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 Chapter 23

Contribution of the Baptists of England to the Cause of Liberty


THE history of the Baptists of England is one of spasmodic persecution. Long before the period of Cromwell’s protectorate they had been persecuted, and after the reestablishment of the Monarchy they came under direct persecution again. In the time of the Commonwealth they exercised considerable influence in the cause of national affairs. These early Baptist writers wrote frequently on the subject of religious liberty as well as on their deep theological convictions.

Subsequently a society, the Hanserd Knollys Society for the publication of the works of early English and other Baptist writers, was founded. This society annually published essays and tracts by Baptist ministers in book form. In the year 1846, the Society published tracts on liberty of conscience and persecution, written during the period 1614 to 1661. This was from a time just after the middle of the reign of the first Stuart monarch, James I, to the beginning of the reign of Charles II, a period contemporary with the life work of Bishop Jeremy Taylor. One of the two honorary secretaries of the Hanserd Knollys Society, Edward Underhill in his advertisement for the book wrote,

In the prospectus of the Hanserd Knollys Society it was stated that "to the Baptists belong the honour of first asserting in this land [England], and of establishing on the immutable basis of just argument and Scripture rule, the right of every man to worship God as conscience dictates, in submission only to the divine command. Tracts on Liberty of Conscience, 1614–1661, p. v ("Tracts")

The book claims to contain the earliest writing extant in the English language on the importance of liberty. Underhill points out that these first articulations were certainly the infant concepts of liberty, and that they were presented in "mild and gentle entreaties," but he then bewails the fact that,

Unfortunately it was unheeded, and soon spake in the whirlwind and the storm of contending armies and national convulsion. Tracts

However, he traces the much greater liberty in England by the middle of the nineteenth century through the Baptists, declaring that this liberty was—

The fruits of the humble, but noble and self-denying labors of these pioneers of the soul’s freedom. They fell martyrs "for conscience’s sake." Ibid.

The book contained an extraordinarily long historical introduction of over one hundred and thirty pages. Interestingly, the introduction addresses the historical events prior to the period of the seventeenth century under review, dealing with the reign of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary. It then offers seven essays, the first written in 1614 by Leonard Busher, a citizen of London, to King James I and the High Court of Parliament. His essay was entitled, "Religion and Peace, or a Plea for Liberty of Conscience." Very little is known about this man—he describes himself as a laboring man who, with others, was under persecution. But clearly he understood the original Greek of the New Testament and he had a knowledge of the Syriac version of the Scriptures. It would seem that Busher’s treatise was a kindly essay on religious liberty, and one which had a significant influence upon King James I, for in his royal oration at the opening of Parliament in 1614, King James I said,

No state can evidence that any religion or heresy was ever extirpated by the sword, or by violence, nor have I ever judged it a way of planting the truth. An example of this I take where, when many rigorous counsels were propounded, Gamaliel stood up and advised, that "if that religion were of God, it would prosper: if of man it would finish of itself." Ibid., p. vi, vii

Unfortunately, in spite of this noble declaration by the king, it is of the greatest regret that in his practice he did not follow these words. Busher claimed that,

We are more likely to have our eyes opened by oppression so that we embrace truth more out of necessity than choice. Tracts, p. x

Busher strongly argued that,

The only way to make a nation happy, and preserve the people in love, peace, and tranquility is to give liberty to all to serve God according as they are persuaded is most agreeable to his word: to speak, write, print peaceably and without molestation, in behalf of their several tenets and ways of worship, wholesome and pertinent laws being made, upon penalties, to restrain all kinds of vice or violence, all kinds of reproach, slander, or injury either by word or deed. Ibid.

For an introduction to this treatise, one Henry Burton especially addresses his words to the Presbyterians, whom he saw as persecutors of faithful dissenters. Burton declared,

A plea for liberty of conscience is no new doctrine; as old certainly as the blessed words of God himself, which gives us this immovable foundation thereof: That every man should be fully persuaded of the truth of that way, wherein he serves the Lord. Ibid., p. xi

Burton, before the end of his appeal to the Presbyterians, became quite specific. He wrote,

I hope upon perusal thereof, you that are my brethren of the Presbyterian way, will abate much of your misguided eagerness in prosecuting your conscientious brethren. Consider, I beseech you, St. Paul before his conversion. He was as zealous, I make no question, as any of you, when he persecuted the saints and made havoc of the church, that is, of God’s people congregated together, to worship and serve God; when he entered into every house, and drew out both men and women to put them to prison; when he breathed out threatenings and slaughters against the disciples of the Lord; when he procured letters of the high priest to go to Damascus, where, if he found any of that way, then the heretical way in his account, he might bring them down to Jerusalem; when he consented to Stephen’s death. Ibid., p. xii

