Early English Churches of Christ become established and the Trinitarian controversy

 

1Jo 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

 

With the spread of the gospel such churches existed in number by the 1550s and in the year 1549 Bishop Burnet says “There were many Anabaptists in several parts of England who say that ‘infant baptism is no baptism”.  Dr Some said in 1587 that several Anabaptist congregations were in London and other places.  In the book ‘Believers Baptism from Heaven and of Divine Institution’ published in 1691 by Hercules Collins, minister of a church of Christ in Wapping denies that England received baptism from Smith and states that believers baptism was being practised in England prior to Smith.

In the 1300 and 1400s the 'heresy' which the authorities tried to destroy was Lollardy. Lollard was a derogatory name for men and women who simply wished to return to the simplicity of the scriptures. From records we know they taught the universal priesthood of believers, rejected infant baptism, rejected the Catholic Church and it traditions. In the 1500s as Lollardy died out, the Anabaptists appear, in exactly the same places where Lollardy was popular now the Anabaptists existed, with the same doctrines! Anabaptist too was a derisory name and from that persecuted group rose the churches of Christ who used that name, and denied being Anabaptists.

In October 1538 there was a commission sent to Cranmer, Stokesly and Sampson to inquire after Anabaptists: to proceed against them.   At this time and much later English Christians meeting together as ‘churches of Christ’ were known as Anabaptists.

It is taught that heretics were burned but without stating their true beliefs.  In fact many of these heretics were Christians who were loyal to the state, and meant no harm to anybody.  It is without doubt that during the time of Henry the Eighth and earlier, throughout England, that the true church flourished, despite Christians being killed in hundreds, by the cruellest of methods.  During this period Catholic activists in England were normally beheaded, not burned.

During this time Christians were burnt at; Smithfields London, Ely, Cambridge, Coventry, Canterbury, Lewes, Colchester, Stratford-le-Bow, Newbury, Exeter, Wymondham, Uxbridge, Brentford, Beccles, Westminster, Tower hill, Ipswich, Rochester, Norwich, Edinburgh, Litchfield, Buckingham. Ashford, Malden, Cardiff, Wisbech.  The last burnings of believers took place during 1612 when Edward Wightman of Burton upon Trent was convicted of heresies, including being a member of the Lord’s church and preaching against infant baptism, on the 14th December 1611.  This was before the bishop of Coventry and Litchfield.  He was burnt at Litchfield on the 11th April 1612, two hundred and eleven years after William Sawtre was burnt.

Most histories state that Wightman and Legate (1575 - 18 March 1612) were anti-Trinitarian. The charge is based on that both rejected  that the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds did not contain a profession of the true Christian Faith. The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds in origin are Catholic and whilst accepted by most denominations (Catholic, Anglican and protestant) the Trinitarian Nicene formula is based on the pagan trinity, which was in the 1600s rejected by the churches of Christ (yes, that is how they identified themselves). The formula used by the churches of Christ was this "That there is one God, the best, the highest, and most glorious Creator and Preserver of all; who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (1611). The 1646 confession reads "The Lord our God is but one God, whose subsistence is in Himself; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light, which no man can approach unto; who is in Himself most holy, every way infinite, in greatness, wisdom, power, love, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; who giveth being, moving, and preservation to all creatures. In this divine and infinite Being there is the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; each having the whole divine Essence, yet the Essence undivided; all infinite without any beginning, therefore but one God; who is not to be divided in nature, and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties.

Bartholomew Legate was born in Essex and became a dealer in cloth. In the 1590s, Bartholomew and his two brothers, Walter and Thomas, began preaching around the London area. Their message rejected the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and their rituals. They taught that preaching and hearing precede baptism and were thus labelled as anabaptists and anti-Trinitarian. The anti-Trinitarian change is useful as all opposing parties, Calvinists, Anglican and Catholic held to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. This is no evidence they and Edward Wightman rejected the Trinity. In 1611, together with his brother Thomas, Bartholomew were put in prison for heresy, in 1611. Thomas died in Newgate Prison, London, Refusing to recant his opinions, Bartholomew was burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 18 March 1612. Bartholomew Legate was the last person burned in London for his religious opinions.

