Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

English Christianity – Part 3

In 1529, while the Catholic church was under attack from Lutherans and Zwinglians on the continent, King Henry VIII persuaded Parliament to pass an act separating the Church of England from the authority of the pope. There were many in the English Church who hoped for a reformation, some motivated by true faith and some by a desire to neutralize the appeal of Lollardy to the common people. A considerable number of the ordained ministers of the state church espoused Puritan views. But very little changed, every living soul in England was by law a member of the Church of England. The realm was geographically divided into parishes, and people were required by law to attend their local parish church and no other, and to pay their tithes to the minister of their parish. It was even considered an offense to expound the Scriptures in a private home.

In the 1530’s the first Mennonites (or “Anabaptists”) appeared in Britain. They had a place of meeting in London, where their minister was a Fleming named Bastian. In 1534 Anabaptist ministers from England were at Amsterdam. In 1535, 14 Dutch Anabaptists were burned in London and other towns. Nevertheless many more continued to flee across the North Sea from the persecution in Holland. In 1538 the printing and possession of Anabaptist books was forbidden and all rebaptized persons ordered to leave the realm. On November 29, Jan Mathijsz a leader of the Anabaptists in England was burned at the stake at Smithfield. In 1540, Collins, an Englishman and Maundeveld, a French groom of the Queen, were burned at the stake.

The relationship between Mennonites and Lollards is difficult to discern. The doctrines were identical. In all probability Lollardy had become severely disorganized and weakened and the influx of Mennonite refugees served to revitalize and regather the remnants of the native English church. The King issued a pardon in 1539 for all heretics except those from abroad. It would appear that the new wave of persecution had succeeded in spreading an awareness of Anabaptist beliefs through the Kingdom. Another edict in 1540 condemned all those who believed that baptism was not for infants, that it was wrong to swear oaths or serve in civic office, and that Christ did not take His bodily substance from Mary. In 1550 Joan Boucher, probably of noble blood, was burned at the stake for her belief that Jesus did not take His substance from Mary.

During the Catholic restitution under Queen Mary (1553-1558) there was severe persecution of Protestants and Anabaptists alike. Some estimates place the proportion of Anabaptist martyrs as high as 80%. Most of these came from the counties close to the North Sea and were artisans or tradesmen. Two Anabaptist ministers can be identified, Henry Hart and Humphrey Middleton. Middleton died as a martyr in 1555. Hart was imprisoned for many years and carried on written debates with prisoners in other parts of the prison.

On Easter Day in 1575 a group of 20 people were arrested as they were gathered for worship. Some were released, two escaped and on July 22 Jan Pietersz and Hendrick Terwoort were burned at Smithfield. Two years later Hans Bret, an English Anabaptist, was captured at Antwerp. During his interrogation he was asked what kind of people they were who were put to death in England. He replied, “I believe they were Menno’s.”

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