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John Murton's Argument for Religious Tolerance: A General Baptist's Use of Non-Biblical Sources and Its Significance.

He gained detractors on both sides of the Atlantic who attacked him for a variety of reasons, including his rejection of predestination, his rejection of infant baptism, and his demands for complete religious toleration. And his critics included some of the biggest names in early Stuart nonconformity, such as John Robinson, John Cotton, Henry Ainsworth, and John Wilkinson. But while well known and well circulated in the first half of the seventeenth century, the works of John Murton receive little if any attention today. Nevertheless, they are important and instructive works for scholars of early Baptist life and thought, especially his works on religious tolerance. His two writings on this subject provide perhaps the most well-rounded of the early Baptist discourses on religious freedom. His reliance on a variety of non-biblical sources of authority--including church fathers, Protestant Reformers, and his non-Baptist contemporaries--counters the long-standing scholarly stereotype of early General Baptists as strict Biblicists. Additionally, these works had trans-Atlantic influence on the early seventeenth century debate over religious toleration and contribute to our knowledge of early Baptists in colonial America.

Some words of introduction about John Murton and his works are in order. Murton has languished in relative anonymity for the past four hundred years. (1) An anonymity, this article will argue, that is both undeserved and unfortunate. Murton made significant contributions to the early development of a distinct identity for the General Baptist movement that emerged in England in the 1610s and deserves to be remembered alongside the more famous progenitors of the movement, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. It can even be argued that his contribution to the early Baptist cry for complete religious toleration in England was more well-rounded and influential than any other Baptist work on the subject from the era.

Murton was one of the original members of the group of English separatists led by Smyth and Helwys that sought religious refuge in Holland. He remained with Helwys following the split between Helwys and Smyth. He is believed to have been born in 1583 in Gainsborough, where John Smyth's separatist congregation was formed and would have been about twenty-five years old when he moved to Holland with the group in 1608. Murton cast his lot with Helwys in the ensuing schism and was second-in-command of the church when they returned to England and established themselves at Spitalfields by 1612. As early as 1613 Murton found himself imprisoned for his affiliation with this congregation, and he became the fledgling movement's leader and chief spokesman following Helwys' death in 1615. Murton would remain a prisoner until his death in 1625 or 1626. (2)

Helwys had set the precedent for Baptists advocating for complete religious liberty in England with his 1612 A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, which called for complete freedom of conscience for all. Murton's works pick up where Helwys left off and, in some ways, expand upon Helwys' arguments. From his cell in Newgate Prison, Murton wrote three religious treatises, two of which were appeals for religious liberty. The first, written in 1615, was Objections Answered by Way of Dialogue, and the second work followed five years later, called An Humble Supplication to the King's Majesty. None of Murton's works bore his name when published, though Murton has long been assumed to be the author. He was identified as the author of some of these works by contemporary opponents who responded to his writings. Roger Williams, in his 1644 work The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, tells us the colorful story of how rolled-up blank paper was smuggled into Murton's prison cell as a stopper in his milk bottle. Murton supposedly then wrote on the paper using milk as a kind of invisible ink that his associates outside the prison would later hold over a candle to reveal his writings. Whether true or not, we can be sure of two things: Murton was an important leader to the early English Baptists, and he had some outside help in producing his works.

Murton's Case for Religious Liberty

Murton's two works on religious toleration, Humble Supplication and Objections Answered, call upon King James to end religious persecution in England. The plea is not simply for toleration of Baptists or even of separatists in general. Murton, as Helwys had done before him, calls for complete religious liberty for all. "No man ought to be persecuted for his religion," Murton insists in Objections Answered. Christian worshippers should come willingly, not because they have been compelled by the state to worship God in a certain manner. (3)

Both Objections Answered and Humble Supplication are infused with a strong dose of egalitarianism--especially the latter, which repeatedly refers to the bishops and other leaders of the Church of England as "the Learned." Murton juxtaposes "the Learned" with the poor and despised who historically, he says, have been the ones who tend to truly possess the Spirit of God. The Bible, he argues, can be easily understood and interpreted by even the lowliest Christians. In fact, they are usually the ones who get it right, while the "Learned" often fail (or refuse) to see the truth because the truth would cost them their positions of authority and wealth. (4) Not only do the high-ranking officials of the Church of England (or the Catholic hierarchy, which has just been replicated in England, as far as Murton is concerned) fail to understand scripture properly, but they also persecute and imprison those who do understand it--i.e., the unlearned. In some ways, Murton argues, the Church of England is worse than Rome because it allows the laity access to the Bible, but once they have read and interpreted the scriptures for themselves, tells them they cannot follow their consciences. The conclusion that Murton draws from this somewhat populist assault on the Church of England is that persecution on religious grounds is illogical, unwarranted, and hypocritical.

