Last Updated on :
IN the year 1615 a son was born to a woollen draper in Wotton-under-Edge, a village in the broadcloth district of the West of England. In a variety of ways this boy was a prodigy, not least on account of extraordinary powers of memory. From the time that he began his formal education at the Wotton Free School it was apparent that John Biddle was destined for the highest academic level. His progress being brought to the attention of the local grandee, Lord Berkeley, he was given an exhibition at this school so that he could matriculate. While he was in an upper form, and around fifteen years of age, an anthology of his translations from the Classics into English verse was published. Before he finished at Wotton, it was reported that not only had he surpassed his schoolfellows but "outran his instructors and became tutor to himself".
He went up to Magdalen Hall, Oxford (now Hertford College) at seventeen, and quickly became notorious for his independence of established scholastic authority. Names and dignities never meant very much to him. After graduating he remained as a tutor at Oxford but at twenty-six was elected headmaster of the Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester, in his own West Country. At that time such appointments were frequently made with a view to providing sinecures for the masters to pursue their own scholarship, but in this case Biddle, with characteristic diligence, threw himself into improving the school and became an outstanding head.
His own scholarship, however, did not suffer. Conscientious far beyond the standards of his age, his appointed duties to teach his charges the Christian faith caused him to make a painstaking and assiduous study of the Scriptures. He was no doubt supposed, since the school was attached to the Cathedral, to teach the children
according to the Catechism of the Church of England, but Biddle was no parrot. Influenced, as he later remarked, by "the love of Christ, who is truth and life", he accompanied his studies with fervent prayers for illumination.
For two or three years the young head immersed himself in his studies of the Bible, until his knowledge of it was encyclopaedic. He knew the whole New Testament by heart in English and almost all of it in Greek. When someone commented on the latter, Biddle admitted that he did have a little difficulty in remembering the Greek after the fourth chapter of Revelation. In discussion he was able to give from memory the full context of every New Testament passage quoted, a facility which made him greatly respected -- and feared -- as a debater.
His studies led John Biddle to question traditional views. He disliked the dependence placed by the theologians of his day upon the old church fathers. "The Fathers, the Fathers", he would say, "they are always croaking about the Fathers." He himself is said to have had "a low opinion of their judgements". Biddle raised certain questions and "a long time waited on learned men for a satisfactory answer to these arguments, but received none". The kind of question and the way it was presented showed the trend of his thinking: it was clearly in the direction of the Polish Brethren. Biddle claimed that he had read none of the literature of this community before coming to his own opinions. Considering its fairly wide dissemination at both universities at this period, this would be difficult to credit were it not for the generally scrupulous nature of his conscience.
The Holy Spirit
Prominent among the subjects raised in these early questions was the deity of the Holy Spirit, indeed the whole trinitarian concept of the Godhead. The following comment on 1 John 5:7 is typical, indicating his consistent habit of relating any passage to its context and to parallel Bible usage:
"It would have been hard, if not impossible (had not men been precorrupted) that it should ever come into anyone's head to imagine that this phrase 'are one', did signify 'have one essence': since such an exposition is contrary to other places in Scripture, wherein this kind of speaking perpetually signifieth an union in consent and agreement, or the like, but never an
union in essence. This very apostle in his gospel, chapter 17 verses 11, 21, 22, 23, useth this same expression six times, intimating no other but an union agreement; yea, in verse 8 of this very chapter in his epistle, he useth it in the same sense".
A pamphlet entitled "Twelve Arguments against the Deity of the Holy Spirit" was produced for circulating among a few friends in the West Country. But one of these "friends" betrayed Biddle to the Gloucester magistrates, and, though ill with fever, the thirty-year old headmaster was committed to the common gaol. About this time the celebrated Irish bishop Ussher (of Bible chronology fame) passed through Gloucester and was constrained to pit his erudite wits against the heterodox head. The upshot was that a rather impatient bishop eventually withdrew from the dialogue with a few wry comments on the utter stubbornness of John Biddle. The famous prelate was unaccustomed to having his vast patristic learning questioned so radically.
Biddle considered the bishop was enslaved to church councils instead of to the word of God:
"The fathers of the first two centuries, or thereabouts, when the judgements of Christians were yet free, and not enslaved with the determinations of Councils, asserted the Father only to be that One God ...".
