The Cost of Pilgrimage
The year 1660 was a catastrophe for radical Puritans. The return of the monarchy under Charles II spelled disaster for people like John Milton, who had written passionate tracts defending religious liberty, republican government, and the legitimacy of killing a king. He made a last-minute plea, urging the nation to rally to "the good old cause." Having set out for the Promised Land by "turning regal bondage into a free commonwealth," it would be folly to return to the servitude of Egypt.
Despite his warnings, the monarchy was restored and a warrant was issued for Milton's arrest. He survived, thanks to influential friends, but other Puritan revolutionaries were put to death in gruesome public executions or locked up in the Tower of London.
Moderate Puritans, like Richard Baxter, did not share Milton's despair in May 1660. Although Baxter had been a supporter of Parliamentary causes during the English Civil War, he was no anti-monarchist and deplored the execution of Charles I. While his ministry had flourished under Cromwell, he was no great admirer of the Lord Protector. The return of the Stuart dynasty promised an end to years of political and religious upheaval, and initially Baxter looked forward to the restoration of a comprehensive national church encompassing both Puritans and Anglicans. In June 1660, he was appointed a chaplain to the new king, and he preached before Charles II in July.
In October, leaders who favored a church led by bishops met to negotiate with those who favored a church ruled by elders (presbyters). The king declared that the restored church would be governed by bishops and presbyters and would allow considerable latitude on matters of ceremony. Baxter was offered a bishopric, and although he turned it down, he recommended others who might be willing to accept. The Presbyterians were willing to agree to a church governed by bishops so long as they did not impose strict conformity on "tender consciences."
But the hopes of moderate Puritans were quickly dashed.
Turning up the heat
Puritanism was associated in the minds of many with revolution in church and state, and Puritans soon faced a popular backlash. Almost 700 Puritan ministers were ousted from their parishes in 1660 alone—Baxter himself was deprived of his living in Kidderminster, and not allowed even to deliver his farewell sermon. During negotiations with the bishops in March 1661, he finally recognized that they were determined to enforce conformity to the Prayer Book and unwilling to accommodate the consciences of English Puritans. With the election of the monarchist "Cavalier" Parliament, hard-line Anglicans were on the rise, and over the next few years Parliament enacted a series of punitive laws against religious dissent. The centerpiece of the legislation was the Act of Uniformity (1662), which required all clergy to be ordained by bishops, to renounce earlier commitments to reform, and to assent to the new Prayer Book. The Act forced more than 1000 Puritan ministers out of their parishes, bringing the total number ejected to just over 2000 (around one-fifth of the total number of clergy).
England now witnessed a persecution of Protestants by other Protestants without parallel in 17th-century Europe. Thousands of Puritans were arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned. Hundreds of meetings were violently broken up, and nonconformists were even attacked by organized gangs and angry mobs. The statistics for Quakers alone are startling: Around 15,000 suffered imprisonment or fines, 450 died in jail, and 200 more were banished.
The more mainstream Presbyterians were treated less harshly, but one in ten of the ejected minsters spent some time in jail. Baxter himself was imprisoned in 1669. Like Bunyan—who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress in Bedford jail—he was not unduly troubled. "My imprisonment," he wrote, "was no great trouble to me." His jailer was kind, he had "a large room" and "a fair garden," and his wife was "never so cheerful a companion to me as in prison." They "kept house as contentedly and comfortably as at home," and received a constant stream of visitors. But prison was hot and noisy, and Baxter found study difficult due to constant interruptions. He was grateful that his imprisonment lasted only a few days.
Despite suffering persecution, Baxter continued to seek peace and reunion with the Church of England. He regularly attended worship at parish churches and actively encouraged nonconformists to practice "occasional conformity." He also participated in negotiations with moderate Anglicans who shared his desire for a broader national church that would accommodate Puritans. Anglican laymen like the scientist Robert Boyle joined forces with Baxter to raise support for the missionary work of the Puritan John Eliot among American Indians.