In his Short Declaration, Helwys pleads for full religious freedom for all using largely eschatological arguments. If individual Christians are going to be held to account by God for their beliefs, then those beliefs ought to be their own, and not forced upon them by a monarch or church official. (5) Murton, however, goes in a different direction when making his case that the church ought not to be in the business of persecuting religious dissenters. His first work on the subject, Objections Answered, has a subtitle that provides a good starting point for examining his sources. The fuller title of the work is Objections Answered by Way of Dialogue, wherein is Proved 1) by the Law of God, 2) by the Law of our Land, and 3) by His Majesty's Many Testimonies, That no Man Ought to be Persecuted for His Religion. This helpful subtitle clearly promises the reader what kinds of sources Murton will rely upon to make his case: scripture, English law, and King James' own works. In the course of the work Murton is true to his word and delivers on this promise to the reader. In his follow-up piece, Humble Supplication, Murton grounds his arguments for religious toleration in a similar collection of sources.

The first source Murton says he will use to demonstrate his case is "the Law of God," or the Bible. In Objections Answered, Murton employs a variety of biblical arguments to attack religious persecution. The parable of the wheat and the tares, for example, serves as a metaphor for a society that allows both true and false Christians to grow alongside one another until God--not the king--decides to separate them. (6) Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's is construed as demarcating a line between temporal affairs and matters of religious conscience. (7) Paul's command in 2 Timothy 2:24 to suffer evil men patiently means the religious majority should tolerate religious dissenters living in their midst. (8)

Likewise in his 1620 work on religious freedom, Humble Supplication, Murton calls upon the authority of scripture to support his plea for religious toleration. Here he maintains that both Jesus and Paul provide models for all Christians to follow regarding how to deal with nonbelievers. When Jesus dealt with the Pharisees, he told his disciples to leave these evil men alone (Matt. 15:14). And, when his disciples wanted to rain down fire on the Samaritans, Jesus instead dissuaded them and said he did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them (Luke 9:54). (9) He also taught in his parable of the workers in the fields that those who come to the truth early on should not grumble about those who do not come to the truth until the eleventh hour (Matt. 20:6). (10) According to Murton, all these examples prove that Christians should have patience with those who profess something other than true faith, rather than punishing them for it or trying to coerce them.

Thus Murton relies heavily on the Bible as a source of authority in his writings. As he says in Objections Answered, "The whole New Testament throughout, in all the doctrines and practices of Christ and his disciples, teaches no such thing as compelling men by persecutions and afflictions to obey the gospel, but the direct contrary, viz. to suffer at the hands of the wicked." (11) This dependence upon biblical arguments to make his case is entirely expected of an early Baptist writer. Indeed, the stereotype of the early English Baptists that has developed over the years in scholarly literature is that they only relied upon scripture.

But it is important to note that Murton does not use only the Bible to support his cause. As promised in his subtitle, he also looks to English law and the words of King James himself to argue that the state church should not persecute religious minorities in England. Of the three sources that Murton promises to use--scripture, English law, and the works of James--the first and last get the most play in Objections Answered. His proposed demonstration that English law is in favor of complete religious toleration is limited primarily to an argument that the Oath of Allegiance--taken by subjects of King James--requires nothing more of the king's subjects than "civil obedience," not religious conformity. (12)

