From the Archives: Dippers: A Threat to Life and the State

Baptists joined other minorities in seventeenth-century England and America as a persecuted minority often misunderstood and caricatured in the press and religious literature. One of the frequent misrepresentations was the identification of those who practiced baptism with the radical reformers in Muenster of the sixteenth century. In a religious climate where most Christians presented children for water baptism at an early age, “re-baptism” was anathema and the guilt by historical association with the Munsterites provided a strong offense.

Among the most able controversialists, Thomas Edwards (1599–1647) was a standout. A Presbyterian who never held a permanent charge, Edwards was a product of the strict Puritanism of Queens College, Cambridge. During the early Civil Wars, he inveighed against the Church of England; later he was equally vehement in his attack upon all forms of sectarians. For Edwards, religious toleration was synonymous with the dissolution of the orthodox consensus which the Puritans had long struggled to achieve. His book Gangraena (1647) from which the following selection is taken, was described as “the most arrogant and logical defense of an exclusive church system ever advanced.” The following selections illustrate the efforts to which opponents of Baptists would go to discredit the group with exaggerated reports of Baptist behavior.

I HAVE RECEIVED lately certain information, from some who are come out of Wales, that a Trooper in Colonel Rich’s Regiment has been for some weeks past in Radnorshire, Wales and also Brecknockeshire, preaching and dipping, where he has vented many doctrines of Antinomianism and Antibaptism, and rebaptized hundreds in those Countries. Among others, one woman whom he dipped, he held so long underwater, that with the water getting into her, and cold she died within a day or two. This trooper going from these Countries into Montgomeryshire, also in Wales to preach and dip, some military authorities seized him and committed him to prison; but within a while after this commitment, there came an order from higher Authority to release him, and so he was set free. A Commander who comes from thence tells me the preaching and dipping of this Trooper and other such, makes the Countries being newly reduced, have an ill opinion of the Parliament. Many, being ignorant people, think verily these men are sent forth by the Parliament to preach to them. This Commander tells me also there is a strong report in those Countries of Wales where he has been, that there are some who preach for Circumcision and that some have been Circumcised, but the truth of that he cannot assert.

There is also the case of Oats the Weaver, spoken of in the First and Second parts of Gangraena, being arraigned upon his life at Chensford the last court, for dipping one Anne Martin, who died some fourteen days after. Oats, being found not guilty, was bound by the Judge to his good behaviour, and told that he should neither preach nor dip; and yet notwithstanding the very next Lord’s day he preached in Chensford, and goes on still in Essex preaching his errors.

Oats came lately to Dunmow in Essex, some of the Town hearing of it where he was, fetched him out of the house, and threw him into the river, thoroughly dipping him. A Citizen who was at Chensford during Oats’ trial reasoned with him, that setting aside the dispute of the lawfulness of Rebaptization, in prudence it could not be well done, to do that which in ordinary reason would destroy the creature; viz. in cold weather to dip weakly persons: Unto which answer was made by one named Tench, an Anabaptist, and a companion of Oats, that God had made a promise in that case, “When thou goest through the fire, and through the water, I will be with thee.” And when this Citizen said, that was not to be understood literally, Tench insisted that it was to be taken in that sense.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #6 in 1985]

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