Baptist Identity in 17th Century England

King James I
King James I

English Baptists emerged during persecution in 17th century. Various groups, among them Separatists, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, all tried to court favor with the new sovereign, James I. Separatists were sadly mistaken if they felt they had a friend in King James. McBeth observed “[t]he idea of religious liberty horrified him.”[1] James, that “most dread sovereign” whom God, by “great and manifold” blessings[2] sent to rule over England, was determined to exercise authority over the church as well as the state. He believed it was “the chiefest of kingly duties . . . to settle affairs of religion.”[3] The separatists, however, couldn’t disagree more. They urged King James I to show mercy. “They asserted that every man had a right to judge for himself in matters of religion and that to persecute on account of religion is illegal and antichristian.”[4] James I feared a freedom of conscience in religion might well lead to civil anarchy. He saw a very basic political necessity for religious conformity; a sentiment shared by his Son, Charles I. It was therefore the policy of the Crown to harass and persecute dissenters from the Church of England. Baptist identity in Britain was forged in the midst of this persecution.

John Smyth (1612) stated, in embryo form, the very principles of religious liberty many Baptists continue to argue for today. Essentially, he asserted that Baptists recognized the civil authority of the state, but “would not allow the government to determine or regulate their relation to God.”[5]

“That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom xiii), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience (James iv. 12).”[6]

Other Baptists, such as Thomas Helwys (1612), plainly stated that any man should be free to worship, or not, as he pleased without any interference from the state.[7]

“And we bow ourselves to the earth . . . beseeching the King to judge righteous judgment herein, whether there be so unjust a thing, and of so great cruel tyranny, under the sun, as to force men’s consciences in their religion to God, seeing that if they err, they must pay the price of their transgression with the loss of their souls. Oh, let the King judge, is it not most equal that men should chose their religion themselves, seeing they must only stand themselves before the judgment seat of God to answer for themselves, when it shall be no cause for them to say, ‘we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion’ by the King, or by them that had authority from him . . .”[8]

“For men’s religion to God, is between God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither ma the King be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever; it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”[9]

Leonard Busher (1614) colorfully, but somewhat crassly, compared forced worship to spiritual rape. Busher argued that “regeneration is the result of faith in Christ; and that no king or bishop is able to command faith. Persecution, therefore, is irrational, and must fail of its object; men cannot be made Christians by force.”[10] He wrote:

“. . . to constrain princes and peoples to receive that one true religion of the gospel, 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 . . .”[11]

“And no king nor bishop can, or is able to command faith; That is the gift of God, who worketh in us both the will and the deed of his own good pleasure. Set him not a day, therefore, in which, if his creature hear not and believe not, you will imprison and burn him. Paul was a blasphemer and also a persecutor, and could not be converted by the apostles and ministers of Christ; yet at last was received to mercy, and converted extraordinarily by Christ himself . . . And as kings and bishops cannot command the wind, so they cannot command faith; . . . You may force men to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore.”[12]

Baptists stood on the Scriptures when they declared that men must never have their religious convictions forced.

The Baptists, and other dissenters, had a brief respite during the time of Oliver Cromwell, but that all came crashing down when the monarchy was restored and the Church of England welcomed back as the official state church. Armitage writes that “the Baptists became, as usual, the special subjects of hate, storm and chains; prisons and doom became their gloomy fate.”[13] The Act of Uniformity (1662) decreed that all English ministers be “uniform” in doctrine and liturgy. The Conventicle Act (1664) forbade unauthorized worship services with more than five persons present (beyond the immediate family. Another act forbade ejected ministers from forming new congregations within five miles of their previous residence. King Charles II did declare a year-long moratorium on persecution, provided dissenters register to receive leniency. When the tide of public opinion shifted one year later, these same registers were used to hunt down dissenters![14] Desperate Baptists resorted to all manner of deception and ingenuity in order to simply meet for worship. One desperate plea to the King sums up the Baptist experience in this time of tribulation:

“We dare not walk the streets, and are abused even in our own houses. If we pray to God with our families, we are threatened to be hung. Some of us are stoned almost to death, and others imprisoned for worshiping God according to the dictates of our consciences and the rule of his word.”[15]

In large measure, the modern Baptist identity was forged amidst the persecution in England in the 17th century.



[1] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1987), 100.

[2] From the “Epistle Dedicatory” to the King James Bible.

[3] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 100.

[4] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists,  2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 4109-4110.

[5] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 102.

[6] John Smyth, “On Religious Liberty,” from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 70.

[7] Ibid, 103.

[8] Thomas Helwys, “The Mistery of Iniquity,” from McBeth, Sourcebook, 72. I modernized the spelling myself.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christian, History of the Baptists, vol. 1, Kindle Locations 4138-4139.

[11] Leonard Busher, “Religion’s Peace, 1614,” from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 73.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Archive, n.d.), 603.

[14] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 115-116.

[15] Armitage, History of the Baptists, 603.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s