Much more ink is expended on his third source of authority: the writings and speeches of King James I. Both Objections Answered and Humble Supplication are peppered with quotes from James, and Murton seems to enjoy putting the king to work for the cause of religious freedom. In his 1609 speech before Parliament, James had stated, "I never found that blood and too much severity did good in matters of religion," and that "God never loves to plant his church by violence and bloodshed." (13) Murton also reminds his readers in Humble Supplication that James once stated that one mark of a false church is its use of persecution. (14) Murton incorporates these and other quotes from James into his argument for religious toleration. Murton takes a tack that is less confrontational toward James than Thomas Helwys took a few years earlier. Helwys' handwritten note inside the cover of a copy of A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity is well remembered for its cheeky warning to James to remember the limitations of his powers and its reminder that James was merely "a mortal man, and not God." (15) Murton, on the other hand, seeks to demonstrate the Baptist solidarity with and conformity to positions already staked out by the king. Additionally, he suggests that England's repressive actions toward religious dissenters is at odds with the king's own beliefs. He makes the point that Baptists are not dangerous radicals, but rather faithful subjects of the king who are upholding his own ideals. At one point in Objections Answered, Murton warns his critics that while they might not mind rebelling against God's word, they should think twice about rebelling against James' own writings. (16) He even goes so far as to say that God has guided the hand of King James in his writings and speeches to Parliament. (17) Ultimately, Murton's more diplomatic tone toward James than that used by Helwys did not spare him from suffering the same fate: he remained in prison for the remainder of his life. (18)

Murton's Use of the Church Fathers and Reformers

Murton's most important use of non-biblical arguments for religious liberty comes in his 1620 writing on the subject, Humble Supplication. It is here that he adds another source of authority into the mix: theologians from across the Christian tradition. In addition to the use of scripture and the works of James, which had been his two primary authorities in Objections Answered, Murton also employs patristic, Reformation, and contemporary sources in Humble Supplication.

He begins chapter 8 of the latter by stating that "persecution for cause of conscience is condemned by the ancient and later writers, yea, by Puritans and papists." (19) In this chapter Murton draws upon the four sources he has named: early church fathers, Reformation theologians, recent Puritan writings, and Roman Catholic writers--citing each as an authoritative voice on the topic. He first quotes several early church theologians, showing their opposition to state interference with individuals' religious conscience. Murton offers no elaboration on these patristic quotations; he merely lists them in succession. He offers a lengthy quote from Hilary of Poitiers that states, "The Christian church does not persecute, but is persecuted." (20) Tertullian is added, who says the church is in agreement "with human equity and natural reason, that every man worship God uncompelled." Saint Jerome concurs that "heresy must be cut off with the sword of the Spirit," not with carnal weapons. (21) In the 1620 edition of Humble Supplication, the list of patristic quotes ends here, but in the 1621 edition Murton adds quotes from Ambrose and John of Damascus. He offers no commentary on the words of the church fathers, nor does he offer any defense of his use of ancient authors; he simply lists them as self-evidently authoritative. Certainly there was much in the writings of these early Christian theologians with which Murton disagreed, but he did not feel compelled to take this opportunity to point out their errors on other theological issues. The important thing for Murton was that their words seemed to him to stand in opposition to the practice of religious persecution by the state.

Murton then moves into several long quotes from Martin Luther against compelling religious belief. Murton selects lines from several of Luther's works, the essence of which are summed up by this quote: "Christ will have in his church a free and willing people, not compelled and constrained by laws and statutes." (22) Murton also includes a brief quote from a less famous German Reformer, John Brentius, who states that "no man hath power to make or give laws to Christians, whereby to bind their consciences." (23) Again, Murton allows these quotes to stand on their own, offering no commentary upon them. Nor does he acknowledge how these quotes might not fully reflect Luther's or Brentius' attitude toward the state's involvement in religious matters. Instead, he seems happy to add them to the litany of voices from the past that add weight to his own argument for religious toleration.

Following the Reformation-era quotes, Murton continues by citing more recent works: a 1609 Puritan writing that calls upon Parliament not to intervene with individual religious practice and a recent Roman Catholic work that contains biblical arguments against forced religious conformity. (24) Of all the non-biblical sources he has utilized, Murton is clearly most uncomfortable with this "papist" source, as he calls it, and he includes a disclaimer that the Catholics have no real room to speak since they were "the inventors of persecution." (25) Murton then concludes this important chapter by subtly distancing himself from all those he has just quoted, saying simply that "even our adversaries themselves speak for us, or rather for the truth." (26)

From here Murton moves on to other lines of attack. He argues that religious toleration makes political and economic sense for England, drawing analogies between the actions of the Church of England and those of the papacy. He employs the Arminian argument that executing heretics denies them any possibility of salvation. He attacks the frequently used analogy between the kings of Israel and present-day monarchs. And in a slight departure from his Baptist predecessors Smyth, Helwys, and Leonard Busher, Murton spends little ink highlighting the connection between the Church of England and the Beast mentioned in Revelation 13. (27) But the main way in which Murton differentiates his plea for religious toleration from those of his fellow General Baptists is his utilization of non-biblical sources of authority such as the church fathers, Luther, and even King James himself.