Trial by Parliament
In 1646 Biddle was summoned to London and his case was considered by Parliament itself. He himself was confined in the Gatehouse at Westminster while the proceedings dragged on. In a correspondence with Sir Henry Vane, an acquaintance from whom he hoped to obtain a little aid in his unfortunate situation, Biddle wrote of his searchings and his spirit:
"After a long, impartial enquiry of the truth, and after much and earnest calling upon God, to give unto me the spirit and revelation in the knowledge of Him, I find myself obliged, both by the principles of reason and Scripture, to embrace the opinion I now hold forth. What shall befall me in the pursuance of this work, I refer to the disposal of Almighty God, whose glory is dearer to me, not only than my liberty, but than my life."
He meant the last sentence, every word of it, for he remained in prison for five years. Indeed most of the rest of his life was spent there. The opinions he felt obliged to embrace ranged over a wide field of Christian doctrine, as will be seen, but it was principally his questioning of trinitarian views and formulas which earned him the bitter hostility of the Westminster divines. The case dragged on so long that Biddle in his confinement sought to hasten a verdict by producing detailed and penetrating studies of this particular doctrine. These are the only words of Biddle which can be considered in any way inflammatory. In them he showed the absence of trinitarianism in the earliest fathers, and the influence of Plato on third and fourth century theologians, who "did in outward profession so put on Christ, as that in heart they did not put off Plato". Dealing with the proposition that Jesus Christ was the creator of the universe and man in the beginning, he makes the reasonable deduction that when in Matthew 19:14 Jesus says: "He that made them in the beginning", he must have been ascribing that creation to a Being other than himself. The creation attributed to Christ is the new creation, the "reduction of things into a new state or order". The Scriptures indicate that Christ was foreordained, not personally pre-existent.
During Biddle's first long imprisonment his friends deserted him. He commented that almost his only comfort was a draught of milk from the cow morning and evening. He worked on an English edition of the Septuagint Old Testament for its London publisher, a necessary employment since he had to pay for his keep as a prisoner! The honourable House eventually passed this law, surely one of the most fantastic pieces of bigotry ever to be enacted by a national legislature:
"Any who shall by preaching, printing or writing, controvert the deity of the Son or the equality of Christ with the Father, shall suffer the pains of death, as in the case of felony, without benefit of clergy. Any who shall maintain that man hath by nature free will to turn to God; that the soul dieth after the body is dead; that man is bound to believe no more than by his reason he can comprehend; that baptizing of infants is void and that such persons ought to be baptized again; that the use of arms is unlawful; that the churches of England are no more churches nor their ministers and ordinances true ministers and ordinances (shall be imprisoned)."
This extraordinary law gives us an insight into the wide range of opinions and convictions on which Biddle had parted company with contemporary orthodoxy. Whether through independent searching or otherwise, he had taken up the identical position of the Polish Brethren, and they now undoubtedly began to consider him the principal English upholder of their cause.
On February 10, 1652, Biddle was released; he remained in London and there met in fellowship with some kindred spirits. A group met every Sunday "for the purpose of expounding the Scriptures and discoursing thereon" and for divine worship. He was not a pastor; indeed he seems to have had no particular office in the church since it was a group based on simple membership. He did, however, engage in active writing for the group, and frequently spoke to the assembly on Sundays. One such Sunday a party of visitors appeared at the meeting-house, led by one Dr. Gunning, later Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He came not to hearken or to worship, but self-confessedly to "confound and confute" Biddle. No sooner had he arrived than he challenged Biddle to a disputation there and then on the topic of the supreme deity of Christ. Though the defendant was unprepared, Gunning met his match as more than one member of the learned don's party afterwards publicly acknowledged. Biddle "acquitted himself with so much knowledge in the sense of the Holy Scripture that he gained much credit both to himself and his cause". The professor made surprise visits on two other occasions, the third debate being on the subject of the Atonement. Gunning found that he was not impressing either congregation or his own henchmen and he gave up the attempt.
The year 1654 saw the publication of Biddle's "Twofold Catechism", probably prepared in the first instance for the use of his own London brethren in the instruction of candidates, though in the upshot it attained a far wider notoriety. It was a skilfully prepared pamphlet. All other 17th century catechisms were wordy, rambling dissertations upon the opinions of the sects promulgating them; apart from the preface Biddle's consisted almost entirely of Scripture verses, accompanied by a few brief comments. In rather more colourful language Biddle commented on this fact in the preface:
"...all catechisms generally being so stuffed with the supposals and traditions of men that the least part of them is
derived from the word of God, not one quotation amongst many being a whit to the purpose."
