Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Stoughton's Heroes 06

In the year following that in which the Act of Uniformity was passed, another statute was made for the oppression of the Nonconformists. Under pretence of preventing riotous assemblies, such as had recently troubled the peace of Yorkshire and Westmoreland, in which a few of the Fifth Monarchy men were implicated, it was enacted that if more than five persons, besides the members of a family, met together for religious exercises, anywhere but in the churches of the Establishment, the offenders should in the first instance be fined five pounds, or be imprisoned three months; in the second, pay ten pounds or suffer imprisonment for six months; and in the third, forfeit a hundred pounds or be sent over the seas for seven years. The Act did not remain a dead letter in the statute-book. In many places it was carried out with extreme rigour. The Nonconformists were carefully watched: spies were set to discover where they worshipped, and inform the local authorities. Men calling themselves officers of justice were prompt in endeavouring to arrest the parties, and inflict the penalty. The records of the Church at Broadmead, Bristol, contain several notices of the operation of the Act. As the people met at one Mr Yeats's house, a baker, in Maryport Street, the house was beset by the mayor and several aldermen, who demanded entrance; but the door being kept close, they forced it open with iron bars: some of the worshippers escaped out the back of the premises; others were seized and sent to prison. "We were hunted by the Nimrods," observe these humble confessors, "and assaulted many u time by men, but saved by God." One day, on a week meeting, a guard of musketeers was sent to take them into custody; but, getting down into a cellar, they eluded their enemies' search. "Another time, at brother Ellin's, on a Lord's day, the mayor and aldermen, with officers, beset the house, and at last broke open the back door, and so came in; but in the meantime our brother having contrived, by a great cupboard, to hide a garret door, ho sent up most of the men out of the meeting into the said garret; and so we were concealed." The Nonconformists in country villages sometimes avoided detection by assembling in some manorial hall belonging to one of the richer brethren; and there, at the midnight hour, the ejected pastor gathered round him some of his scattered Mock, and refreshed their hearts by the sound of his familiar voice, but infinitely more by the truths he uttered. Thus, in the great hull at Hudscott, belonging to the family of the Rolles, near South Moulton, in Devonshire, did John Flavel address a crowded auditory. Supported by the hospitality, and screened by the influence, of the owner of the mansion, he there resided for some time; and amidst the plantations, gardens, and rural scenes which environed the spot, gathered the materials of his "Husbandry Spiritualized;" so that it is highly probable he furnished in his midnight exorcises many of those ingenious illustrations, so suited to the tastes and habits of his rustic flock, which are found in the popular work just mentioned. The recesses of the dark wood offered a still more secure, and in some seasons even a more grateful sanctuary; and beneath the shades of lofty pines, or overhanging elms, or round the gnarled trunks of oaks that had stood for ages, forming temples of God's own building, - the persecuted brotherhood assembled to hear the Word of God; and there, too, at times, without fear, and freely as the birds on the branches, would they lift up their voices to heaven, and chant the high praises of their Creator. So did a group of Christians at Andover meet in a sequestered dell, amidst a wide-spreading wood, four miles from the town, while the clear shining stars, or the pale moon, guided them to their retreat. The same little company afterwards assembled in a private dwelling-house, selecting the night as the season for worship. "It was when the eye of human observation was closed by sleep, that they ventured to the room; and having entered it, made fast the door and closed the window-shutter, and even extinguished the light of the candle, lest its glimmering might be discovered through a crevice, by some stray enemy from without. Here they often continued all night in prayer to God, until the ray of morning light, struggling down the chimney, announced the time to disperse. Thus they learnt that the darkness hideth not from God, but the night shineth as the day; and that the Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward us openly."
But the cleverest precautions sometimes failed. In many cases they were altogether neglected; and the worshippers exposed themselves to detection, from a consciousness that they were only obeying the laws of God, however their conduct might be regarded by the laws of men. It touched the heart of Mr Pepys, High Churchman as he was, to see these unoffending persons led through the streets as culprits. He writes in his Journal, under date 1664, "I saw several poor creatures carried by constables, for being at a conventicle. They go like lambs, without any resistance; and would to God they would either conform, or be more wise, and not be catched." Such were the consequences of the Restoration of Charles II. "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum," ('Let justice be done, even if Heaven falls') said a zealous Presbyterian Royalist, when conversing with a friend upon the question of bringing in his Majesty. "Ruit coelum," (the heavens are falling)remarked this friend, on meeting him one day after the Act of Uniformity was passed.

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