Ivor C. Fletcher


Many of us use the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, for our personal study of God's Word. Have you ever wondered how God's Work was conducted during this interesting period of history?

In Tudor England the recently discovered process of printing was being put to good use. The English translations of the Bible by men such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were pouring from the presses.

For centuries the Bible had been beyond the reach of all in Britain apart from theologians and scholars. The limited number of hand-written copies in existence were all in the Latin language. Even those who wished to study were generally discouraged from doing so for fear that they would begin to embrace some form of "heresy."

Stunned by the savage persecution of Protestants by "Bloody Mary" Tudor (1553-58), the nation under Elizabeth I experienced a new spirit of toleration. For a time men could study the newly published Bibles without fear of arrest should they begin to discuss with others the new points of doctrine that were coming to light.

God began opening the minds of a few to His truth, including the Sabbath. Thomas Bampfield, a Church of God minister who lived during the 17th century, claimed that there were some who observed the seventh day Sabbath during the reign of Edward VI (1547-53), although some of his critics denied this.

There is little real evidence of any activity by the Church of God in Tudor England. Only brief references are found, many writers who used the word "Sabbath" could well have been talking of Sunday.

John Stockwood, writing in 1584, mentioned that: "A great diversity of opinion among vulgar people and simple sort, concerning the Sabbath day, and the right use of the same."

Gilfillan pointed out that: "Some maintaining the unchanged and unchangeable obligation of the seventh-day Sabbath."

"At what time the seventh-day Baptists began to form churches in this kingdom does not appear; but probably it was at an early period; and although their churches have never been numerous, yet there have been among them almost for two hundred years past, some very eminent men."1

Several Sabbatarian writers of the seventeenth century, including Francis Bampfield and Vavasor Powell, use the term "Church of God" in their writings as the official, and scriptural, name of the true church. The word "Sabbatarian" was also used from time to time, mainly by outside writers.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the term "Seventh Day Baptist" was employed by the great majority of Sabbath keepers in Britain; the term "Church of God" seems to have been almost entirely abandoned. The Seventh Day Baptists ultimately became a separate denomination, whose doctrines, with the exception of the Sabbath and baptism by immersion, were almost identical to those of other Protestant churches.

Theophilus Brabourne, a former Puritan minister from Norfolk, published books in 1628 and 1632 advocating the true Sabbath. He sent a copy of the latter work to King Charles I. Original documents still held by the British Museum Library reveal the amazing facts.

Brabourne made the point to the King that the nation's problems, at least in part, were occasioned by neglect of the fourth commandment. He strongly urged that the King should use his royal powers to change the national day of worship from Sunday to Saturday.

The King, grappling with his own problems of state which were soon to lead to the Civil War, was neither impressed nor amused by Brabourne's arguments. The matter was passed to Francis White, Bishop of Ely, one of the nation's leading scholars and theologians.

In 1635 Bishop White published his "A Treatise of the Sabbath Day" in which he refuted Brabourne's thesis. Under pressure from the authorities Brabourne later agreed to conform to the teachings of the established church, stating that his former views had been "a rash and presumptuous error."

The ironic thing is that Francis White's treatise against the Sabbath probably did more good to God's Church than harm. In this thorough and well written work he traced the history of Sabbath-keeping groups from the earliest times to his own day. Several later writers have used this book in their own works on church history.

White's treatise reveals a little of the concern felt by the authorities of the times over the impact that God's Church was beginning to have on the nation.

"Now because his (Brabourne's) treatise of the Sabbath was dedicated to His Royal Majesty and the principles on which he grounded all his arguments, (being commonly preached, printed and believed, throughout the kingdom) might have poisoned and infected many people, either with Sabbatarian error or some other like quality: it was the King our gracious master, his will and pleasure, that a treatise should be set forth, to prevent further mischief, and to settle his good subjects (who have long time been distracted about Sabbatarian questions) in the old and good way of the ancient and orthodox catholic church."2

This incident throws an interesting light on the problems faced by writers during the early days of printing.

R. Cox in his Literature of the Sabbath Question gives the following information about Brabourne: "Brabourne is a much abler writer than Traske, and may be regarded as the founder in England of the sect at first known as Sabbatarians, but now calling themselves Seventh Day Baptists.

"The book is very ill printed, for which he apologises by informing the Christian

reader that `by reason of some troubles raised up against both myself and this my book, I was enforced to absent myself, and there to dispose my work where I could not be present at the press, to peruse, correct, and amend the faults therein.' From the oddities of its spelling, it looks as if printed either by a foreigner unacquainted with English, or at a private press where the stock of some of the vowels was inadequate...."

The book was entitled A Defence of that most Ancient and Sacred Ordinance of God's, the Sabbath Day. It was said that "he submitted for the time to the authority of the Church of England, but sometime afterward wrote other books in behalf of the seventh day."3

Although the major activity of God's Church seems to have taken part in the London area, others were busy preaching the true doctrines in different parts of the nation.

"About this time Philip Tandy began to promulgate in the northern part of England the same doctrine (as Brabourne) concerning the Sabbath. He was educated in the established church, of which he became a minister. Having changed his views respecting the mode of baptism and the day of the Sabbath, he abandoned that church and `became a mark for many shots.' He held several public disputes about his peculiar sentiments.

"James Ockford was another early advocate in England of the claims of the seventh day as the Sabbath. He appears to have been well acquainted with the discussions in which Traske and Brabourne had been engaged.

"Being dissatisfied with the pretended conviction of Brabourne, he wrote a book in defense of Sabbatarian views, entitled, The doctrine of the Fourth Commandment. The book, published about the year 1642, was burnt by order of the authorities in the established church."4

FOOTNOTES -- Chapter 9

1. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.

2. A Treatise of the Sabbath Day, Francis White, 1635.

3. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.

4. History of the Sabbath, Andrews.