AT 03: Fear of "Anabaptists" in Sixteenth-Century England

by Meic Pearse
Originally published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 3, June 1993

“Papists", wrote English Protestant Nicholas Lesse in 1550, "although they were right nought for the soul, yet were they good and profitable for the body for civil commonwealths, for the maintenance of civil justice, and all good politic orders. But as for these [Anabaptists] they are neither good for the body nor for the soul: yea, they are most mortal enemies and cruel murderers to both."'

Lesse spoke for a good many. It was almost as if he, a "magisterial" Protestant supporting a compulsory state church, found Roman Catholics (the supposed arch-enemy) a good deal less frightening than Anabaptists, whom he called a "corrupt sort of heretics". Lesse is perfectly frank that the reasons for his preference are political. Both Catholicism and Protestantism maintained "civil commonwealths" and sound political order. Anabaptism led to disorder.

In 1553 Lesse's reformation was cut short by the death of Edward VI and the accession of Edward's Catholic sister Mary. But in 1558 she too died, and by 1561 Jean Veron—a French reformer who had come to England in Edward's time, gone into exile during Mary's reign and returned under Elizabeth—published three tracts on a similar theme. He depicted radicals such as John Champneys, against whom he specifically was writing, as typically lower class: "these men sitting upon their ale benches", distributing their pernicious books "in hugger mugger".

Anabaptist influence hard to define

It is not at all easy to prove how much actual Anabaptism, in the full-blown continental sense, influenced English radicals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A majority of those who fell into the hands of the authorities for Anabaptism were foreigners, often Dutch. Most of the few native-born English who were consciously committed Anabaptists pass as shadows across the historian's field of vision.

This difficulty has not prevented many historians from claiming to discern precise features of an Anabaptist presence in these shadows. To be sure, the epithet "anabaptist" was freely bandied about to describe Protestant radicals generally. The term, however, was intended as an insult. It was shot through with suggestions of the fanaticism at Münster, that German city which in 1534 had been taken over as a New Jerusalem by Jan Matthijs and Jan van Leiden. The episode ended in horror and disaster, and surviving leaders were tortured to death publicly by vengeful forces of the Catholic Bishop.

It is safe to say that Münster often was at the forefront of the mind of any conservative who used the expression "anabaptist" during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term implied that the persons so described had placed themselves outside the company of reasonable people. Often it applied to anyone who was more radical than the person speaking happened to like.

Vague and polemical language

Presumably it was this polemical and theologically imprecise use of language that caused John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester in the reign of Edward VI, to claim that Kent and Essex were "troubled with the frenzy of the anabaptists more than any other part of the kingdom".3 Earlier he wrote that "anabaptists" flocked to his preaching and "give me much trouble".4 Lord Riche also used the term loosely when he mentioned a certain "loan of Kent and the Anabaptists",5 despite Joan Bocher's apparent silence on baptismal questions. The fact that the term "Anabaptist" was used in such a vague way to denote radicalism generally should evoke caution about taking such descriptions as accurate theological definitions. Any and every radical opinion could be labeled "anabaptist", and every radical was anxious to deny the charge.

Roman Catholics argued that Protestantism would lead to anabaptist anarchy, principally because vernacular Bibles in the hands of ordinary people would result in endless private interpretations. This prediction, in the long term, was accurate. In the short term, however, Protestant reformers were anxious to disprove such allegations and to keep the spectre of Münster at bay by taking a firm line with Anabaptists. They argued that Catholics, not Protestants, had affinities with Anabaptism since both denied the power of civil government. Catholics appeared to do so by locating authority for church affairs in the Bishop of Rome rather than in the national government of a country. Anabaptists seemed to deny the power of civil government by declaring that religion could not be enforced at all. Both positions were treasonous to the king and in contravention of Romans 13, which commands obedience to the governing authorities in all things.