The primary difference between Murton's first work, Objections Answered, and his second, Humble Supplication, is that in the latter he adds this new element of his argument: appeal to ancient and Reformation authorities. It is this addition that marks Murton as distinct among the early Baptist writers and also proves to be the heart of his trans-Atlantic influence in the seventeenth century. In some ways Murton is simply adding to an already established chorus of Baptist cries for religious liberty in England. John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Leonard Busher had already addressed the issue, with the latter two issuing treatises dedicated to the topic. These works had put Baptists on the leading edge of the call for religious freedom and an end to persecution of religious minorities in England. But Murton adds a new dimension to the Baptist argument for religious freedom by incorporating a much wider range of sources than the other first-generation Baptists. This runs counter to the long-standing scholarly assessment of early English Baptists as strict Biblicists who rejected traditional Christian theologians and relied solely upon Christian scriptures as their source of authority. (28) Baptist historians such as E.A. Payne affirm that early Baptist advocates for religious toleration made their case by relying chiefly upon scripture, and scholars today still tend to maintain the idea that these early Baptists were "thoroughgoing Biblicists." (29)

Certainly, there is some solid ground for the claim that early General Baptists relied primarily on the Bible. Murton's compatriots tended to have a negative attitude toward non-biblical sources of authority, especially the ancient church fathers. The Baptists emerged as a movement influenced by the left wing of the Protestant reformations, and Murton and his contemporaries took great pain to distinguish themselves from the Anabaptists of the time. (Murton closes Humble Supplication with the signature "The King's Majesty's loyal subjects in all lawful obedience, unjustly called Anabaptists.") (30) But the General Baptists' need to make this distinction was rooted in the reality that they shared many views with the Anabaptists, including church-state separation and an application of the principle of sola scriptura that left little room for the authority of the Catholic theologians of the past. John Smyth cited them at times as authoritative, but at other times primarily in order to discredit them as completely wrong about certain doctrines. As one scholar has noted, "Smyth felt that all of the fathers were heretical at one or more points and denied that they could be used to prove the validity of any doctrine or practice of the church." (31) Helwys simply ignored them, never citing them in any of his works. And Leonard Busher went so far as to propose that theological writers in England should be banned by law from citing the fathers as a source of authority! (32)

Taken alone, these General Baptist writers would indeed give the impression that Baptists essentially rejected non-biblical sources of authority. This, however, is precisely what makes Murton's works such an important part of the early Baptist corpus. Not only did Murton embrace church tradition, but he also embraced a broad spectrum of it, from the early church fathers to Luther to his contemporaries such as the Puritans and King James. There is, perhaps, a note of irony in the fact that Murton evokes the authority of a broad range of renowned theologians to support his argument even as he rails against his "learned" opponents and wraps himself proudly in the mantle of the "simple" and "unlearned." But Murton's extensive use of patristic sources ought to be seen as more than simple proof texting from the patristics in order to bolster his argument--he gives them equal billing as part of his arsenal of weapons against religious persecution. His reliance upon these sources complicates the conventional wisdom that says Baptists were one-dimensional in their appeals for religious toleration.

Murton's Trans-Atlantic Influence

So what can be said about Murton's writings on religious toleration and how they compare with other early Baptists? First, one can argue that he offered a fuller defense of the principle of religious toleration than Smyth, Helwys, or Busher by incorporating broader sources such as early theologians from the Catholic tradition, Protestant Reformers, and King James. Second, the argument can be made that of these early Baptist writers, Murton's work was the most influential in the seventeenth-century struggle for religious liberty. In his massive work on The Development of Religious Toleration in England, W.K. Jordan notes that Murton's Objections Answered was "widely quoted and was to exercise considerable influence during the period of the Civil War" (1642-1651) in England. (33) In 1641, for instance, the Baptist tailor-turned-minister Edward Barber found himself in the same Newgate prison that had housed Murton twenty years prior. From there Barber penned a short appeal to the king and Parliament for religious toleration. In this work Barber incorporates some of Murton's quotes from James I regarding religious tolerance along with one of Murton's Luther quotes. (34) Beyond this, however, Murton's work had an even broader and seldom acknowledged impact in the American colonies. Indeed, Murton's Humble Supplication can claim a trans-Atlantic influence that no other early English Baptist writing can.