Edward Wightman (1566 - April 11, 1612), who was burned alive at Lichfield, he the last to suffer in this way in England, future "heretics" would be starved to death in prison. The charges brought against Wightman included eleven distinct heresies. Part of the charge was that he believed "that the baptizing of infants is an abominable custom; that the Lord's Supper and baptism are not to be celebrated as they now are in the Church of England; and that Christianity is not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England, but only in part."  His contemporaries said that if Edward really held all the opinions of which he was accused, he would have been either an idiot or a madman, and, if so, he ought to have had the prayers of his persecutors rather than to have them put him to a cruel death. Like Legate one change was denying the Trinity, or more precisely, denying the Nicene Creed.

The authorities first carried out an aborted attempt at execution on  March of 1612. When the flames started to burn Wightman, he shouted out something that seemed to imply that he had changed and was ready to accept the faith of the Church of England. The spectacle which unfolded before the populace of Litchfield was so painful that Edward Wightman was rescued from the flames before it could burn him too badly and he recovered from his ordeal.

Wightman refused to make a formal retraction and continued to preach his "heresies"; he was a few weeks later again tied to the stake and he was executed by burning alive on April 11, 1612 .

The following is a copy of the written order issued by the King for the death of Edward Wightman.

"The King to the sheriff of our city of Litchfield, Greeting. Whereas, the reverend father in Christ, Richard, by divine providence, of Coventry and Litchfield, Bishop, hath signified unto us, that he judicially proceeding, according to the exigence of ecclesiastical canons and of the laws and customs of this kingdon of Burton-upon-Trent, in the diocese of Coventry and Litchfield, of and upon the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cirinthus, Valintian, Arrius, Macedonius, Simon, Magnus, of Manes, Manichees, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists, and other arch-heriticks; and moreover of other cursed opinions, belched by the instance of Satan, excogitated and here to forunheard of; the aforesaid Edward Wightman appearing before the aforesaid reverend father, and other divines and learned in the law, assisting him in judgment, the aforesaid wicked crimes, heresies and other detestable blasphemies and errors, stubbornly and perniciously, knowingly and maliciously, and with a hardened heart, published, defended and dispersed, by definite sentence of the said divine father, with the consent of divines, learned in the law aforesaid, justly, lawfully and canonically, against the said Edward Wightman in that part brought, stands adjudged and pronounced a heretick, and therefore as a diseased sheep out of the flock of the Lord, lest our subjects he do infect by his contagion, he hath decreed to be cast out, and cut off. Whereas, the holy mother church hath not further in this part what it ought more to do and prosecute, the same reverend father hath left to our secular power the same Edward Wightman as a blasphemous and condemned heritick to be punished with the condign punishment as by the letters patent of the aforesaid reverend father, the bishop of Coventry and Litchfield, in this behalf thereupon made, as certified unto us in our Chancery. We, therefore, as the zealot of justice and the defender of the Catholick faith, and williing the holy church, and the rights and liberties of the same, and the Catholick faith to maintain and defend, and such like heresies and errors everywhere, so convict and condemn to punish with consign punishment, holding that such a heritick in the aforesaid form convicted and condemned, according to the customs and laws of this our Kingdom of England in this part accustomed, out to be burned with fire. We command thee that thou cause the said Edward Wightman, being in thy custody, to be committed to fire in some publick and open place below the city aforesaid, for the cause aforesaid before people; and the same Edward Wightman in the same fire cause really to be burned in destation of said crime, and for the manifest example of other Christians, that they may not fall into the same crime. And this no ways omit, under the peril that shall follow thereon."

Wightman's wife Francis and their children left Lichfield and lived in London where they attended the church of Christ meeting at White Alley, Newgate. From there his family moved to Rhode Island, America where they continued in the true faith.

 

Below, plaque on the side of St. Mary's Church, Market Place, Lichfield, remembering the execution of Edward Wightman.

 

Below, contemporary woodcut of the burning with St. Mary's Church in the background.

 

Below, pictures of St. Mary's Church and the Market Place, Lichfield. The statue of is Dr. Samuel
Johnson, Lichfield's most famous son .