On guard against heresy

In retrospect, the governing authorities never appeared to lose control of the situation. That, however, did not stop a number of them panicking at the time. In 1550 Martin Micron, a Dutch founder of the foreigners' church in London, wrote that "it is a matter of the first importance that the word of God should be preached here in German [a term which then included Dutch], to guard against the heresies which are introduced by our countrymen. There are Arians, Marcionists, Libertines, Danists and the like monstrosities, in great numbers. A few days since, namely, on the 2nd of May, a certain woman was burnt alive for denying the incarnation of Christ."6

The "certain woman" was Joan Bocher, also known as Joan of Kent, and the offence for which she was burnt was her adherence to a controversial doctrine concerning the person of Christ. She had been active amongst the Lollards (followers of the fourteenth-century reformer John Wycliffe) since at least the late 1520s, when she recanted after being prosecuted. Later she moved to Kent, and was arrested again in the early 1540s for breaking traditional fast rules during Lent. On that occasion some officials within the hierarchy in Canterbury, probably with the connivance of Archbishop Cranmer, managed to get her released. But in 1549 she was arrested again on the more serious charge of teaching that Christ did not take flesh of the Virgin Mary, but brought his humanity with him from heaven.

Her enemies, with some exaggeration, said this doctrine amounted to denial of the incarnation. The doctrine had been popularised amongst Dutch Anabaptists by Melchior Hofmann, and for this reason is often referred to as Melchiorite Christology.7 Although isolated instances of this belief existed in England and Holland before the Reformation, growth of Dutch Anabaptism made it commonplace. Even Menno Simons, the great Anabaptist leader from whom Mennonites take their name, held the doctrine for which Joan Bocher was condemned.8

Refugees with "damnable opinions"

In the wake of the Münster fiasco, increasingly vicious persecution of Anabaptists of all types in the Netherlands caused many of them to flee to England from the mid-1530s onwards. About twenty were arrested in London, of whom perhaps a dozen were burned in 1535. Not long before, in 1532, six Englishmen and two Flemish Anabaptists, who met at the house of one John Raulinges in London, were discovered importing and distributing "books of the Anabaptists' confession".9 At least one Englishman and one Fleming in this group were found to hold "strange" and "damnable opinions concerning Christ's humanity". This was almost certainly Melchiorite Christology.

In November of 1532 three Dutch Anabaptists were burned at Colchester, including the twenty-two year old Peter Franke, whose life and steadfast death inspired the conversion of a number of citizens. Significantly, he believed that "Christ and God took not manhood of the Virgin Mary".10 By the time Joan Bocher was arrested for the same opinion in 1549, Bishop Hooper was worrying that "this ungodly opinion is gotten into the hearts of many in England".11 His fears did not stop refugees infiltrating into England; two years later Sir Thomas Chamberlain lamented concerning the Anabaptists of Ghent that "too many run into England".12 Michael Thombe, a butcher of Dutch descent, was arrested at the same time as Joan Bocher for his belief that "Christ took no flesh of our lady", and also for holding that "baptism of infants is unprofitable because it goeth without faith". 13

Sparse Evidence of "English Anabaptism"

Whatever fright the dreaded Anabaptism may have caused in England, it was never able to gain a firm foothold amongst the indigenous population. Later English Separatists, and English Baptists of the seventeenth century, were not descendants of continental Anabaptism. The genuine English fellow-travellers of the Dutch and German movements appeared in the sixteenth century and they, sadly, were persecuted virtually out of existence.

Some scholars would wish to qualify this judgement, or even reject it. Irvin B. Horst appears to have persuaded many that Anabaptism was indeed a fairly widespread movement in England.l14 This is unfortunate, since the overwhelming majority of Horst's "anabaptists" were only such in the sixteenth-century pejorative sense of being a little too radical for somebody's taste. Many were foreigners (mostly Dutch) living in England. The rest were isolated individuals whose activities indicate close links with those foreigners, or whose beliefs otherwise suggest possible genuine Anabaptism.

James Coggins recently has highlighted the links between early seventeenth-century General Baptists and Dutch Waterlander Mennonites.15 Such links and influences are undeniable, and were admittedly extensive. Nevertheless, the English group was an outgrowth of earlier Separatism, which in turn was an outgrowth of the Elizabethan Puritan movement. Although the English General Baptists had much in common with the Mennonites, to the point of trying to negotiate unity with them, those discussions broke down over key issues on which the English differed from their Dutch counterparts. The Baptists were not committed to pacifism, and differed from the Mennonites in being willing to take oaths and serve as magistrates. Indeed, General Baptists were to play a significant part in the parliamentarian armies of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s and 1650s.

