WHEN Knickerbocker commenced his famous history of New York, he felt it to be essential to begin with the Creation of the world. We labour under no such impression, and shall not therefore judge it needful to give a complete history of the Christian Church in the first ages in order to introduce our brief sketch of the Church in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Still, a few historical memoranda as to the Christians commonly called Baptists, will not be out of place. Our own belief is that these people are the purest part of that sect which of old was everywhere spoken against, and we are convinced that they have, beyond their brethren, preserved the ordinances of the Lord Jesus as they were delivered unto the saints. "We care very little for the "historical church" argument, but if there be anything in it at all, the plea ought not to be filched by the clients of Rome, but should be left to that community which all along has held by "One Lord, one faith, and one baptism." This body of believers has not been exalted into temporal power, or decorated with worldly rank, but it has dwelt for the most part in dens and caves of the earth, "destitute, afflicted, tormented," and so has proved itself of the house and lineage of the Crucified. The Church which most loudly claims the apostolical succession wears upon her brow more of the marks of Anti-Christ than of Christ; but the afflicted Anabaptists, in their past history, have had such fellowship with their suffering Lord, and have borne so pure a testimony, both to truth and freedom, that they need in nothing to be ashamed. Their very existence under the calumnies and persecutions which they have endured is a standing marvel, while their unflinching fidelity to the Scriptures as their sole rule of faith, and their adherence to the simplicity of gospel ordinances is a sure index of their Lord's presence among, them.
It would not be impossible to show that the first Christians who dwelt in this land were of the same faith and order as the churches now called Baptists. The errors of the churches are all more or less modern, and those which have clustered around the ordinance of Baptism are by no means so venerable for age as some would have us suppose. The evidence supplied by ancient monuments and baptisteries, which still remain, would be conclusive in our favour were it not that upon this point the minds of men are not very open to argument. Foregone conclusions and established ecclesiastical arrangements are not easily shaken. Few men care to follow truth when she leads them without the camp, and calls them to take up their cross, and endure to be thought singular even by their fellow Christians. However, we are not now writing upon the question of believers' baptism, and are content to leave its discussion for another opportunity. We care more to be conformed to Scripture itself than to the oldest of usages. The moss of antiquity cannot command our veneration if it only garnishes error. The witness of churches is well enough, but "we have a more sure word of testimony" in the Bible itself.
We are content for present purposes to begin with a quotation from an adversary. That the (so-called) Anabaptists are no novelty in England is admitted by those least likely to manufacture ancient history for them. That rampant Ritualist, W. J. E. Bennett, of Frome, in his book upon "the Unity of the Church Broken," says:—"The historian Lingard tells us that there was a sect of fanatics who infested the north of Germany, called Puritans. Usher calls them Waldenses; Spelman, Paulicians, (the same as Waldenses). They gained ground and spread all over England; they rejected all Romish ceremonies, denied the authority of the Pope, and more particularly refused to baptise infants. Thirty of them were put to death for their heretical doctrines near Oxford; but the remainder still held on to their opinions in private, until the time of Henry II. (1158); and the historian Collier tells us that wherever this heresy prevailed,—the churches were either scandalously neglected or pulled down, and infants left unbaptised."
We are obliged to Mr. Bennett for this history which is in all respects authentic, and we take liberty to remark upon it, that the reign of Henry II. is a period far more worthy of being called remote, than the reign of Henry VIII., and if the Baptists could trace their pedigree no further, the church of Thomas Cranmer could not afford to sneer at them as a modern sect. Concerning the poor persecuted people who are referred to in this extract, it seems that under Henry II. they were treated with those tender mercies of the wicked which are so notoriously cruel. "They were apprehended and brought before a council of the clergy at Oxford. Being interrogated about their religion, their teacher, named Gerard, a man of learning, answered in their name, that they were Christians, and believed the doctrines of the apostles. Upon a more particular inquiry it was found that they denied several of the received doctrines of the Church, such as purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of saints; and refusing to abandon these damnable heresies, as they were called, they were condemned as incorrigible heretics, and delivered to the secular arm to be punished. The King (Henry II.) at the instigation of the clergy, commanded them to be branded with a red-hot iron on the forehead, to be whipped through the streets of Oxford, and, having their clothes cut short by their girdles, to be turned into the open fields, all persons being forbidden to afford them any shelter or relief, under the severest penalties. This cruel sentence was executed with its utmost rigour; and it being the depth of winter, all these unhappy persons perished with cold and hunger."
