THE INCREDIBLE HISTORY OF GOD'S TRUE CHURCH
CHAPTER TWELVE -- SARDIS IN DECLINE
Among the people that God was calling during the seventeenth century were several whose lives were filled with great personal accomplishments. Dr. Peter Chamberlen was one such individual. Born in 1601, he was baptized in 1648 and started keeping the Sabbath about three years later. He died in 1683, and was buried at Malden, Essex.
During his long and interesting life he became "`Physician in Ordinary to three Kings and Queens of England... As for his religion he was a Christian keeping the commandments of God and faith of Jesus, being baptized about the year 1648 and keeping the seventh day for the Sabbath above 32 years."1
Becoming a Fellow of the College of Physicians in 1628, he was a man of progressive ideas, especially in the field of medical science. Chamberlen advocated reforms in midwifery and other areas of public health and hygiene. In 1818 a secret room was discovered in his house -- it contained some of his midwifery forceps.
He suggested that a professional body be set up to care for the needs of London's midwives. The eradication of disease was also a subject which interested him; to this end he urged that a system of public baths be established. Chamberlen also had an inventive mind, he patented a method of writing and printing phonetically. He also traveled extensively in Europe and spoke several European languages.
A Non-Conformist church at Lothbury is believed, under his leadership, to have begun Sabbath observance. In 1653 he became pastor of the "Mill Yard" church.
An educated man and Cambridge graduate, Peter Chamberlen wrote on a variety of subjects, but primarily on religious topics such as the Sabbath and baptism, along with scientific and medical works.
"What shall we say," he wrote, "of those who take away of those ten words (Ten Commandments) or those that make them void and teach men so? Nay, they dare give the lie to, and make Jesus Christ not only a breaker of the law, but the very author of sin in others, also causing them to break them! Hath not the little horn played his part lustily in this, and worn out the saints of the Most High, so that they become little horns also!"2
During the period when the English Civil war was raging another faithful servant of God was doing a powerful work in Wales. Vavasor Powell traveled thousands of miles over mountains and through valleys preaching the Word of God by day and night, ultimately dying in prison for his faith.
He wrote a book, during his confinement, relating to his experiences. It bore the curious title The Chirping of a Bird in a Cage. This book was addressed to "the Churches of God, and Scattered Saints throughout Wales."
In another of his books, Confessions of Faith, published in 1662, he reflects on the sufferings of God's people at that time.
"I have considerations of the great sufferings of the Church of God of old, and the ground of their comfort which is Christ. From Revelation 12, I was much refreshed to consider that the church when she went into the wilderness was by the wings that God gave her."3
Ten years later, shortly after Mr. Powell's death, one of his followers wrote of some of his experiences. This work was published in 1672 but the name of the author is not given.
"About the year 1647, the island of Anglesey in North Wales being unreduced, the Parliament forces went to reduce it, and their chief officers sent for me to preach to that brigade of soldiers, and as I marched with them into the place, either the night immediately before or the night before that, it was revealed unto me in my sleep that I should be wounded, and two of my fingers cut (and the very fingers pointed out), which accordingly came to pass; yet when I was in extreme danger between several enemies who fell upon me, receiving that and some other wounds, there being no likelihood of escape, I heard a voice, as I apprehended, speaking audibly to me, `O Lord, then bring me off'; and immediately God guided my horse (though he was very wild and not well commanded) to go backward out of the barricade that I had entered at, and so I was indeed miraculously preserved.
"One time, coming from preaching, I lost my way, and being out till it was far in the night in a wood or forest, among lakes, briars and thorns, I went up and down until I was quite weary. But by looking up to the Lord, I was presently directed into my way.
"The like experience I had another time, when another preacher and myself had lost our way in a very dark night, and had tired ourselves in searching to and fro to no purpose. At last calling to mind how God had formerly heard in that case where I sought unto Him, we called upon the Lord, who immediately pointed out our way, and it seemed as clear to us as if it had been daylight."
