THE contest between Charles I. and his people come to an acute crisis before the Confession of 1644 was printed. He had showed, under the tutelage of Laud in the Church, the same imperious temper and the same persecuting spirit that he showed under Strafford’s counsel in the State. It was all one to him whether Hampden refused to pay ship-money, or the obstinate Scots refused to accept his liturgy. Baptists fared hard during the earlier years of his reign, but from the meeting of the Long Parliament, in November, 1640, they had peace, and increased rapidly in numbers. Almost to a man they were supporters of the Parliamentary cause, which was the cause of liberty, religious as well as civil. Large numbers of Baptists took service in the armies of Parliament, some of whom rose to a high rank, and were much trusted by the Lord Protector, Cromwell.
The period of the civil war was thus one of comparative immunity for those who had been persecuted, yet the toleration practically enjoyed by the Baptists was not a legal status; they still had no civil rights that their stronger neighbors were bound to respect; and it was only the dire necessity of uniting all forces against the king that led the Presbyterian Parliament to refrain from active measures of repression. The leading Westminster divines rebuked Parliament in sermons and pamphlets for suffering the Baptists to increase, but political considerations were for a time paramount. A single incident illustrates the Presbyterian idea of liberty of conscience at this time. In 1646, one Morgan, a Roman Catholic, unable to obtain priests’ orders in England, went to Rome for them, and on his return, was hanged, drawn, and quartered, for this heinous offense. The unspeakable papist could not be tolerated on any terms by the Presbyterian party.
Against a general toleration the Presbyterians protested vigorously. Thomas Edwards declared that “Could the devil effect a toleration, he would think he had gained well by the Reformation, and made a good exchange of the hierarchy to have a toleration for it.” Even the saintly Baxter said: “I abhor unlimited liberty and toleration of all, and think myself easily able to prove the wickedness of it.” Well might Milton, incensed by such teachings and by attempts in Parliament to give them effect, break forth in his memorable protest, moved by a righteous indignation that could not find expression in honeyed words or courteous phrases:
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences, that Christ set free,
And ride us with a classic hierarchy?
And with bitter truth he added:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.
Not in vain was his subsequent appeal to Cromwell for protection from these wolves in sheep’s clothing, who had broken down one tyranny only to erect on its base another more odious:
Peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war; new foes arise,
Threat’ning to bind our souls with secular chains;
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw.
Nothing but the overthrow of the Long Parliament, and with it the Presbyterian domination, prevented a more tyrannous and implacable persecution than any that disgraces the fair page of England’s annals. One of the last acts of the Presbyterian party was to pass a law (1648) making death the penalty for eight errors in doctrine, including the denial of the Trinity, and prescribing indefinite imprisonment for sixteen other errors, one of which was the denial of infant baptism.
Fortunately for the Baptists, the furious extremists among the Presbyterians were never able to do more than occasionally annoy those whom they so cordially detested. It is related of William Kiffen that on July 12, 1655, he was brought before the Lord Mayor, charged with violation of the statute against blasphemies and heresies, in that he had preached “that the baptism of infants was unlawful.” The accused merchant-preacher was treated with great consideration by the mayor, who, on the plea of being very busy, deferred further consideration of the case. There is nothing to indicate that Mr. Kiffen ever heard more about the matter. Others, less powerful, were by no means so fortunate.
But the excesses of the Presbyterian party hastened its downfall. The real power in the State was the army, composed mainly of Independents, but containing many Baptists. As the revolution proceeded, it inevitably became a military despotism, the head of the army exercising the civil authority more or less under forms of law.
During the Protectorate a fair measure of religious liberty prevailed. Cromwell himself came nearer than any public man of his time to adopting the Baptist doetrine of equal liberty of conscience for all men. He came, at least, to hold that a toleration of all religious views—such as existed among Protestants, that is to say—was both right and expedient; though he seems to have had no insuperable objections to a Presbyterian or Independent Church, established by law and maintained by the State. He was compelled to maintain a State religion, but he maintained it in the interest of no one sect. He admitted all whom we now call evangelical Christians to an equal footing in religious privileges, appointing a committee of Triers, of different sects, to examine the qualifications of incumbents and candidates. The only standard these Triers were permitted to set up was god* liness and ability to edify; no minister was to be either appointed or excluded for his views of doctrine or polity. Several Baptists served as Triers, and many others received benefices during this time—a very inconsistent course for Baptists to take, and one that it is not easy to pardon, for they sinned against light.
