‘One day the governor of Scarborough Castle came to see me. I desired him to go into my room…and it was so filled with smoke from the little fire that when they were in it they could hardly find their way out again…(After) I was removed into a worse room where I had neither chimney nor fire hearth. This being to the sea-side, the wind drove in the rain forcibly, so that the water came over my bed and ran about the room. And when my clothes were wet, I had no fire to dry them; so that my body was benumbed with cold and my fingers swelled…The officers often threatened that I should be hanged over the wall…But I told them that if that was what they desired and it was permitted them, I was ready; for I never feared death nor suffering in my life’.
Fox was later better treated by the governor, who tried to get him released and the leading Quaker’s fearless suffering changed not just the governor’s attitude, but also that of the officers and soldiers, who reported him to be ‘as stiff as a tree and as pure as a bell; for we could never bow him’. Nor was Fox alone in this example of endurance. From the time of the Act of Uniformity of 1662 to the Toleration Act of 1689, the Quaker movement continued to grow, despite, perhaps because of, imprisonment and persecution. At least 21,000 ‘Friends’ suffered fines or prison sentences, many more than once, and at least 450 died in prison, or as a result of their sufferings while in prison. But whatever was done to them, like George Fox, they held firm.
In 1678, the King’s ‘Indulgence’ towards Catholics and Non-conformists was brought abruptly to an end by the supposed ‘discovery’ of a Catholic plot to kill Charles and put his brother James on the throne. Titus Oates made up this story, and also claimed that Catholics had been responsible for starting the Great Fire twelve years earlier. Ever since, Catholics had been blamed for every fire that had broken out, and Oates’ story of a plot brought back even earlier memories of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Most people hated and feared the idea of a Roman Catholic King, and wanted the Duke of York passed over in favour of Charles’ cousin, William, the Dutch Prince of Orange. Baxter, however, did not believe everything he heard, and warned of the dangers to the future liberties of England of lying on oath, as Oates had done:
‘Only that those coming after may not be deluded I shall truly tell them that lying most impudently is become so ordinary a trade…that I must confess it hath greatly depressed my esteem of most history and of human nature’.
Of course, this view of human nature was one point on which he would have quarrelled with the Quakers, whose doctrine of ‘the inner light’ of the divine in each one of us led them to proclaim the essential goodness of human nature, in conflict with the more Calvinist view of its sinfulness held by Baxter and most Protestants of all persuasions at the time. The doctrine of ‘that of God in everyone’ also led to their rejection of a professional, trained ministry, and the 1667 ‘convincement’ of courtiers like William Penn, the son of Admiral Penn who appears in Pepys’ Diary, of these beliefs, had led the authorities to think that their might be plotters among the movement, despite its declared pacifism. Quakers were mostly of low birth, but they had ‘Friends in high places’ and their beliefs were therefore seen as a direct challenge to the authorities of Christ, the Church and the Stuart state. Baxter, of course, respected them, and had made a public show of this by holding a public disputation with Penn at Rickmansworth, in which he nevertheless tried to correct what he saw as their doctrinal errors.
‘When Charles II died in February 1685, James was proclaimed King, despite the efforts of many Protestants to prevent this. Unlike his brother, James II hated the Nonconformists, many of whom had opposed him. As Baxter had feared, he began to persecute them more than ever. Worse still, as the most famous Nonconformist preacher, Baxter was a clear target as a leader to be made an example of by being brought to public trial. Since he had given up preaching, and had sold all his books, Baxter could only be charged with sedition through his writings, especially his newly-penned commentary on the New Testament. So, on May 30th, 1685, Baxter was brought to what we would call today a ‘show-trial’ at the Guildhall by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Judge Jeffreys. The hall was packed with crowds, some of the more ignorant asking, ‘surely this Baxter is one of those who burnt the City?’ This comment shows that it was perhaps now more fashionable to accuse the Nonconformists, rather than the Catholics, for starting the Great Fire, as they had sometimes been in the past. Jeffreys would not let Baxter’s lawyers answer the charge against the ‘commentary’, but continued to rant and rail against the ‘old rogue..with his Kidderminster doctrine‘ in the dock before him, giving such a performance that some in the crowd began laughing out loud. Baxter calmly replied:
One day, all these things will surely be understood and it will be seen what a sad and foolish thing it is that one set of Protestant Christians are made to persecute another set. I am not concerned to answer such stuff (as I am accused of) but am ready to produce my writings, and my life and conversation is known to many in this nation’.
The jury had been hand-picked by Jeffreys and didn’t even bother to leave the court to reach their ‘Guilty’ verdict. Baxter was fined 500 marks, but Jeffrey’s attempts to have the ‘old knave’ whipped through the streets, was ‘stamped on’ by all the other judges. Later the same year, however, Jeffreys did have his fill of bloodshed and cruelty against the Nonconformist agricultural workers of the West of England who rose up in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s ‘Pitchfork’ Rebellion against the tyrannical rule of James II. Monmouth, Charles II’s son by an earlier, secret ‘marriage’, landed at Lyme Regis and gathered his supporters together in Dorset before marching into Somerset, where he was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Jeffreys was sent to try the poor farmers and fishermen who had followed him, hanging as many of them as he could in what became known as the Bloody Assizes. When his master, James II, was forced to flee England in 1688, ‘the hanging judge’ Jeffreys tried to escape disguised as a sailor. However, he was recognised trying to board a ship in Wapping, and was nearly torn apart by the angry crowd. He was rescued and sent to the Tower, but never recovered from the ‘justice’ he had received at the hands of the people.
Meanwhile, refusing to pay the fine which had been imposed on him, Baxter remained in prison for eighteen months, until, in a belated attempt to appease the Nonconformists, the beleaguered James II released him. Baxter continued to preach at Charterhouse Yard to crowds reported to be bigger than any Cathedral congregation in England. William III’s Parliament passed a ‘Toleration Act’ in 1689 which grant the right of religious worship to Protestant non-conformists as long as they agreed to certain tests. Baxter persuaded many of his friends to agree to these, but died in December 1691, sad that there still had to be divisions and quarrels and that his dream of one Church was still only a dream. Although everyone was allowed to worship as they liked, Catholics and Nonconformists were not yet allowed to go to the universities or take jobs in the government, including the standing army and the Royal Navy. This meant they were still excluded from public service and the ‘mainstream’ of ‘established’ English society, though they were no longer punished for their beliefs and could build any sort of chapel or church they liked to worship in.
In 1672, Baxter published ‘a psalm of praise’ to the tune of Psalm 128, Ye Holy Angels Bright. This is the last verse of the famous hymn:
My soul, bear thou thy part,
Triumph in God above;
And with a well-tuned heart,
Sing thou the songs of love.
In 1838 John Hampden Gurney took Baxter’s verses as the basis of a new hymn, which became a favourite congregational hymn. An Anglican educated at Cambridge, after 23 years as a curate at Lutterworth in Leicestershire, he became rector at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in London and in 1857 was made prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral. So, Baxter’s words were brought home to the City of London. However, if there’s one group of people to which Baxter’s ‘well-tuned heart’ belongs, it is not the Church of England, nor even his parishioners in Bridgnorth or Kidderminster, nor John Hampden and the independent soldiers of Cromwell’s Army, nor the Royalists of Charles II’s Restoration, nor the Protestant Nonconformists. He belongs to all those believers persecuted for righteousness’ sake and, above all, to to all those who, like him, deserve the blessing, Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the Children of God.