In his actual treatise, Leonard Busher, in addressing "the High and Mighty King JAMES, by the grace of God King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, and to the princely and right honorable Parliament," first acknowledged the king’s and Parliament’s strong stand for the religion in which they were born, but went on to point out that,

In all humility, therefore, I give you to understand, that no prince or people can possibly obtain that one true religion of the gospel which is acceptable to God by Jesus Christ, merely by birth. Tracts, p. 15

He then explained that all must be born again before they can become true Christians, and that is the only way that one true religion can be obtained. Busher explained that to use fire and sword to restrain princes and people,

is wholly against the mind and merciful law of Christ, dangerous both to king and state, a means to decrease the kingdom of Christ and a means to increase the kingdom of antichrist. Ibid., p. 17

Busher denied that any king or bishop could command faith, for faith was the gift of God. Further, Busher understood the basic principles of the separation of church and state for he wrote,

Kings and magistrates are to rule temporal affairs by the sword of their temporal kingdoms, and bishops and ministers are to rule spiritual affairs by the word and Spirit of God, the sword of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, and not to intermeddle one with another’s authority, office and function. And it is a great shame for the bishops and ministers not to be able to rule in their church, without the assistance of the king and magistrate; yea, it is a great sign they are none of Christ’s bishops and ministers. Ibid.

Busher presented seventeen reasons why religious persecution should be forbidden. It would not be possible to repeat them in full, but briefly they were as follows:

(1) Because Christ had not commanded any king, bishop, or minister to persecute the people;

(2) Because Christ had commanded His bishops and ministers to persuade princes and people to hear and believe the gospel;

(3) Because, through persecution, it will be certain that the ambassadors of Jesus may be persecuted, imprisoned, burned, hanged, or banished for delivering the message of their gracious Lord;

(4) Because we cannot have liberty of the gospel until there is no forcing of the conscience of men;

(5) Because Christ came into the world to save sinners and not to destroy them;

(6) Because it will be a poor example to those without Christianity;

(7) Because if persecution be not laid down and liberty of conscience set up, none of the Jews or other strangers will be convinced of the gospel;

(8) Where there is persecution in the land, those who have different beliefs from the king and rulers have to depart for some other land of freedom;

(9) Because of the persecution, the king and the state will have many dissemblers against the authority and office of the king and state;

(10) If all are forced to belong to one church, then indeed there will be many different religious beliefs within that church;

(11) If liberty is not set up, you may persecute the true Christians instead of the false ones;

(12) If Christian rules will not allow other Christians of different beliefs to practice and preach their faith, then how can we demand such toleration of non-Christian nations;

(13) When religion forces the conscience, then it becomes a religion against the will and a tyranny over the soul as well as over the body;

(14) If Protestants continue persecution, where are they more merciful than the Papists or the Turks?

(15) Because the king and Parliament would not willingly be forced against their consciences by the persecution of the Bishop of Rome and his princes, so also should they not force the Christians in their domain;

(16) By forcing the conscience, men and women are driven to the devil in their errors if that be heresy for which they are hanged and burned;

(17) Persecution of Christians by Christians justifies Papists and Jews persecuting Christians.

In examining these seventeen objections to persecution, a second tract was written by an unnamed author who was a member of Mr. Helwys’s Baptist congregation. This group had been exiled to Holland and had returned to England sometime toward the end of 1611 or the beginning of 1612. The basic thesis of his tract was that learned people usually err and resist the truth; that persecution is against the law of Jesus and against the profession and practice of famous princes; that persecution has been condemned by ancient and later writers, and above that, freedom in religion is not harmful to any nation, and it does not deprive kings of any of the power given them by God.

Manifestly, the early writers on liberty felt they had to give great attention to the role of the monarch, and believed it necessary to build the confidence of the king in the fact that multiple religions did not in any way weaken his regal powers, nor destabilize the nation’s security.

In this tract of 1615, the author presented a seventy-six page dialogue between "Antichristian" and "Christian" and the "Indifferent Man." This dialogue is a fascinating effort to distinguish between loyalty to God and loyalty to man, that is, the principle of separation of church and state. In one part of the dialogue, Christian affirms wholeheartedly the oath of allegiance and loyalty to King James I. Antichristian objects by saying the oath was intended for Papists, and—

not for you. But Christian points out that the oath of allegiance was evident at the Parliamentary session of 1609, required all to present themselves at church and receive the Lord’s supper according to the laws and statutes of England Tracts, p. 137, 138


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