Induced, no doubt, to flee to this country from the Continent by the rumoured favour of Henry II. to the Lollards, they found nothing of the hospitality which they expected; but for Jesus' sake were accounted the offscouring of all things. Little did their enemies dream that, instead of being stamped out, the (so-called) heresy of the Baptists would survive and increase till it should command a company of faithful adherents to be numbered by millions.
All along our history from Henry II. to Henry VIII. there are traces of the Anabaptists, who are usually mentioned either in connection with the Lollards, or as coming from Holland. Especial mention is made of their being more conspicuous when Anne of Cleves came to this country as the unhappy spouse of that choice defender of the faith, the eighth Harry. All along there must have been a great hive on the Continent of these "Reformers before the Reformation," for despite their being doomed to die almost as soon as they landed, they continued to invade this country to the annoyance of the priesthood and hierarchy, who knew by instinct the people who are their direst enemies, and whose tenets are diametrically opposed to their sway.
It may not be known to our readers that the Baptists have their own martyrology, and are in nothing behind the very first of the churches of Christ in sufferings endured for the truth's sake. A fine old volume in the Dutch language, illuminated with the most marvellous engravings, is in our possession. It is full of interesting details of brutal cruelty and heroic endurance. From it we have taken the story of Simon the Pedlar, as a specimen of the firmness and endurance of the baptized believers in Flanders: one instance out of thousands:—
"About the year 1553, at Bergen-op-Zoon, in Brabant, there was a pedlar named Simon, standing in the market selling his wares. The priests with their idol—the host—passing by, the said Simon dared not show the counterfeit god any divine honour; but following the testimony of God in the Holy Scriptures, he worshipped the Lord his God only, and him alone served. He was therefore seized by the advocates of the Romish Antichrist, and examined as to his faith. This he boldly confessed. He rejected infant baptism as a mere human invention, with all the commandments of men, holding fast the testimony of the word of God; he was therefore condemned to death by the enemies of the truth. They led him outside the town, and for the testimony of Jesus committed him to the flames. The astonishment of the bystanders was greatly excited when they saw the remarkable boldness and stedfastness of this pious witness of God, who, through grace, thus obtained the crown of everlasting life.
SIMON REFUSING TO WORSHIP THE HOST.
"The bailiff, who procured his condemnation, on his return home from the execution, fell mortally sick, and was confined to his bed. In his suffering and sorrow he continually exclaimed, 'Oh, Simon, Simon!' The priests and monks sought to absolve him; but he would not be comforted. He speedily expired in despair, an instructive and memorable example to all tyrants and persecutors."
During the Reformation and after it, the poor Anabaptists continued to be victims. Excesses had been committed by certain fifth-monarchy men who happened also to be Baptists, and under cover of putting down these wild fanatics, Motley tells us that "thousands and tens of thousands of virtuous, well-disposed men and women, who had as little sympathy with anabaptistical as with Roman depravity, were butchered in cold blood, under the sanguinary rule of Charles, in the Netherlands." The only stint allowed to persecution in the low countries was contained in a letter of Queen Dowager Mary of Hungary: "care being only taken that the provinces were not entirely depopulated." Luther and Zwingle, though themselves held to be heretics, were scarcely a whit behind the Papists in their rage against the Anabaptists, Zwingle especially uttering that pithy formula,—"Qui iterum mergit mergatur," thereby counselling the drowning of all those who dared to immerse believers on profession of their faith. The time will probably arrive when history will be rewritten, and the maligned Baptists of Holland and Germany will be acquitted of all complicity with the ravings of the insane fanatics, and it will be proved that they were the advance-guard of the army of religious liberty, men who lived before their times, but whose influence might have saved the world centuries of floundering in the bog of semi-popery if they had but been allowed fair play. As it was, their views, like those of modern Baptists, so completely laid the axe at the root of all priestcraft and sacramentarianism, that violent opposition was aroused, and the two-edged sword of defamation and extirpation was set to its cruel work, and kept to it with a relentless perseverance never excelled, perhaps never equalled. All other sects may be in some degree borne with, but Baptists are utterly intolerable to priests and Popes; neither can despots and tyrants endure them.