In 1644, colonial America's most famous religious dissenter and advocate for separation of church and state, Roger Williams, wrote his famous treatise on religious freedom, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. Perhaps the most important work on the subject written in the colonial period, Williams opens this influential work not with his own words, but with the words of John Murton. He excerpts three chapters of Murton's Humble Supplication, crediting them not to Murton by name but rather to a "close prisoner in Newgate." (35) Murton's work, it seems, had made its way across the Atlantic and circulated in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

By 1635 a reply to at least part of Humble Supplication had been written by none other than John Cotton, the most important Puritan theologian in the colony at the time. How Cotton came to read Humble Supplication in the first place is a matter of some dispute. Cotton claims that Williams, who was excommunicated from the colony in 1635, gave it to him. Williams claims he did no such thing, and that another separatist minister in the colony presented Murton's writing to Cotton. Regardless, Cotton wrote a rebuttal of the arguments contained in Humble Supplication. About a decade later, in Bloudy Tenent, Williams reprinted an excerpt from Humble Supplication along with Cotton's response to it. The remainder of Williams' seminal work is comprised largely of his own response to Cotton's response to Murton. Murton's Humble Supplication, then, serves as the catalyst and starting point of one of the most important works on religious liberty in colonial America--the very work that introduced the phrase and metaphor of "a wall of separation" into the discussion of church-state relations.

It is significant to note which portion of Murton's Humble Supplication served as the catalyst for one of colonial America's most important contributions to the debate over religious toleration. Of the ten chapters in Humble Supplication, Williams chose three of them for inclusion in Bloudy Tenent. The pages excerpted from Humble Supplication as the best argument for religious toleration were those where Murton marshals support from the church fathers, Luther, and others for his cause. It is this segment that sparked the greatest level of interest from both friends and foes of Murton. Colonial advocates for liberty of conscience apparently used Murton's arguments as a concise and potent attack against the repressive policies of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Cotton's reply implies that these are the only three chapters of Humble Supplication to which he had been exposed. The intimation is that these chapters had been culled from Murton's work and used as a sort of tract against religious persecution that was circulated in colonial New England, though we have no extant copy of any such tract today. Though originally penned as a critique of religious persecution in England, they also served as an indictment of the lack of religious liberty in Massachusetts Bay. Defenders of the colony's position saw them as an argument requiring a lengthy rebuttal, collecting their own set of ancient and Reformation authorities to counter Murton and support the persecution of heretics and unorthodox Christians.

One of the ways in which those interested in the work of John Murton are indebted to Roger Williams' Bloudy Tenent is that it provides the only contemporary response we have to Murton's employment of the church fathers and Reformers to support his appeal for toleration. John Cotton responds by arguing that the quotes Murton used are not representative of the fathers' true position, and arrays his own patristic and Reformation sources to demonstrate that they were quite comfortable with persecuting non-orthodox Christians. Williams, interestingly, responds to Cotton by doubling down on this line of argumentation that relied upon voices from the church's past--an "argument from the testimony of writers," as Cotton had called it. (36) Williams marshals his own quotes to argue for religious toleration, as Murton had done, though he relies primarily upon Calvin and Theodore Beza rather than the early church fathers. (37)

The fact that Williams--who was a Baptist for at least long enough for Baptists today to be able to claim him as one of their own--both uses the portion of Humble Supplication that contains the non-biblical sources and offers a rebuttal to Cotton based on his continued use of non-biblical sources, further adds to our re-evaluation of the strict Biblicist stereotype of early Baptists. At least two important Baptist thinkers and advocates of religious liberty believed Christian tradition was a valuable source of religious authority. Baptists should not necessarily shun or be ashamed of this "strict Biblicist" reputation of the early Baptists, as if it meant they offered overly simple arguments for their cause or lacked complexity and sophistication in their works. The reliance upon scripture to argue for total religious toleration was an expansion of the argument at the time, not as a simplified version of it. Prior to Murton and Helwys, no one had made a plea in England for absolute religious toleration on any ground. Supplications for toleration for a specific group had been made, but they tended to ground their arguments in reason and English common law more than scripture. (38) By emphasizing biblical arguments, Baptists such as Helwys and Murton were crafting an influential line of attack in the battle against religious persecution. To continue to assume that these early Baptists never expanded their arguments beyond scripture, however, does a disservice to them and prevents us from appreciating their attitude toward the authority of the larger Christian tradition.

