Anticipating Future Persecution

David L. Cummins

Terror! Since September 11, that very word has taken on a new meaning to Americans across the land, and fear grips the hearts of many. After all, America has been known as the “Land of the Free,” but surely “911” has taken on a new meaning in our society. While Americans of many political and ideological backgrounds attempt to cope with such fear, Bible-believers have an added burden as they witness continuing encroachments upon soul liberty. In fact, the liberal hermeneutical principles of the Supreme Court, with its convoluted logic, has so distorted the once honored First Amendment of our Constitution as to make it the enemy of religious freedom.

Bible-believers in America have been lulled to sleep by the freedom that, through the influence of our godly Baptist forefathers, has become our national trademark. However, we must understand that this short historical interlude of freedom has not been the norm in civilization. Prior to His ascension, our risen Lord warned His disciples, saying, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” It is apparent that if our Lord shall tarry, a resurgence of persecution can be expected in America even as it has been experienced in many parts of the world. Bible-believers in South America, Africa, and Asia have sustained injurious harassment throughout all these years of America’s religious liberty. We believe in the pretribulation coming of our Lord and Savior to receive His own unto Himself. But until that time, American saints are just as vulnerable to suffering as any other member of the Body of Christ. Surely our sovereign God is able to make His grace abound unto present-day saints, causing each one to experience His victory while enduring trials and suffering, even as He did in days gone by.

One is caused to remember and honor the sacred memory of Michael Sattler, Anabaptist hero of another day. After authoring the Schleitheim Confession of Faith, the first such statement by the Anabaptists, Michael Sattler was captured by the authorities in Rottenburg, Germany. At his trial, as Sattler delivered his discourse of defense, the judges laughed him to scorn. The town clerk of Ensesheim said, “Oh you infamous, desperate villain and monk, you would have us engage with you in a discussion! The executioner will dispute with you, we think for a certainty.” Sattler was totally composed as he responded, “Let the will of God be done.”

He was found guilty, and his execution took place on May 25, 1527. Sattler had agreed to a signal that would be given to his congregation if the martyr’s death was bearable. He would raise the two forefingers on both hands and wave them in victory.

Sattler was taken from prison, and a piece of his tongue cut out. Hot tongs were applied to his body twice. He was dragged to the city gate, and again hot tongs tore pieces of flesh from his body five more times. He was then tied securely and elevated by a rope to a ladder. At the signal he was pushed into the flames. Despite his pain and his injured tongue, Sattler prayed aloud that God would grant him grace to be a faithful witness. As soon as the ropes were burned and his hands released, he waved in triumph and exclaimed, “Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands.”

I never read this account without a feeling of inferiority. However, I am reminded that when asked if he had grace to die, D. L. Moody responded that he did not have dying grace at that time, rather he had living grace. But, said he, “When it comes time to die, I am assured that God will grant me dying grace.”

The early days in the colony of Massachusetts were difficult for our Baptist forefathers. Dr. John Clarke had established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. When William Witter came to Baptist convictions, he left the state church in Massachusetts and united with the Baptists in Newport. Witter traveled from Lynn, Massachusetts, as long as he was physically enabled, that he might attend the services. However, being elderly and losing his sight, the 80-mile trip became almost impossible.

Witter then requested that some of the men of the congregation journey to Lynn to visit him at his home. Taking two men with him, Dr. Clarke set out on the trek that would take his team two full days to accomplish. The man of God was accompanied by Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall, an elderly deacon. The men arrived at the home of Mr. Witter on a Saturday evening, but the authorities in Boston had been alerted to their presence in the jurisdiction of the colony. Being weary from the long journey, the men determined to spend the night with Mr. Witter, and then before leaving, they would encourage their brother with a private service of worship on the Lord’s Day.

Just as Pastor Clarke began reading his text, the door was thrown open, and for the heinous crime of conducting divine service without the consent of the state church in Massachusetts, the three men were arrested and hurried to a tavern where they were kept until they could be arraigned before the Bay Colony Court. Doubtless, Mr. Witter escaped the trial only because of his age and infirmity.

