On 3rd April 1575, twenty Dutch Anabaptists were arrested near Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City of London, at a meeting for Easter. Of these, fourteen were banished, two escaped from prison, and two, Jan Pieters and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield on 22 July.
Anabaptism can best be broadly described as a radical offshoot of the Protestant Reformation, spiritual ancestors of the modern Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers. (Though historians argue about how much influence and connection anabaptists had on later movements like the Baptist churches). However, it’s unlikely anyone called them self an anabaptist in the 1530s; it was a derogatory name given to them by their detractors. The movement’s most distinctive tenet was adult baptism: converts underwent a second baptism, (a ‘crime’ punishable by death under the legal codes of the time.) Members rejected the label Anabaptist (meaning Rebaptizer) – they repudiated their own baptism as infants as a blasphemous formality. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. Following the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, they held that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, repent, and accept baptism.
The Anabaptists also believed that the church, the community of those who have made a public commitment of faith, should be separated from the state, which they believed existed only for the punishment of sinners. Most Anabaptists were pacifists who opposed war and the use of coercive measures to maintain the social order; they also refused to swear oaths, including those to civil authorities. For their teachings regarding baptism and for the apparent danger they posed to the political order, they were persecuted pretty much everywhere they emerged, by Protestant and Catholic states alike.
The Anabaptists, like most Protestant Reformers, were determined to restore the institutions and spirit of the primitive church and often identified their suffering with that of the martyrs of the first three Christian centuries. Quite confident that they were living at the end of time, they expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
The biblical validity of infant baptism began to be debated in the early years of the Reformation, and the first adult baptism, which took place at Zollikon, outside Zürich, probably on January 21, 1525, was the result of the dissatisfaction of a group of Zwingli’s followers, led by the patrician humanist Konrad Grebel, over Zwingli’s unwillingness to undertake what they considered necessary reforms. Soon thereafter an extensive movement was in progress. Some of the more distinctive convictions of the Swiss movement were set forth in the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), prepared under the leadership of Michael Sattler.
The revolutionary implications of their teachings got the early anabaptists expelled from one city after another: however this also served to spread their ideas around Europe. Soon civil magistrates took sterner measures, and most of the early Anabaptist leaders died in prison or were executed.
Despite increasing persecution, new Anabaptist communities and teachings emerged. A unique type of Anabaptism, developed later in Moravia under the leadership of Jakob Hutter, stressed the common ownership of goods modeled on the primitive church in Jerusalem. The Hutterite colonies first established in Moravia survived the Reformation and are now located primarily in the western United States and Canada. Melchior Hofmann, established a large following in the Netherlands and inspired a number of disciples. He taught that the world would soon end and that the new age would begin in Strasbourg. He was imprisoned in that city in 1533 and died about 10 years later.
Some of Hofmann’s followers, such as the Dutchman Jan Mathijs (died 1534) and John of Leiden (Jan Beuckelson; died 1536), and many persecuted Anabaptists settled in Münster, Westphalia. Hofmann’s disciples were attracted to the city by dramatic changes that occurred there in the early 1530s. Under the influence of the Reformer Bernhard Rothman, Anabaptist sentiment was strong enough there to elect an Anabaptist majority to the city council in 1533. This was followed, under the direction of Mathijs and John of Leiden, by the expulsion and persecution of all non-Anabaptists and the creation of a messianic kingdom under John of Leiden. The city was surrounded in 1534 by an army of Catholics and Protestants, which perhaps encouraged further reforms, including the common ownership of goods (and allegedly polygamy) – justified by biblical scripture. The city was captured in 1535, and the Anabaptist leaders were tortured and killed and their bodies hung in steel cages from the steeple of St. Lambert’s church.
While most so-called Anabaptists were horrified at the episode in Münster, it brought down fiercer repression on all of them. The massive upsurge of Class violence during the German Peasants’ War and the anabaptists’ ideas were clearly linked to the authorities way of thinking: rejection of state and church and refusal to obey the law could only lead to revolution and disorder.