Murton's Enduring Contribution

Perhaps many early English Baptist writers were of the Busher ilk and felt that as Protestants grounded in the principle of sola scriptura they should not treat the works of the early church fathers as authoritative. But the works of John Murton demonstrate that this was not a unanimous consensus among General Baptists. His two works on religious liberty proved useful and influential to seventeenth-century religious dissenters and advocates of religious freedom on both sides of the Atlantic. Still today they are instructive to us, exemplifying the diversity of early Baptists, especially regarding their attitude toward the larger Christian tradition. They demonstrate that some early Baptists valued and utilized the Christian tradition to which they and other religious dissenters were heirs, rather than dismissing this past out of hand as an unfortunate aberration from the New Testament model they hoped to re-create.

Does this aspect of Murton's writing make him an anomaly, or does it give us a fuller picture of how early Baptists thought? Certainly he runs counter to Busher, who would have outlawed such reliance upon the fathers as authoritative, and who no doubt cringed to see his fellow Baptist employ them. (39) But others, such as Roger Williams, found Murton's use of the earlier Christian tradition not only acceptable but also apparently one of the most compelling aspects of his argument. Murton's embrace of the church's tradition is surprising not only because it goes against the grain of his contemporary Baptists, but also because he had the least education of these early Baptists and was therefore the least likely to have studied the church fathers or have the language skills necessary to translate them. Murton was a simple furrier and, unlike Smyth (a Cambridge graduate) and Helwys (who trained in the law at Grey's Inn), he appears to have received no advanced education. Murton seems to be conscious of this difference, as evidenced by his repeated references to Anglican churchmen as "the Learned" and to himself and his fellow dissenters as the unlearned and humble. Despite being the champion of the unlearned laity, however, he nevertheless quotes at length from numerous early church fathers and from the works of Luther (and seems to be citing these authors directly from the original sources, not gleaning them from a translated English source).

One element of Murton's writings that has been noteworthy at least as far back as Roger Williams' use of them is the fact that he had assistance of some sort in creating them. Williams conveys the colorful story of Murton using invisible ink on paper that was smuggled out of Newgate prison, then passed on to co-workers in the Baptist congregation who held them over candlelight to expose his words and replicate them for publication. This enchanting story strikes one as likely too good to be true, and begs many questions about the logistics of bringing these works to print:

* Is it really plausible that Murton's three works--two of them in the form of extended two-person dialogues--were originally written entirely in milk?

* How did Murton have access to so many sources--some of them apparently in their original Greek, Latin, and German--while imprisoned? (40)

* Is it possible that this presumably uneducated furrier would be familiar with these sources and have the requisite language skills to translate them?

* How great a role did Murton's co-workers outside the prison play in shaping the finished work, and were they the ones finding and citing the sources used?

* Should these writings be seen more as the product of a sort of "Murtonian School" of early clandestine Baptists rather than as the work of a single individual?

These questions and more complicate our usage of the works on religious liberty attributed to John Murton. But they might also enrich it.

Unlike many Protestant traditions, Baptists lack a founding father whose theological work continues to shape the tradition; we have no Luther, no Wesley, no Calvin, no Cranmer, no Simons of our own. It is natural that people are drawn to the idea of having a figurehead, an individual with whom to identify their beliefs and movement. The works of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others certainly provide that for their theological heirs. Helwys and his Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity provides at least a snippet of that for Baptists, as does Roger Williams' Bloudy Tennet (though neither provide the kind of expansive theological foundation as other denominations can lay claim to). The unclear authorship of works such as Humble Supplication and Objections Answered has certainly contributed to the lack of attention they have received over the centuries (even by Baptist historians, despite the fact that they are undisputedly some of the earliest documents to emerge from within the early General Baptist movement), and has cumbered Murton gaining a place of prominence in the pantheon of Baptist founding figures.

