E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.
ANABAPTISM would seem to have been introduced into England a few years after its origin in Zürich, but precisely how, when, or by whom is difficult to determine. Its appearance in this country was heralded, we gather, by a book entitled “The Sum of Scripture,” many extracts from which were formally condemned by an assembly of Bishops and other theologians, convened by Archbishop Warham at the command of Henry the Eighth, in 1530. Two proclamations for heresy were the outcome of this convention.. The seeds of certain heresies, it was declared, had been sown “by the disciples of Luther and other heretics, perverters of Christ’s religion.” Severe punishments were threatened against those malicious and wicked sects of heretics who, by perversion of Holy Scripture, do induce erroneous opinions, sow sedition amongst Christian people, and finally disturb the peace and tranquillity of Christian realms, as lately happened in some parts of Germany, where, by the procurement and sedition of Martin Luther and other heretics, were slain an infinite number of Christian people."
The “other heretics” referred to in the above extracts may reasonably be assumed to have been Anabaptists or teachers of similar tendency, whilst the allusion to the disturbance of the peace lately in some parts of Germany has clearly in view the Peasants War of 1525, which was attributed to the pernicious effects of the new doctrines that by this time (1530) had been well-nigh all absorbed into the Anabaptist movement. The sentiments indicated can hardly refer to any other sect or body.
Two years before the English Church Council, in 1528, we hear of seven Anabaptists hailing from Holland having been arrested and thrown into prison, and of two of them being subsequently burned.’ This would seem to indicate that Anabaptism was introduced into England from Lower Rhenish rather than directly from the original Swiss or south German sources, and these seven persons may well have been the actual protagonists of Anabaptism in England.
In the year in which Henry obtained recognition of his claims as supreme Head of the Church (1535), two edicts were issued against Anabaptists and Sacramentaries. “Many of the King’s loving subjects,” it was alleged, “had been induced and encouraged arrogantly and superstitiously to argue and dispute in open places, taverns, and ale-houses, not only upon baptism, but also upon the Holy Sacrament of the altar.” Concerning the King’s purposes towards such, we are informed, “forasmuch as divers and sundry strangers of the sect and false opinion of the Anabaptists and Sacramentaries, being lately come into this realm, where they lurk secretly in divers corners and places, minding craftily and subtilly to provoke and stir the King’s loving subjects to their errors and opinions, whereof part of them by the great travail and diligence of the King’s Highness and His Council be apprehended and taken, the King’s Most Royal Majesty declareth ..... like a godly and Catholic Prince, that he abhorreth and detesteth the same sects and their wicked and abominable errors, and intendeth to proceed against such of them as be already apprehended according to their merits and the laws of the realm.” Those who continued recalcitrant were also commanded to depart from the Kingdom in eight or ten days.
This first proclamation does not seem to have had much effect, since we find it followed up not long after by another, wherein it is stated that many strangers baptised in infancy, but contemning that Holy Sacrament, had presumptuously re-baptised themselves, and entering the King’s dominions had everywhere spread their pestilent heresies “against God and His Holy Scripture, to the great unquietness of Christendom and perdition of innumerable Christian souls.” A great number, it says, had already been judicially convicted, and the rest “shall for the same suffer the pains of death.” Another clause somewhat modifies this by enacting the banishment of all such heretics within twelve days on pain of death. (Wilkin, “Consilia,” tome III. p.759) In the year following these proclamations, we find records of ten persons having been put to death in accordance with their provisions in various parts of the Kingdom, and of ten others having saved themselves by a timely recantation.
Two years later, in 1538, great efforts were made to expel those holding Anabaptist views from the country, and otherwise to root out the heresy. Evidence of communication with the continental sectaries on the part of Englishmen holding similar doctrines, was afforded by certain letters found on one of the German Brethren, by name Peter Tasch, who was apprehended by order of the Landgraf of Hesse. An extensive correspondence seems to have been disclosed between Tasch and certain English Anabaptists, one of whom had recently published a book on the Incarnation of Christ. From this correspondence it appears that Tasch himself was intending shortly to visit England. The Landgraf, who was just then in negotiation with Henry the Eighth with a view to the latter assuming the Headship of a Protestant league of German Princes, informed the English King of the above facts, and we may rest assured that the English Anabaptists suffered in consequence.
There are occasional, but not very frequent allusions to English Anabaptism and Anabaptists in Bishop Latimer’s sermons. Thus, in the fourth sermon preached before Edward the Sixth on March 29th, 1549, Latimer says: “I should have told you here of a certain sect of hereticks that speak against this order and doctrine. They would have no magistrates nor judges on the earth. Here I have to tell you what I heard of late by the relation of a credible and a worshipful man of a town in this realm of England that hath above five hundred hereticks of this erroneous opinion in it, as he said.” The orthodox Protestants appear to have professed, sincerely or otherwise, to have held the theory about this time, that the Anabaptist missionaries were emissaries of the Pope, sent to discredit the Reform-doctrines in general. Whether Latimer took this view or not is uncertain, but an early editor of his sermons appends a footnote to the above passage, in which he says that persons were employed by the Pope during King Edward’s reign to preach the pernicious doctrines of the Anabaptists for the purpose of obstructing the proceedings of the Reformers. (Cf. Carte, “History of England,” tome III. pp.252 sqq.)
During Elisabeth’s reign English Anabaptism took definite shape in the form of a sect or party calling themselves the Family of Love. Its originator was one Henry Nicholas, Henrick Nicklaes, or Heinrich Nicolai, according to the various renderings of his name in English, Dutch, and German respectively. For literary purposes, it should here be mentioned, he exclusively used the initials “H.N.” Nicholas, as we shall henceforth term him, it having been the name by which he was always known in this country, was a native of Münster, the great continental seat of militant Anabaptism, and was probably born in the early part of 1501. He is described as a wonder-child, who disputed on theological topics when he was only eight years old, and on account of the posers he put to his unhappy father, the latter took him to the Minorite monks of Münster for advice. Nicholas married at twenty, having become a member of the company of mercers of his native town. In spite of his trade avocations, he seems to have found time to continue his favorite theological hobby, for we hear of him having been imprisoned for heresy in Münster, although soon afterwards liberated. How his business fared at this time we do not know, but a few years later, in 1530, before, that is, the rise of the great Anabaptist movement in his birthplace, he migrated to Amsterdam, in which city he again established himself in business. There is little doubt that here he definitely joined the Anabaptist sect, and we learn that he was imprisoned for some time in 1535 on suspicion of complicity with the Münster Kingdom of God. It was not, however, till 1540 that he appears to have felt a special or independent prophetic call. In this year, he started on a mission as the third Anabaptist prophet, as he called himself. Whom he deemed the first and second is not quite clear, though probably Melchior Hoffmann and Jan of Leyden (or possibly Matthys) were meant.
