THE INCREDIBLE HISTORY OF GOD'S TRUE CHURCH
CHAPTER ELEVEN -- THE AMAZING LIFE OF SHEM ACHER
Although there were several talented writers among God's people during the 17th century, few of their works have remained extant. The bulk of such writings were seized and destroyed by the authorities.
One remarkable document did escape destruction, however. A single copy of Francis Bampfield's autobiography The Life of Shem Acher has been preserved by the British Museum Library.
In his book, Bampfield draws a parallel between his own calling and ministry and that of the Apostle Paul. Like Paul, he too was not called by men into the ministry but by God. He was also an educated man and talented scholar of Hebrew.
Born in Devonshire in 1614 it was said that he was "designed for the ministry from his birth." He entered Wadham College, Oxford, in 1631 and left in 1638 with a degree in the Arts. Shortly after this he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England by Bishop Hall.
He was later given a position, within that church, in Dorset with a salary of 100 pounds per year. A zealous and hardworking minister, he purchased books and Bibles for his congregation out of his own pocket.
His personal study of the Bible brought him to an understanding of the truth of God. For a time he was permitted to preach these newly discovered truths to his Dorset congregation; in 1662, however, he was forced to make a decision -- would he obey God or the State?
"But being utterly unsatisfied in his conscience with the `conditions of conformity (as laid down by the new law),' he took his leave of his sorrowful and weeping congregation in 1662, and was quickly after imprisoned for worshipping God in his own family. So soon was his unshaken loyalty to the King forgotten... that he was more frequently imprisoned and exposed to greater hardships for his non-conformity than most other dissenters."
Such was the zeal of this man that during his nine years of imprisonment at Dorchester he raised up a church congregation within the prison and regularly preached to the other prisoners.
He was arrested yet again in 1682 and given a life sentence in Newgate -- he died in prison on February 16, 1684. Such was his reputation among God's people that a great company of mourners attended his funeral.
"All that knew him will acknowledge that he was a man of great piety. And he would in all probability have preserved the same character, with respect to his learning and judgment, had it not been for his opinion in two points, viz., that infants ought not to be baptized, and that the Jewish Sabbath ought still to be kept."1
Bampfield raised up the Pinners Hall Sabbatarian Church in London, probably only one of many -- the details of his ministry are far from complete. He mentions the "Church of God" and sometimes the "Churches of Elohim" in his books.
Jesus Christ used this very able minister to reveal to His Church of that day what was to them "new truth." In reality it was old truth about a vital doctrine which, over a period of many years, the Church had neglected and lost sight of.
The practice of anointing the sick (James 5:14) was unknown by the time of Bampfield, and had probably been neglected in Britain for several centuries. One of the major problems of this church era was that being in a spiritually dead or dying condition, several vital points of true doctrine became neglected and over a period of time forgotten, only to come to light years or centuries later as "new truth."
Very much aware of this tendency, Jesus gave the church of this period the clear warning that it should "be watchful, and strengthen the things (important points of doctrinal truth) which remain, that are ready to die" (Rev. 3:2).
It was of vital importance that this era, even if not performing many "works" itself, should preserve certain main points of true doctrine that it had received from the previous (Thyatira) era. There was a need to pass on these truths to the later dynamic Philadelphia church (Rev. 3:7).
As a result of personal study, Bampfield became aware of the truth of this doctrine. He took up the point with other ministers only to find them either apathetic or openly in opposition to his views. He began to waver in his own conviction on the point. Jesus Christ, who was keenly aware of what was taking place within His Church, decided to intervene.
Using the same "still small voice" that He had used when speaking to Elijah (I Kings 19:12-13), He told Francis Bampfield, who was sick at the time, to go ahead and anoint himself.