We will leave the continental hive, to return to our brethren in England. Latimer, who could not speak too badly of the Baptists, nevertheless bears witness to their numbers and intrepidity. "Here I have to tell you what I heard of late, by the relation of a credible person and a worshipful man, of a town in this realm of England, that hath about five hundred of heretics of this erroneous opinion in it. The Anabaptists that were burnt here, in divers towns of England (as I have heard of credible men, I saw them not myself), met their death even intrepid, as you will say, without any fear in the world. Well, let them go. There was, in the old times, another kind of poisoned heretics, that were called Donatists, and those heretics went to their execution as they should have gone to some jolly recreation and banquet." Latimer had ere long to learn for himself where the power lay which enabled men to die so cheerfully. We do not wonder that he discovered a likeness between the Baptists and the Donatists, for quaint old Thomas Fuller draws at full length a parallel between the two, and concludes that the Baptists are only "the old Donatists new dipped." We can survive even such a comparison as that.
Bishop Burnet says that in the time of Edward VI. Baptists became very numerous, and openly preached this doctrine, that "children are Christ's without water" (Luke xviii. 16). Protestantism nominally flourished in the reign of Edward VI., but there were many unprotestant doings. The use of the reformed liturgy was enforced by the pains and penalties of law. Ridley, himself a martyr in the next reign, was joined in a commission with Gardiner, afterwards notorious as a persecutor of Protestants, to root out Baptists. Among the "Articles of Visitation," issued by Ridley in his own diocese, in 1550, was the following: "Whether any of the Anabaptists' sect, and others, use notoriously any unlawful or private conventicles, wherein they do use doctrines or administration of sacraments, separating themselves from the rest of the parish?" It may be fairly gathered from this "article of visitation" that there were many Baptist churches in the kingdom at that time. This truth is also clear from the fact that the Duke of Northumberland advised that Mr. John Knox should be invited to England, and made a bishop, that he might aid in putting down the Baptists in Kent.
Marsden tells us that in the days of Elizabeth "the Anabaptists were the most numerous and for some time by far the most formidable opponents of the church. They are said to have existed in England since the early days of the Lollards."
In the year 1575 a most severe persecution was raised against the Anabaptists in London, ten of whom were condemned,—eight ordered to be banished, and two to be executed. Mr. Foxe, the eminent martyrologist, wrote an excellent Latin letter to the Queen, in which he observes—"That to punish with the flames the bodies of those who err rather from ignorance than obstinacy is cruel, and more like the Church of Rome than the mildness of the gospel. I do not write thus," says he, "from any bias to the indulgence of error; but to save the lives of men, being myself a man; and in hope that the offending parties may have an opportunity to repent and retract their mistakes." He then earnestly entreats that the fires of Smithfield may not be rekindled, but that some milder punishment might be inflicted upon them, to prevent, if possible, the destruction of their souls as well as their bodies. But his remonstrances were ineffectual. The Queen remained inflexible; and, though she constantly called him Father Foxe, she gave him a flat denial as to saving their lives, unless they would recant their dangerous errors. They both refusing to recant were burnt in Smithfield, July 22, 1575, to the great and lasting disgrace of the reign and character of Queen Elizabeth.
Neither from Elizabeth, James, or Charles I. had our brethren any measure of favour. No treatment was thought too severe for them: even good men execrated them as heretics for whom the harshest measures were too gentle. Had it been possible to destroy this branch of the true vine, assuredly the readiest means were used without hindrance or scruple, and yet it not only lives on, but continues to bear fruit a hundredfold.
When Charles I. was unable any longer to uphold Episcopacy, liberty of thought and freedom of speech were somewhat more common than before, and the Baptists increased very rapidly. Many of them were in Cromwell's army, and were the founders of not a few of our village churches. When these men were to the front doing such acceptable work for the Parliament, it was not likely that their brethren could be hunted down quite so freely as before. Accordingly we find that contentious divine, Daniel Featley, groaning heavily, because they were permitted to breathe, and between his pious groans recording for our information certain facts which are, at this juncture, peculiarly useful to us.