He took with him on his journey three “Elders” from amongst those of the Brethren who had joined him. One of these Elders, whose assumed name was Tobias, has left a record of events connected with the life of Nicholas, in a book published some time during the third quarter of the sixteenth century and entitled “Mirabilia opera Dei: Certaine wonderfulle Works of God which happened to H.N. even from his youth. Published by Tobias, a Fellow Elder with H.N. in the Household of Love.” In this book Tobias relates at length H.N.’s early theological heart-burnings, and his visions and dreams portending his future rôle as prophet. He did not assume such role, according to this first-hand authority, until he was thirty-nine years old, namely, as above said, in the year 1540, when he received the customary Anabaptist revelation from God to himself, endowing him with prophetic gifts and powers. “The Lord,” says Tobias, “chose him to be a minister of His Holy Word, and prepared or ordained to H.N. for his assistance in the same administration, Daniel, Elidad, and Tobias (the writer), which continued always with him.” Our author goes on to say that, “driven by the Holy Spirit,” H.N. now endeavoured to set down all the Lord had revealed and commanded him. He soon, however, received a revelation that he was to write no more in the place in which he then was — namely, Amsterdam — but was to travel eastward towards a certain place “and dwell there till I Myself, by the hand of My Angel, bring thee from thence.” The objective seems to have been Emden, in Westphalia, where, as we otherwise learn, Nicholas resided some time. He appears at this time to have undergone persecution, since Tobias tells us that the Lord afflicted him heavily through his enemies. “The Lord suffered him to fall into the hands of the wicked, his enemies .... and suffered him to taste and feel the condemnation of all ungodly ones in the hellish fire.” In his affliction he occupied himself in composing psalms, which are given at length by his biographer, but amount to little more than turgid paraphrases of the biblical psalms. In Chapter XXVI. Tobias relates how his friend arid spiritual father was released from his misery, how he continued to set forth his godly testimony in writing, and how certain “evil ones” and “false hearts” defamed him notwithstanding that he was “no man’s enemy nor contemned any man for his religion.” We gather that H.N.’s enemies again succeeded in getting a mandate launched against him when in the fifty-ninth year of his age, but he could not be arrested, “for the Lord carried him by the hands of His Angels, openly, before the eyes of his persecutors, away from that land.”
In his sixty-fifth year, H.N. was ordered by God to arise and journey towards a land which is not mentioned, but which was possibly England. He was to separate himself from his friends, with the exception of certain who were indicated — to wit, the Ancients and the faithful ones. “For of them shall travel with thee twenty-four, and they shall be called unto Me Nazareans.” In addition, he was to take with him four of the chiefest seraphim in the Household of Love. The seraphim, it should be premised, were the foremost order in the hierarchy into which Nicholas had organised his new Church. He was to take with him copies of all his writings, to the end that he might revise them with the help of his Elders, in order to make them more plain to the understanding. Tobias, our author, was of the party, and he relates that they travelled “seven times seven days,” without eating any kind of animal food “or creature that had any breath of life in itself or had received any,” or drinking “any wine or strong drink for to rejoice our hearts.” Much space is given to the relation of their religious exercises and their growth in spiritual life during their wanderings, and of their insight into the meaning of true Christian teaching. Finally, on the fiftieth day of the journey came unto them “a still, soft, silent voice, wind, or spirit,” and they were “enlightened in Christ.” They became, Tobias says, altogether one being with the living Godhead of Jesus Christ, which appeared to them as in a cloud. They were informed that the land they were now in was the holy place of God’s dwelling, where all His true lovers were to be brought. H.N. and his twenty-four Elders and four seraphim were to dwell there with God eternally God would, through H.N., set up His most holy priestly office of Love, and he was to declare the doctrine over all the world through its ministry. And since God had united Himself with H.N. and the Elders, “all what ye out of the same My judgment curse, separate, or condemn, shall be accursed, separated, and into hell condemned, and all what ye bless shall be blessed in the Heavens.” His writings, as before said, were to be carefully perused with the Elders, and the godly testimonies were to be declared in the plainest manner and so transcribed.
It is difficult out of the strange mystic rigmarole of which this book for the most part consists, to make out anything very definite as to the history of the movement and its founder, or as to the geographical location of the country in which the organisation of the new Church, the so-called Family of Love, received its final shape. It may have been one of the provinces of western Germany, or it may have been, as already suggested, England, the country of its greatest success.
Another book, published about the same time as that of Tobias, is called: “The Displaying of an horrible secte of grosse and wicked Heretiques, naming themselves the Familie of Love, with the lives of their Authors and what doctrine they teach in corners. Newly set forth by I.R., 1578.” The initials on the title-page stand for one John Rogers, and the book, as may be gathered from the title, was written from a hostile stand-point and may have been intended as a counterblast to Tobias’s work. The author in the preface remarks upon the daily increase of this heresy, how in many shires there are meetings and conventicles of this Family of Love, “and into what number they have grown,” says I.R., “my hart reweth to speak that which one of the same societie did auouch to me for truth.” And again, speaking of their literature, he complains that many bookes are abroade, which I have not seene, and many I have seene, which I could not have the use of to reade,” for, he says, that unless one will be “pliant to their doctrine,” it is difficult to get hold of their books. He also complains that they would not confer or talk of any points of their doctrine with any save such as were inclined to be of the same mind. The author had been familiar with some of the sect for a long time and had had much personal intercourse with them. He writes in the hope that his book may do them good.