But viewing these writings as a community (or congregational) effort might help us see these works as the most "Baptist" of the early examples of Baptist thought. (41) There is indeed something quintessentially "baptistic" about both the content of these works and the creative process behind them. It is, perhaps, entirely fitting that the genesis of the Baptist movement should stand not on a renowned theologian, but rather on a collection of documents crafted by a community of faith laboring together to articulate their beliefs, even as they are experiencing persecution and adversity. And at the heart of this communal exercise stands not a well-educated theologian but a common furrier with strong convictions and a congregation of like-minded and resourceful co-laborers at his back. The idea that these works were written by a band of nonconformists rather than by their lone imprisoned leader also suggests that all the members of the congregation who participated in the production of these writings (whether that be as transcribers of the milk/ink or as more significant shapers of their content) subscribed to the point of view that non-Baptist and even non-Protestant voices could be instructive and authoritative. When it comes to embracing patristic and Reformation sources of authority, then, Helwys and Busher might have been the outliers within the small circle of Baptist life in the 1610s. Not just Murton, but all those members of the Spitalfields congregation who contributed to and supported in some way the production of works such as Humble Supplication and Objections Answered, can be understood as sharing this opinion that sola scriptura did not preclude an appeal to the larger Christian tradition and its theologians (Catholic and Protestant alike).

Ambiguity about the provenance and authorship of these works should not undermine our appreciation for or use of them. Whether Humble Supplication and Objections Answered were authored by John Murton alone or "by committee," they were important documents in their own time and beyond and in their own country of origin and beyond. And they remain valuable documents for readers four hundred years later, not only because of the courageous stand they took in the face of religious intolerance and persecution, but also for the unique and multifaceted line of argumentation they present. The incorporation of patristic, Reformation, and contemporary theological authorities into the case made by Murton (et alia?) for religious toleration exposes a greater complexity on the part of early English Baptists than is generally assumed. Beyond appeals to scripture, or even reason, these works appeal to tradition as an authoritative source in a way that other early Baptist pioneers of church-state separation failed to do. The fact that this component of Murton's argument was embraced by subsequent generations of Baptists both in England and the American colonies reveals much about seventeenth-century Baptist attitudes toward the authority of the larger Christian tradition and challenges our "strict Biblicists" stereotype of them.


(1) Many libraries continue to wrongly attribute Murton's works to Thomas Helwys in their cataloging system. Several records in EBSCO's WORLDCAT database, for instance, still name Helwys as the author of the 1662 reprint of Murton's Humble Supplication and Objections Answered (combined into one volume and published as Persecution for Religion Judg'd and Condemn'd...).

(2) The precise date of Murton's demise is unknown. He was alive when a letter was sent to Dutch Anabaptists by English Baptists on June 3, 1624, but had passed away by the time a subsequent letter was sent on Nov. 12, 1626. See Goki Saito, "An Investigation into the Relationship Between the Early English General Baptists and the Dutch Anabaptists" (Th.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1974), 134-35.

(3) John Murton, Objections Answered by Way of Dialogue, Wherein is Proved by the Law of God, by the Law of our Land, and by His Maties Many Testimonies That No Man Ought to be Persecuted for His Religion, so He Testifie his Allegeance by the Oath, Appointed by Law (n.p.: 1615), 3.

(4) John Murton, A Most Humble Supplication of Many the King's Majesty's Loyal Subjects, Ready to Testify all Civil Obedience, by the Oath, as the Law of this Realm Requires, and that of Conscience: Who are Persecuted only for Differing in Religion, Contrary to Divine and Human Testimonies, as Follows (n.p.: 1620), in Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution 1614-1661, ed. Edwards Bean Underhill (New York: Burt Franklin, 1846), 212.

(5) See C. Douglas Weaver, "Early English Baptists: Individual Conscience and Eschatological Ecclesiology," Perspectives in Religious Studies 38 (Summer 2011): 141-58.

(6) Murton, Objections Answered, 14, 19.

(7) Ibid., 7.

(8) Ibid., 2.

(9) Murton, Humble Supplication, 214.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Murton, Objections Answered, 20.

(12) Ibid., 35.

(13) Ibid., 40; Murton, Humble Supplication, 216.

(14) Murton, Humble Supplication, 216.