From time to time Baptists were accused of sedition, tnd various pretexts were found to justify their pertecution; but Cromwell could never be induced to move against them. It has been reserved for writers of our own day to press these stale slanders against a loyal and upright people. By such it has been urged, with insistence and bitterness, that the Baptists were not sincere in their professions of zealous devotion to the principle of liberty of conscience for all; or, at least, that the declarations already quoted from their Confessions and from their published writings did not represent the Baptists as a whole—that there were Baptists as intolerant and as desirous of persecuting their opponents as the most zealous Presbyterian of them all.
The events of 1653 are said to furnish full confirmation of this view of the case. In that year the “Rump” Parliament was dissolved, and Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector, according to the provisions of an Instrument of Government framed by a convention he had called for the purpose of devising a scheme to regulate the affairs of the nation. It would seem that some of the Baptists were ardent republicans, and in these proceedings of Cromwell they saw only the workings of his ambition to be king. We know that four years later certain Baptists protested against the proposition to confer this title upon him, and that their protest had weight. Some of them protested now; and the Rev. Vavasor Powell denounced Cromwell from the pulpit at a meeting in Blackfriars of certain Fifth Monarchy men. There were fears also for a time of trouble in Ireland from the Baptists, who were reported to be extremely disaffected with the new government. On these facts a charge is based that a part of the Baptists, at least, were disposed toward a religious movement that must have resulted in persecution.
The simple fact is that the Baptists, as a body, were loyal to the Comtnonwealth and its head as the de facto government of England; and the few who were disafected opposed Cromwell on civil grounds. Among these was Gen. Thomas Harrison (who, however, did not become a Baptist until 1657). This party was republican and suspected Cromwell of kingly ambitions, and hence opposed him. Certain of these men, notably Harrison, also believed that the time was drawing near for the Fifth Monarchy. These were enthusiasts, misled by the study of prophecy—as had happened in the former ages of the church, among the medieval Anabaptists and the earlier Montanists, for example—into a notion that the last times were at hand, and that Christ was about to set up an earthly kingdom and reign with his saints a thousand years. Men’s laws and traditions were to be altogether swept away, and the world was to be ruled by the law of Christ. This would, of itself, exclude the idea of persecution when once this kingdom should have been established; and before its establishment persecution would not have been possible. It is not true that the Fifth Monarchy men, as a body, believed in setting up this kingdom by the sword, as their public declarations clearly show. To prove that a Baptist was concerned in these Fifth Monarchy demonstrations does not show that he cherished any idea of punishing dissent by any form of persecution; still less does it show that his brethren sympathized with any persecuting notions.
But we have abundant testimony that the great body of the Baptists had no sympathy with the chiliastic ideas that lay at the basis of the Fifth Monarchy movement; that they utterly condemned all conspiracies against the de facto government; and that they exhorted all their brethren to follow their example in rendering loyal obedience to the powers that be. An extant letter from William Kiffen and others to the Baptists in Ireland gives interesting evidence as to the feeling of the English Baptists. The writers express sorrow that “there is raised up in many amongst you (the Baptists in Ireland) a spirit of great dissatisfaction and opposition against this present authority,” and exhort them to think better of their determination to protest publicly against Cromwell. They say:
And this we are clearly satisfied, in that the principles held forth by those meeting in Blackfriars, under pretense of the Fifth Monarchy, or setting up the kingdom of Christ, to which many of those lately in power adhered, had it been prosecuted, would have brought as great dishonor to the name of God, and shame and contempt to the whole nation, as we think could have been imagined.
