Theology Thursday - Persecution for Religion Judg’d and Condem’d

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Thomas Helwys - John Murton's Predecessor

Background

No author is listed for the following treatise, but most attribute it to John Murton, an associate and successor of Thomas Helwys as leader of General Baptists in London. The treatise first appeared in 1615.1

Leon McBeth wrote,

“Murton made the trek to Amsterdam with Smyth, became a Baptist there, and sided with Helwys in the split from Smyth. He also suffered for his faith, spending some years in prison where apparently he died in 1626. From prison he authored two significant treatises on religious liberty.”2

Murton’s Plea for Religious Liberty

To all that truly wish Jerusalem’s Prosperity and Babylons Destruction; Wisdom and Understanding be multiplyed upon you.

In these days, if ever, that is true which the Wiseman said, Eccl. 12.12, “there is no end in making many books, and much reading is a weariness to the flesh,” yet considering how heinous it is in the sight of the Lord to force men and women by cruel persecutions, to bring their bodies to a Worship whereunto they cannot bring their spirits; we thought it our duty for Gods Glory, and the reformation thereof in this our own Nation, to publish this little Writing following, wherein is manifestly proved by the Law of God, the Law of our Land, and his Majesties own divers Testimonies, That no man ought to be Persecuted for his Religion, be it true of false, so he testifies his faithful Allegiance to the King.

What shall men do striving about matters of Religion till this be ended? For, if this be a truth, that the Kings of the Earth have power from God to compel by Persecution all their Subjects to believe as they believe, then wicked is it to resist, and the Persecutions of such is justly upon them, and the Magistrates that execute the same are clear from their blood, and it is upon their own heads.

But if the Kings of the Earth have not power from God to compel by Persecution any of their Subjects to believe as they believe (seeing Faith is the work of God) then no less wicked is it in the sight of God to disobey, and the Persecutions of such are upon the Magistrates, and the blood of the Persecuted cryeth unto the Lord, and will be required at the Magistrates hands …

Oh! that all that are in Authority would but consider by the Word of God (which shall judge them at the last day) what they do, when they force men against their souls and consciences to dissemble to believe as they believe, or as the King and State believe, they would withdraw their hands and hearts therefrom, and never do as they have done, partly through inconsideration, and partly to please Lord Bishops being in favour with the King …

And of the Lord Bishops we desire, that they would a little leave off persecuting those that cannot believe as they, till they have proved that God is well-pleased therewith, and the souls of such as submit are in safety from Condemnation. Let them prove this, and we protest we will forever submit unto them, and so will thousands: and therefore if there be any spark of grace in them, let them set themselves to give satisfaction either by word or writing, or both.

But if they will not, but continue their cruel courses as they have done, let them yet remember that they must come to Judgment, and have their Abominations set in order before them, and be torn in pieces when none shall deliver them.

And whereas they have no other colour of ground out of the Scriptures, than that they have canonized a Law, viz. That whosoever shall affirm that the Kings Majesty hath not the same power over the Church that the godly Kings of Israel had under the Law, &c. Let him be excommunicate ipso facto.

The unsoundness of which ground is manifested in this Dialogue following, wherein is shewed their palpable ignorance, in that they know not the Mystery of God; and therefore have they made this Canon in flattery to the King, only to support their Pride and Cruelty …

Oh! that any thing would prevail with them to make them leave off these cruel courses, of persecuting poor souls that desire truly to fear God, and are most faithful Subjects to the King, and desire also the salvation of the souls of these their cruel Persecutors, who do seek their utter undoing by all the fore-named Persecutions, only because they cannot of faith offer up such Worship to God as these spiritual Lords command

And the rather let them leave off persecuting, seeing the Kings Majesty acknowledgeth, It is a sure Rule in Divinity, That God loves not to plant his Church by Violence and Bloodshed. And if it be a Law for all Christians, that in indifferent things one must not offend another, but the strong to forbear rather than offend his weak brother; otherwise he wounds the weak conscience, and sins against Christ, 1 Cor. 8. Then how much less hath any man power to be Lord over the weak conscience, forcing it to practise that it hath not faith in, bringing it thereby unto sin, and unto condemnation, Rom. 14.

We do unfainedly acknowledge the Authority of earthly Magistrates, God’s blessed Ordinance, and that all earthly Authority and Command appeartains unto them; let them command what they will, we must obey, either to do or suffer upon pain of Gods displeasure, besides their punishment: But all men must let God alone with his Right, which is to be Lord and Law∣giver to the soul, and not command obedience for God where he commandeth none …

By Christ’s unworthy Witnesses,

His Majesties faithful Subjects: Commonly (but most falsely) called ANA-BAPTISTS.

Notes

1 This treatise was copied from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1990), 75-76.  

2 H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1987), 39.  

Practical Application

Murton wrote:

That no man ought to be Persecuted for his Religion, be it true of false, so he testifies his faithful Allegiance to the King

This has real, practical implications for the "Muslim question" in America. A number of Christian leaders, and even more Christians in local churches, continue to make irresponsible and morally questionable statements about Muslims - from a Christian perspective. I was an anti-terrorism planning specialist while I was in the military, so I am well aware of the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism. I even wrote a peer-reviewed article about the anti-terrorism security measures used during the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, in 1996. I get it.

Yet, this is an issue Baptists need to be careful about. Religious liberty is important. But, this means religous liberty is also important for other religions. Nobody will be persecuted into God's future kingdom, by threat, violence or coercion. This doesn't mean a sovereign nation cannot take reasonable and prudent security precautions, but it does mean individual Christians need to think carefully about their priorities.

  • What would the Baptists in 17th century England say about the contemporary situation in America?
  • What would the Baptists in colonial New England say?
  • Would John Murton protest against the building of a mosque? Or, would he support their right to worship as they choose?

I love asking rhetorical questions . . . so much more fun than actually answering them!  

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

My question ....

is whether the religious tolerance of the early Baptists would have extended to the "Turks", as they would have called them.  Although the continental Anabaptists did refuse to fight the Turks, and were treated cruelly for it, it's not entirely clear what the non-pacifistic British variety would have done.  I'm not quite sure.  

And enjoyed the bit on Khobar Towers, too....when I think of some of these things, the phrase "stop using big targets" comes to mind.  But of course I'm pretty judgmental on these things.  :^)


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