As regards the character and behaviour of H.N., he has the testimony of “diuers ancient persons and of good credite of the Dutch Church, who have been acquainted with the same H.N. and have dwelt together in one citie, and in one streete, being neere neighbours and familiar friends, who have declared and testified the certeintie of his behaviour and demeanor.” Rogers draws attention to the fact that H.N. vas a disciple of David Georg ( Joris) and reproaches him with publishing Georg’s doctrines under his own name as the outcome of a pretended revelation from God. The author’s preface concludes with an exhortation to flee those who say that they have had a direct revelation from Heaven, such being contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
After Rogers’s own preface follows another, by a certain Stephan Bateman, “Professour of Divinitie,” who says that it is time to redress the evil of these heretics “or else will assuredly followe the like plague on us, as was at Münster in Germaine, by David Georg, John a Leede, Knipper Dolling (sic.), and others, the seede whereof is H.N., Henrie Nicholas, nowe of Colone, his disciple here in England, Christopher Vittel, Joyner, and many more ....”
The book itself proper begins with a biography of David Georg, how he was born in Holland at Delft, how he there taught his errors for forty years, how in 1544 he fled to Basel with his family and kinsfolk, calling himself John of Bridges, how after settling there he and his were made free burghers of the town, how he married his daughters very worshipfully, and how he built two houses, one of which was burned down through lightning, whilst the loft of the other collapsed. These calamities are regarded by the pious Rogers as warnings of God’s displeasure at unsound doctrine. He states that Georg lived eleven years in Basel “and it was not espied what doctrine he taught.” At length, Georg’s son-in-law beginning to suspect the orthodoxy of his wife’s father’s theological views, the latter endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to convert him. He wrote divers books, says Rogers, especially the “Wonder-Book,” in which he taught his damnable errors. He declared, it was said, that he would not die, or that if he did he would rise again within three years. He died, nevertheless, on August 16th, 1556. The magistrates at Basel did not get wind of his doctrines until after his death. When they did, they ordered a house search amongst his acquaintances, and such as were suspect of his heresy were compelled solemnly to recant. The body of Georg was afterwards dug up and burned, together with his books and papers, on the market-place, a painting of him found in his house being included. The account of Georg given by Rogers is confirmed in its main facts from other sources.
But the “pernicious doctrine,” although it may have been stamped out in Basel by these drastic measures, continued its course in its original home in Holland, foremost amongst its exponents being Henry Nicholas, who now began to maintain Georg’s ideas under his own name in his assumed role of prophet. He has, Rogers continues, “written many books in the Dutch tongue in a rude style, which many of his followers and scholars have translated into divers languages”, his “Evangelium Regni” is in Latin, many are also in a Dutch letter in English, translated (as is supposed) by Christopher Vitell, a joyner, dwelling sometime in Southwarke ....” This Vitell, already alluded to by Rogers in his preface, seems to have been the most earnest and energetic of Nicholas’s followers in this country. He is much mentioned in connection with Anabaptist and kindred doctrine at this time, and we shall return to him again later on. Rogers himself attributes to Vitell a large measure of the success obtained by the new heresy in England. Vitell, he goes on to say, by his wandering about had “infected many people with his poisoned doctrine, so much so that it is difficult to root it out, for even if they recant publicly, yet they return to their old opinions, as is well seene by many I could name, for it is a maxima in the Familie to denie before men all their doctrine, so that they may keep the same secrete in their hearts.” Many Englishmen, he continues, have been to Flanders to confer with this H.N., whose mild nature, humility, and patience they praise.
In the second chapter of this polemical work the author gives biographical facts concerning Nicholas, “testified by certeine of the Dutch Church yet living, who knew the man and were acquainted with him.” Rogers erroneously states that H.N. was born in Amsterdam, adding that he was by many called Henry of Amsterdam, which was the case. He left Amsterdam, he says, with his brother John, about 1533, “when a certain sturre was in the towne tending to a tumult.” The two brothers, he states, had prepared money to aid the Anabaptist Brethren in Münster. Their intentions were, however, discovered by the authorities, which led to their arrest and imprisonment. “At the last,” he says, “they forsook the citie and came to Emden, a citie of Westfriesland.” John Nicholas, the brother, was a brewer, whilst Henry, as we know, was a mercer. Respecting the latter, Rogers relates that he was of reasonable tall stature, “somewhat grosse in bodie.” His son, also called by Rogers John, kept his shop, but other authorities give the name of the son who attended to the business as Franz. “Henrie,” our author states, “was very brave in his apparell, he would go in his crimson satten doublet everie holiday.” He devoted his time to the writing of books, of which, besides the “Evangelium Regni,” is mentioned “The Glasse of Righteousness,” under which name he published two works, the smaller of which was the better known.
Rogers goes on to allege that Nicholas kept three women in his house “of same appareil.” One of these was his wife, he said, one his sister, and one his cousin. The alleged cousin, falling ill, confessed to some neighbours who came to visit her that H.N. had “abused her bodie.” On these persons denouncing him to the magistrates, he had to flee and his goods were seized. This is alleged to have happened when he was about fifty-seven years of age. It must not, however, be forgotten that the story comes from a hostile source and may not be authentic. He remained an exile from Amsterdam in the house of one of his disciples for a year or thereabouts, and was thought to have gone with a companion to Naples after this. Many think, adds Rogers, that he is dead, but those of the Family of Love in England affirm that he is still alive. “If it be so,” says Rogers, “by this collection (sic) he cannot be lesse that 78 years olde.”