However, the pacifist Anabaptists in the Netherlands and northern Germany rallied under the leadership of the former priest Menno Simons, becoming the Mennonite church.
A number of anabaptists settled in England from the early 1530s, lulled by Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope and flirtations with reform into seeing it as a safer haven than other European countries. But repression awaited them here too, especially after the Münster revolution, which scared the authorities everywhere into cracking down on any whiff of the sect or sympathy for it. Henry imprisoned & burned some; and this treatment continued under Elizabeth I, despite her much-quoted decree that she would not look into men’s souls and persecute them for their beliefs…
Here’s an account of the arrests of the anabaptists in London in 1575, from a chronicle of English Baptism:
“During the persecution which raged in the Netherlands under the Duke of Alva, butcher-general of the Inquisition in that country, numbers fled to other parts of the Continent, or to England, for refuge and safety. In England, at any rate, they ought to have been safe. But the demon of persecution ruled here. In London, on the 3rd of April, 1575, a small congregation of Dutch Baptists convened in a private house, outside the City gates (“without Aldgate”), was interrupted by a constable while at worship, and twenty-five persons were taken before a magistrate, who committed them to prison, but released them after two days’ confinement, on their giving bail for their appearance whenever summoned.
Information being given to the Queen, a Royal Commission was issued to Sandys, Bishop of London, and some others, to examine the parties and proceed accordingly. They appeared before the Commissioners in pursuance of the summons. Their confession of faith was rejected, and they were required to subscribe to four articles, condemnatory of their own principles.
“They proposed to us four questions,” says one of the prisoners, “telling us to say yea or nay—”
“1. Whether Christ had not taken His flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary?
“We answered: ‘He is the Son of the living God.’”
“2. Ought not little children to be baptized ?
“We answered: ‘Not so; we find it not written in Holy Scripture.
“3. May a Christian serve the office of a magistrate?
“We answered: ‘That it did not oblige our consciences; but, as we read, we esteemed it an ordinance of God.
“4. Whether a Christian, if needs be, may not swear?
“We answered: That it also obliged not our consciences; for Christ has said, in Matthew, Let your words be yea, yea; nay, nay. Then we were silent.
“But the Bishop said, that our misdeeds therein were so great that we could not enjoy the favour of God. O, Lord, avenge it not! He then said to us all, that we should be imprisoned in the Marshalsea.”
In the Marshalsea Prison (now called the “Queen’s Bench”), to which they were then conveyed, many efforts were made, by the ministers of the Dutch Church and others, to persuade them to submit and recant. “Master Joris came to us and said, If we would join the Church, that is, the Dutch Church, our chains should be struck off and our bonds loosed. The Bishop, he said, had given him command so to do. But we remained steadfast to the truth of Jesus Christ. He is, indeed, our Captain, and no other; yea, in Him is all our trust. My dear brethren, and sweet sisters, let us persevere until we conquer. The Lord will then give us to drink of the new wine. O Lord, strengthen our faith. As we have received the Lord Jesus Christ, let us go forward courageously, trusting in Him.” Five of them were overpowered, and consented to join the Dutch Church. They made a public recantation in St. Paul’s churchyard, on the 25th of May, standing there before thousands of people, with faggots bound to, their shoulders, as in Popish times. A few days after the remainder appeared again before the Commissioners. “We remembered the Word of the Lord,” says Gerrit van Byler, “‘When they shall lead you before lords and princes, fear not what you shall say, for in that hour it shall be given you.’ So we trusted in the Lord. The questions were again proposed, and subscription demanded; but we said, ‘That we would cleave to the Word of the Lord.”’ Upon this they were declared to be incorrigible heretics, sentenced to death, and given over to the secular arm to be punished.
