December 18, 2017

Sketches of Non-Conformists (1)

Mark Minnick

This is Part One Part Two Part Three

August 24 this year marked the three-hundred fortieth anniversary of the infamous 1662 ejection of nonconforming English and Scottish ministers from their pulpits. Some 2,000 English and 300 Scottish ministers, nearly one-quarter of all ordained pastors in those countries, were forcibly put out of their pulpits, homes, and pastoral ministries for nothing more than being unable in good conscience to sign an act of Parliament entitled “The Act of Uniformity.”

The Act of Uniformity required ministers to declare their “unfeigned assent and consent” to the 1662 Prayer Book. But Biblically astute men objected that it contained ceremonies either tainted by Romanism or patently unscriptural. In addition, they balked at the Act’s requirement that many of them be re-ordained.

Living as we do, in a culture of welfare, Medicare, food stamps and food banks, disability insurance, severance pay, retirement packages, and entitlement programs, it’s utterly impossible for us to imagine the appalling destitution into which many of these faithful men plunged when they were summarily ejected from the only livelihood most of them knew. Richard Baxter observed,

Many hundreds of them with their wives and children had neither house nor bread. … Though they were as frugal as possible they could hardly live; some lived on little more than brown bread and water. Many had but eight or ten pounds a year to maintain a family, so that a piece of flesh had not come to the table of one of them in 6 weeks’ time. In many cases their income scarcely provided bread and cheese.

In addition to suffering the desperate poverty, an estimated 15% of these nonconformists were hustled off to jail when they resorted to preaching in private homes or what were termed “conventicles”( unlawful assemblies). Among them were Bartholomew and John Wesley, great grandfather and grandfather of John and Charles on their father’s side, and Samuel Annesley, their mother’s father. Isaac Watts, the future hymnist, noted in his diary at age 9: My father persecuted and imprisoned for nonconformity six months. After that forced to leave his family and live privately in London for two years.

Joseph Alleine, author of the now classic Alarm to the Unconverted, was imprisoned in 1663 for nothing more than singing psalms and preaching to his family. John Flavel’s mother and father were imprisoned in Newgate, the infamous London prison, where both eventually died of the jail’s diseased atmosphere.

Insofar as he was able to obtain them, a later nonconformist named Edmund Calamy compiled and published the subsequent experiences of these forgotten brethren in 1702. Further accounts were added by Samuel Palmer in 1775, and the result was published in two volumes of over 500 finely printed pages each. It’s truly spiritually invigorating reading, especially in our current climate of relentless pressure for political correctness. So in respectful remembrance of these who chose to suffer rather than to conform, and to give heart to any who are alike constrained, here is a sampling of men whose faith was worthy to follow. I’m giving portions of their stories verbatim from Palmer’s 1775 edition, The Nonconformist’s Memorial, with the addition of only occasional editorial notes in brackets. I trust that the Lord will make an edifying use of them now again, three centuries after Calamy first gave them to the public.

Combe Hay, Mr. Thomas Crees. Of St. Alban’s Hall, Oxford, whence, in time of the war, he went to Cambridge. After his ejectment, in 1662, he continued all his life a quiet, patient, silent Nonconformist. He had 13 children, who all lived to be men and women. He had little to live upon, but Providence took care of him and his. He was of a melancholy disposition, but an excellent Christian. He died in his 76th year.

Dittesham, Mr. Edmund Tucker, of Trinity College, Cambridge. He suffered much for his Nonconformity. He was convicted for a conventicle [an unlawful assembly], and fined 30 l. for praying with three gentlewomen who came to visit his wife, and comfort her upon the death of her only child, who was drowned at sea. In his case there was a remarkable instance of the partiality of the famous justice Beer or Bear, and the barbarity of the informers; who tore down all the goods in Mr. Tucker’s house, seized not only his bed and bedclothes, but the poor children’s wearing apparel, and the very victuals in the house, and left no corner or place unsearched for money. He had a wife and ten children, and nothing to subsist upon; but God provided for him and for them. He was afflicted with the gout, stone, and diabetes; through which, and the failure of his intellects, he was taken off from preaching more than a year before his death, which was somewhat suddenly, July 5, 1702, in the 75th year of his age.

Mr. James Janeway, M. A. of Christ Church, Oxford. His father was a minister in Herefordshire. He lived privately for some time, after leaving the university; and, when the times would allow it, set up a meeting at Redriff near London, where he had a very numerous auditory, and a great reformation was wrought amongst many of them. But this so enraged the high party, that several of them threatened to shoot Mr. Janeway, and accordingly it was attempted; for as he was once walking upon Redriff wall, a fellow shot at him, and the bullet went through his hat; but, as Providence ordered it, did him no further hurt.

The soldiers pulled down the place in which he preached, which obliged his people to build a larger to receive the hearers. Soon after it was built, a number of troopers came in, when Mr. Janeway was preaching, and Mr. Kentish sat behind him in the pulpit; got upon a bench [the troopers, not Mr. Kentish], and cried out aloud, “Down with him! Down with him!”

At that instant the bench broke, and they all fell down. In the confusion this occasioned, Mr. Janeway came out of the pulpit, and some of the people having thrown a colored coat over him, and put a white hat on his head, he got out unobserved. But they seized on Mr. Kentish, and carried him to the Marshalsea [an infamous prison], where he was kept prisoner for some time.

At another time Mr. Janeway preaching at a gardener’s house, several troopers came to seize him there; but lying on the ground, and his friends covering him with cabbage leaves, he escaped again.

He died March 16, 1674, and was succeeded by Mr. Rosewell. He was a man of eminent piety, an affectionate preacher, and very useful in his station. In his last sickness his spirit was under a sort of cloud, on reflecting upon his aptness to hurry over private duties [that is, his private Bible reading, prayer, and meditation]. However, Mr. N. Vincent, in his funeral sermon, says, “It pleased God to dissipate the cloud, and help him to discern and look back upon the uprightness of his heart with satisfaction,” and that not long before he died, he said, “He could now as easily die as shut his eyes,” adding, “Here am I, longing to be silent in the dust, and enjoy Christ in glory.”

To be continued…

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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