Bampfield, in his book, described what happened: "This was brought upon his heart, that the Ordinance of Anointing the sick had not been used: he was convinced of the need and use of this Ordinance, of the standing preceptive and the promising part of it; but, knew not whither to his satisfaction to go, or send for a right Administrator, the Ministers in those parts at that time, either not having Light or Faith therein, and some of them openly opposing it.
"Hereupon a secret voice whispers, that, as a messenger from Christ, he should administer it upon himself, the case being so circumstanced; which accordingly he did, and felt the healing strengthening effect of it quickly."2
After this incident he continued to use the method and the knowledge spread to others in Britain and later to the church in America.
In this book the author refers to himself and his wife by the names "Shem Acher" and "Gnezri-jah." During this time of persecution the precaution was clearly necessary to obscure personal identities from the authorities.
During his ministry Francis Bampfield, in common with the Apostle Paul, suffered trials and persecutions both from "within and without." So-called "brethren" who probably should have been disfellowshipped years before, continually resisted his work.
Although he believed in the principle of tithing, he often refused to accept the tithes of members in an attempt to counteract false accusations that he "was only in it for the money."
After beginning his ministry in the west of England, he later spent much time in London. In 1674 he observed the Lord's Supper at Bethnal Green and mentions the fact that he conducted a number of baptisms in the Thames near Battersea.
A very lengthy treatise was written on the Sabbath, and after coming to this knowledge he relates that: "Since that, Shem never met with any objection, that could shake or stagger him, but all wrought for his fuller Confirmation and Establishment."
The widespread impact of Bampfield's ministry is indicated in the following passage from his book: "One of them in the name of the rest, in prayer to the LORD, did by stretching out his hands, as others also of them did, commend him unto the Lord in a special message to the Sabbath churches in Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire and Berkshire, which was undertaken by him, and prospered with desired success, the report whereof at his return, caused joy to all the brethren and sisters in fellowship."
Francis Bampfield's courtship and marriage must surely be one of the saddest romances on record. His wife came from a prosperous and respected Dorchester family. She began visiting Bampfield and a few others during one of his terms of imprisonment. After his release she began joining him in his preaching tours.
After a time rumours began to circulate that "something was going on" between them and at this point he decided to ask the lady to marry him.
Bampfield describes his wife in the following glowing terms: "Excelling almost all her sex in the whole town of Dorchester for humility, patience, diligence, faithfulness, zeal... having undergone many hardships and difficulties for him, Shem Acher married her."
This unusual situation and the initial reluctance to marry might seem odd to us, but it was very similar to that mentioned in I Cor. 7:26; it was simply not a good time to marry and raise a family.
It is difficult to imagine the kind of married life this couple experienced. Francis Bampfield spent most of his life from 1662 onwards either in prison or "on the run" from the authorities. There was no mention made of any children born to the couple, which was probably just as well.
There can have been few leaders in God's Church with more zeal than Francis Bampfield. Even when detained at Dorchester Prison, his leadership and speaking ability resulted in large crowds of people from the town flocking to the prison to hear him preach. As he was unable to go out and do God's Work, God, it seems, brought "the work" to him.
The prison authorities, embarrassed by this situation, eventually took steps to prevent the local people from coming to the prison.
Damaris Bampfield, who had married Francis at the Mill Yard Church in 1673, survived her husband by less than ten years -- she died in 1693.3
The world looked upon the Bampfields, not as dedicated servants of God, but as mere eccentrics: "The Bampfields were typical English eccentrics such as this country only can produce."4
"Bampfield's Seventh-Day church flickered out in 1863, watched only by a zealous antiquarian."5
(My grateful thanks are extended to the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland for making available the above works on Baptist history.)
FOOTNOTES -- Chapter 11
1. History of the Sabbath, Andrews, and Wilson's History of Dissenting
Churches, Vol. 2.
2. The Life of Shem Acher, Francis Bampfield.
3. Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society, page 12.
4. A History of the English Baptists, A. Underwood, page 115.
5. History of the British Baptists, W. T. Whitley, page 86.