Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Grace Magazine article

I have an article in this month's magazine as follows. More on Grace here.

1662 And All That

Like Grace Magazine itself, most though not all of its readers could be described as Baptist. Here in the UK, Baptists are considered to be nonconformists or dissenters. There were plenty of Baptists and other dissenters from the national church before 1662 but it was in that year, 350 years ago this year, that nonconformity as such arose and began to be, under God, a significant force in the life of the nation.
The writer Anthony Burgess once wrote, “It's always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it. To remember where you come from is part of where you're going.” The beginnings of nonconformity are something that nonconformists or dissenters today ought to be familiar with. Back in 1962, speaking at the Evangelical Library, Dr Lloyd-Jones said that practically all that is good in evangelicalism finds its roots in the Puritanism so fiercely persecuted then. He also declared that “the very greatness of the men themselves as men of God demands our attention”.

So what happened in that year? Who were these nonconformists or dissenters and what did they refuse to conform to or dissent from? This was the year that the Act of Uniformity was passed. The main event occurred on St Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1662, when about two thousand ministers and others in the pay of the national church in England and Wales were silenced or ejected from their livings for failing to conform to and dissenting from what the Church of England now required.
What was required, among other things, was that they use the newly published prayer book. The 1662 prayer book has many admirable qualities but there is much to object to and this renewed policy of vigorously enforcing its use was too much for many, especially after having not used for over a decade during the Interregnum after the death of Charles I. The prayer book was not the only concern (nonconformists also objected, for example, to the requirement of re-ordination by a bishop where that had not happened before) but it proved to be the catalyst for their objections and fears.

The Great Ejection, as it has come to be known, really includes all the ejectments and silencing that took place in the years from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 through to 1662 and the immediately following period. Previous to this the number of independent churches, including baptist ones, was relatively small. It was with the ejection of such a large number of men, some 20% of the clergy, the majority of whom went on preaching, despite strong and sometimes vicious opposition and gathered local nonconformist churches, that nonconformity began to be the force we know it was in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most of the names of the men who were ejected and their wives who suffered with them are unfamiliar to us, though some such as Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton and Thomas Watson are still read. Henry Jessey was the most famous Baptist. Most of the ejected were presbyterian, though some 194 were congregationalist. There were apparently only 19 Baptists, 11 of them in Wales, though some became Baptists later. They were nearly all men, however, who any Reformed Baptist today could admire and be ready to learn from. Though some few good men did remain in the national church, Gerald Bray is right to say that almost all of the ejected “were Puritans, and so the Act may be said to represent the expulsion of Puritanism from the national Church.”

The persecution launched against these men also swept into its net Baptists and others already outside the national church. John Bunyan is the most famous example. He was imprisoned in 1660 and remained there for the best part of the next 12 years. His congregation had previously been meeting in the parish church in Bedford but that all came to an end with the Restoration. Their conscientious stand for the truth and their great courage and wisdom in the face of persecution give an example that ought to be known and emulated. 
Relief from direct persecution finally came for the nonconformists with the Toleration Act of 1689, when King William and Queen Mary came to the throne. It was in that year that the Particular Baptists finally felt free to publish their confession of faith. The work had been completed back in 1677. Nonconformists continued to be treated as second class citizens, even then, being practically barred from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, for example, until as late as 1828 but at least the worst of the persecution was over.
The years 1662 to 1689 saw great variation in the levels of persecution and understandably things varied from place to place. In 1664 a conventicle act was passed banning religious gatherings of more than five (apart from family members). In 1665 a particularly cruel law was passed. Known as the five mile act, this act forbade the ejected from living within five miles of their former place of abode. The idea was to try and cut them off from their former congregations, who usually remained loyal. In 1670 a second conventicle act was passed. Famously described by Andrew Marvell as ‘the quintessence of arbitrary malice’, it reduced penalties for ordinary worshippers but fines for preachers and the owners of places where conventicles were found went up to £20 for a first offence, £40 for a second. The idea of distraint was also introduced, the seizure of a person’s property in order to obtain payment. If the minister could not pay, wealthier members of the congregation could lawfully be plundered.
In 1672 and 1683 Charles then James decreed indulgences but, unsupported in Parliament by law, these did not last and the pattern of persecution continued in most places. The Broadmead Baptists wrote of some eight waves of persecution altogether and it is clear that, as is often the case to this day, persecution did come in waves. Typically again, it varied in form and intensity, from minor harassment to mass imprisonment. Various factors were involved such as one's willingness to adapt to the situation and the attitude of local magistrates. A G Matthews suggests that 12.4% of the ejected men, some 215 altogether, were imprisoned between 1662 and the death of Charles II in 1685. Most were in for short periods but others were in prison for lengthy terms. Some seven ministers actually died in prison.

There was a Bible taught confidence among dissenters that their sufferings were working for them “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”. When Joseph Oddy was taunted by a Cambridge wit with the doggerel lines

Good day, Mr Oddy,
Pray how fares your body;
Methinks you look damnably thin?

He shot back with

That sir's your mistake,
'Tis for righteousness' sake;
Damnation's the fruit of your sin.

Dissenters were not slow to see in various providences God's hand encouraging them and dealing with their persecutors. What else could one make of the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the war with the Dutch, too, for that matter? “Nonconformist writings abound” says Michael Watts “in stories of disasters which befell individual persecutors”.
Positively, Philip Henry, father of Matthew, observed in old age that though many of the ejected ministers were brought very low, had many mouths to feed, were greatly harassed by persecution and their friends were generally poor and unable to support them, yet, in all his acquaintance, he never knew, nor could remember to have heard of any nonconformist minister being in prison for debt.

A Lesson
The Bible speaks about the conscience often enough but it is a rather neglected subject among evangelicals today. The 1662 men were men who knew that they had a conscience and who were willing to act upon it with courage when necessary.
The story is told of how someone once said to Oliver Heywood, “Ah, Mr Heywood, we should gladly have you preach still in our church”. He replied “Yes, I would as gladly preach as you can desire it, if I could do it with a safe conscience”. The man honestly replied “Oh, sir, many nowadays make a great gash in their consciences: cannot you make a little nick in yours?” Heywood clearly could not. Oh for men and women like him today.

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