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Few things in the history of the church have been more signally demonstrated, than the utter inefficacy of persecution to suppress religious opinion.
It may have apparent success in the diminished numbers and concealed profession of the persecuted, but it only concentrates the conviction which it circumscribes. False-hearted, superficial, and cowardly men, like Bird and Bust, and West, Ridley's steward, may apostatize, to feel afterwards a consuming remorse, as in the case of the last of these, of whom we are told "that when he had relented, and said mass against his conscience, he shortly after pined away and died for sorrow." But what the persecuted church may lose in numbers and visible profession, it more than gains in genuineness and strength. Principle is tested and proved even to the consciousness of its possessor, and fidelity to Christ comes to be also honour and heroism towards men. Moreover, latent sympathies for conscientious and patient sufferers are awakened, convictions are wrought, and, with that strange fascination which attracts men towards peril, conversions are multiplied; and thus the almost uniform result of persecution has expression in the proverb, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Nothing probably tended more to the
sanctity and consolidation of the early church than its local and imperial persecutions. And it may well be doubted whether even the peaceful and uninterrupted presence of European missionaries would have secured to Christianity in Madagascar so deeprooted and healthy a growth as its eighteen years' persecution.
We are not surprised to read, therefore, that during the whole of Mary's bloody and inglorious reign, a congregation of faithful men maintained their Protestant faith and worship in the very heart of her metropolis; and that neither the unscrupulous power of her commissions, nor the ignominious cunning of her spies, nor the wanton cruelties and brutalities of the torturechamber and the stake, could terrify or extirpate them. "Although the church seemed at first to be entirely overthrown, and the godly were dispersed in every quarter, yet a congregation of some importance collected itself at London, chose its ministers by common consent, appointed deacons, and in the midst of enemies more sharp-sighted than Argus, and more cruel than Nero, the church of God was again restored entire and, in a word, complete in all its parts. And though it was often dispersed by the attacks of its enemies, and a very great number of its members perished at the stake, it nevertheless
grew and increased every day."
The history of this congregation is one of the most romantic episodes of this terrible persecution. John Fox, in his own quaint and inimitable way, thus narrates it :
through a strait alley into a clothworker's loft, were espied, and the sheriffs sent for; but before they came, they, having prior knowledge thereof, immediately shifted away out of the alley, John Avales alone in the Mercers' chapel staring at them. Another like escape they made in the ship at Billingsgate, belong to a good man, Leigh, where in the open sight of the people, they were congregated together, and yet, through God's mighty power, escaped betwixt Ratcliffe and Rotherhithe in a ship called 'Jesu's Ship.' Twice or thrice they assembled, having there closely, after their accustomed manner, both sermon, prayer, and communion; and yet, through the protection of the Lord, they returned, though not unespied, yet untaken. Moreover, in a cooper's house in Pudding-lane, so near they were to perils and dangers, that John Avales, coming into the house where they were, talked with the goodman of the house, and, after he had asked a question or two, departed; God so working, that either he had no knowledge of them, or no power to apprehend them. But they never escaped more hardly than once in Thamesstreet, in the night-time, when the house being beset with enemies, yet as the Lord would, they were delivered by the means of a mariner, who being at that present in the same company, and seeing no other way to avoid, plucked off his slops, and swam to the next boat, and so rowed the company over, using his shoes instead of oars; and so the jeopardy was despatched. I have heard of one, who being sent to them to take their names, and to espy their doings, yet, in being amongst them, was converted, and cried them all mercy. What should I speak of the extreme and present danger which that godly company was in, at the taking of Master Rough their minister, and Cutbert Symson their deacon, had not the Lord's providence given knowledge before to Master Rough, in his
+ Strype's Memorials of Cranmer. Book sleep, that Cutbert Symson should leave III. chap. 17. behind him at home the book of all
"No less marvellous was the preservation of the congregation in London, which, from the first beginning of Queen Mary, to the latter end thereof, continued, notwithstanding whatsoever the malice, device, searching, and inquisition of men, or strictness of laws, could work to the contrary. Such was the merciful hand of the Lord, according to his accustomed goodness, ever working with his people. Of this great bountiful goodness of the Lord, many and great examples appeared in the congregation which I now speak of. How oft and in what great danger did He deliver them. First at the Blackfriars, when they should have resorted to Sir Thomas Carden's house, privy watch was laid for them; but yet, through the Lord's vigilant providence, the mischief was prevented, and they delivered. Again, how narrowly did they escape about Aldgate, where spics were laid for them; and had not Thomas Simson, the deacon, espied them, and bid them disperse themselves away, they had been taken.
. . Another time also, about the Great Conduit, they passing there
Zurich Letters, Reign of Queen Eliza. beth, p. 302. George Withers to the Elector
their names, which he was wont to that was then appointed to be at that carry about with him.”*
On the 27th of June following,
This church of the persecuted, thus marvellously preserved, consisted sometimes of forty, sometimes of a hundred, and sometimes of two hundred members; and the remarkable thing is, that towards the end of Mary's reign, and as the persecution grew hotter, it greatly increased. During Mary's short reign of five years, this wandering flock had as many pastors. First, Master Scamler, afterwards Bishop of Peterborough, whence he was translated to Norwich; then Thomas Foule; after him Master Rough, the friend ofJohn Knox, afterwards burnt at Smithfield; then Master Augustine Bernher, who resided with Latimer, witnessed his martyrdom, and collected and published his sermons; and lastly, Thomas Bentham. The chief place of their worship was the suburban village of "Iseldon " (Islington). At Islington, in 1557, John Rough, who had been obliged to flee to Friesland, became their pastor."secretly, in a back close in the field by the town of Islington, were collected and assembled together a certain company of godly and innocent persons, to the number of forty men and women, who there sitting together at prayer, and virtuously occupied in the meditation of God's holy word, first cometh a certain man to them unknown, who looking over unto them so stayed, and saluted them, saying, that they looked like men that meant no hurt. Then one of the said company asked the man if he could tell whose close that was, and whether they might be so bold there to sit. 'Yea,' said he, 'for that ye scem unto me such persons as intend no harm,' and so departed." But within a quarter of an hour, this plausible stranger returned with the constable of Islington and a company of armed men, and apprehended them, taking them first to the house of some local magistrate, and then before before Sir Roger Cholmeley, Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench, by whom twenty-seven Foxe. See also Neal's Puritans, chap. iii. A.D. 1558.