(15) Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, ed. Richard Groves (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), xxiv.

(16) Murton, Objections Answered, 99.

(17) Ibid., 40.

(18) Saito, "An Investigation," 134.

(19) Murton, Humble Supplication, 218.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid., 220.

(22) Ibid., 221.

(23) Ibid., 220.

(24) Ibid., 223.

(25) Ibid,, 223.

(26) Ibid., 224.

(27) Murton makes only passing reference to Revelation 13 in Humble Supplication, 230. He makes numerous references to Revelation 13 in Objections Answered, though almost always in reference to Rome, not the Church of England.

(28) See William H. Brackney, The Baptists (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 23.

(29) Ernest A. Payne, Thomas Helwys and the First Baptist Church in England (London: Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, 1966), 15; Robert Dilday and Ken Camp, "Leonard: Baptists Must Find New Ways to Express Ideals," Associated Baptist Press, (accessed Nov, 27, 2018).

(30) Murton, Humble Supplication, 231.

(31) Michael A. Smith, "The Early English Baptists and the Church Fathers" (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982), 23. Smith summarizes Smyth's use of the fathers thusly: "The church Fathers were not authorities for Smyth in either theory or practice; rather, they were tools to be used to confute the arguments of those who did rely upon the Fathers."

(32) Leonard Busher reasons that "if it be once established by law, that none shall confirm their religion and doctrine by the fathers...but by only the holy scriptures, then error will not be written nor disputed,...seeing the word of God will be no shelter for any error." See Religions Peace: or A Reconciliation Between Princes and Peoples, and Nations (Amsterdam, 1614), 19.

(33) W.K. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England: From the Accession of James I to the Convention of the Long Parliament (1603-1640) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 298 n.3.

(34) Edward Barber, To the Kings Most Excellent Maiesty, and the Honourable Court of Parliament: The Humble Petition of Many his Maiesties Loyall and Faithfull Subiects, Some of which Having Beene Miserably Persecuted by the Prelates and their Adherents, by all Rigorous Courses, for their Consciences, Practicing Nothing but What was Instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ, who was Lord of All Administrations, Math. 28. 19. and Practiced by the Primitive Christians... (n.p.: 1641), 1.

(35) Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience: Discussed in a Conference Between TRUTH and PEACE. Who, in All Tender Affection, Present to the High Court of Parliament, (As the Result of Their Discourse) These, (Among Other Passages) of Highest Consideration, ed. Richard Groves (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), 11.

(36) John Cotton, "The Answer of Mr. John Cotton, of Boston, in New England, to the Aforesaid Arguments Against Persecution for Cause of Conscience...," in Williams, Bloudy Tenent, 26.

(37) See Williams, Bloudy Tenent, 91-92.

(38) See, for example, the anonymous work that was probably penned by Henry Jacob, To the Right High and Mightie Prince, lames by the Grace of God, King of Great Britannie, France, and Irelande, Defender of the Faith, &c.. A n Humble Supplication for Toleration and Libertie to Enjoy and Observe the Ordinances of Christ Jesus in th'administration of His Churches in Lieu of Humane Constitutions (n.p.: 1609), 20.

(39) Leonard Busher's bona fides as an early Baptist are harder to demonstrate than those of Helwys and Murton, though most historians of the early General Baptists speculate that he was a member of the original Smyth-Helwys group and either followed Helwys in the schism or headed up a third party in that dispute. See Stephen Wright, The Early English Baptists, 1603-1649 (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2006), 65.

(40) Several sources cited by Murton, including John of Damascus, Johannes Brenz, some of his Martin Luther quotes and others, do not appear to have been translated into English by Murton's time.

(41) It may be worth noting that when John Robinson wrote a response to John Murton's 1620 work against predestination, Robinson addressed it not to Murton alone, but (as the title stated) "against John Murton and his associates." This might suggest that even Murton's contemporaries recognized his works as emanating not solely from him, but from him and his collaborators. See A Defence of the Doctrine Propounded by the Synode of Dort: Against Iohn Murton and his Associates, in a Treatise Intituled: A Description of What God, &c, With the Refutation of their Answer to a Writing Touching on Baptism (Amsterdam: 1624).

Joe L. Coker is senior lecturer in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.
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Author:Coker, Joe L.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1U100
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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