Joseph Davis was a wealthy linen merchant and Sabbath keeper. He suffered greatly for his beliefs. A member of the Mill Yard church, he left this congregation a yearly allowance. His experiences were described in the following manner: "About the time the king entered London, I was illegally seized by the county-troops, and carried a prisoner seven miles from my habitation and calling, to Burford, and there detained two days, being oftentimes tempted to drink the king's health.
"My second imprisonment was after Venner's unlawful insurrection; when the militia of the county Horse and Foot, came on the seventh day in the evening to our town and Mr. Hoard, one of the captains of the county troops came to my shop, asking my name and demanding arms, rudely made me Prisoner for nothing... my house was rifled by his soldiers, who took away my goods feloniously...
"He was held in Oxford Castle until his trial, following which he was imprisoned for ten years."4
Davis wrote to members of the Newport, Rhode Island Church in 1670, whilst he was a prisoner at Oxford. He was released on September 13, 1672.
When describing his beliefs he twice used the term "Church of Christ." He believed in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and that the Holy Spirit was not part of a "Trinity" but rather the power of God. He knew that men are justified by the faith of Jesus Christ, not the works of the law, but that God required of men obedience and good works.
He stated that: "I believe there is but one true visible Church. The members of the Gospel visible Church, in the latter times, that Anti-Christ prevailed, are noted by the Spirit in Rev. 14:12 to be such as keep the Commandments of God, and the Faith of Jesus, and such are, and shall be Blessed, Rev. 22:14... They are the Lord Christ's Church..."5
Through the ages God has often carried on His work not only through individuals, but also families. The talented Stennett family was an example of this in action. Four generations of this family faithfully served the Church of God in England.
The Stennetts, in common with other ministers of their time, were prolific writers. In 1658 Edward Stennett wrote the book The Royal Law Contended For, and in 1664 he published a work on a very common theme entitled The Seventh Day is the Sabbath of the Lord.
"He was an able and devoted minister, but dissenting from the established church, he was deprived of the means of support.
"He suffered much of the persecution which the Dissenters were exposed to at that time, and more especially for his faithful adherence to the cause of the Sabbath. For this truth he experienced tribulation, not only from those in power, by whom he was kept a long time in prison, but also much distress from unfriendly dissenting brethren, who strove to destroy his influence, and ruin his cause."6
Edward Stennett was one of the few, at that time, who could clearly see the very real danger of allowing apostates," as he called them, to continue in fellowship with the church. These false "brethren," when permitted to remain within the local congregations, often did as much damage to the work of the true servants of God as "outside" persecutors.
Stennett spoke out strongly on this point, but being little more than one voice in the wilderness had little effect on the general trend within the church.
The absence of a strong central authority at this time led to a lack of unity within the church. A wide variation of opinion existed on even the most basic points of doctrine.
Regarding the Sabbath doctrine, Edward Stennett was stating the "official" position when he wrote that "its observance ought to be commenced, after the manner of the Jews, at sunset on Friday." A great deal of controversy existed as to exactly when "sunset" should begin.
One ex-member described some of the extreme views that were held by at least a number who considered themselves as a part of the Church of God.
"Now that which about this time (1671) shewed forth itself, was of a Sabbath keeper in the town where I lived (and she hath more fellows abroad), a Sabbath-keeper so strict in her Sabbath keeping, that few others of them (if any at all) do match her for her zeal therein... Who is so far in her owning of the Sabbath, and the Law whence the rule of it is taken, that she shames not openly to disown the Gospel, and the Lord Jesus Christ, the author and revealer thereof having cast out of her Bible the whole New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ... disowning all those writings from the beginning of Matthew to the and of Revelation."7
"As a rector of the Established Church, Edward Stennett did not hold to the Sabbath in 1631, when Brabourne wrote against him. A Parliament supporter, Stennett lost his ministerial position in 1660 with the Restoration of the crown. He turned to the medical profession to support his family, and gave his children a liberal education.
