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A few days ago, I had the immense privilege of speaking to a group of expatriate believers whose home churches were experiencing state-initiated persecution. The experience of their friends and fellow-believers in their homeland is the latest attack on the Church in a long history that stretches back to the days of Christ.

In fact, persecution and martyrdom are perennial features of the Church’s existence in this world. Numerous New Testament passages speak along these lines (see, for instance, John 15:18–21; Acts 14:19–22; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12–19), and the historical experience of the Church down through the centuries has been one of various forms of persecution and its occasional concomitant, martyrdom.

And this past century has seen some of the worst instances of persecution. Nearly thirty years ago it was estimated that there were then 500,000 martyrs every year around the world, and global persecution of Christians has worsened since then (David B. Barrett, “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1991,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 15 [January, 1991]: 24–25).

Consider what has been rightly called the “Great Persecution” of English Dissenters in the last half of the seventeenth century and the experience of the Particular Baptists, my spiritual forebears. Between 1661 and 1688, hundreds of Particular Baptists along with equal numbers of General Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers were incarcerated.

Pastors were especially targeted and many of them emerged from prison with their health deeply impaired. On occasion, full-fledged attacks were carried out on the rank and file of congregations.

On June 29, 1662, for example, a squad of soldiers came to the Baptist congregation in Petty France, “full of Rage and Violence, with their Swords drawn; they wounded some, and struck others, broke down the gallery, and made much spoil” (Behold a Cry! Or, a True Relation of the Inhumane and Violent Outrages of divers Souldiers, Constables, and others, practised upon many of the Lord’s People, commonly (though falsly) called Anabaptists, at their several Meetings in and about London [London, 1662], 7).

The following month, when another London Baptist meeting was subjected to a similar attack, one of the attackers whose name was Brown punched a number of pregnant women in the congregation, “striking  … them with his fists such blows that made them reel” ( Behold a Cry!, 8).

Although there were periods of respite—for example, in 1672, when the king, Charles II, issued a Declaration of Indulgence and then again in 1687 when his brother James II made a similar declaration—there was no lasting peace from persecution till 1688, when religious toleration was granted by William III, who had seized the throne in the coup d’état we call the Glorious Revolution.

The worst and darkest bout of persecution was just before the dawn of toleration, in the early 1680s, when a number of Dissenters supported an attempt by the Whig party in Parliament to prevent Charles II’s brother, the future James II, from ever becoming king. Angered by this act against his brother, Charles dissolved Parliament in 1681 and turned his wrath on the Dissenters.

In Bristol, for example, there were two Particular Baptist Churches, Broadmead and Pithay. The Broadmead congregation was often forced to meet in nearby fields or woods to escape detection by the authorities. And when Samuel Buttall (fl.1675–1707), one of the signatories of the Second London Confession of Faith (1689), preached to this congregation in a field on March 12, 1682, the church minutes record that there were close to one thousand people present.[1]

And I love this comment. On one of the occasions that the Broadmead Baptists met in December of the following year, the church minutes pluckily note that when they met outside there was “a hard frost, and snow on the ground, …and though we stood in the snow the sun shone upon us, and we were in peace.”[2] Oh for similar courage for all of those undergoing persecution in our day.


[1] J.M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Present Time (London: Elliot Stock, 1875), 308–309.

[2] Cited Cramp, Baptist History, 310.