The letter closes with a solemn appeal in these words:
We do therefore beseech you for the Lord’s sake and for the truth’s sake, that it be not evil spoken of men, seriously weigh these things; for surely if the Lord gives us hearts we have a large advantage put into our hands to give a public testimony in the face of the world. That our principles are not such as they have been generally judged by most men to be; which is, that we deny authority and would pull down all magistracy. And if any trouble should arise, either with you or us, in the nation, which might proceed to the shedding of blood, would not it all be imputed and charged upon the baptized churches? And what grief and sorrow would be administered to us, your brethren, to hear the name of God blasphemed by ungodly men through your means? This we can say, that we have not had any occasion of sorrow from any of the churches in this nation with whom we have communion; they, with one heart, desiring to bless God for their liberty, and with all willingness to be subject to the present authority. And we trust to hear the same of you, having lately received an epistle written to us by all the churches amongst you, pressing us to a strict walking with God, and warning of us to take heed of formality, the love of this world; that we slight not our mercy in the present liberties we enjoy.
Whether to this appeal or to the sober second thought is to be attributed the subsequent quiet of the Irish Baptists is not quite certain, but a letter in Thurloe’s “State Papers” informs us that there was no further trouble:
As to your grand affairs in Ireland, especially as to the Anabaptist party, I am confident they are much misconceived in England. Upon the change of affairs here was discontent enough, but very little animosity. For certainly never yet any faction, so well fortified by all the offices, military and civil, almost in the, whole nation, did quit their interest with more silence.
The Baptists were conscious that toleration was not likely to continue long unless the principle were incorporated in the law of the land. They continued in their writings and Confessions, therefore, to urge the duty of all Christians to tolerate those who differed from them in religious belief. With this they uniformly coupled a disclaimer of any such doctrine of liberty as implied license, and enforced the duty of the Christian to render obedience to the civil magistrate in all secular affairs.
In the year i66o Charles Stuart was brought back with great rejoicing to the throne of his fathers. The Baptists must have seen in this event the death blow to their hopes of religious liberty, yet it does not appear that they raised voice or hand against the new king, though they were far from trusting his smooth words and promises of toleration. He was hardly seated on his throne when one Thomas Venner and a band of Fifth Monarchists and other irreconcilables made an insurrection, whose object was the dethronement of the new monarch and the setting up of the kingdom of Christ on earth. The slanders of the time accuse the Baptists of complicity in this disturbance. Beyond the repetition of these stale slanders there is not a particle of evidence producible that any Baptists took part in the insurrection. Conclusive evidence that they did not we have in their protest made at the time, and in the verdict of every candid Pedobaptist historian who has carefully gone over the facts. Venner himself was a Pedobaptist, and it is not
known that a single Baptist was among his followers. Nevertheless, persecution on account of alleged disloyalty and heresies was active and bitter.
The death of Thomas Harrison cannot, however, be called a case of persecution. His case stands by itself. The difference between a patriot and a rebel has been defined somewhat as follows: “The man who succeeds is a patriot; the man who fails is a rebel.” If George Washington had failed, he would have been hanged like Robert Emmet, and schoolboys would now be reading books in which his treason would be appropriately condemned. Thomas Harrison failed at last, after a period of complete success, and he went to his grave so loaded down with ignominy that few have had courage since to plead his cause. He deserves a rehearing in the court of the world’s justice.
He was born in Cheshire, and his father was a butcher; hence, as Mrs. Hutchinson sneeringly remarked in her Memoirs,’’ he was “ a mean man’s son.’’ Nor does Mistress Lucy fail to record several anecdotes, illustrating his love of display and fine clothes, as a foil to the perfections of Colonel Hutchinson. Nevertheless, when the pinch came, Harrison, the “mean man’s son,” played the Christian hero, while the well-born colonel played the coward and meanly truckled to save his life—and succeeded, but lost his honor forever.
Little is known of Harrison’s early’ life. He must have had a fair education, and became clerk to a solicitor. Early in the struggle between Charles I. and his Parliament he enlisted in the parliamentary army, beginning as cornet, the equivalent of a second lieutenant of cavalry. By bravery and fidelity he was advanced to the rank of captain, and having attracted the notice of Cromwell, was made a colonel of cavalry after the remodeling of the army. It was the policy thereafter to promote officers who, besides military capacity, were men of piety and intelligence, and Harrison rose fast, until he became major-general and ranked next to Cromwell himself in the respect of the army. By various means, in none of which do his enemies charge him with any dishonor, he acquired a considerable estate, and lived in a manner becoming the second man in England. It is this rapid promotion and access of power that doubtless roused the jealousy of the Hutchinsons and that explain the references to Harrison in pious Mrs. Lucy’s “Memoirs.”
