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Chapter 24

Further Contributions of the Baptists to the Cause of Religious Liberty 

 

HAT impact the Baptist dialogue had on the thinking of the day is not plainly evaluated. However, the next tract was put out by a group of Baptists in 1620. There had been no session of the British Parliament called since 1614. In the time between 1614 and 1620, many Baptists had been severely persecuted, imprisoned, and had been subject to loss of goods, and in not a few cases, the loss of life—not because they were disloyal to the king, nor had they done any harm toward their fellow man, but because,

They did not assent to, nor practice in the worship of God, such things as they deemed contrary to, or unsanctioned by, His words. Tracts on Liberty of Conscience, 1614–1661 (Tracts)

In 1620, King James summoned the House of Lords and Commons, but not with the purpose of consideration of the domestic nags and grievances of his subjects. Indeed, he considered that there were sufficient laws concerning religion so that the intent of how to execute them was plain. The king declared,

The maintenance of religion stands in two points; (1) Persuasion, which must proceed. (2) Compulsion, which must follow; for as all the world cannot create a new creature, be it never so little, so that no law of man can make a good Christian in heart, without inward grace. Yet it is not enough to trust to a good cause, and let it go along. Likewise the busy puritans; do but see how busy they are to persuade the people. But God forbid that I should compel men’s consciences, but leave them to the laws of the kingdom; for the rumor that is spread, that I should tolerate religion in respect of this match which hath been long entreated with Spain for my son, I profess I will do nothing therein which shall not be honorable, and for the good of religion. Tracts, 185, 186

The House of Commons saw that the king was wavering between toleration and effecting a strong stand against Roman Catholics and others who would not follow the established religion of the Church of England. But at this time the Parliament was not in a mood to offer any concessions to the Baptists. Yet an opponent of the Baptists said,

that at this time they have multitudes of disciples; that it was the custom to produce a great number of Scriptures to prove their doctrines and that they were in appearance more holy than those of the established church. Ibid., p. 187

The 1620 appeal by the Baptists to the king, contained many of the general sentiments that were presented by Leonard Busher and the unnamed author of the 1615 tract. At this time the tract was addressed not only to King James and to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, but also to the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who became Charles I, a persecutor. Maybe this was because they sensed that King James was coming toward the end of his life, and they wanted the heir apparent to the throne to consider his stand on the issue of religious liberty. Of deep significance are the final words of this petition to the king and his counselors.

Calling the all-seeing God to witness, that we are your majesty’s loyal subjects, not for fear only, but for conscience sake,

And then it was signed significantly,

Unjustly called Ana-Baptists

The authors desired to make it plain to the king that they thoroughly believed in their responsibility to be loyal to the king, but that they were unjustly called Ana-Baptists. The word anabaptist means rebaptiser. The Ana-Baptists did not approve of this designation, because they believed there was only one true baptism and that was adult consent baptism by total immersion—often referred to as believers’ baptism. They denied that infant sprinkling was baptism, and should one have been sprinkled in infancy, they did not account that as baptism. Therefore when, in adulthood, they accepted the Baptist faith, they believed it to be their first and only true baptism.

This 1620 petition was presented in the form of ten relatively short chapters that may be summarized as follows:

(1) The rule of faith is the doctrine of the Holy Ghost contained in the sacred Scriptures, and not of any church, council, prince, or potentate, nor any mortal man whatsoever. (Tracts, 193)

(2) The interpreter of this rule is the Scriptures, and the Spirit of God. (Ibid., 197)

(3) The Spirit of God is needed to understand and interpret the Scriptures. It is given to all and every particular person that fears and obeys God, and of what degree soever they be; and not to the wicked. (Ibid., 199)

(4) Those that fear and obey God, and so have the Spirit of God to search out and know the mind of God in the Scriptures, are commonly, and for the most part, the simple, poor, despised. (Ibid., 200)

(5) The learned in human learning, do commonly and for the most part err, and know not the truth, but persecute the professors of it: and therefore are no further to be followed than we see them agree with truth. (Ibid., 205)