He pointed out that his work would be unique as a Scripture catechism:
"Take heed therefore, whosoever thou art, that lightest on this book, and there readest things quite contrary to the doctrines that pass current amongst the generality of Christians (for I confess most of the things here displayed have such a tendency) that thou fall not foul upon them, for thou canst not do so without falling foul upon the Holy Scripture itself, inasmuch as all the answers throughout the whole catechism are faithfully transcribed out of it."
From this catechism would be banned all expressions and doctrines which the Scriptures do not own, such as Eternal Procession, Eternal Generation, God dying, God made man, Mother of God, Transubstantiation, Original Sin, satisfaction for sins -- the list exceeds a page of the preface. Instead there would be Bible answers to straight-forward questions. The reader was challenged to assess whether such a method was fair.
The catechism proceeded through 24 chapters, assembling first of all relevant Bible passages on the authority of the Scripture, God, and the Holy Spirit. Then follows a comprehensive series of chapters on the person and work of Christ as Saviour, Prophet, Mediator and King; on his death and resurrection and his coming again; on his example and commandments, especially in regard to taking the sword. It marshals Scripture evidence to indicate hell as the grave, the hope of the Christian as being resurrection, and end of the ungodly as being to be "destroyed, corrupted, burnt up, devoured, slain, pass away and perish" and not eternal torture. There is a chapter on believers' baptism, and an important one on the universality of God's love ("God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance"). This particular section, in which Biddle showed that the Gospel of the New Testament is offered to all men for the obedience of faith, grossly offended the Calvinist divines who were numerous in the honourable House at Westminster at that time. Indeed there was not a single chapter which did not run counter to contemporary theology in high places. As a modern Oxford scholar has expressed it:
"Biddle's Twofold Catechism was the most sweeping indictment of orthodox Christianity that had yet appeared in
England, and constructed in such a way that it was very difficult to refute. It embraced the whole field of Christian doctrine and attacked one by one (by the method of question and answer) all the accepted positions of orthodox theology, showing how they contradicted the words of Scripture."
Not only did the form of this work make it difficult to refute, but by framing the essential challenge to orthodoxy in the form of questions, leaving the Scriptures to answer, Biddle avoided using expressions of his own faith which could be taken up by his enemies. The pages reproduced show examples which are typical of the catechism as a whole.
As soon as the catechism came to the attention of Parliament, complaint was lodged and it received "ignominious censure"; all copies were ordered to be burnt by the common hangman. Biddle himself was ordered to appear in the Chamber in person, and on doing so he was questioned by various members. It was characteristic of Biddle that he was not overawed by the august assembly, but asked with his usual aplomb whether it was reasonable that one brought before a judgement seat as a criminal should accuse himself. With the example of Jesus' own trial no doubt vividly recollected, he told the Chamber that he had made his opinion clear in his books; there was no particular secret about his attitude to religious matters and those books were in no way seditious. He was convicted and sentenced to remain indefinitely in the Gatehouse at Westminster without writing materials or visits, and Richard Moore who had printed some of Biddle's books was also imprisoned. One party urged the death penalty, but their proceedings were cut short by political changes in Parliament.
One can imagine something of the feelings of some members of Parliament when two days after Moore's and Biddle's conviction a man appeared at the door of the Commons distributing copies of a booklet originating from the Polish Brethren, translated by Biddle and printed by Moore! This apparent effrontery was, be it said, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding; not even John Biddle was as brazen as that!
Oliver Cromwell was more liberal than his bigoted Parliament and Biddle was released in the following May through the Protector's influence. One result of the whole affair of the Twofold Catechism
was that the large national churches, both Episcopal and Presbyterian, recognised a potential danger and began a policy of more thorough catechising of their own members, a movement which came to have profound effects upon 17th and 18th century English church history.