His biography finished, our champion of orthodoxy gees on to discuss the doctrines of H.N. and his followers. He, first of all, endeavours to show the identity of their tenets with those of the Münster Anabaptists, calling attention to the title assumed by Nicholas of “Restorator Omnium” and comparing it to that of Rothmans’s celebrated brochure “The Book of Restoration,” from which he gives extracts that the reader may perceive howe in many things their doctrine in Münster and the Familie in England do agree.” Eight articles from the same book are then quoted, amongst them that the writings of the prophets shall now be fulfilled, that Martin Luther and the Bishop of Rome are false prophets, “but of both Luther is the worst,"that the time of “Restauration” is at hand, etc. “Their teachers in Münster,” Rogers continues, “were all or the most part Hollanders, and David Georg did there teache his blasphemous doctrine at that time.” Amongst other tenets gathered out of the books of H.N. and taught in this country by the Family of Love, the following are given by Rogers :that H.N. could no more err than Moses, the prophets, or Christ, that the Elders of the Family of Love possess divinity, inasmuch as God has in them again become man, and that the books of H.N. are of equal authority with the Bible.
Concerning H.N.’s style, Rogers has the following observations:- “For indeed in his Bookes he doeth not deale so plainly, as one being ledde by the spirit of God, whereof he boastheth: but verie subtilely, and darkely .... Many godly and learned men, to whom I have deliuered his books .... have testified, that there is no matter in the Author, that may bee drawen into argument, but that it seemeth to be as a riddle, or darke speeche.” And again: “As his tearmes and phrases are geyson and unwonted, soe they doe dasell the simple, with an admiration of a prudent spirite to be in the Author, whiche of meane wittes can neither be comprehended nor understood.”
Emphasising the fact that H.N. is no more than a disciple of David Georg, he quotes passages from Georg’s writings to the effect that the doctrine taught by Moses, the prophets, and Christ, is not enough for salvation, but only to keep people in order till the coming of himself, David Georg, who is the true Messiah born of the Holy Ghost. According to Rogers, David Georg LLwas the hatcher of this heresie, and layde the egge, but H.N. brought forth the chicken.” Rogers hears that there are at least a thousand followers of H.N. in England. Passages are also quoted tending to show that H.N., probably at a later period of his life, favoured sundry doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome. He had said that his followers might live under the obedience of any magistrate however ungodly, be he even the Turk or the Pope. He alleges that H.N. had been on terms of intimacy with a certain Cardinal Granella. By these face he endeavours to give colour, as regards H.N. and his teaching, to the old calumny that the Pope was at the back of the Anabaptist movement. He exhorts all the followers of H.N. to forsake the “drowsy dreams of a doting Dutchman,” who, he complains, would make “the true sense of the Holy Ghost” of none effect by turning the biblical narrative into an allegory of his own tenets.
The latter portion of Rogers’ book contains “an admonition to Christopher Vitell, “in which the worthy Vitell is accused of having taught the doctrine of the Arians during Mary’s reign, and of having had to recant the same at St Paul’s Cross in the first year of Elizabeth’s,” as by the register of ye Bishop of London doth manifestly appeare.” Alluding to this and apostrophising Vitell, the author says: “and now Sathan hath possessed your mind with infinite more blasphemies of H.N.,” adding “some of our own family can testify that you are an hypocrite and a dissembler and live of the spoile of the poor.” At the close of the book, a confession is given, made by two of the Family of Love, or Familists, as the followers of H.N. were commonly called, “before a worthy and worshipful justice of the Peace on the 28th of Maie, 1561, touching the errors taught amongst them at their assemblies.” The confession states that they, the Familists, “be generally all unlearned,” that only some of them can read English and that not very well, but of these the Elders and Deacons are chosen, that the congregations meet at one of the disciples’ houses, usually to the number of about thirty persons, the Bishop or Deacon reading and expounding the Scripture to them. When any new member is to be received into the congregation, all the Brethren assemble, and the Bishop or Elder declares to the new Brother that if he will be content that all his goods shall be in common amongst the rest of his Brethren he shall be received. He is then formally admitted, all the men and women of the congregation kissing him in turn. At their meetings, it is stated by the two deponents, they all have meat, drink, and lodging, at the cost and charge of the owner of the house, whom they call a Raab. It is added that they remain as long as he has good victuals for them, whereby sometimes they lose their Raab, who thinks himself overcharged in the matter of hospitality. The meetings are always held at night, each person knocking at the door and announcing himself or herself with the words, “Here is a Brother or Sister in Christ.” The Elder is not allowed to speak when the Bishop is present, nor the Deacon before either of his superiors.
At the beginning of Mary’s reign, they refused to go to church, but shortly afterwards ‘ they seem to have agreed amongst themselves to do outwardly all things that were required of them, though inwardly holding steadfastly to their faith. They are forbidden to say “God speede,” “God morrow,” or “God even,” but are to address one another with the salutation “speede,” “morrowe,” “even.” They may not say “God save” anything, for they affirm that all things are ruled by nature and not directly by God. At one time they prohibited the carrying of weapons, but as they became noted and marked they now allow the bearing of “staves.” They are not bound to deal truly with any man in word or deed that is not of their sect. When their wives are to be delivered of child, they must use the help of none other but those of their sect. If any of them die, the husband or wife surviving must marry again with one of the sect, or else the offence is great. The marriage is made by the Brethren, who bring them together, sometimes even when the persons designated live a hundred miles asunder, as, for instance, Thomas Chandler, who lived in Surrey, has his wife fetched out of Ely by two of the congregation, the man and the woman being utter strangers. They can divorce themselves before certain of the congregation, as indeed the same Chandler and his wife did, after they had been married a year. According to the deposition, the Familists deny the dogma of the Trinity and maintain that no man should be baptised before the age of thirty. They hold, our deponents say, that heaven and hell are present in the world amongst us and that there are none other. To bury the dead is objected to by them. They repeat “let the dead bury their dead.” The two witnesses do not explain this objection. They reject the Sabbath-Day, holding all days to be alike. They believe that there was a world before Adam’s time as there is now. They think that no man should be put to death for his opinion, and they strongly condemn Cranmer and Ridley for burning Joan of Kent. All alms are given by them to the Elders and Bishops, who have the distributing of them at their will, but to whom they are distributed no-one of the congregation knows. The usual statement is added in this connection as to the Bishops, Elders, and Deacons increasing in riches and becoming wealthy, whilst their disciples waxed poor and fell into beggary — a statement that may be either true or a calumny, so far as our means of judging at present are concerned. It may even in this case have been added by Rogers himself, the canons of literary morality at this time not being strict.
