By 1643, the Puritans had won the argument about Sunday: the law upheld the Christian Sabbath. Two Civil wars preceded the astounding development of the execution of Charles I in 1648. Oliver Cromwell headed a Puritan government that opposed the idea of a State Church and was prepared to allow some freedom of thought.
Up sprang a variety of independent churches. These were a long way from modern denominations. Each congregation considered itself to be a part of the one spiritual Christian Church. For example, ‘baptist’ did not become a denominational title until later.
In 1650, a pupil of Brabourne, who had adopted believer's baptism, announced that the Sabbath commandment has been ‘restored to its primitive purity’.
James Ockford's seventy-two-page book marks the start of a spread of Sabbath keeping amongst some baptist congregations.
Thomas Tillam and Peter Chamberlen M.D.
Thomas Tillam was a prominent preacher at Hexham, in the north of England.
His vigorous exhortations, based on graphic adaptations of the Book of Revelation, brought scores of people to baptism. Jealous rivals soon complained of his preaching methods to Hansard Knolleys. Knolleys' London congregation provided leadership for many baptists and in 1653 Tillam was called to give an account of himself. The congregation revoked its support of Tillam, who then had no money or credentials to preach.
Tillam set out to find other congregations which might share his views. This led him to Dr Peter Chamberlen, who guided the only baptist congregation which supported the Fifth Monarchy Movement.
The movement was a semi-political pressure group which drew support from ‘fundamentalist’ congregations. It expected Christ's Kingdom (the Fifth Monarchy to follow the four Kingdoms described in Daniel 2) would soon be literally established on earth. To prepare for this, they urged that England quickly pattern its government and laws on the Bible.
This friendship would prove important for the establishment of Sabbath-keeping congregations in England and later the United States. In normal times these two men would never have met.
Chamberlen was a clean-shaven respected aristocrat and former Royal Physician. He and his father had invented forceps and undertook many good works for the community. Tillam, believed that real men had short hair and long beards, came from a very different social position. He also had an air of wild eccentricity.
Another baptist and moderate Fifth Monarchist was Henry Jessey. He was a gifted preacher with a sound knowledge of Hebrew. He believed that the King James Bible lacked an understanding of Israel's calendar and customs.
Their Discovery of the Sabbath
By 1655 Tillam moved to Colchester. His gifts as a preacher impressed the local mayor who invited him to use the parish church. Enlivened by this opportunity, Tillam baptised over one hundred people in a few months. It is also probable that Tillam came to know Brabourne who lived in the area.
Early in 1656, Tillam began holding services in the parish church on Saturday. Exactly how he arrived at the idea of the Saturday Sabbath is not clear. Through this period, he had remained in regular and close contact with Chamberlen, whose London congregation adopted the Sabbath about the same time. Chamberlen also probably knew Ockford.
Displeased with Tillam's innovation, the authorities had him imprisoned. Like many seventeenth century religious prisoners, Tillam occupied himself in writing and produced his most memorable work: The Seventh Day Sabbath Sought Out and Celebrated published in 1657.
It brought a rush of condemning response. Tillam developed the link between the Sabbath and Biblical prophecy, first suggested by Ockford, into a detailed scenario. The Sabbath, said Tillam, ‘...is in these very last days become the last great controversy between the Saints and the Man of Sin, The Changer of Times and Laws’.
Tillam was the first to call the Sunday Sabbath the ‘Mark of the Beast’. But, while Chamberlen felt that Sabbath observance negated all significance of Sunday, Tillam believed that the resurrection could be celebrated on Sunday, so as not to cause divisions between Christians.
Perhaps the strongest agreement of the pair was that their adoption of the Sabbath would aid the conversion of the Jews. It would be a sure sign that Christ's return was near. As Chamberlen wrote to Tillam, ‘The Jews of London are very much affected with our keeping the Sabbath...'
Tillam's book was written as an answer to a pamphlet against Sabbath keeping by William Aspinwall, a leading Fifth Monarchist. Aspinwall systematically ridiculed the arguments of Ockford and another Sabbath-keeper, John Spittlehouse.
Spittlehouse, the spokesman for Chamberlen's congregation, published his advocacy of the ‘unchangeable morality’ of the Sabbath in mid-1656. But Aspinwall's abuse did not quell Sabbath enthusiasm.
Almost immediately, Spittlehouse and William Sellers presented a petition to the Chief Magistrates, asking that the Saturday Sabbath be established in law. The task must have seemed easy, as English law now supported all the arguments in favour of Sabbath-keeping. All they had to do was convince the lawmakers that the supposed Sunday texts of the New Testament did not change the Sabbath to Sunday.
Their confident appeal was unceremoniously rejected.
The Sabbath had become an issue of controversy among baptists, many of whom now observed it. Jeremiah Ives, a popular baptist controversialist, decided to meet the arguments head on. He challenged Tillam and Chamberlen to a public debate. They agreed, and for three days in 1658, the Stone Chapel in St. Paul's Cathedral was crowded with eager listeners.
Each side considered itself the winner. Soon after two able preachers added their voices to the defence of the Sabbath: Edward Stennet and John James.
Stennet had been a chaplain for the Parliament during the Civil wars and, though not a Fifth Monarchist, he did expect Christ to return in his lifetime. His defence of the Sabbath was published in 1658. In it, he argued for the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments, which he dubbed the ‘Royal Law’ after James 2:8.
The literature produced in the relative freedom and literacy of Cromwell’s rule is a rich field of original and reflective thinking. The modern world is yet to fully mine its treasures.
So many new ideas took seed. A few blossomed and made the English-speaking world more civilised as a result. Some began to bloom but were cut down before their full beauty and diversity were spent.
Luckily, we still have many of the seeds…
Part 3 to follow