Bishop Sandys was the spokesman on the occasion. The sentence accorded with his theology. In a sermon preached by him before the Parliament this passage occurs: “Such as teach, but teach not the good and right way; such as are open and public maintainers of errors and heresy; such, in the judgment of God, are thought unworthy to live. Let the false prophet die (Deut. xiii.5). Elias and Jehu did not think themselves imbrued, but rather sanctified, with such blood. I have no cruel heart; blood be far from me. I mind [desire] nothing less. Yet needs must it be granted that the maintainers and teachers of errors and heresy are to be repressed in every Christian commonwealth.”1
Fourteen women and a youth were put on board a vessel and sent out of the country. The youth was whipped from the prison to the wharf. The remaining five were consigned to Newgate, where they were put in heavy irons, thrust into a damp and filthy dungeon swarming with vermin, and not allowed to associate with other prisoners lest the thieves and murderers in the jail should be corrupted by Anabaptist contamination. One of their number, Christian Kernels, sank under the inhuman treatment. He died in the dungeon, after eight days’ confinement. He was “released by death, trusting in God; his dying testimony filled us with joy.”
The Queen was entreated to spare them. But she resented such interference with her prerogative, and would only consent to a month’s reprieve, and that in compliance with the intercession of John Foxe, the Martyrologist, whose truly pathetic and eloquent letter to her Majesty on the subject has been often printed and generally admired. Admirable it was in some respects. It was a gushing forth of Christianized humanity, quite peculiar in that age of steel-clad religion. But good old John was still in the dark. He did not understand soul-freedom. According to him, Baptists had no right to hold and profess their opinions. They were ranked with those “fanatical sects” which “are by no means to be countenanced in a commonwealth,” but ought to be “suppressed by proper correction.” He did not ask, therefore, for their release. All he complained of was “the sharpness of their punishment.” He would have it changed. “There are excommunications, and close imprisonment; there are bonds; there is perpetual banishment, burning of the hand, and whipping, or even slavery itself.” But “to roast alive the bodies of poor wretches, that offend rather through blindness of judgment than perverseness of will, in fire and flames, raging with pitch and brimstone,” he denounced as “a hard-hearted thing, and more agreeable to the practice of the Romanists than the custom of the Gospellers.” If, however, the Queen would not consent to recall the sentence, he implored her to grant “a month or two, in which we may try whether the Lord will give them grace to turn from their dangerous errors, lest, with the destruction of their bodies, their souls be in danger of eternal ruin.”
Foxe wrote also to the prisoners, urging them to acknowledge their errors, to give up their “frantic conceptions,” and telling them that they had “disturbed the Church by their great scandal and offence.” He sent them a copy of his letter to the Queen. In their reply to him, they say: “We are sorry, that you do not understand our matter, and that you have another opinion of us than we wish, since you think that by our curiosity and obstinacy we have not only given offence to the Church of God, but also provoked God himself, and frustrated our salvation. What reason you have thus to think of us we know not; nevertheless, we can assure you that we seek with our whole hearts to serve the one God and Christ in a good conscience, and to edify our neighbour, as far as in us lies. Therefore we gladly receive what the Holy Scripture testifies, and wish to be permitted to adhere to the plainness and simplicity of the Word of God, and not to be urged farther with subtle questions, which our feeble understandings are not able to comprehend, nor by Scripture to justify.”
The prisoners transmitted to the Queen a confession of their faith, accompanied by a “ supplication,” from which we take the following extract:—
“We testify before God and your Majesty, that were we in our consciences able by any means to think or understand the contrary, we would with all our hearts receive and confess it; since it were a great folly in us, not to live rather in the exercise of a right faith than to die, perhaps, in a false one. May it also please your Majesty in your wisdom and innate goodness to consider that it were not right, but hypocrisy in us to speak otherwise than with our hearts we believe, in order to escape the peril of temporal death; that it is impossible to believe otherwise than we in our consciences think; and also that it is not in our power to believe this or that, as evil-doers who do right or wrong as they please. But the true faith must be implanted in the heart of man by God; and to Him we daily pray that He would give us His Spirit, to understand His Word and Gospel.”
“Above all, it is evident to your Majesty that we have not sought to stir up any rebellions or seditions against your Majesty; but, much more, have daily besought the Lord for your happy reign, and the welfare both of your soul and body. Lastly, we have not endeavoured to spread our faith in the land. This we could not do, for we are only unlearned trades-people, unskilled in divinity.”