We have given this evidence at length and as nearly as possible in the alleged ipsissima verba of the witnesses, as it is about the only succinct statement in existence of the leading tenets of the sect of the Familists. This, as will be noticed, contains hardly a doctrine that cannot be paralleled in one or other of the earlier sects into which the Anabaptist movement was divided, and which are indicated in Bullinger’s enumeration. We should not, however, omit to mention that both Nicholas himself and his followers, the former towards the close of his life and the latter at a subsequent period, were prepared to deprecate or even to repudiate the denomination of Anabaptist. Thus the English Familists are found presenting a petition to King James I. in the year 1604, in which they “utterly disclaim and detest all the absurd and self conceited opinions and disobedient and erroneous sorts of the Anabaptists, Brown, Penry, Puritans, and all the other proud-minded sects and heresies.” This emphatic declaration did not, however, prevent them from remaining under the ban of the law until they were lost sight of amongst the numerous sects and parties of the Commonwealth.
As to the writings of Nicholas himself, there remains little to say. The Evangelium Regni, regarded by many as his chief work, is to the modern reader nothing but a turgid mass of theological maunderings, which drones on page after page without apparently coming to any intelligible point, and out of which it is difficult to make any coherent doctrine. In spite of everything, the sect seems to have made continuous progress towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, and the action of the Privy Council in 1579 in deciding to hinder the further advance of this “lovely fraternity” (Cf. Documentary Annals, I. 392-396) does not seem to have resulted in anything important.
We have seen that the most energetic and probably the ablest apostle of H.N.’s teaching in England was Christopher Vitell, the Southwark joiner, who translated many of H.N.’s writings from Dutch into English. The chief scene of his activity appears to have been the eastern counties, especially Essex and Cambridgeshire. (Cf. Strype’s Annals, II. i. 487, ii. 285.) Vitell, it is reported, had worked in Holland, where he made the acquaintance of Nicholas and his followers, and whence, it is said, he brought the doctrine into England in the reign of Mary, when he came out of Delft to Colchester and joined himself to the professors of the Gospel there. He taught that the godly have in themselves free-will to do good, and he “could not away with predestination.” Strype (ii. 596, 597 quotes the testimony of one Henry Crinel concerning Vitell and his teaching. This Crinel came to Colchester in 1555, where he met the Anabaptist joiner, who, says he, “as far as I could at that time learn, held many strange opinions and also taught divers points of doctrine scarce found and such as seemed to be before unheard of.” Vitell had, Crinel says, left his trade of joiner to become “a great and learned school-master of the doctrine of a man who lived, as he said, beyond the seas ..... This man he praised very much and reported many wonderful things of his angelic behaviour, who afterwards I understood to be one Henry Nicholas, a mercer of Delft, in Holland.” Vitell, he says, denounced infant baptism and condemned the Litany as set forth in Edward VL’s reign. He denied the divinity of Christ and held that the godly cannot sin and hence had no need of the prayer, “Have mercy upon us miserable sinners!” Crinel admits that he was impressed with Vitell’s “babbling,” as he terms it, so much so that he thought of going to Oxford to consult Ridley and Latimer on the matter, had he not met with some men who satisfied his conscience in the mean season. Vitell wandered about the country and so came also to Willingham “where,” says Crinel, “I dwell; and sent me to come and speak with him at an ale-house. But I sent him word, I would not come at him, nor have to do with him. This is very true: and so I testify with mine own hand: By me, Henry Crinel, of Willingham.” It is clear from the above that the Arianism attributed to Vitell in the reign of Mary, which Roger seems to distinguish from his subsequent Familism, was really part of one and the same teaching. Strype also adds a similar statement to that of Rogers, as to Vitell’s having openly recanted and been received again into the Church; but he also admits that “the Family,” meaning the Family of Love, denied this. Vitell seems to have had as co-adjutors in his propaganda two men named John Kemp and Henry Hart, who were called “free-will men” and who also had been informed against for heresy in Mary’s reign.
Towards the close of the sixteenth century and in the first part of the seventeenth, various tractates and polemical essays, other than those mentioned, appeared, both attacking and defending the doctrines of H.N., though more usually the former. Of these may be adduced one entitled “An Apology,” purporting to be written by “One of the Queen’s Menial Servants” and dedicated to the Parliament then sitting. It consists in an endeavour to whitewash the Familists of the charge of heresy, insisting that they do not reject the Apostles’ creed and the dogma of the Trinity, and protesting that they use no other ceremonies, laws, sacraments, etc., than such as the English Church admits, and that they obey the Queen and the magistrates, both spiritual and temporal. It indignantly repudiates that they were libertines, sleeping with one another’s wives, that they desired, as was alleged, all men’s goods to be in common, or that they were hostile to the State — that is, to the temporal powers appointed by God. This tract, though a mere piece of special pleading not to be regarded as trustworthy in its representation of the views of the sect, seems to have had some vogue, as it was reprinted under the Commonwealth in 1656. It may be taken as belonging to a type of apologetic literature in which the apologist sets himself the task of showing that an unpopular system or doctrine means simply nothing at all but what everybody else amongst his contemporaries professes to hold. We have in the present day, mutatis mutandis, a corresponding kind of apologist for Socialism, who is ever intent on showing that Socialist principles involve little or no change, other than in points of detail, in the constitution of the existing order of Society.
On the hostile side of the controversy may be mentioned a brochure entitled “A Confutation of certain Articles delivered unto the Family of Love, with the Exposition of Theophilus, a supposed Elder of the same Family, upon the same Articles.” This book, dated 1579, is dedicated to the Bishop of Ely, because, it explains, such kind of heretics are to be found increasingly in his diocese. The writer, a certain William Wilkinson, M.A., notes down fourteen articles of heresies and errors of H.N., which he purports to confute. These, he says, he had shown to certain of the Family of Love before publication, and had received answers from Theophilus, one of their Elders, stating that “out of his malicious mind” the author had perverted the sense of the articles and framed sundry of them into errors. Wilkinson, in his turn, replies to Theophilus paragraph by paragraph, concluding his book with an appendix, “Notes to Know an Heretic,” in which he quotes largely from Bullinger, especially from his enumeration of the Anabaptist sects. In the same year appeared another book, attacking the teachings of H.N. and dedicated to the Earl of Warwick, in which the author, J. Knewstubs, in his dedicatory preface exhorts the Earl to the “redress of a dangerous enormity which of late hath broken out in this land,” to wit, the “atheism” brought by H.N. and his household, “who would be called the Family of Love.” The book is called “A Confutation of certain Monstrous Heresies taught by H.N.” Knewstubs hopes that what he says will sufficiently persuade his honour “to enter into some speedy care and consideration to suppress so great and grievous a danger.”
