at Wapping, London."
The churches at Devonshire Square and Prescold Street were founded by members from this church.
Ivimey takes earlier date. It is thought that the general Baptist church at Canterbury has existed for two hundred and fifty years, and that Joan Boucher, who was burnt in the reign of Edward the sixth, was a member of it. Though this is traditionary only, yet it is rendered probable from her being a Baptist, and being always called “ Joan of Kent.” It is said that the church at Eyethorne, in the county of Kent, has been founded more than two hundred and thirty years.
Neal observes, “ there is reason to believe that the Baptist Society, at Shrewsbury, has subsisted through all the revolutions of time to this day, from the year 1627."* The congregation at Birkenhall, now at Hatch, six miles from Taunton in Somerset, had, according to the opinion of its oldest members about twenty years ago, subsisted nearly two hundred years; and they had a clear tradition of its assemblies having been held so early as 1630, in the woods AND OTHER PLACES OF CONCEALMENT, on account of the severity of the times.f Even in 1457, there was a congregation of this sort at Chesterton, near Cambridge; six of them were accused of heresy, and condemned to abjure and do penance, half naked, with a faggot to their backs, and a taper in their hands, in the public market of Ely and Cambridge. I
All these details present different points of interest, furnishing as they do varied sources of reference of the respective writers. The balance of evidence appears to favour the views, that although Mr. Spilsbury's church at Wapping, 1633, might have been the first church formed in London, there were other churches formed at a MUCH EARLIER PERIOD IN THE COUNTRY.
The second notice of the formation of a Baptist Church in London is dated 1639, “whose place of meeting was in Crutched Friars, the chief promoters of which were Mr. Green, Mr. Paul Hobson, and Captain Spencer."
Pens were dipped in gall against the Baptists of this period. As they were frequently inveighed against, not only on account of their peculiar sentiments concerning the subjects and the mode of Baptism,
* A letter from the Rev.J. Thompson to the Editor of Neal's Puritans. Ed. 1822.
† MS. Collections concerning the History of Protestant Dissenters, communicated by Mr. Thompson. Neal's Puritans.
* Robinson's Claude, vol. 2, Dissertation on Preaching, p. 54.