Ivor C. Fletcher


The measure of religious freedom that existed under Queen Elizabeth I was not to last for long. During most of the seventeenth century, up to 1687, freedom of religion was available only to those who followed the precepts of mainstream Protestant theology in the form of the established Church of England.

In that year, James the Second suspended all penal laws against dissent and released those in prison, granting freedom of worship to all. Shortly afterwards, William and Mary Passed "The Toleration Act," a measure described as `An Act exempting their Majesties' Protestant subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the penalties of certain laws.'

Before these freedoms were granted, the Church of God in England had experienced a time of severe trials. It was not without good reason that these people often called themselves the "Poor" Churches of God. Fines for failure to attend the Sunday services of the established church of 20 pounds a month might seem modest in today's society, but such a sum three centuries ago represented the income of the average employee for two years.

Translated into the values of our present age of inflation such a sum would represent in the region of a staggering 16,000 pounds. Failure to pay such fines often led to a prison sentence. In many such instances this was almost as bad as a sentence of death.

Conditions in the prisons of the day were appalling. Food was described as "rubbish," hygiene precautions almost nonexistent, and disease rampant.

It was recorded that at the Bridewell Prison in Bristol in 1664 fifty-five women (probably mainly Quakers) shared five beds. When two of the women died, the cause of death was given simply as "the stench."

The severity of persecution varied greatly from area to area. Among the Sabbath- keeping churches the indications are that the ministers and leaders were the main targets.

Much depended upon the attitude of local officials and magistrates. If the lay members lived quiet, industrious lives and were respected within their communities, local magistrates often turned a "blind eye" and no action was taken against them.

Religion dominated the thoughts of many of the nation's scholars during this period; the literature published at this time is full of religious debate and controversy. The Sabbath in particular was the subject of almost endless discussion. Some understood the academic reasons for keeping the seventh day, but only a few were really willing to obey God in the face of strong opposition.

John Trask, one of the most powerful speakers of his day, began to preach. He understood not only the truth of God's Sabbath but also the facts regarding clean and unclean meats. Four evangelists were ordained around 1616 and many were being brought to real conversion.

The authorities were swift to take action against Trask; public debate over God's law was one thing, but actual obedience was an entirely different matter.

"John Trask began to speak and write in favour of the seventh day as the Sabbath of the Lord, about the time that King James I, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, published the famous "Book of Sports for Sunday," in 1618. His field of labour was London, and being a very zealous man, he was soon called to account by the persecuting power of the Church of England... He was censured in the Star Chamber to be set upon the pillory at Westminster, and from thence to be whipt to the Fleet (Prison), there to remain a prisoner.

"This cruel sentence was carried into execution, and finally broke his spirit. After enduring the misery of his prison for one year, he recanted his doctrine."1

Trask is said to have founded the Mill Yard Church in London shortly after his arrival in the capital from Salisbury. At least one writer, however, has traced the establishment of this church back to 1580 -- long before the time of Trask. As the records of this church up to 1673 were destroyed in the fire of 1790, it is impossible to know the facts with any degree of certainty.

There are some indications in the writings of the period that Trask later returned to Sabbath observance, but there is no record of him playing any major part in the church after his release from prison.

Trask's wife was also imprisoned for her faith and spent the remainder of her life behind bars.

Obedience to God during this somewhat grim period of history often cost more than loss of a job and personal liberty, it could also have devastating effects upon family relationships.

Conditions often became so difficult that some were required to sacrifice all hope of a normal marriage and family relationship. Many in this era lacked faith and dedication and were described by Christ as being spiritually dead (Rev. 3:1). He did, however, commend the few who were willing to go all the way in obedience.

"Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy" (Rev. 3:4).

"Mrs. Trask lay fifteen or sixteen years a prisoner for her opinion about the Saturday Sabbath; in all which time she would receive no relief from anybody, notwithstanding she wanted much. Her diet for the most part during her imprisonment, that is, till a little before her death, was bread and water, roots and herbs; no flesh, nor wine, nor brewed drink. All her means was an annuity of forty shillings a year; what she lacked more to live upon she had of such prisoners as did employ her sometimes to do business for them."2

Although most of these persecutions involved fines or imprisonment, at least two of the leaders of God's people at this time suffered direct martyrdom. One of those who gave his life in this manner was John James.

"It was about this time (A. D. 1661), that a congregation of Baptists holding the seventh day as a Sabbath, being assembled at

their meeting-house in Bull-Stake Alley, (London) the doors being open, about three o'clock P.M. (Oct. 19), whilst Mr. John James was preaching, one Justice Chard, with Mr. Wood, an headborough, came into the meeting place. Wood commanded him in the King's name to be silent and come down, having spoken treason against the King. But Mr. James, taking little or no notice thereof, proceeded in his work.

"The headborough came nearer to him in the middle of the meeting place and commanded him again in the King's name to come down or else he would pull him down; whereupon the disturbance grew so great that he could not proceed."3

John James was arrested and brought to trial, found guilty under the new law against non-conformity. He was sentenced to the barbaric fate of being hung, drawn and quartered.

It was said that "This awful fate did not dismay him in the least. He calmly said `Blessed be God, whom man condemneth, God justifieth'"!

James was held in high esteem by many and whilst in prison under sentence of death several people of rank and distinction visited him and offered to use their influence to secure his pardon. His wife sent two petitions to the King, but all these moves failed to save him.

In his final words to the court he simply asked them to read the following scriptures: Jer. 26:14-15 and Ps. 116:15. In keeping with the gruesome custom of the time, after his execution his heart was taken out and burned, the four quarters of his body fixed to the gates of the city and his head set up on a pole in Whitechapel opposite to the alley in which his meeting-house stood. Such was the horrible price that some were prepared to pay for obedience to God in seventeenth century England.

Little is known of the organizational structure of the Church during this period. No information has come down to us regarding the numbers attending services. During the time that Sabbath keeping was illegal it is highly unlikely that any form of written records were kept; a high degree of secrecy must have existed, but even so many members were arrested by the authorities.

FOOTNOTES -- Chapter 10

1. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.

2. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.

3. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.