We hear of other sects, such as the Family of the Mount, the Essentialists, and the Libertines, which seem to have been off-shoots of the Family of Love, holding similar doctrines and practising a similar mode of life. Strype (Annals, II. 379, 380) says of the Family of the Mount that they lived in communism and in mutual edification, that they denied the utility of prayer, the resurrection of the body, also heaven and hell in the conventional sense, alleging that heaven is when men laugh, and hell when they are in pain or sorrow. He intimates that they held a rationalist explanation of Scripture and that they averred that all things came by nature. The Essentialists, he says, took their opinions from a Mistress Dunbar, a Scotchwoman. They believed that there was no such thing as sin at all, for God did everything in love. The Libertines, he says, held, like the earlier Anabaptists, that no doctors nor learned men could preach the word truly, basing this opinion on the saying of Christ that the Gospel was hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to babes and sucklings. Like the earlier Anabaptists, too, they asserted that the Bible in itself was but ink and paper, that it was of secondary significance only, but that the true word of God was the spirit and life of the individual believer. This is, of course, simply a recrudescence of the old Anabaptist doctrine of the “inner light.” “These and the like,” remarks Strype, “were the spawn and improvements of this Family of Love.” All this time H.N.’s writings were circulating in English, probably in Vitell’s translation, as we know that certain of them were his work. They included the “Evangelium Regni,” the “Glass of Righteousness,” and also his Epistles, which were published in English, presumably by Vitell, in 1577, under the title of “The Choice Letters of H.N., which he by the Holy Spirit of Love hath set forth,” etc.
The most flourishing period of the sect is not quite easy to determine from the evidence, but between 1570 and 1580 it undoubtedly created considerable stir in the country, more especially in the eastern counties, so much so that Elizabeth’s lords of Council sent urgent letters to the Bishop of Norwich, pressing him to take forthwith most stringent measures for its suppression. The Bishop, in his reply, promised to deal severely with the sectaries during his next visitation. On that occasion, he found that numbers of his clergy were infected with the new heresy (Strype, ii. 584).
More than two generations later, notwithstanding persuasion and persecution, the Familists seem to have been still to the fore. Strype refers to one Randal as “a Preacher to these Sectaries, in an House within the Spittle-Yard without Bishopsgate, London, in the year 1645, teaching the very doctrine, and many people flocking after him.” In consequence of the success of the propagandism in the above-mentioned year, a polemical brochure was published entitled “A Brief Discovery of the Blasphemous Doctrine of Familism,” in which the usual charges were made against the sect.
During the Commonwealth and subsequently, the followers of Nicholas seem to have fallen very much into the background amongst the various sects, puritanical and otherwise, which at that time: had a popularity, and they never again assumed their former importance. But that the sect continued to exist until almost, if not quite, the end of the seventeenth century is evidenced by the fact that Strype, writing in the early part of the eighteenth century, says that he remembers “a gentleman, a great admirer of that sect, within less than twenty years ago, who told me that there then was but one of the Family of Love alive and he an old man.” On the continent, the sect would seem to have disappeared sooner.
The connection between the Family of Love and Anabaptists generally and the various puritanical and dissenting sects of the Commonwealth and the time of Charles II. is rather obscure, though traces of such a connection are visible in several instances. For example, in certain respects we find indications of the Anabaptist tradition in such bodies as the “Ranters,” and, what is more important, in the Quakers and in John Bunyan, as well, of course, as in the earlier phases of the modern orthodox Baptist denomination. Respecting the “Ranters,” the fullest account I have been able to obtain is from a hostile pamphlet in the Bodleian Library entitled ‘’the Ranters’ Ranting, or a True Relation of a Sort of People called Ranters, with some of their abominable and wicked Carriages and Behaviour at their Public Meetings.” The meetings, this pamphlet says, were held first of all in Shoemaker’s alley, in London, beginning at four o'clock in the afternoon and sometimes continuing till nine o'clock the next morning, which time, says the water, “was spent in drunkenness, uncleanness, blasphemous words, filthy songs, aid mixed dancing of men and women stark naked.” A party of them were apprehended at one of their meetings held in Whitechapel.
The greeting of the Brethren consisted in a kiss, followed by the words, “Welcome, fellow-creature!” — the latter being the designation generally used by the members of the sect to each other. At a meeting held by them at a tavern in London, one of them is alleged to have let drop a paper, which was subsequently found, containing the regulation summons to the female members to assemble. This, which may have been a forgery, was as follows:- “Dear Sister and Fellow Creature, whose sweetness we reverence and whose person we adore, whose witty conceits we admire and whose subtlety we wonder at, we do by this our handwriting enjoin that you personally appear at the place where we last had some infernal conference half an hour past four in the afternoon of this present day. Hereof you are commanded not to fail, for that Beelzebub, Lucifer, Pluto, and above twenty more of the Princes and Officers will attend, etc. Signed Diabolo. Dated at our infernall Pallace without Bishopsgate, tenth of October, 1650.” The writer of this curious pamphlet, which describes the meetings of the sect as simple orgies, states that one of the members “discoursing at the Spittle said that he knew no difference between God and the Divell; and being asked what he thought of the Divell, he answered that it was an old woman stuffed with parsley.” Our author continues, “I am credibly informed that some of them deny the immortality of the soul, and so holding an opinion that there is neither heaven nor hell, etc.” It is difficult to know whether we are to regard this strange sect as having any real organisation and following, or as denoting a mere sporadic eccentricity on the part of a few individuals without any continuance or independent importance. In any case, even if it were only a passing craze, the salutation and the nudity of the gatherings recall some of the characteristics met with in certain phases of German Anabaptism, such, for instance, as we have seen manifested, according to Kessler, in the St. Gallen movement, as also in the case narrated in a previous chapter as having happened at the house of the cloth-merchant in Amsterdam.