When the war was over and Charles I. was a prisoner, Uie Question rose what to do with him. The army was tired of fighting, and demanded summary measures. This demand was resisted until it was discovered that Charles was plotting for further uprisings on his behalf, and then his fate was sealed. By vote of Parliament, a high court of justice was appointed to try the king. Harrison was one of the most prominent members of the court, and his name was signed in bold characters to the death warrant of Charles I. The verdict of history is that while Charles Stuart richly deserved his fate, it was a political blunder thus to make of him a martyr; but that Harrison could not be expected to see at the time. His act was that of patriot who did what he believed to be best for his country. It is difficult to read with patience what has been written by many historians concerning the death of a king who plunged his country into civil war because he neither could nor would keep his word, and who deserved forty deaths by his perfidy and cruelty.
But Harrison had no mind to have King Noll substituted for King Charles; he had had enough of kings, and was for a republic. So was the army. Cromwell’s doings were regarded with great suspicion; his title of Lord Protector was looked upon as a preliminary to assuming a higher title; his government was more arbitrary and despotic than that of the Stuarts. Harrison and the army were uneasy and became estranged from their former leader. So near to an open breach did they come that twice, as a matter of precaution, Cromwell imprisoned Harrison for a time, without any warrant but his sword, with no accusation, and finally released him without trial. At length Cromwell was compelled to give a definite refusal to the request, doubtless made with his own connivance and at his desire, that he would assume the title and state of king. The refusal was made with many sighs, but the army was hopelessly opposed, and Harrison in this matter represented the army. It was due to his firmness that the house of Cromwell did not succeed the house of Stuart on the throne of England.
General Harrison and his wife were baptized in 1657, in the dead of winter, when it was so cold that the ice had to be broken for the immersion. This was but three years before his death, and he was never so identified with Baptists as has been commonly supposed, though he had rather inclined toward that despised body of Christians for years before he joined them.
After the restoration, Harrison well knew that he could expect no mercy. The regicides, as the judges of Charles I. were called, were expressly excepted from all proclamations of amnesty. Nevertheless, he refused either to fly or to truckle, but remained quietly at home, calmly awaiting the worst. He had not long to wait. He was arrested, sent to the Tower, and soon after tried. He was permitted to make no defense, and an executioner stood at his side in the dock with a halter in his hand. His condemnation was inevitable, but English courts of justice were never so disgraced, even in the days of the brutal Jeffreys, as by the means taken to secure it.
The sentence of death was carried out with equal barbarity. We have accounts of it from two eye-witnesses, Samuel Pepys and General Ludlow. Both agree that Harrison bore himself with calmness and fortitude. He was first hanged, then cut down while still living, his bowels cut out and thrown into the fire before his eyes; then his head was cut off, his body divided into quarters, and these gory members displayed in public places. And this in Christian England, in the year i66o! No wonder that, as Ludlow says, Harrison’s bearing throughout his trial and execution was such “that even his enemies were astonished and confounded.” They alleged nothing discreditable in his life, and his death was as honorable to him as it was disgraceful to the people of England.
Nor was the case of John James one of persecution in form, though there is every reason to believe it was such in fact. He was arrested while preaching to his flock, a Seventh-day Baptist church in London, and brought to trial on the charge of treason. The evidence against him seems to be rank perjury, attributing to him such sayings as that “the king was a bloody tyrant, a bloodsucker, a bloodthirsty man,” that” he much feared they had not improved their opportunity when they had the power in their hands; that it would not be long before they had power again, and then they would improve it better.” Every effort was made to induce some of the congregation to confirm these charges, but they unanimously maintained that they never heard such words. But there was no great difficulty in suborning wretches to swear away the life of a Dissenting preacher, and he was speedily found guilty. On the 26th of November he was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, and his head was placed on a pole near his meeting-house in Whitechapel.
It is probably unjust to hold Charles II. responsible for the persecutions that disgraced his reign. There is no good reason to suppose him insincere in his Breda declaration of “a liberty to tender consciences, and that no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matters of religion, which do not disturb the peace of the kingdom.” The good faith of his promise, in the same declaration, to approve any measure of toleration that his Parliament might pass cannot be questioned, for he was anxious that such a measure might be enacted, so that the Roman Catholics of England might enjoy toleration.