All was in vain. The Baptists remained firm. The Queen would not relent. On the 15th of July she signed the warrant for the execution of two of them, commanding the Sheriffs of London to burn them alive in Smithfield.
A copy of the warrant is now before us. There is also before us a copy of the warrant for the burning of Archbishop Cranmer, in Queen Mary’s days. These warrants are substantially alike. In fact, they are almost couched in the same language, word for word. Mary, the Papist, dooming to death the Protestant, and Elizabeth, the Protestant, ordering the execution of the Baptist, advance the same pretensions and adopt the same forms of speech. Both of them call their victims “heretics.” Both assume to be “zealous for justice.” Both are “defenders of the Catholic faith.” Both declare their determination to “maintain and defend the Holy Church, her rights and liberties.” Both avow their resolve to “root out and extirpate heresies and errors.” Both assert that the heretics named in the warrants had been convicted and condemned “according to the laws and customs of the realm.” Both charge the Sheriffs to take their prisoners to a “public and open place,” and there to “commit them to the fire,” in the presence of the people, and to cause them to be “really consumed” in the said fire. Both warn the Sheriffs that they fail therein at their peril. Herod and Pontius Pilate forgot their differences when they united in crucifying the Saviour. Papists and Protestants agree in murdering His followers.
Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters were the two whom the Queen appointed to death. Terwoort was a young man, about twenty-five years of age. He was a goldsmith, and in good circumstances. He was married some eight or ten weeks before his imprisonment. Pieters was aged, poor, and had nine children dependent on his daily toil. His first wife had been martyred at Ghent, in Flanders: his second wife was the widow of a martyr. A statement of his circumstances was laid before Sandys, in order to induce him to get permission for Pieters to leave the country, with his wife and children. But the Bishop was inaccessible to pity.
On Lord’s Day, the 17th of July, they were informed that the warrant for their execution had arrived. “Upon Tuesday,” says Gerrit Van Byler, “a stake was set up in Smithfield, but the execution was not that day. On Wednesday, many people were gathered together to witness the death of our two friends, but it was again deferred. This was done to terrify, and draw our friends and us from the faith. But on Friday our two friends, Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters, being brought out from their prison, were led to the sacrifice. As they went forth, Jan Pieters said, ‘The holy prophets, and also Christ, our Saviour, have gone this way before us, even from the beginning, from Abel until now.’” A vast multitude had collected together on the occasion, but few of whom, probably, sympathized with the sufferers. Some preachers were sent to the place of execution to prevent the expression of sympathy by maligning them. One of them exclaimed, “These men believe not on God.” “We believe,” replied Pieters, “in one God, our Heavenly Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son.” When they were bound to the stake, the articles were again offered to them, and life and pardon promised if they would subscribe. Pieters answered for them both, “You have laboured hard to drive us to you, but now, when placed at the stake, it is labor in vain.” One of the preachers said in excuse, “That all such matters were determined by the Council, and that it was the Queen’s intention they should die.” “But,” rejoined Pieters, “you are the teachers of the Queen, whom it behooves you to instruct better; therefore shall our blood be required at your hands.” No answer could be given to this. Fire was applied, and the souls of the martyrs ascended to God. “How utterly absurd,” says the Dutch Martyrologist, “do all such cruel proceedings and sentences as are here seen appear, when contrasted with the Christian faith! The Christian host is described as sheep and lambs, sent forth among cruel and devouring wolves. Who will be able, with a good conscience, to believe that these English preachers were the true sheep of Christ, since in this matter they brought forth so notably the fruit of wolves ?”
This was a black affair. It was essentially unjust and cruel, and admitted of no palliation. These Baptists owed no allegiance to Elizabeth. They were not her subjects. They were refugees, and claimed her protection as exiles for religion’s sake from their native land. They were living peaceably, doing harm to none. No rioting or disturbance was laid to their charge. All that could be alleged against them was that they did not go to the parish churches, but exercised Christian freedom, and worshipped God as they understood the Scriptures to teach them. For this they were burnt to death by a Protestant Queen.
