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.