"Stennett began keeping the Sabbath, holding secret meetings in his Wallingford Castle, which was immune from search warrants."8
In the work entitled, Work of Joseph Stennett, published in 1732, we find that an interesting sequel has been added by another writer relating to Joseph's father, Dr. Edward Stennett. It tells of how God was protecting some of His leading ministers at that time.
"He dwelt in the castle of Wallingford, a place where no warrant could make forcible entrance, but that of a chief justice; and the house was so situated that assemblies could meet, and every part of religious worship be exercised in it, without any danger of a legal conviction, unless informers were admitted, which care was taken to prevent: so that for a long time he kept a constant and undisturbed meeting in his hall."
A local clergyman became so incensed that these meetings of God's people were, because of a technical point of law, being held legally, that he hired a number of false witnesses to wrongly claim that they had attended the meetings and by doing so had obtained "evidence" of illegal worship.
"The assizes were held at Newbury; and when the time drew near, there was a great triumph in the success the gentlemen proposed to themselves, when of a sudden the scene was changed.
"News came to the justice that his son, whom he had lately placed at Oxford, was gone off with a player; the concern whereof, and the riding in search of him, prevented his attendance in the court.
"The clergyman, a few days before the assizes, boasted much of the service which would be done to the church and the neighborhood by his prosecution, and of his own determination to be at Newbury to help carry it on; but to the surprise of many his design was frustrated by sudden death."
One by one all of those involved in the case either died, became sick, had accidents or decided not to give evidence. The result was that "when Mr. Stennett came to Newbury, neither prosecutor nor witness appearing against him, he was discharged."
In 1686 Edward Stennett moved from Wallingford to London where he apparently gathered together the members of Francis Bampfield's Pinner's Hall Sabbatarian Church. This church had been dispersed a few years earlier at the time of Bampfield's imprisonment and death.9
Dr. Edward Stennett died in 1689.
"His son Joseph Stennett succeeded him as pastor of the Pinner's Hall Church, and four generations of Stennetts continued to be Sabbatarian leaders in England. On his parents' tombstone, Joseph engraved an epitaph that they were heirs of immortality."
"Joseph Stennett, son of Edward, pastored the Pinner's Hall Church, 1690-1713." Very well-educated, "he preached on Sunday to other Baptist churches, but remained the faithful pastor of the Pinner's Hall Seventh-day Baptist church until his death. He wrote several Sabbath hymns."10
One of his hymns include the words:
"Another six days' work is done,
Another Sabbath is begun;
Return, my soul, enjoy thy rest,
Improve the day that God has blessed."
A rather touching picture is given of the death of Joseph Stennett. "In the beginning of the year 1713, Mr. Stennett's health began apparently to decline. Many heavy afflictions at that time crowded upon him.
"When he drew near his dissolution, he called his children around him, and in a peculiar manner gave his dying advice to his eldest son, with respect to the management of his studies and the conduct of his future life."
He informed those present, "That if they were found walking in the ways of true religion, his God would be their God, to whose providence he could in faith commit them."11
He was buried in the church yard of Hitchenden, Bucks.
"His son, Joseph Stennett II, became a minister at the age of 22. He declined to become pastor of the Mill Yard Church." Later, as "it was quite customary in those days for a seventh-day minister to serve a first-day," he at the age of 45 became pastor of a First Day Baptist Church in London, although he remained a `faithful' Sabbath keeper for the rest of his life. One of the most eloquent preachers of the day, and a dissenter, he was known personally to King George II."12
A great many Church of God ministers of the seventeenth century were former ministers of the Church of England. The reason why God called these men was probably that few others in that age had the necessary education and leadership qualities. Even the ability to read was by no means as universal a skill as it is today. A few such men even held high political office prior to their conversion.