A minority of Puritan ministers even managed to hold onto their parishes, despite their failure to conform fully to Anglican ceremonies. Ralph Josselin—whose famous diary offers a remarkable record of 17th-century life—remained in his Essex vicarage until his death in 1683. Powerful politicians like the Earl of Shaftesbury were openly sympathetic to the plight of nonconformists. Indeed, Shaftesbury's secretary, the philosopher John Locke, became a leading advocate of religious toleration.
Finally, Charles II himself disliked religious persecution and introduced a Declaration of Indulgence in 1672 to allow nonconformists to open legal meetinghouses. Although the king's Declaration was quickly overturned by Parliament, Baxter was able to resume his public ministry in the 1670s. He moved to London and preached regularly to gatherings of nonconformists. He was, however, kept under a close watch and subjected to various kinds of harassment, including fines.
Baxter on trial
Persecution intensified in the 1680s, after nonconformists and their Anglican sympathizers had tried and failed to exclude the king's Catholic brother (James, Duke of York) from succession to the throne. Baxter was arrested and tried before Judge Jeffreys, a man notorious for his drunkenness, vengefulness, and brutality.
The trial was held on May 30,1685, before a crowded courtroom at the Guildhall in the heart of London. Approaching the age of 60, Baxter was a frail and stooping figure, "nothing but skin and bones," according to one eyewitness. But his friends had secured half-a-dozen of the finest defense lawyers, and witnesses were lined up to testify to his good character and moderation.
Jeffreys, however, had no intention of conducting a fair trial. Throughout the proceedings, he poured abuse on the venerable preacher. He told the court that Baxter was "an old rogue," "a conceited, stubborn, fanatical dog" who deserved to be "whipped through the city." He had "poisoned the world with his Kidderminster doctrine" and preached incendiary sermons to foment war against Charles I.
Baxter's lawyers pointed out that this was a travesty, that Baxter had been willing to accept bishops, and had done more than anyone to convince Puritans to remain in communion with the Church of England. Jeffreys was contemptuous. "Baxter for bishops!" he exclaimed, "a merry conceit indeed." The truth was that the "old knave" had "written books enough to load a cart," each one packed with sedition. Baxter, Jeffreys insisted, was a bitter enemy of bishops and kings and would not hesitate to plunge the nation into another civil war.
Throughout this bitter harangue, Baxter behaved with the utmost dignity, responding calmly on the rare occasions when he was allowed to speak. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson, later wrote that Baxter had never seemed so "honourable" or so "great" as when he "stood at bay, berogued, abused, despised." But Jeffreys had ensured that the jury was packed with enemies of Puritanism. Baxter was found guilty, fined, and jailed from June 1685 to November 1686.
On his release, Baxter quickly returned to preaching, and he lived to see the relatively bloodless "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89, which overthrew the Catholic king James II. Nonconformity was now guaranteed toleration by act of Parliament. Baxter still dreamt of a national church that would embrace all English Christians, but the new era was to be one of sanctioned pluralism rather than Christian reunion.
John Coffey is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Leicester, England, and author of Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1588-1689.
Pastoring Plague Victimsby John Coffey
By the 1660s, London was the largest metropolis in Western Europe, with almost half a million inhabitants. But in April 1665, the city was hit by a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague. Around 200,000 of the more prosperous residents fled to the countryside, and they were joined by many of the Anglican clergy. Most of those who remained were the poor who lived in crowded and unsanitary alleys, cellars, and tenements. By September, when the plague was at its worst, 10,000 people perished in a single week.
With many churches left without a resident minister, nonconformist ministers seized on the disaster as an opportunity to return to their old parishes. Baxter tells us that the plague brought "one great benefit" to the city, for it "occasioned the silenced ministers more openly and laboriously to preach the Gospel, to the exceeding comfort and profit of the people." In Baxter's words, they pitied "the dying and distressed people that had none to call the impenitent to repentance, nor to help men to prepare for another world, nor to comfort them in their terrors." Their courage was widely admired and ensured that in the future nonconformist ministers would enjoy greater "freedom of preaching" in the city. Yet at the very time that they were ministering to the victims of the plague, the Parliament (sitting safely in Oxford) was passing the Five Mile Act, which prohibited nonconformist clergy from coming within five miles of their former parishes or any urban corporation.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.