It was a point of personal pride for me when I was told as a child that through my father’s father I was descended from the English royal house of Stuart. It was a matter of disappointment in my teen years when I learned in my high school European history class that the Stuart kings were tyrants.
King James I, the first Stuart king of England, is best remembered for the 1611 English Bible translation that was dedicated to him. What is little known is that this translation (as noble and popular as it remains) was initiated by the Church of England in part as a reaction to the growing Puritan movement which primarily employed the Geneva Bible of 1599. James I, and his successor Charles I, wanted absolute conformity on the part of all British subjects to the state church.
Numerous laws were passed demanding such conformity. The oppression that the enforcement of these laws brought on religious dissenters was so severe that twice the royal House of Stuart was overthrown. The first time was in 1649. Following a bloody civil war, Charles I was dethroned, imprisoned, and later decapitated.
A decade of an unstable commonwealth led by Oliver Cromwell and briefly by his son Richard ended in 1660 with the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Charles II became king with the assurance of religious liberty under his reign. Before ascending to the throne Charles II signed The Declaration of Breda guaranteeing “liberty for tender consciences.” It promised “that no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matter of religion, which do not disturb the peace of the kingdom.” Sadly, a king’s word is not always his bond. Charles II reinstated the harsh persecution of religious dissenters during his reign. Later his son James II intensified it. Eventually James II was forced to flee the throne and England in 1688 during the bloodless “Glorious revolution.” He was replaced by William and Mary (the daughter of James II).
With William and Mary came the English Bill of Rights and the Act of Toleration which finally freed religious dissenters from persecution for separating from the Church of England.
There is no way to calculate the breadth of the suffering inflicted on people of sincere Christian faith by the Stuart kings. Thousands endured fines, beatings, imprisonment, confiscation of property, banishment, and even death. It is no coincidence that the Mayflower pilgrims came to the New World while the Stuarts reigned.
Baptists suffered intensely under the tyranny of the Stuart monarchs. Rejecting not only a state church, but also such commonly held errors as infant baptism left these non-violent saints exposed as criminals. Newgate prison and the Clink (The term “clink” for a jail does not come from the sound of a lock or the closing of a cell door.) in London were populated with countless of our Baptist forebears who for conscience toward God refused to compromise their convictions. Many never came out alive.
Both during and following the Stuart persecution, Baptists in London formulated confessions of faith that still inform us today. Part of the Second London Baptist Confession calls upon civil magistrates to “protect the liberty of men’s consciences” in matters of religion. As Baptists we still hold the Bible’s teaching that enforcing justice and protecting the liberty of citizens – especially religious liberty – is the primary responsibility of human government. As both Baptists and American citizens we should pray, speak, act, and vote to encourage such good governance.
It is to me a somewhat strange irony and wonderful providence that I, as a descendent of tyrannical Stuart kings who endeavored to eliminate Baptists from their realm, both hold and herald the faith they so severely persecuted.