(6) Persecution because of conscience, is against the doctrine of Jesus Christ, King of kings. (Ibid., 214)

(7) Persecution because of conscience is against the profession and practice of famous princes. (Ibid., 216)

(8) Persecution because of conscience is condemned by the ancient and later writers, by Puritans and Papists. (Ibid, 218)

(9) It is no prejudice to the Commonwealth if freedom of religion was suffered, but would make it flourish. (Ibid., 224)

(10) Kings are not deprived of any power given them of God, when they maintain freedom for cause of conscience. (Ibid., 225)

The fourth tract was written by Samuel Richardson and presented in 1647, two years before the execution of the second Stuart, King Charles I, son of James I. His tract was entitled, "The Necessity of Toleration in Matters of Religion." Little is known about him but that he belonged to one of the seven Baptist churches in London. Later, Samuel Richardson was to write a passionate defense of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England during the time of the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I. Richardson’s 1647 tract was written largely in summary points. For example, there were five points regarding the concept that religion ought to be free. On the issue of whether carnal punishment ought to be inflicted upon those who hold errors in religion, Richardson offered seventy questions, far too many to be recorded here. But among them were questions such as,

Whether carnal punishment can open blind eyes, and give light to dark understanding?

Whether carnal punishments can produce any more than a carnal repentance and obedience?

Whether the destroying of men’s bodies for errors, be not a means to prevent their conversion; seeing some are not called until the eleventh hour, and if they should be cut off for their errors [at] the seventh, how should they come in?

Whether those who would force other men’s consciences, be willing to have their own forced?

If a father or magistrate have not power to force a virgin to marry one she cannot love, whether they have power to force one where they cannot believe, against the light and checks of their own conscience?

Whether the Scripture makes a magistrate judge of our fate?

Whether if no civil law has been broken, the civil peace be hurt or no?

If no religion is to be practiced, but that which the Commonwealth shall approve on; what if they will approve of no religion?

Shall men have no religion at all?

From this small sample of his questions it can be seen how well-reasoned was this tract of Samuel Richardson. There can be no doubt that Richardson’s arguments were not his alone, but were those of the development of understanding by the persecuted Baptists of the realm of England. These arguments are well worth keeping in mind today.

The fifth tract was written in 1660, immediately after the restoration of the Monarchy and the coronation of Charles II. It was entitled, "The Humble Petition and Representation of the Suffering of Several Peaceable and Innocent Subjects, called by the Name of Anabaptist, inhabitants of the county of Kent, and now Prisoner in the Gaol of Maidstone, for the testimony of a good conscience." The petition once again acknowledged that the king had authority and dignity in civil things and over all manner of persons, ecclesiastical and civil, within the king’s dominion, while yet providing reasons meriting the king’s protection and the civil and spiritual rights equal to that of his majesty’s obedient subjects. It is well to note that during Cromwell’s protectorate there was persecution of the Baptists, and that persecution continued under the reign of Charles II. We must recall the trials of John Bunyan and of John James as examples.

After the restoration of the Monarchy the twenty-ninth of May, 1660, a number of Baptist groups took the opportunity to place before the king their grievances. For example, on the twenty-sixth of July 1660, the messengers of the "good and peaceable people in Lincolnshire" were presented to his majesty. They talked of the terrible abuse they received and the threatening of being hanged for nothing more than praying to the Lord with their families. They talked about being beaten and stoned, and their meeting halls destroyed, and of imprisonment, of fines, and many other abuses. The petition from Lincolnshire was signed by thirty-six persons, but on behalf of many others. The king promised them that none should trouble them for their conscience in things pertaining to religion.

On the same day a presentation was made by the Baptists of London to the king. They likewise told of their loyalty and of their persecution. In August, the Baptist congregations in North Wales were ordered to be broken up. Their leader, Davasor Powell, a man of great integrity, was called—

"a seditious sectarist," and his people "restless and rebellious spirits, frequently meeting in private houses, neglecting the public place of the worship of God." Tracts, p. 294

The next month, September 1660, the House of Lords gave direction—

to suppress the Northamptonshire churches, and to prevent throughout the country their assembling for worship. Ibid.