The resemblance between many of the tenets of the Quakers and those of the Anabaptists is sufficiently clear. We see, for example, the doctrine of non-resistance, the contempt for the “steeple-houses” — the Münsterites had called churches “stone-heaps” — the condemnation of all outward forms and ceremonies, and the doctrine of the inspiration of the inner light as the supreme court of appeal. These are all thoroughly Anabaptist in origin. The simple character of their meetings, moreover, notwithstanding some possible points of difference, bears an unmistakable family likeness to those of the Anabaptist sects. Anabaptism, especially in its later form in the teaching of Henry Nicholas and its off-shoots, was undoubtedly in the air at the tune when George Fox was born and grew up. That he had come across writings of an Anabaptist tendency, of the Familists and others, is exceedingly probable. The communistic side of the earlier Anabaptism appears in a shadowy form in Quakerism in the shape of the special stress laid upon the duty of almsgiving to the poorer members of the denomination. It is also noteworthy that the parts of England where the followers of Nicholas and similar sects chiefly flourished, became the most fruitful seed-ground of Quaker principles. By their contemporaries the Friends were uniformly regarded as a sect of Anabaptists, as may easily be seen from the theological literature of the period.
The extension of their objection to sacraments to that of repudiating baptism itself does not entirely differentiate them from the Anabaptists, for we find that Bullinger mentions some amongst the Anabaptists of his own time who regarded the ceremony as superfluous, whilst certainly the bulk of them would have held it not essential to the soul’s salvation. We many recall in this connection how Melchior Hoffmann and his disciples agreed from motives of expediency to the suspension of baptism for two whole years. This they would hardly have done had they deemed it an essential rite. Probably, by most Anabaptists it was never viewed in any other light than as a useful sign to differentiate the Brethren within the spiritual fold from the heathen and godless without. The acceptance of infant baptism would have put the Quakers out of court with Anabaptists of every order, but the mere fact of going a step farther and rejecting adult baptism as well, would not. Even in their eccentricities and aberrations a correspondence may be traced between the English Quakers of the seventeenth century and the German Anabaptists of the sixteenth. Not alone is the ascetic puritanism of the one prominent in the other, but the scorn of all that savoured of the things of the world, the lust of the eye and the pride of life, is also reproduced in the plain, grey garb of the Quaker and his special modes of salutation, including his pedantic worship of the letter of truthfulness, as illustrated in his refusal to adopt the current forms of polite address. There is more in these things than what is common to the whole of the puritanical religious consciousness of that period. The doctrine that the inner light in the soul of the believer was the highest standard of authority in spiritual matters, taking precedence even of the letter of Scripture itself -which the average puritan of the time regarded as final — is of itself a sufficient line of demarcation.
Even in the manifestations of religious mania that afflicted certain of their members at times, the earlier Anabaptism and the later Quakerism have most distinct points of correspondence. The very evidence of eccentric behaviour from which the sect acquired its name serves to prove this. No-one who has read the accounts of the peculiar orgies recorded of the sectaries in Germany and the Netherlands in the first half of the sixteenth century will fail to recognise the almost identical symptoms in those related of the Quakers during the second half of the seventeenth. Some remarkable stories of this kind of thing are told in a work entitled “The Fanatick History, or an exact Relation and Account of the Old Anabaptists and New Quakers,” which was published anonymously by one Richard Blome in 1660. It deals with the latest English developments of religious sectarianism, besides including a history of the Anabaptists of Münster. The work, although hostile, contains many narratives of a detailed and circumstantial character that can hardly be otherwise than accepted as true in their essential features. Thus we read how John Gilpin howled upon his bed and cried in a hideous manner, how he had visions and felt the divine spirit enter his body, how he was promised to be endowed with the spirit of prophecy, how at a meeting of the Friends he was thrown upon the ground in the midst of the company, where he lay all night, how he was turned from back to belly, making crosses continually with his legs — a distinct Anabaptist touch — how he was finally led down a street to enter “the fidler’s house,” where his hand was carried to a “bassviol,” upon which he played, afterwards being impelled to fall a-dancing, and so forth. Many more things of this nature indicative of acute religious mania are given of this Gilpin, and the narrative is alleged to be vouched for by Gilpin himself and by others of known fidelity in or near Kendal, in Westmoreland, where the events are said to have happened,
Again, of John Tolderry, it is related that he was exalted by earnest prayer at Quaker meetings and half starved himself, because he resolved to eat nothing that he liked, but lived only on crumbs and remnants of other people’s food. Two spirits appeared to him, and a voice told him that in twenty-five days he should be perfect. During these twenty-five days, he saw constant apparitions and heard sweet music, and was troubled with double voices, one commanding one thing, the other the exact opposite. A fly flew in his face one morning; he was persuaded that it was a messenger from God, and “from that time he was guided by flies in many things.” He felt himself moved to pierce both ends of a needle through his thumbs and to spread his hands with the needle in them over his head, thus imitating Christ on the Cross. He then fell as if dead, and lay for three-quarters of an hour, in imitation of the three days, after which he was raised to his feet again and enjoined to tell his Quaker brethren what had happened and also to choose apostles from amongst them. A certificate is added to this narrative containing the names of a number of people who were fully satisfied of the truth of the things reported.