"Thomas Bampfield had been Recorder of Exeter, member of the Commonwealth Parliament, Speaker of Richard Cromwell's Parliament. He lived at Dunkerton, near Bath, and about 1663 blossomed out in extraordinary costume considering himself commissioned to found a new sect. Francis won him to Seventh Day Baptist principles, and he subsided into a quieter life.
"In 1692 and 1693 Thomas Bampfield was publishing on the Sabbath question, eliciting three or four rejoinders: in the latter year he died."13
In 1646 seven congregations are said to have met in London, but by the time that Francis Bampfield wrote in 1677, persecution had reduced this number to three. The locations of those three congregations were Mill Yard, Bell Lane, and Cripplegate.
One of the earlier congregations, of which John James was pastor, for a time met at "Bull Stake Alley," Whitechapel. It is probable that many, if not most, of the meeting halls of the first Sabbatarian groups were destroyed in the "Great Fire of London," which, in 1666, burnt down most of the city.
There is considerable variation among sources regarding the number of congregations outside London. One source states that "in the seventeenth century eleven churches of Sabbatarians flourished in England, while many scattered Sabbath keepers were to be found in various parts of that kingdom."14
The cities and towns where congregations are known to have met are as follows: Sherborne, Dorchester, Salisbury, Chertsey, Wallingford, Norweston, Tewkesbury, Braintree, Colchester, Woodbridge, Norwich, Leominster, Derby, Manchester, and Hexham.
In Wales at least one Sabbath meeting was held regularly at Swansea, there were also a number of scattered members in this area.
Sabbath keepers also met in Ireland, although there are no indications that they had any contact with the English groups.
"A small remnant of Sabbath-keepers has persisted in Ireland unto this time; a church or society being found there as late as 1840."15
John Bunyan, the well-known author of Pilgrim's Progress, wrote a book against the Sabbath in 1685, but it was never published.
"Another very early church is that of Natton, or Tewkesbury, on the River Severn. There is evidence here of Sabbath-keepers as early as 1620, and a church' by 1640. Complete organization was not achieved until 1650. Prior to 1680, Natton was a mixed congregation of both first and seventh day observers."16
John Purses was said to have been the first pastor at Natton (1660-1720). He was followed by Edmund Townsend (1720-1727), Philip Jones (1727-1770), and Thomas Hiller (1770-1790).
"He (Thomas Hiller) died a few years ago (written in 1848) since which time the church, now dwindled to a mere handful, has been destitute of a pastor, but has enjoyed the assistance of a worthy baptist preacher from Tewkesbury."17
The Pinner's Hall Church followed a similar pattern of decline. This group -- which met together on Broad St., London (and also from time to time at Cripplegate and Devonshire Square), had been gathered together by Francis Bampfield and later pastored by Edward and Joseph Stennett.
"The church continued to meet at Pinner's Hall till 1727, when they moved to Curriers Hall, where they assembled for divine worship till the expiration of the lease in 1799, when they removed to Redcross Street.
"In former days this church appears to have been pretty numerous, but it has declined latterly, and at present (1808) consists of only a very few members."18
The historic Mill Yard Church probably dates back to 1607, but one authority (Daland) traces its establishment to 1580. One of its earliest pastors was John Trask (1617-1619). Later ministers included Dr. Peter Chamberlen, John James, William Sellers and Henry Soursby.
Until 1654 the group met for worship "near Whitechapel," the next meeting place was "Bull Stake Alley"; in 1680 they were at East Smithfield. Between 1691 and 1885 they worshipped in Mill Yard Goodman's Fields in Middlesex.
By 1900 the congregation was meeting in two private houses, one the home of Lt. Col. Richardson and the other the house of the church secretary.
At the time of writing, a "Mill Yard" Seventh Day Baptist Church still meets. The latest official membership figures supplied by the Seventh Day Baptist headquarters indicate that 15 members and 29 children (members of a Sabbath school) meet together for worship.