It was in November of 1660 that John Bunyan was apprehended and thrown into the Bedford jail. In spite of the assurances of the king, nothing changed, and the Baptists were still under great persecution. Charles II’s profligate life was not conducive to toleration. The prisoners’ plea was short, and there is no evidence that it made a significant impact upon the king’s policy against the Baptists.

January 10, 1661, the Whitehall Council Board of London passed a strong enactment against Anabaptists, Quakers, and other groups, forbidding them to meet under any pretense of serving God, at unusual hours or in great number.

Tragically, the cause of the Baptists was dreadfully injured by an event seven days later. Under Thomas Venner, a small group of insurrectionists attacked in London. Immediately, six or seven of them were killed, Venner was captured, and the next day, because of this event, the declaration by the Whitehall Council Board was put into effect.

Many Anabaptists tried to explain that they had nothing to do with this uprising, and indeed almost every one who was involved in it was a supporter of infant "baptism." But still, some of the worst persecution against the Baptists took place following this riot. These events occurred prior to the actual coronation of Charles II, though after he had ascended to the throne.

In Newgate gaol alone, about four hundred Baptists were crowded in as prisoners. Mr. Vavasor Carl’s home was violently broken into and he was imprisoned, as was another godly man, Mr. Hanserd Knollys. It was wrongly claimed that the Baptists had been strong supporters of Oliver Cromwell. But indeed there was great division among the Baptists as to their evaluation of the Protector of England prior to the restoration of the Monarchy.

Openly, on several occasions, they had stood in opposition to the public policy of the Protector. Ibid., 318

It was at this time that a Mr. Stugion presented a pamphlet published at the end of March, 1661. John Stugion’s appeal to the king was made on the basis that persecution has never really succeeded and had accomplished nothing to bring peace and harmony and unity to the realm.

The final leaflet published in this series of tracts on liberty of conscience was entitled, "Sion’s groans for her distressed or sober endeavors to prevent innocent blood." This leaflet was also presented in 1661, and two names, that of a Mr. Jeffery and a Mr. Hammon, were also part of the petition that was made from the Maidstone Jail. Therefore, not surprisingly, some of the arguments made here are similar to those made in that petition. While few new arguments surfaced, this presentation is well documented with biblical references. Among the strongest arguments made, was one concerning the authority of the magistrates. It was argued that if magistrates had unlimited authority from God, then all magistrates in all nations would have the same power, so that if one lived in Turkey one must become a worshiper of Mohammed, if in Spain, a Papist, if in England, sometimes a Papist and sometimes a Protestant depending upon who the ruler was. Then the author said,

But God forbid, for nothing is more absurd. Tracts, 357

It was also pointed out that when the New Testament Scripture was written enjoining obedience to the magistrates, it was written at a time when the Romans ruled the world. If it had been intended that they should have authority over religious as well as civil matters, then obviously, all Christians should have been heathen. However, much of the emphasis in the leaflet is upon the fact that Christ would never coerce anyone to be His follower or servant. The leaflet pointed out that at one time, Henry VIII had persecuted Protestants to death, and had written against Luther, for which the pope gave him the title of Defender of the Faith. Yet subsequently, Henry VIII was to receive some of Luther’s doctrines and to reject the supremacy and authority of the pope, whereupon he then persecuted the Papists as he had formerly persecuted the Protestants. This surely was a strong argument against the absolute authority of the Monarchy in spiritual matters.

The authors also point out the up-and-down experiences of the popes during the Middle Ages. One pope countermanded the decrees of another. But it was deduced that if religious leaders were to be followed, the populace would have to change their religious persuasion every time there was a change in the fallible concepts of the spiritual leader.

There can be no doubt that, because of the heavy persecution of the Baptists in England during the early and middle part of the seventeenth century, they systematized and presented many unchallengeable arguments on the side of religious freedom. Unquestionably, they made a major contribution that led to the British Bill of Rights in 1689.

 


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