The trial judge agreed with the prosecutor, John Cotton, that John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and John Crandall were worthy to be put to death, but he would let them off with a fine. If they did not pay the fine and immediately leave the territory of the colony, they should be well whipped. Friends at the Newport congregation readily raised the money for their release. John Crandall was fined only five pounds; Clarke was levied 20 pounds, but because Obadiah Holmes was found guilty previously of preaching in Massachusetts without a license, he was fined 30 pounds.

In the course of time, both Pastor Clarke and John Crandall were released, for their fines had been paid by others. Learning of their dismissal by the court, Obadiah Holmes refused to allow the payment of his fine, feeling that this would “constitute admission of wrong-doing.” The assigned day of whipping, September 5, 1651, finally arrived. Holmes was stripped to the waist and tied to the whipping post. According to his own testimony, the flogger used a whip with three hard leather lashes, and during the whipping he stopped three times to spit on his hand that he might gain a firmer grip of the whip. He then applied the whip with all his might. Each of the 30 strokes cut three gashes as it lacerated Holmes’ skin. Some of the crowd lifted their voices of praise and encouragement to the flogger!

But listen to Holmes’ own testimony: “As the man began to lay the strokes upon my back, I said to the people, though my flesh should fail, yet God will not fail: so it pleased the Lord to come in, and fill my heart and tongue as a vessel full, and with audible voice I broke forth, praying the Lord not to lay this sin to their charge, and telling the people I found He did not fail me, and therefore now I should trust Him forever Who failed me not: for in truth, as the strokes fell upon me, I had such a spiritual manifestation of God’s presence as I never had before, and the outward pain was so removed from me, that I could well bear it, yea, and in a manner felt it not, although it was grievous.” Following the whipping, as soon as he could gain sufficient strength, Obadiah Holmes was able to testify to the judges with a smile on his face as he said, “You have beaten me as with roses.”

As we consider an uncertain future where possible trials, persecution, and suffering may exist, let us remember the 44 Baptist preachers who were incarcerated in Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War when Virginia existed as a colony. Some of those old Baptist preachers revealed an indomitable spirit as they sang hymns of victory while being led to jail. Their spirits were invincible as they preached through the open grates of the prison cells. Many times they experienced the power of God with the salvation of the lost, and ultimately, Baptist churches were established as a result of their jail preaching.

While preaching through his prison cell in Accomack, Virginia, Elijah Baker was invited by a Christian traveler to preach in Delaware if he was ever freed. Of course, he could not immediately accept the invitation, and he continued to preach from his grated jail window. The jail keeper was angered by Baker’s Christ-exalting sermons, and thus Elijah Baker was consigned to a privately owned warship. Feeling he now had a captive audience, the man of God began preaching to the crew. The captain of the ship had been given orders that Baker was not to be released in the colony of Virginia, but he could not abide the man of God. He transferred Baker to a second ship, where he continued preaching. But when the wind subsided, the captain blamed Baker, and he was delivered to a third boat. The new crew presented another opportunity, and Baker went on preaching. When the third captain became incensed, the Baptist preacher was finally delivered on shore. Discovering that he had been landed in Delaware, Elijah Baker looked up his layman admirer, and again he began preaching the gospel. In the course of time, a number of Baptist churches were established in Delaware. What Satan had meant as a trial for the man of God was used of our Lord for the furtherance of the gospel!

And let us not forget the Baptist preachers in Missouri who were imprisoned for refusing to sign the “Loyalty Oath” at the time of the Civil War. William Vardemann was arrested by federal authorities “without a single act against the government or any individual in it, and incarcerated in the Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis” on April 23, 1863. Rather than despairing, Vardemann preached 50 gospel sermons during his 60 days of imprisonment.

These our brethren have found God’s grace to be sufficient through every possible distress. He who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever is able to make all grace abound toward His own today. May we rest in that sweet assurance as we face an unsettled future.

The late Dr. David L. Cummins was Deputation Director of Baptist World Mission.