It one is to speak meaningfully of "English Anabaptism" in the sixteenth century, one must produce evidence of actual congregations of English people who practised believer's baptism and separation from the world, and who believed in the separation of church and state in religious toleration. Alas, no English groups can be shown to meet these criteria. Robert Cooche, an isolated and eccentric courtier of the 1540s to 1570s, held Anabaptist views, but he was a singer in the royal chapel! An English carpenter whose name has come down to us only as "S. B." was imprisoned in 1575 for his Anabaptist views. Yet he was a hanger-on of a Dutch group in London, and even he referred to the Anabaptists as "they" rather than we"!16 These are the most conclusive examples of indigenous Anabaptism that we have!

In seeking for the English counterparts of the Mennonites, Hutterites, or Swiss Brethren, the historian is reduced to examining isolated groups and individuals. In most cases evidence for the careers and ideas of these is fragmentary. As with Joan Bocher, much of the evidence is in the form of court records and articles against those who were caught. Most of those who evaded the persecutors have eluded us as well! Where Anabaptism was present in strength, as in Flanders, Holland, southern Germany, Switzerland and Moravia, there is no lack of evidence for the fact. Scanty evidence concerning Anabaptism in England does not allow us to make up imaginary movements where these cannot be shown to have existed.

Whatever influence continental Anabaptism may have had on English radicals, it does not seem to have extended to the actual practice of believer's baptism itself. John Bale, the Edwardian Bishop of Ossory, noted that "I never heard it, that ever any man within the realm, went about the reiteration of baptism actually, at any time. What though I heard of rnany, which were of the same seditious opinion, and of some strangers [i.e., foreigners] which were also executed there for it."17

Only those historians who succeed in unearthing activities that eluded the notice of such contemporaries can hope to overturn this judgement and speak in any meaningful sense of "English Anabaptism". Bale noted, perhaps with unconscious irony, that anyone known to have received such a baptism could not have escaped death "under king Henry, nor yet under king Edward, for they both hated that sect."18

Established, compulsory religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, had been a mainstay of social order in Europe for a millennium. The autonomy of the individual and the voluntary nature of Anabaptism were generally considered fatal to royal or hierarchic power. If people could choose their religion for themselves, then the very code by which they lived was not amenable to government control. For almost everyone in the early modern period this was tantamount to preaching anarchy. Bale's comment that Henry VIII and Edward VI "hated that sect" that preached such doctrines is equivalent to an observation that two particular farmyard turkeys are not, on the whole, admirers of the institution of Christmas!

Notes

1. From the preface to Augustine, A worke of the predestination of saints, trans. Nicholas Less (London, I550), AiiiV-Aiiiir.

2. J. Veron, An Apolog ye or defence of the doctryne of Predestination (London, 1561), BviiiV.

3. Hooper later was burned as a Protestant under Queen Mary. This quote comes from his letter to Heinrich Bullinger, the reformer of Zurich. H. Robinson, ed., Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1846-47), 65.

4. 0riginal Letters, vol. 1, 87.

5. J. Philpot, Examinations and Writings (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1842), 55.

6. Original Letters, vol. 2, 560.

7. The other term applied to this doctrine is "monophysite", since it amounts to teaching that Christ had only one, divine "phusis" (nature) and did not share in human nature.

8. Martin Micron debated the subject with Menno Simons in 1554 at Wismar Germany. See "Reply to Martin Micron" in John C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1956), 835-913.

9. J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, and R. H. Brodie, eds., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, vol. 18 (Vaduz, 1965), Addenda 1, 281.

10. J. Bale, A Mysterye of inyquyte (Geneva, 1545), Hviv - Hviir.

11. J. Hooper, A Lesson of the Incarnation of Christe (London, 1549), Aijv. 12Calendar of State Papers, Foreign, vol. 1 (London, 1861-1950), 122.

13. Register Cranmer, fol. 74r.

14. Irvin B. Horst, The Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation to 1558 (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1972).

15. James Coggins,John Smyth's Congregation: English Separatism, Mennonite Influence and the Elect Nation (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1991).

16. The Second Parte of a Register, vol. 1, 546.

17. J. Bale, A Declaration of Edmonde Boners articles (London, 1561), Sir.

18. Ibid.