 

 

 

 

The last time according to my research that the accusation of "anti-Trinitarian" was used, by getting members of the church to deny the Nicene Creed, was in the famous disputation held on October 17, 1642 at Southwark (London). Dr Daniel Featley (spelling of his name can vary - 1578 - 1645). Featley was a member of the translation committee of the King James Bible and was an Anglican theologian of high repute.  Featley had the disputation with four "anabaptists" at Southwark which is commemorated in his book The Dippers dipt or the Anabaplists dunckt and plunged over head and ears (1645). The charge of being anti-Trinitarian was denied as was the Nicene Creed. Presumably by this time the charge of denying the Trinity was known to be based on denying the Nicene Creed, refutation of the charge was made by confirming they believed in the Trinity. The following is excepted from the Dippers Dipt when Featley was arguing with a Scottish Christian.

Featley - "I will propound a Question or two to you concerning the blessed Trinity, that I may know whether you are well instructed in the principles of Catechisme, who yet are so well conceited of your selves, that you take upon you to teach others."

Featley - Doe you beleeve that the holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Sonne? if you doe so, how then doe you answer the words of our Saviour, John 15.26. The Spirit which proceeds from the Father? there is no mention at all of proceeding from the Sonne, but the Father onely. To the latter of these Queries nothing was answered, by either of them; to the former they both answered. First the Scotchman.

Scotchman: We never intend to deny that every Person in Trinity is God, for the Text you alledge, it proves not what you bring it for. Here the Text being read, the Scotchman answered, Christ opposeth his Father, as the true God, to all false gods.

Featley also argued that baptism should be by triple dispensing, whereas the those practising believers baptism used single immersion, but as they noted in their defence, in the name of the Trinity (Matt 28:19). For Featley the use of single immersion was a denial of the Trinity.

In the period of King James there is no evidence I am aware of any Anabaptist group being anti-Trinitarian. Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman were from the sum total of evidence no more or no less than men, members of the church of Christ, preaching the Gospel who died opposing the 39 articles of the Church of England (Anglican party) , which includes the Nicene Creed. As such they were restorationists rather than reformers. They sought to restore the pure church of the apostolic period rather than turn to Rome and its creeds.

There is to my knowledge no statement recorded where Wightman denies the Trinity. Wightman is recorded as saying "that Christianity is not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England, but only in part." A view he was entirely right to hold.

His contemporaries said that if Wightman really held all the opinions that he was accused of, he must have either been an idiot or a madman, and ought to have had the prayers of his persecutors rather than to have been put to a cruel death.

Regarding prosecution, in a Europe that was deeply religious and also superstitious, three accusations that would receive universal acclaim are 1/ a denial of the Trinity, 2/ a denial of the State church, 3/ rebaptism of those baptised as infants in the State church (Anabaptism).  These three charges would cross boundaries and be acceptable to Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics, Protestants alike along with the horrendous consequences for those brave Christians. It must be remembered in the majority of cases, those imprisoned or burned alive could have walked away after abjuring their beliefs. They went to their deaths voluntarily confessing Christ and Lord, King and Prophet, preaching the plan of Salvation, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, preaching the visible church of the saved is not a denomination but His one and only church - the church of Christ. They denied predestination, they denied original sin and taught salvation is available to all men who ask.

Much has been made of Wightman's background prior to his repentance and baptism, but there is no justification mentioning previous views and sins he may, or may not, have held, at some point previous to his conversion. Neither is there any defence for inventing a religious group they are said to belong to (Anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists) when no such group existed in that time period in England.

In the mid 1500s a strong anti-Trinitarian movement amongst some continental anabaptists started in Italy, from where they were driven into eastwards into Poland, eventually under the influence of Faustus Socinus (1539 - 1604) the movement was named 'Socinianism'. In 1638 it was driven out of Poland and arrived in England in about 1651, nearly 40 years too late for Wightman and Legate to be party to.  This was the start of the Unitarian movement which was in England from the 1650s. 

Another earlier accusation was those who rejected Mary as sinless. The argument was that if a person believed Mary to be capable of sin would be a rejection of her as 'Mother of God' and therefore a rejection of the deity of Christ. Later this argument developed into the Trinitarian denial when rejection the 39 articles of the Church of England, when the Nicene Creed was rejected. Thus the facts were twisted and a proper defence denied.  

