This article was found in the June 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Being the fifth imaginary letter from an imaginary uncle to imaginary twins
Dear Jack and Betty,
Although the small groups of Separatists I told you about last month were not Congregational in name, they were so in principle. They claimed they were "gathered churches" and had the right to manage their own internal affairs and to be free from outward control.
In the year 1583, Grindel, Archbishop of Canterbury, was succeeded by John Whitgift. The new Archbishop lost no time in persecuting the Separatists and redoubled the efforts of the Church and legislature to stamp them out. One after another their Ministers and Deacons were run to earth and flung into prison. One of their foremost leaders, Robert Brown, a late student of Cambridge University, was actually put in prison thirty-two times, his release on each occasion being due to his high social connections. Eventually to save his life he fled to Middelburg in Holland. Here is an extract concerning sixty of these "poor Christians impressed by the Bishops in sundry London prisons": -
"... contrary to all law and equity, between imprisoned, separated from our trades, wives, children and families; yea, shut up close prisoners from all comfort; many of us the space of two years and an half, upon the Bishop's sole commandment, in great penury and noisomeness of the prisons; many ending their lives, never called to trial; some haled forth to the sessions; some cast in irons and dungeons; some in hunger and famine; all of them governors and magistrates from all benefit and help of the laws: daily defamed and falsely accused by published pamphlets, private suggestions, open preaching, slanders and accusations of heresy, sedition, schism and what not. And above all (which most utterly toucheth our salvation) they keep us from all spiritual comfort, and edifying by doctrine, prayer or mutual conference."
Two of the heroes of this time were named Greenwood and Barrow. They had been in prison for 7 years when at long last they were tried and condemned to death. Twice they were on the point of being executed - once the rope was actually around their necks - but they were reprieved and sent back to prison. This prison was on the selfsame spot in Farringdon Street where Memorial Hall now stands. In 1593 the sorry farce was ended and they were hanged - their heroic deaths made a great and favourable impression amongst London's population.
Another martyr was John Penry, and young man of 34 with a wife and four children. The charge against him was that he "was a seditious disturber as appeared by his schismatical separation from the society of the Church of England and joining the hypocritical and schismatical conventicles of Barrow and Greenwood. By his justifying of Barrow and Greenwood, who suffering worthily for their writings and preachings, are, nevertheless by him reputed as holy martyrs."
He was found guilty and hanged on 29th March, 1593.
This same year saw more repressive legislation against the Separatists (or as they were by this time called "the Brownists") who it was estimated numbered 20,000 (probably and exaggeration). The legislation said that anyone denying the Queen's power in ecclesiastical matters was to suffer the loss of all his goods and be expelled from the country - the penalty for returning being death.
During the next ten years, Congregationalism developed more rapidly on the Continent than in England mainly because many hundreds of exiles had fled with this country. In Amsterdam, for example, there was a congregation of 300 souls.
I think I must quote you the following paragraph from Dr. Peel's "History of English Congregationalism":-
"Through all these years of persecution there was one force working powerfully. The exiles from Geneva in Mary's reign had translated the Bible into English, and their version, i.e. the Genevan, was being read in England wherever men could read. Edition followed edition, and this puritan translation was more widely read than any other prior to the Authorised Version in 1611. These two versions together produced the result described in J. R. Green's famous dictum that between the middle of Elizabeth's reign and the Long Parliament 'England became the people of one book and that book was the Bible.' Behind all the turmoil of these years there was growing throughout the country a profound faith which rested on the personal experience of men and women who were reading the Bible for themselves."
The death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I raised men's hopes of better times, only to disappoint them once more. The Amsterdam Church sent a petition to James asking him to allow them to return and worship in their own way. James ignored the request and carried on the repressive work of Elizabeth, strongly aided by Richard Bancroft who had become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1604.
Next month I will tell you of a notable event in the history of the Continental exiles.
May God bless you.