We are willing to believe that Elizabeth was influenced by her bishops. Sandys and Whitgift were furious against the Baptists. They misrepresented and calumniated them continually. They held them up to public scorn and indignation, as professing sentiments incompatible with the well-being of society. The Queen was instructed by these men to regard the Baptists as hostile to her royal authority. That was touching her in a tender part. The womanly heart was strangely hardened, and she refused to show mercy.
Elizabeth could not plead ignorance respecting the sentiments of the Baptists. In the confession of faith which Terwoort and Pieters sent to her, a revised copy of which was signed by them the day before their martyrdom, they thus plainly stated their views:—
“We believe and confess that magistrates are set and ordained of God, to punish the evil and protect the good; which magistracy we desire from our hearts to obey, as it is written in 1 Peter 2:13, ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ ‘For he beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 8:4). And Paul teaches us that we should offer up for all ‘prayers, and intercessions, and giving of thanks; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires that all men should be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:1-4)He further teaches us ‘to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, and to be ready to every good work’ (Titus 3:1). Therefore we pray your Majesty kindly to understand aright our meaning; which is, that we do not despise the eminent, noble, and gracious Queen, and her wise councils, but esteem them as worthy of all honour, to whom we desire to be obedient in all things that we may. For we confess with Paul, as above, that she is God’s servant, and that if we resist this power we resist the ordinance of God; for ‘rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.’ Therefore we confess to be due unto her, and are ready to give, tribute, custom, honour, and fear, as Christ Himself has taught us, saying, I Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). Since, therefore, she is a servant of God, we will kindly pray her Majesty that it would please her to show pity to us poor prisoners, even as our Father in heaven is pitiful (Luke 6:36). We likewise do not approve of those who resist the magistrates; but confess and declare, with our whole heart, that we must be obedient and subject unto them, as we have here set down.”
But it availed them nothing. They were Baptists. The Queen was told that the Baptists were incorrigible heretics, and that she would be doing God service if she put them to death. So she lighted again the flames of Smithfield.
We have referred to Sandys and Whitgift. Their writings teem with invectives against the Baptists. In his controversy with Thomas Cartwright, the Puritan, Whitgift endeavoured to show that the arguments employed by Cartwright in defense of separation from the Church of England were similar to those used by the “Anabaptists,” a sect which was “hated” by “all estates and orders of the realm.” He collected a number of extracts from the writings of Zuingli, Calvin, Bullinger, and others, and adopted them as containing true descriptions of the opinions and practices of the “hated” party, adding observations of his own to the same effect. He says that they make contentions wheresoever they come; that the churches are disquieted by them, and magistrates contemned and despised; that “they do with as spiteful words and bitter speeches condemn the Church of England as they do the Papistical Church;” that they count all them as wicked and reprobate which are not of their sect; that they are “great hypocrites;” that they constantly “invent new opinions, and run from error to error;” that they are “stubborn and willful, wayward and froward, without all humanity;” that they seek to “overthrow commonweals, and states of government;” that they “reject all authority of superiors;” that they seek “to be free from all laws, and to do what they list;” and, finally, that all this is “most true, and therefore no slander.” No comment on these monstrosities is required. They are fair specimens of the controversial style of the age.
Doubtless, it was an unpardonable sin in the Baptists that they condemned the interference of the civil power with religion. They were remarkably clear on that subject. Whitgift unwittingly does them justice. He observes that they taught that “the civil magistrate hath no authority in ecclesiastical matters, and that he ought not to meddle in causes of religion and faith”—that “no man ought to be compelled to faith and religion” —and that “Christians ought to punish faults, not with imprisonment, not with the sword, or corporal punishment, but only with excommunication.” These are scriptural truths, which the bishops aforesaid laboured to suppress, because their own nefarious proceedings were inconsistent with them.
When Terwoort and Pieters were led out to die, Gerrit van Byler and Hans van Straten were left in Newgate, uncertain as to their fate. How long they remained there is not known. It is said that they were heavily ironed because they had endeavoured to escape by filing asunder the bars of their dungeon. At length they were discharged, probably because the Government were unwilling to incur the odium of another burning.”