Dr. Featley says:—"This fire which in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James, and our gracious sovereign [Charles I.] till now was covered in England under the ashes; or if it brake out at any time, by the care of the ecclesiastical and civil magistrates, it was soon put out. But of late, since the unhappy distractions which our sins have brought upon us, the temporal sword being otherways employed, and the spiritual locked up fast in the scabbard, this sect among others has so far presumed upon the patience of the State, that it hath held weekly conventicles, re-baptized hundreds of men and women together in the twilight, in rivulets, and some arms of the Thames, and elsewhere, dipping them over head and ears. It hath printed divers pamphlets in defence of their heresy, yea, and challenged some of our preachers to disputation. Now although my bent has always been hitherto against the most dangerous enemy of our Church and State, the Jesuit, to extinguish such balls of wildfire as they have cast into the bosom of our Church; yet seeing this strange fire kindled in, the neighbouring parishes, and many Nadabs and Abihus offering it on God's altar, I thought it my duty to cast the water of Siloam upon it to extinguish it." The waters of Siloam must have been strangely foul in Featley's days if his "Dippers Dipped" is to be regarded as a bucketful of the liquid.
The neighbouring region which was so sorely vexed with "strange fire" was the borough of Southwark, which is the region in which the church now meeting in the Metropolitan Tabernacle was born. We are not aware that any of its pastors, or indeed any Baptist pastor in the universe, ever set up for a priest, and therefore the Nadabs and Abihus must be looked for elsewhere, but Dr. Featley no doubt intended the compliment for some of our immediate ancestors.
The fortunes of war brought a Presbyterian parliament into power, but this was very little more favourable to religious liberty than the dominancy of the Episcopalians; at least the Baptists did not find it so. Mr. Edwards, a precious brother of the stern "true blue" school, told the magistrates that "they should execute some exemplary punishment upon some of the most notorious sectaries," and he charges the wicked Baptists with "dipping of persons in the cold water in winter, whereby persons fall sick." He kindly recommends the magistrates to follow the example of the Zurichers who drowned the dippers, and if this should not be feasible he urges that they should at least be proceeded against as rogues and vagabonds. No party at that time understood religious liberty to mean anything more than liberty for themselves. The despised Anabaptists and Quakers and Independents alone perceived that consciences are under no human rule, but owe allegiance to the Lord alone. Even the Puritans considered universal toleration to be extremely dangerous. All the powerful churches thought it right to repress heresy (so called) by tee secular power. Things have gloriously altered now. No Presbyterian would now endorse a word of Edwards's bitterness. Thank God, the light has come, and Christian men heartily accord liberty to each other. The day we trust is not far distant when even the Episcopal body will allow us to bury our dead in the National graveyards, and will wish to escape from that connection with the State which is as injurious to itself as it is obnoxious to other churches.
Moved by the feeling that it was the duty of the state to keep men's consciences in proper order, the Parliament set to work to curb the wicked sectaries, and Dr. Stonghton tells us:—"By the Parliamentary ordinance of April, 1645, forbidding any person to preach who was not an ordained minister, in the Presbyterian, or some other reformed church—all Baptist ministers became exposed to molestation, they being accounted a sect, and not a church. A few months after the date of this law, the Baptists feeing pledged to a public controversy in London with Edmund Calamy, the Lord Mayor interfered to prevent the disputation—a circumstance which seems to show that, on the one hand, the Baptists were becoming a formidable body in London, and, on the other hand, that their fellow-citizens were highly exasperated against them." Or, say rather, that the Lord Mayor's views not being those of the Baptists, he feared the sturdy arguments which would be brought to bear upon his friends, and concluded that the wisest course he could take was to prevent the truth being heard. No Lord Mayor, or even king, has any right to forbid free public speech, and when in past ages an official has done so, it is no evidence that his fellow-citizens were of the same mind: Jack-in-office is often peculiarly anxious that the consciences of others should not be injured by hearing views different from his own.
We have now come to the margin of the actual personal history of our own church, without, we trust, having quite exhausted our reader's patience.
—Metropolitan Tabernacle, The