The Early English Dissenters In the Light of Recent Research (1550--1641)

Champlin Burrage

Chapter 8

Section 2

The Legatine-Arians, or English Seekers

Somewhat closely allied to the Familists, but apparently distinct, though perhaps originally derived, from them, were the English Seekers. How early they arose is uncertain, but it seems probable that the three brothers Legate were their first representatives in England, and that they began to champion Seeker views about 1600, possibly even before that date. The Seekers believed that since Antichrist had ruled so long over the Church, no true church and true church-officers existed any longer in all the world, and furthermore that, they could not be secured until God sent new apostles or prophets to ordain new elders and establish entirely new.churches. They claimed also that it was undesirable for any man to seek to hasten God's own peculiar business, an opinion, of course, which was particularly distasteful to those English separatists who saw no need of delaying the preaching of the Gospel and the organization of new churches. Among those to oppose the views of the Seekers were the English General Anabaptists, who as early as 1611 seem to have confounded them with the Family of Love, though the Familists so far as I am aware, never held the previously mentioned views which were evidently peculiar to the Seekers. Inasmuch, however, as at a later period also the Familists and the Seekers were confused in the same way, we may cite the General Anabaptist, Thomas Helwys, on this point as apparently one of the first, if not the first, to make this mistake. He says:---

wee passe by the most vngodly & vnwise Familists and scattered flock, that say he [Christ] is in the desert, that is no where to be found in the profession of the gospell according to the ordinances thereof vntill their extraordinarie men (they dream of) come. which shall not be, vntil there come a new Christ, & a new gospell.

Helwys is here, it seems to me, not describing the Familists, but only the Seekers, whom he here styles the ``scattered flock'', a name sometimes given to them before 1620.

At first the English Seekers seem to have been known as English Arians, or Legatine-Arians, after the name of the three brothers Legate. Henoch Clapham in his ``Antidoton'', published at London in 1600, apparently makes the earliest reference to them, when he says:---

Touching our English Arrians, they deny all Baptisme and Ordination, till new Apostles be sent to execute those parts to the Gentiles, and Elias the Thisbite do come for that end vnto the Iewes.

Later, in 1608, in ``ERROVR | On the Right hand'', Clapham also speaks of the English Seekers as Legatine-Arians. He does not confuse their teaching with that of the Familists, but he attributes to the Familists views which, though popularly ascribed to them, are only suggested or are certainly uncommon, if they ever appear, in genuine Familist publications. Edmond Jessop, who came very near joining the Familists, and who, therefore, well knew their teaching, only remotely hints at such opinions,and clearly differentiates the Seekers from the Familists, Jessop also does not use the term Seekers. In fact he gives the followers of the Legates no special name. The name Seekers is said to have been used by John Murton in 1617, but in 1620 in ``A Discription of what God hath Predestinated'', he does not employ that term, though he answers their argument, that a true church cannot be organized before a prophet like John the Baptist or new apostles arise, by quoting the passage ``that the least in the Kingdome of God is greater then he''. The word Seeker came to be well known not long after 1640, but as yet I am not satisfied that the term was ever used before 1620, or even before 1640.

We may now turn to Edmond Jessop's account of the rise of the English Seekers:---

there were (among others) three Brethren, ancient Separatists from the Church of England, liuing sometimes in the Cittie of London, their names were Legat, these held it stifly, that their must be new Apostles, before their could be a true constituted Church, and they drew it from this their ground, the one was called Walter Legat, who about twenty yeares since was drowned, being with one of his brethren washing himselfe in a riuer, called the Old Foord; Another of them called Thomas Legat, died in Newgate about sixteene yeares since, being laid there for the Heresie of Arius; The third called Bartholomew Legat, was burnt in Smithfield about ten yeares since, being condemned for the same Heresie of Arius, for they all held, and stood stoutly for the same also. These Legats had a conceit, that their name did (as it were) foreshew and entitle them, to be the new Apostles, that must doe this new worke; but you see what became of them.

Among the Legatine-Arians, or English Seekers, as has already been said, Edward Wightman should probably be included. Fortunately the original manuscript relating to his trial appears to be catalogued among the Ashmole Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. This gives a minute and accurate description of his views, and as yet has been little used. The document is entitled, ``The proceed[ings a(?)J]t Lichfield in .7. | Court dayes [against?] Edward Wightman | in case of b[lasphemie & (?)] heresie'', etc., and is dated 1611. The seven court days are specified as Nov. 19, 26, 29, and Dec. 2, 3, 4, 5 of that year. The record is written partly in Latin and partly in English. From it we may gain a very good idea of the character of Wightman, who is said to have been the last person in England to be burned at the stake solely on account of his religious beliefs.

Wightman had evidently been imprisoned for over half a year at least before his trial. He was first examined on April 18, 1611, again on May 6, as to certain ``Articles ministred by his Maiestes Commissioners for causes ecclesiasticall'', and still further on Sept. 9, Oct. 8, and twice on Oct. 29, of the same year. The first day's trial on Nov. 19 was held in the Consistory of the Cathedral Church of Lichfield in the presence, and by the permission, of Richard Neile, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. We learn that Edward Wightman was a draper of the parish of Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, and that he was tried for heretical depravity, having written with his own hand and delivered to the king a certain book in manuscript covering eighteen leaves. This little work began with the words: ``A letter Written to a learned man [? Anthony Wotton] to discover and confu[t]e the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes very mightely defended with all the learned of all sortes, and most of all hated and abhorred of God himself, because the Wholl world is drowned therein: And seeing he hath promised to answere he knewe not vnto What, and least he should allsoe deale with me as the men of that faccion haue done allready'' etc. It concluded thus: ``And say glorie be to God alone which dwelleth in the high heavens, whose good will is such towardes men that he will now at the last, plante peace on the earth, and lett all people say, Amen. By me Edward Wightman''. It is to be hoped that this writing may some day be found.