But the first Parliament of Charles was composed largely of young men, not old enough to remember the misrule of the first Charles and his ministers, but distinctly remembering the harshness and insolence of the Puritan rule. Vindictive legislation was certain to be enacted by such a body, and neither the king nor his advisers could do much to restrain these anti-Puritan legislators. A new Act of Uniformity reenacted the prayer-book of Elizabeth, with a few modifications, and required that every minister who had not received Episcopal ordination should procure such orders before August 24, 1662. On that day, the anniversary of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, two thousand of the most learned and godly ministers in England were driven from their pulpits—a loss from which the Church of England has never recovered to this day.
A series of laws was now passed against those who refused conformity to the Established Church and its rites. In 1663 the Conventicle Act forbade all religious meetings in private houses of more than five persons not belonging to the family. In 1665 the Five Mile Act prohibited any Dissenting minister from going within five miles of any borough or corporate town. In 1673 the Test Act excluded from all public offices every one who could not produce a certificate from a clergyman that he had within a year partaken of the communion according to the rites of the Church of England. By these laws, those who refused, for conscience’ sake, to conform to the church established by law were deprived of all their religious and a great part of their civil rights.
Doubtless Charles II. had promised more than any mortal could have performed; doubtless, also, he might have performed more had he cared to do it. These were not laws after his heart—they bore too hard on Romanists for that—but as he was powerless to protect them, he cared little that all other Dissenters from the Church of England were harshly treated. Baptists did not fare harder than many others. If they kept perfectly quiet they were not molested; but if they assembled for religious meetings they became violators of law, and the man who preached to them was reasonably certain of a long incarceration, if he did not receive stripes and the stocks as well. Yet in spite of this persecution, Baptists increased in numbers rapidly. Britons are a sturdy folk, and rather disposed to sympathize with one who is hit hard; so the more Baptists were forbidden to meet, the more people flocked to their meetings.
The typical Baptist preacher of the time was John Bunyan, a man of the common people, a tinker by trade, one who knew little literature but his English Bible, but who knew that from lid to lid as few know it in these days. We learn of his early life only from his own account: that he was wild, irreligious, fonder of sports than of the church, is plain; but his self-accusations of desperate wickedness we may discount heavily. When a man calls himself the vilest of sinners he always uses the words in a strict theological sense, and would quickly resent being charged with actual vileness, as Bunyan did, when he hotly denied the charge that he had been unchaste. After a long conflict of soul, in which he more than once gave himself up as eternally lost, Bunyan was at length soundly converted. He was never a very orthodox Baptist; he seems to have had his children christened in the Established Church, and it is uncertain whether he was himself ever baptized on profession of faith; he repudiated the name Anabaptist or Baptist as the badge of a sect, and desired to be called merely a Christian; he vigorously promulgated and defended the practice of communing with the unbaptized; yet in spite of these vagaries his fundamental notions were those of a Baptist. As a preacher he had great influence in his day, but his chief work was done with the pen. It is one of the marvels of literature that a man of such antecedents and training should have written books that from the day of publication took an undisputed rank among the classics of our language. The “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the hardly less popular “Holy War,” and “Grace Abounding,” are a trio not to be matched in the
history of Christianity.
This achievement of Bunyan’s we probably owe to the fact that his active evangelical work was interrupted by a long imprisonment, amounting with several short intervals to about thirteen years. His crime was the preaching of the gospel, nothing more; but he would have been released much sooner had he been willing to pledge himself not to offend again. This the sturdy preacher would not do; if he had the opportunity again he must preach, and so he avowed; consequently in prison he stayed until the administration of the law was greatly relaxed, and he was set free with a multitude of others in like case.
It is to his third and last imprisonment that we owe his immortal allegory—a book rendered into more languages than any other save the Bible itself; a book which, next to the Bible, has been the most effective teacher of asant and prince; which has been the never-failing ft delight of childhood, has comforted our weary hours in manhood, and will be our treasure in old age. As our experience broadens and deepens we shall see new beauties in it, for it is a book of which it may be truly said that it “was not of an age, but for all time.”