By the eighteenth century the prophecy of Jesus Christ relating to this "Sardis" era of the Church had become a sobering reality: "I know your works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (Rev. 3:1).
From this period onwards most British Sabbath keepers abandoned even the name "Church of God" (John 17:11). This scriptural name is given twelve times in the New Testament. The warning of Christ to "strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die" (Rev. 3:2) went largely unheeded. As a result, a period of decline which was to lead to almost total extinction set in.
"The middle of the eighteenth century marks the virtual disappearance of the Seventh Day Baptist churches. Their numbers had never been considerable but they had several churches in London and the Provinces. By 1754, there was no Seventh-Day minister left, though ordinary Baptist ministers were willing to do double duty."19
Books were written advocating Sabbath observance in the years 1801, 1825 and 1851.
Writing in 1848, Benedict records that "only three Sabbatarian churches now remain in England out of the eleven which existed there one hundred and fifty years ago.
"There can be little doubt, that the observance of the Sabbath upon a different day from the one commonly observed, is connected with great inconvenience."20
As zeal diminished still further no attempts were made to preach the gospel. In time only the doctrines of the Sabbath and baptism by immersion remained.
"An April 13, 1901, article in the Birmingham Weekly Post stated that the Natton Church was the only Seventh Day Baptist Church left in the provinces (outside London?). The minister there, as usual, also ministered to a First Day Baptist Church at Tewkesbury. The writer of the article remarks, `There is nothing in the type of service to differentiate it from that of an ordinary nonconformist service.' And he was amazed that this sect, which few know about, had continued to exist for two and one-half centuries, because `there appears to be little attempt to propagate the faith, and without such effort the number of adherents is not likely to increase.' The writer concluded that the interested person had better hurry up and find out about the group `before it passes out of existence altogether.'
"The official Seventh Day Baptist history gives three reasons for the decline of British Sabbath-keeping churches: (1) lack of organized fellowship among the churches (improper government); (2) dependence on charitable bequests for finances (tithing not enforced); and (3) employment of first-day pastors (failure to keep the Sabbath properly)."21
In a recent letter to the author, a leader of the Seventh Day Baptist church, writing from their headquarters in Plainfield, New Jersey, mentions that "Our most recent statistics show 50 members in Britain, 5150 members in the United States, and a worldwide total of 52,700."
A limited evangelistic work is being conducted by this group and a magazine The Sabbath Recorder is published on a monthly basis. This church has made available much valuable material on church history, for which I thank them.
FOOTNOTES -- Chapter 12
1. A History of the English Baptists, Underwood, page 112.
2. The Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America, page 1264.
3. Ibid., p. 87.
4. A History of English Baptists, Underwood, page 99.
5. The Last Legacy, or the Autobiography and Religious Profession, of
Joseph Davis, Senior, pages 2847.
6. History of the Sabbath, J.N. Andrews.
7. Literature of the Sabbath Question, R. Cox.
8. Six Papers on the History of the Church of God, R.C. Nickels, part 1, page 16.
9. See Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America, pages 53-54.
10. Six Papers on the History of the Church of God, R.C. Nickels, part 1, page 18.
11. Wilson's History of Dissenting Churches, vol. 2, pages 603-604.
12. Six Papers on the History of the Church of God, R.C. Nickels, part 1, page 18.
13. Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society, page 12.
14. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.
15. History of Ireland, O'Halleron.
16. Six Papers on the History of the Church of God, R.C. Nickels, part 1, page 12.
17. History of the Baptist Denomination, D. Bendict, page 920.
18. Wilson's History of Dissenting Churches, vol. 2, pages 585-6.
19. A History of English Baptists, Underwood, page 147.
20. History of the Baptist Denomination, D. Benedict, page 921.
21. Six Papers on the History of the Church of God, R.C. Nickels, pages 22-23.