On Nov. 26, the second day of the trial, the number of people who wished to be present was so great that the Bishop could not get into the Consistory, and he accordingly ordered the session to be held in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which he entered between one and two o'clock in the afternoon. The third day's trial was held in the same chapel, the fourth in the Consistory.

From what was said on the fourth day it appears that Wightman was born in England and baptized in the Church of England, ``And that from the tyme of his Infancy vntill within theis Two yeares last past he did hould and beleive the Trinity of persons in the vnity of the diety ". The fifth and sixth days' examinations were held in the Consistory. The seventh day was appointed for the hearing of the sentence.

It is interesting to note that among those who took part in this trial was ``magister Willelmus Laude Presidens Collegii divi Iohannis baptistae in Academia Oxoniensi''. This may have been Laud's first experience with a heretic, and here perhaps he began to develop his mistaken views of the necessity of maintaining uniformity of religious belief.

Wightman's trial, it should be said, is simply, and, so far as the present writer can judge, impartially described. From this record, as already stated, we learn that Wightman began to hold new views about 1609, and from that time he had probably been more or less persecuted. His various opinions, as summed up in his sentence, were the following:

That there is not the Trinity of persons (the Father, the Sonn, and the holy Ghost) in the vnity of the diety. That lesus Christe is not the true naturall Sonn of God, perfect God and of the same substance, eternytie and Maiestie With the Father in respect of his Godhead. That lesus Christe is onely mann and a mere Creature and not both God and man in one person. That Christe our Saviour tooke not humane flesh of the substance of the virgine Marie his mother. And that that promise The seede of the Woman shall breake the serpents head was not fullfilled in Christe. That the person of the holy Ghost is not God coequall coeternall and coessentiall with the Father and the Sonn. That the Three Creedes videlicet the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and Atbanasius Creed (contayning the faith of the Trinity, the diety of Christe and the holy Ghost) are the heresies of the Nicolaitanes. That yow the sayd Edward Wightman are that Prophett spoken of in the Chapter of Deutronomy, and the .3. & .7. Chapters of the Acts of the Apostles in theis wordes. I will raise them vp a prophett, from amonge theire Brethren like vnto the, &c. And that that place of Isay: Whose Fan is in his hand, are proper & personall to yow. And that yow are that person of the holy Ghost spoken of in the Scriptures, And the Comforter spoken of in the of St. lohns Gospell in theis and the like words videlicet. It is expedient for yow that I goe away for if I goe not away the Comforter will not come vnto yow, but if I depart I will send him vnto yow, and when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, of righteousnes, and of iudgment. And. againe When he is come which is the spiritt of trueth, he will leade yow into all trueth. And that those wordes of our Saviour Cbriste. Of the sin of blasphemie against the holy ghost, which shall neuer be pardoned in this lief nor in the lief to come, are ment of yourself. And that that place the of Malachie. of Elias to come, is likewise proper & personall. to yow. That the Soule doeth sleepe in the sleepe of the first death as well as the body and is mortall as towching the sleepe of the first death, as the bodie is, And that the soule of our saviour Iesus Christe did sleepe in that sleepe of death as well as his body. That the Soules of the elect Saintes departed are not members possessed of the Triumphant Church in heaven. That the baptizing of Infantes is an abhomynable Custome. That there ought not to be in the Church the vse of the Lordes supper to be celebrated in the elementes of bread and wyne, And the vse of baptisme to be celebrated in the element of water, as they are now practized in the Church of England. But that the vse of Baptisme is to be administred in Water, only to Convertes of sufficient age of vnderstanding converted from infydellity to the faith. That God hath ordayned and sent yow to performe your parte in the worke of the salvacion of the world, to deliver it by your teaching or admonicion from the heresie of the Nicolaitanes, which is the common receaved faith contayned in those .3. Invencions of mann (hec enim sunt verba tua) comonly called the Three Creedes, to Witt, The .12. articles of the beleife, The Nicene Creed, and Athanasius Creed, which faith within theis .1600. yeares past hath prevayled in the World, as Christe was ordayned and sent to saue the world, and by his death to deliver it from sin, and to reconcile it to God, saving that it be not vnderstood that the lymitacion of .1600. yeares, reach to the tyme of Christe and his Apostles, but since their tyme. And that Christianity is not truely sincerely and Wholly professed and preached in the Church of England but onely in parte,…

To show how fairly the Bishop treated Wightman in the trial and how tenaciously the latter held to his beliefs, it should be noticed that after he had responded to all the questions regarding his heretical opinions, the Bishop asked him still again on the fifth day, ``Whither he hath made theis answers advisedly deliberatly and freely of his owne Accord without distraccion of mynde or any other distemperature. Dictusque Wightman respondebat My Lord, Why doe yow aske me such a Question, I thincke yow seeke to disgrace me thereby; I say, that vpon deliberate advise and consideracion and freely I haue made my sayd Answers, and I doe & will stand to them.'' Wightman, it is stated, was first brought to the stake at Lichfield on March 9, 1611/12, but on feeling the heat said he would recant. Two or three weeks later, however, he refused to recant ``in a legal way'', and was apparently burned during the month of April following. He is said to have died blaspheming.

In conclusion it should be added that the English Seekers do not appear to have been of much influence before the period of the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth. Then the Friends, or Quakers, undoubtedly arose partly as the result of the continued dissemination of Legatine-Arian, or Seeker, views.

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