"On the 10th day of November, he arrived in London; where hearing of the secret society and holy congregation of God's children there as sembled, he joined himself unto them, and afterwards being elected their minister and teacher, did continue most virtuously exercised in that godly fellowship, teaching and confirming them in the truth of the gospel of Christ."
"But on the 12th of December, he, with Cutbert Symson and others, through the crafty and traitorous suggestion of a false hypocrite and dissembling brother, called Roger Sergeant, a tailor, were apprehended by the vice-chamberlain of the queen's house, at the Saracen's Head, in Islington, where the congregation had then purposed to assemble themselves to their godly and accustomable exercises of prayer and hearing the word of God; which pretence for the safeguard of all the rest they yet at their examinations covered and excused by hearing of a play,
A little before this, on the 17th of September, Richard Rath, Ralph Allerton, James Austen, and Margaret Austen, members probably of this congregation, were all burned in one fire in Islington. Rough saw the burning of another Austen in Smithfield, a little before; and on returning home, he met with one Master Farrar, a merchant of Halifax. "I have been," said he, "where I would not for one of mine eyes but I had been." "Where have you been ?" said Master Farrar. "Forsooth," said he, "to learn the way." On the 21st of December, he had to practise what he had learned; for he was carried to heaven in the same fiery chariot, and from the same place; having written from Newgate, two days before he suffered, a noble letter to his congregation, which is preserved by Foxe.
Foxe, Book XII.. A.n. 1558.
of them were committed to Newgate; of these, after seven weeks' imprisonment, during which they were promised their liberty if they would hear a mass, thirteen were burnt; seven in Smithfield, and six at Brentford. Thomas Bentham was then their pastor. was a Yorkshireman, born at Sherbourn, in 1513. He had been educated in Magdalen College, Oxford, and during Henry the Eighth's reign had reluctantly worn the mask of popery. On the accession of Edward the Sixth, he avowed himself a Protestant, for which he was deprived of his fellowship by Mary, and had to flee to Basle in Switzerland, where he preached to the English exiles in that city. He was a very pious man, a zealous reformer, and an accomplished scholar, especially in the Hebrew language.
Bentham's escape was very remarkable. It must be given in Foxe's words. He was present while the seven members of his congregation were burning in Smithfield. A proclamation from the queen having been twice read, "straitly charging and commanding that no man should either pray for them or speak to them, or once say, God help them. It was appointed before of the godly there standing together, which was a great multitude, that so soon as the prisoners should be brought, they should go to them to embrace and comfort them; and so they did. For as the said martyrs were coming towards the place in the people's sight, being brought with bills and glaves (as the custom is), the godly multitude and congregation, with a general sway, made toward the prisoners in such a manner that the bill-men and the other officers being all thrust back, could nothing do, nor anything come nigh. So the godly people meeting, and embracing, and kissing them, brought them in their arms (which might as easily have conveyed them clear away) unto the place where they should suffer. This done, and the people giving place to the officers, the proclamation, with a loud voice, was
read to the people, containing (as is before said) in the king and queen's name, that no man should pray for them, or speak a word unto them, &c. Master Bentham, the minister then of the congregation, not sparing for that, but as zeal and Christian charity moved him, and seeing the fire set to them, turning his eyes to the people, cried and said, 'We know they are the people of God, and, therefore, we cannot choose but wish well to them, and say, God strengthen them;' and so boldly he said, 'Almighty God, for Christ's sake strengthen them!' With that all the people, with a whole consent and one voice, followed and said, 'Amen, Amen!' The noise whereof was so great, and the cries thereof so many, that the officers could not tell what to say, or whom to accuse. And thus much concerning the congregation of the faithful assembling together in London in the time of Queen Mary."*
These were the last of the Smithfield martyrs. The cry of God's elect had come up to him. Mary's inglorious reign was drawing to its close. "God,” says Burnet, "shortened the time of her reign, for his elect's sake; and he seemed to have suffered popery to show itself in its true and natural colours, all over both false and bloody, even in a female reign, from whence all mildness and gentleness might have been expected, to give this nation such an evident and demonstrative proof of the barbarous cruelty of that religion, as might raise a lasting abhorrence and detestation of it."+
Six more of the Islington congregation had yet to suffer, and they were burned at Brentford, on the 13th of July; whereupon Bentham, their afflicted pastor, poured out his sorrow in a letter to his friend, Thomas Lever, master of St. John's, Cambridge, then an exile at Zurich, the autograph of which may be still read in the Harleian Collection.
Foxe, Book XII., A.D. 1558.
+ Burnet's History of the Reformation, Part III. Book V.