Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

English Christianity – Part 5

In May of 1610 there was a conference between the Waterlanders and John Smyth’s congregation. At this time a confession of faith was drawn up and signed by those participating and it appears that the Englishmen were now accepted as part of the Mennonite church. It may be that they were not all baptized by the Mennonite church, though this was their desire. The historical records are not clear on this point. Smyth’s baptism of himself was not regarded as valid by the Mennonites. 43 members of John Smyth’s congregation signed the confession of faith. Some later fell away. In the next 40 years about 80 more English people were baptized in the Amsterdam Mennonite church. Some of these were children of the original members, others were new arrivals from England or converts from the other English Separatist groups in Holland.

John Smyth died in August of 1612. His last book, published posthumously, was an answer to those critics who accused him of false doctrine and of constantly changing his beliefs. He admitted he had constantly revised his beliefs, but believed he had always moved toward further light as he and others had covenanted to do five years earlier. He did not admit of any error in the accusations he had earlier made against the Church of England and other groups, but repented of the harshness of those accusations.

For another 28 years there was an English-speaking Mennonite congregation in Amsterdam. Their elder Thomas Pygott died in 1639 and within a year the English congregation was amalgamated with the Dutch-speaking congregation. By this time they had learned Dutch, intermarried with the Dutch Mennonites, some had even changed the spelling of their names in order to sound Dutch.

Robinson’s followers in Leyden also began to integrate into the Dutch society around them, but not so willingly. Holland was the leading mercantile nation in the world and at the height of its prosperity. They feared that they were being drawn into the materialistic spirit of the Dutch people and began to look for a way out. To return to England was out of the question, but they began to think longingly of the new world across the ocean. They did not have the financial resources among themselves, but finally they were able to line up financial backing from English merchants and enrol additional settlers from England. In 1620 the Mayflower set sail for Massachusetts. John Robinson and the remainder of his congregation fully intended to follow soon after, but financial difficulties encountered in the new Plimoth and the religious prejudices of the sponsoring merchants made that so difficult that only a few individuals were able to go. Having sent the bolder and most courageous portion of their congregation to the New World, the remaining group gradually dispersed, most joining the Dutch Reformed, some joining other English Separatist groups in Holland, a few returning to England.

A replica of the original Plimoth Plantation has been built in Massachusetts and it is populated by highly trained actors playing the roles of the original settlers. It is possible to go there and hear William Bradford tell a group of tourists with ringing conviction that “if you know that something is wrong and yet continue to do it, you are living in sin!” Or to speak with the deacon, Samuel Fuller, about criticism by the Church of England that the separatist church had no properly ordained ministers to administer the sacraments. His reply: “Who made them ministers and bishops? A church is made up of Christian people. They have no church, where did they get the authority to ordain themselves ministers and bishops?”

In 1634 it was reported to the archdeacon’s court that Gabriel Sanger, parson of Sutton Mandeville in Wiltshire, had expressed the following sentiments over the pulpit: “there is a narrow way that leadeth unto heaven and there is a broad way that leadeth unto hell, and many there be that enter therein; and the papists and protestants do meet in that way and may shake hands in hell”.

Edmund Goodenow was one of the church wardens of Donhead St. Andrew, a neighbouring parish to Sutton Mandeville. In 1636 he was fined for attending worship at a parish other than his own. In 1637 he was called before the archdeacon again for attending services at Shaftesbury, just across the county line in Dorset. The following spring Edmund Goodenow, along with two brothers and two sisters, left England forever, to make their home in the New England across the water, where they could worship God according to their conscience. These families were among the founders of the town of Sudbury, west of Boston.

In 1990 we attended a Goodenow family reunion in the Sudbury area. One evening one of our cousins, who plays a role at Plimoth Plantation, portrayed her ancestor, Mrs. Edmund Goodenow. Cynthia had the authentic costume and accent and gave us some insight into what it must have been like to live in those times. She was asked why she and her husband had left England? “We wanted to attend church where we could hear the Word of God, not the word of man. But when some of us attempted to attend churches in England where we believed we could hear the Word of God, they were brought before the courts and forbidden to ever do so again. So we left our homes for this unknown world where we believe we will be free to hear the Word of God preached.”

The Goodenow’s, like other settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, were Puritans, not Separatists. But once in the New World they faced the task of regulating their collective spiritual activities so as to avoid the difficulties which had caused them to leave England. Samuel Fuller from Plimoth Colony visited the new settlements as they were organising their churches and apparently was well received. The churches were established on the basis of local authority – no longer would bishops lord it over them! The minister was to be chosen by the town council, and only church members would have a vote in town affairs. In essence they had established exactly the same religious intolerance they had fled Britain to escape, only now they were the ones in charge!

The unique feature of the New England churches was the requirement that only those with saving faith were eligible for communion. The settlers had to be able to tell an experience of repentance, saving faith, and assurance of salvation, before being admitted to membership. Thus were the Congregational Churches of New England established, almost upon a Scriptural foundation. But they continued to baptize their babies, and within a generation faced the quandary of a large proportion of church members who did not have saving faith.

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