Of James Nayler, one of the most zealous votaries of Quakerism, various occurrences illustrative of religious insanity are described. One of Nayler’s female disciples, named Dorcas Erbury, who had been imprisoned for her faith in Essex gaol, averred that he had raised her from the de ad. A copy of her depositions was sent by the magistrates to a member of the House of Commons. He reported it in Parliament, and a committee was appointed to examine into the question, Nayler himself being sent for. Previously to this, on October 24th, 1656, Nayler had entered Bristol on horseback, accompanied by one Timothy Wedlocke, a Quaker, with two women leading his horse and crying all the way “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Nayler was examined in the House of Commons in the Painted Chamber, and, in answer to questions, avowed that he was a prophet of the Most High God, and that such worship was due to him as representing the invisible spirit within him as was given to Christ at Jerusalem. The House ordered him to be straightway imprisoned for blasphemy. He had many imprisonments, was flogged from New Palace Yard to the Old Exchange, and was sent afterwards to Bristol to endure a like punishment. Whilst he was being flogged through the streets of Bristol, his disciples followed him, crying “Behold the Lamb of God!”
In September, 1559, the author of the “Fanatick History” says, divers witches were discovered at a meeting of Quakers and Anabaptists in or near Sherborne, in Dorsetshire. He gives their number as about two hundred. Details of this affair would be interesting, but are not forthcoming. Another curious feature of correspondence between the religious aberrations of Quakerism and Anabaptism is the antic of appearing naked in public, so frequently met with in cases of specially enthusiastic zealots of either sect. Several instances of this, occurring alike in churches and public assemblies and in the streets of London, are recorded of persons of both sexes alleged to belong to the Quaker denomination in its earlier developments. The circumstances connected with these incidents aptly illustrate the notions of “policing” prevailing in the seventeenth century, since these good people seem seldom to have been interfered with at the time, although sometimes they covered long distances of London-town in their nakedness, whilst if they were afterwards prosecuted it was generally for blasphemy or unsound doctrine rather than for indecent behaviour. It should be mentioned that James Nayler, who died in 1660, wrote a reply to Blome just before his death, in which he acknowledged his former errors.
Leaving the Quakers, it is of importance to note the traces left by Anabaptism on the two chief monuments of the religious literature of the seventeenth century, Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Holy War.” No one reading the “Pilgrim s Progress” side by side with Tobias’ story of the journey of Henry Nicholas and his friends, when they set out to an unknown destination, can fail to be struck with the idea that Bunyan had read Tobias’ book or that, at any rate, they lived in a like mental atmosphere. We do not mean to say that there was any correspondence in the detail of the story put the general idea of the pilgrimage of the aspiring Christian to a bourne of which he knows not the whereabouts, his trials on the way, his temptations, his growth in grace, and so forth — all this is undoubtedly there. It is quite possible that memories of what Bunyan had read or heard of the great struggle of the early sixteenth century in Westphalia, and of the wanderings and trials of the Anabaptist Saints in their efforts to reach their Holy City of Münster, may have also vaguely floated before his mind. We know that during the seventeenth century, and especially about the time of the Commonwealth, the story of the Münster Anabaptists was well-known and circulated in a variety of versions throughout the country, and that the opponents of Familists, Baptists, Quakers, Fifth-Monarchy men, and such-like sects, were never tired of “rubbing in” the moral of the wickedness, as they represented it, of Jan of Leyden and his followers.
It is significant to observe that Henry D'Anvers, in his “Treatise on Baptism,” intimates his belief that the hatred with which the Münster Anabaptists were assailed, — on the part of those writing in the interests of authority, of course, — was largely due to the fact that they preached and practised communism, as they understood it. From this cause, he persuades himself, much of the clamour of the Münster business did arise.” As regards Bunyan, there is distinct evidence in his second great work, “The Holy War,” that he not merely knew of, but had even carefully studied, the story of the siege of Münster. It would take too long here to show this in detail, and it is the more unnecessary inasmuch as it has been done with considerable elaboration by Mr. Richard Heath in the “Contemporary Review,” (vol. 72, pp. 105-118). Bunyan himself was a Baptist of the eastern counties. His native place, Bedford, was not far from the leading strongholds of Anabaptism and allied movements. We cannot fail to recognise that in him and presumably his co-religionists of that time the old Anabaptist tradition was still alive. Unlike Dissenters of a later date, whom ignorance of history and economic influences had detached from all sympathy with the social innovators of the sixteenth century, it is clear that John Bunyan still retained his reverence for Jan of Leyden and his fellow-martyrs in the Anabaptist cause. The Münsterites were still for him the Saints of God, who were warring against the powers of this world and of Satan.
As regards the relation of the Anabaptist movement of this history to the modern Dissenting denomination of Baptists, there is not very much to be paid. The middle classes became economically more prosperous, and settled down from the religious and political perturbations of the seventeenth century, after the Revolution that placed William of Orange on the throne. The era of direct persecution for religious opinions had passed, and the new circumstances economic and political tended towards the moderation of “respectability” in all departments of life. Religious zeal sank into cold formality, and the enthusiasm for political and social renovation subsided into love of “order” as such, whatever that “order” might be. The Quakers themselves became gradually wealthy and ceased to be aggressively propagandist. They held their meetings in peace and quietness like other bodies, and suffered from little worse than a certain social ostracism, which also in time disappeared. They became noted for their probity in business, thrift, reliability, and other virtues especially dear to the heart of the rising middle-class.
It was so also, mutatis mutandis, with the Baptists. They too became frugal, sober and industrious small middle-class persons. Religious and political enthusiasm died down. Inconvenient tenets and views of life were either dropped altogether and repudiated or were allowed to fall into the background and become “pious opinions.” As the matter stands with the later history of the sect, about the only point it possesses in common with its protagonist and ancestor, the Anabaptism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is the theological position of rejecting infant baptism and practising adult baptism as a sign of admission to membership of its Church. There is nothing distinctive in any other respect to differentiate the modern Baptist from other sects of Protestant “orthodoxy”. With the disappearance of the name Anabaptism, the thing itself went. The old fervour, the zeal, the self-confidence, the idealism, that stopped at nothing in their aim to revolutionise all life in accordance with the conception of Christianity as the religion of the disinherited, have long ceased to exist in the Christian sects of the modern world
1. Wilkin’s “Concilia,” tome III. p.737. The italics in the quotations are the present author’s.
2. This statement is to be found in Henry D'Anvers’ “Treatise of Baptism,” second edition, 1674, but I leave been unable to confirm it in detail from contemporary authorities.