Burnett made an interesting admission concerning the Lollards, about seventy years after Wightman was executed "It is generally observed, that is the proceedings against Lollards, the clergy always mixed some capital errors, which all Christians rejected, with those for which they accused them; and some particulars being proved, they gave it out that they were guilty of them all, to represent them the more odious.  Vol 1, page 59. Reformation of the Church of England, in 7 vols, 1828 Oxford University Press,  Gilbert Burnett (1643-1715) Lord Bishop of Sarum (Salisbury).

To give an insight into the thinking of secular and religious prosecutors, in the 1400s one change made against the wives of men who were evangelising was the accusation of witchcraft. When the women were seen by witnesses flying on their broomsticks, they were burned alive after the most basic of trials, where they were not allowed, because of their witchcraft, to produce a defence. Thus women, wives of gospel preachers died for something clearly they could not do. Where the witchcraft trials of the middle ages were most  numerous, was areas where the gospel was being preached and converts made. As recently as 1926, the Catholic theologian, Montague Summers defended the above by stating that there is a "close correlation between witchcraft and heresy", he states that the Bogomiles, Cathari, Paulicians, Vaudois, Waldenses and Albigenenses are not only charged with being Gnostics and Manichees, saturated with sorcery, witchcraft and revolutionary aims, but that "heresy, sorcery and anarchy were almost interchangeable terms".

In 1453, Guillaume Edelin, confessed to being a witch (under torture), and claimed to have rode around on a broomstick. This became (under torture)  a popular confession especially when witnesses could be produced. The idea today that witches were burned by the thousand in Europe in the middle ages is entirely false, those gentle people were not witches but most likely Christians!

Executing these innocent people, over 300 years between 30,000 and 60,000 died, serving another purpose. Plague, crop and livestock failure in a fatalistic and superstitious society could be blamed on witchcraft rather than God.  So, two advantages were gained, placing the blame of natural disasters on the witches, and ridding 'heresy' from Europe. Eighty percent of those who died were women.
 

 

The standard procedure for dealing with heretics was to use torture, victims would be taken to a public place and either hung for slow strangulation or chained to a stake and burnt alive. 

The authorities would often hold prisoners at Lambeth Palace, headquarters of the Catholic Church in London, seen below.  If they refused to submit (recant) to the Catholic Church, after prolonged torture, they were burnt alive.  That so many held their faith speaks volumes for the love they had for Christ and His Church.

 

 

 

Above right, Lambeth Palace, London. Home today of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican faith.

Here in the Lollards tower Christians were held under horrendous conditions, ultimately many would suffer a cruel death at the hands of the Catholic and later Anglican Church of England.

Another typical burning taken from a wood cut.

At first many ‘churches of Christ’ started from inside the Church of England.   From 1615 these congregations started to leave the Church of England in some number.  The first book published by the ‘churches of Christ’ in England was sold in 1618 and many Confessions of Faith followed.  Christians were leaving England for the Americas by the 1620s.  On May 28th 1665 at Boston a group formed a church and called themselves ‘Baptists’.

According the historian Neal (died 1743) there was 54 ‘Anabaptist’ congregations in Britain in 1644.  These congregations referred to themselves as Christians who were members of the ‘church or congregation of Christ’.

From 1646 onwards Parliament became far more favourable to the ‘dissenters’ and it was no longer considered treasonable to hold to views opposing the state church.   In fact Cromwell’s daughter was married to a Christian and slowly those who were teaching the Gospel in England did not need to fear the gallows, torture or prison.  It is surprising that such freedom was given, bearing in mind that king Charles was beheaded in 1649.

The monarchy was restored during 1660 but slowly the persecution continued against both the Puritans (Calvinists) and the dissenters.  The act of Toleration was passed in 1689 granting certain freedom to dissenters but under some conditions.  Primary this was an anti-Catholic law but it did allow significant religious freedom to spread the Gospel, openly Baptise believers, and form independent congregations separate from the state church .      

 

 

Next page, maps showing how the Waldensian heresy occupied the same areas as the later Lollards who grew out of the Waldensians, being identical except for name, and later, the English Anabaptists.