How many of us have taken the journey with Christian, not in imagination merely, but in sober fact. We have borne the same intolerable burden, have entered, like him, the little wicket-gate at Evangelist’s bidding—falling perchance, by the way, into the Slough of Despond, or misled by Mr. Worldly Wiscman’s bad advice—and have, like him, lost our heavy load at the foot of the cross. We have had to climb the Hill Difficulty, and not a few of us have been seduced into By-path Meadows, only to fall into the clutches of Giant Despair, and to be cast into Doubting Castle. We have been tempted by the gay shows of Vanity Fair, and have passed through the dangers of the Enchanted Ground. We have been cheered on our way by Hopeful and Faithful, instructed by Interpreter, and entertained at the House Beautiful. On one day we have caught glimpses of the Delectable Mountains, only on the next to enter the Valley of Humiliation, and fight for our lives with Apollyon. We have seen one and another of our companions pass through the dark river, whose waters our feet must soon enter, and happy are we to whom a vision has been granted of the Shining Ones, conducting them into the gates of the City which, when we have seen, we have wisht ourselves among them.
The events of the reign of James II. were favorable to the development of a spirit of toleration among Protestants, who were driven into a closer political and religious alliance by the fear of Roman Catholic supremacy. The king in some cases exercised his pretended power of dispensation to protect Baptists from the execution of their laws; but while they accepted the immunity thus offered, they gave no approval to the high-handed proceedings of the monarch. In pursuance of his policy of securing Nonconformist support, the king appointed William Kiffen alderman of the ward of Cheap. Mr. Kiffen was much disturbed, but as counsel advised him that refusal might entail a fine of thirty thousand pounds, he reluctantly qualified for the office. lie succeeded in obtaining his discharge, however, nine months later. The project was a failure. Neither Baptists nor any other Nonconformists were to be hoodwinked, nor could they be flattered or bribed into approval of the overriding of the laws of England by royal prerogative, even though those laws might press hard on themselves. The king’s persistence could not overcome the opposition of the people, but it could and did lose him his crown.
The revolution that overthrew James placed on the throne the Prince of Orange, the descendant of that heroic leader of the Netherlands in their long struggle to throw off the yoke of Roman Catholic Spain, the first ruler in modern history who was statesman enough and Christian enough to incorporate the principle of religious liberty into his country’s laws. Thanks to William III., the Act of Toleration was passed in 1689, which, though a mass of absurdities and inconsistencies when carefully analyzed, was yet a measure of practical justice to the majority, and of great relief to all. The penal laws against dissenters from the Church of England were not repealed, but Baptists and most other Protestant Dissenters were exempted from their operation. Roman Catholics and Jews were left still subject to the penal laws, and men so enlightened and liberal-minded as Tillotson and Locke protested against granting toleration to them. From that day the grosser forms of persecution ceased forever, as regarded all Protestant bodies, though the principle of complete religious liberty has never yet found general acceptance in England. The Baptists of the seventeenth century had many curious customs, some of which were borrowed from them by the Friends, and survive among the latter body to this day. The quaint garb of the Quaker is that of the seventeenth century Baptist. In public worship men and women sat on opposite sides of the house, both participating in the exhorting and “prophesying,” as the “Spirit moved.” Whether singing was an allowable part of worship was fiercely disputed, and a salaried or “hireling” ministry was in great disfavor. The imposition of hands was practised, in the ordination not only of pastors, but of deacons, and in many churches hands were laid on all who had been baptized, an act that has given place among American Baptists, at least, to the “hand of fellowship.” Fasting was a common observance, feet-washing was practised by many churches, though its obligation was earnestly questionçd, and the anointing of the sick was so common as to be almost the rule. Pastors and deacons were often elected by the casting of lots, and love feasts before the Lord’s Supper were a common practice.
The supervision of members’ lives was strict. Marrying out of meeting, as among the Friends, was followed by excommunication, and the amusements that might be indulged in were carefully limited. Disputes between husbands and wives, between masters and servants, were made subjects of church discipline and adjudication, and such offenses as covetousness, slander, and idleness were severely dealt with. To the Baptists of to-day this kind of discipline seems a meddlesome interference with personal rights and private affairs, and it has fallen into disuse in all but a few localities.
Return To Contents Page