Biddle returned to quiet but active work among a small circle of like-minded friends. He disliked controversy and trouble, but he was too honest to remain silent when his faith was challenged. A typical incident concerned a trinitarian Baptist named Griffin, who lost some of his members to Biddle's congregation. He challenged Biddle to debate, but, foreseeing further trouble, Biddle declined to accept the challenge until the pressure was such that he felt compelled by conscience to do so. In a meeting-house in the shadow of St. Paul's the disputation was held, some of the audience consisting of a band of fanatical rabble-rousers known as the "beacon-firers". Griffin opened proceedings in a pontifical manner by rising and calling out, "Does any man here deny that Christ was God most High?" Biddle with, it is said, "sincerity and firmness", rose and announced that on Scriptural ground he did deny it. From all accounts Biddle's formidable powers in debate were again in evidence and his adversary, "unable to support his cause", found it easier to use alternative methods of silencing arguments which he was unable to refute.
The trouble Biddle anticipated was not long in coming. Less than two months after his release from Westminster Gatehouse he was in jail again, but this time it was the notorious Newgate prison. On an obsolete law he was remanded on a capital charge of blasphemy and heresy.
The trial was long and protracted, Biddle's lawyer pleading illegality. He escaped a capital sentence, but was banished to St. Mary's Castle, in the Scilly Isles, where he remained in confinement for three years.
A petition was drawn up to protest against this sentence by some influential persons; it has the following passage, asking
"whether Biddle does not, in fact, profess faith in God by Jesus Christ. Is he not like Apollos, mighty in the Scriptures? Is his crime that he believes the Scriptures according to their most obvious nearest signification, and not according to the mystical and remote interpretations?"
His own writings support the petitioners' claim. There is a reasonableness and lack of mystification pervading them, though the quaint Elizabethan style deriving from constant acquaintance with the King James version creates a rather archaic effect:
"He that saith Christ died, saith that Christ was not God, for God could not die. But every Christian saith that Christ died, therefore every Christian saith that Christ was not God."
Biddle was not idle while in St. Mary's Castle. He was not denied books or paper and one notable production of his pen resulted.
His "Essay explaining the Revelation" was the result of much study, not only of that book of the New Testament, but of the Bible as a whole and much else in the way of background reading. He wrote to say that he was still learning, and that the writing of this book had led him in many particulars to a clearer understanding of the divine oracles. The book concentrated attention on "the personal reign of Jesus Christ on the earth".
In 1658 he was released once more, and returned to London. This period of freedom lasted four years, and, though ill for a considerable part of the time, he was active among his friends and cemented associations with the Brethren in Poland. It was in this same year that the Polish Diet decreed their expulsion from that country and much correspondence passed between those associated with Biddle and the exiled Poles.
A Balanced Character
We can picture John Biddle at this period, a man of whom a contemporary wrote, "There is little or nothing blameworthy in him, except his opinions". Despite strong convictions, he avoided eccentricity. He was no narrow religious fanatic, being a man of wide literary and scientific interests. It is said that he carried his "reserve in his behaviour to the female sex to an unusual degree of delicacy and caution". He had a sense of humour which carried him through many a trying and difficult situation and a fantastically quick wit in repartee. But, unlike so many contemporaries, his speech was free from barbs and he always had a sense of the occasion. Biddle has been called the Father of English Unitarianism, but Biddle would have been horrified at the Unitarianism of the modern Manchester College variety. Although he was no believer in trinitarian mystifications, he always spoke of Christ with "deep
reverence", believing him to be Son of God and Saviour. He could not, it is said, bear to hear the holy Name -- or any sentence of Holy Scripture -- used lightly or vainly, much less with scurrility. He worshipped Christ, as did the apostles, and often would say his prayers prone upon the ground. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of his character was the rare combination of a brilliant intellect with a profound humility. "He quietly and unostentatiously endeavoured to practise what he preached."
Government agents followed Biddle frequently towards the end. Some of them were heard to "admire his strict, exemplary life, full of modesty, sobriety and forebearance, no ways contentious, altogether taken up with the great things of God revealed in the Scriptures".
On June 1, 1662, a sick man, he was holding a Bible Class in his own home. An armed party entered the room and carried him off to appear before a certain judge Brown, a harsh and dominating incumbent of the King's Bench. Bail was offered on behalf of the ailing prisoner, but Brown petulantly refused. Five weeks later, worn out by the long trials and imprisonments and on fire with jail fever, John Biddle spoke with friends of his confidence through Christ of the resurrection of the dead and then "fell asleep".
All Books/Booklets, Editorials, and Articles are FREE and can be downloaded without permission.