History of the Old Baptist Chapel
The Religious Background
A brief summary of the religious history of England provides a perspective from which the development of Nonconformity or Dissent can be studied.
For centuries until 1534 England acknowledged the religious supremacy of the pope in Rome. Although governments were at times exasperated by the political pretensions of the various popes, the kings of England together with the archbishops and bishops accepted the supremacy of the see of Rome and followed its lead in matters of doctrine.
However from the time of John Wyclif, an Oxford don who died in 1384, a tradition of dissent existed. Wyclif's followers, the Lollards, circulated hand-written English Bibles, often in parts. They also wrote their own criticisms of the worldliness of the church and disputed its claims to be the exclusive dispenser of salvation. Such dissent was dangerous. From 1401 the penalty for the Lollard heresy was death by burning at the stake.
From the 1520s another form of 'heresy' began to appear in the country. This time it came from the continent of Europe where Martin Luther, after a painful spiritual struggle, had come to an understanding of great Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther's 'heresy' was just as obnoxious to church leaders as Wyclif's had been and more of a threat because it was being taught by a group of highly educated and articulate men and was being spread with the help of the printing press.
King Henry VIII of England who was a loyal son of the church for much of his reign and always an upholder of the sacramental teaching of Rome, wrote a reply to Luther for which the pope rewarded him with the title of Defender of the Faith. However in the 1530s Henry quarreled bitterly with the pope who refused to grant his request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry's patience ran out and he persuaded Parliament to recognize him as head of the Church of England. The religious condition of England was utterly confused as followers of Luther and supporters of the pope alike found themselves in difficulties in the last years of Henry's reign.
In 1547 Henry VIII was succeeded by his son Edward VI, a Protestant. During Edward's six year reign the Church of England was purged of many of the teachings and practices of Rome. When Edward died in 1553 he was succeeded by his Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary, under whom England once more became a Roman Catholic country.
Many Protestants died as martyrs at the stake while others fled abroad. Many of the latter group went to Geneva where, under the ministry of John Calvin, a thorough Reformation had taken place. These exiles not only came to appreciate the very high standards of ministry available in Geneva but they also realized the glory of a church which was free from political interference and where a Biblical discipline was enforced.
After the death of Mary in 1558 they returned to England expecting the establishment of such a reformed church in England. Their disappointment was bitter when they discovered that the new queen, Elizabeth, was prepared to restore the Protestant church of her brother Edward VI, but was utterly opposed to a fully reformed church modeled on the pattern of Geneva. The former exiles who were soon to be known as Puritans found themselves facing considerable opposition and hardship.
It was not until the time of the Civil War and Commonwealth between 1642 and 1660 that there was any measure of religious freedom in England. By that time a number of Puritans had adopted Baptist principles and Calvinistic or Particular Baptist churches began to be formed. Freedom for the various Puritan groups ended with the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and persecution in varying degrees of intensity was their lot until the 1680s.
In 1688 James II, England's last Roman Catholic king was deposed and in the following year Parliament passed the Toleration Act which gave freedom of worship but not political equality to the orthodox Protestant nonconformists. Full political rights had to wait until 1828 although by that time the old laws which excluded dissenters from local and central government office were being disregarded.