Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Papacy, Parish Churches, and Prophecy: The Popish Plot and the London Particular Baptists-A Case Study

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Papacy, Parish Churches, and Prophecy: The Popish Plot and the London Particular Baptists-A Case Study

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

On 13 August 1678, King Charles II was made aware of details of a supposed conspiracy by Jesuits to assassinate him. In the ensuing days, more details of the "plot" came to light, culminating on 6 September when Titus Oates, son of Samuel Oates, a General Baptist preacher who had served as a chaplain in the New Model Army during the Civil Wars, (1) swore to a detailed deposition of forty-three articles. At the urging of James, Duke of York, the matter of the "Popish Plot" came before the Privy Council by month's end. By that point, however, a second deposition of eighty-one articles had appeared, embellishing the plot even further. Though Charles and his Privy Council quickly exposed Oates' story as a fraud, on 21 October 1678 the Cavalier Parliament unanimously agreed that a "damnable and hellish plot" had been contrived by "popish recusants for the assassinating and murdering of the King, and for subverting the government, and rooting out and destroying the Protestant religion." (2)

In the explosive religious climate of seventeenth-century England such allegations spread like wildfire. Anti-Catholic hysteria gripped England, fuelled by memories of the Gunpowder Plot and Civil Wars and by recent concerns regarding Charles's seemingly pro-Catholic policies and James's public adherence to the Catholic faith. With the help of the Earl of Shaftsbury and the Whigs in Parliament, Oates's accounts of the "Popish Plot" wreaked considerable havoc until 1681, when Oates was found guilty of perjury. (3)

The events of 1678 to 1681 were not lost upon the Particular Baptists of London. Many of their number, especially those in leadership, had suffered sporadic persecution since the Restoration, first in the early 1660s under the First Conventicles Act and again in the early 1670s under the Second Conventicles Act. Beyond that, most approached the commitment of Charles II to Protestantism with an edge of scepticism. In fact, although afforded a respite from persecution by the brief Declaration of Indulgence issued by Charles II in March 1672, many Particular Baptists were unwilling to admit the king had such extra-parliamentary powers and they greeted the Act with suspicion and disfavour. (4)

One Particular Baptist leader, one of the patriarchs of the sect, clearly fell into this category. Hanserd Knollys, a London pastor, had not only experienced imprisonment and self-exile during the period, but intense personal suffering as well due to sickness and death of members of his family. (5) When news of the "Popish Plot" broke in the late 1670s, Hanserd Knollys, whose pen had remained relatively still since the days of the Civil Wars and Protectorate, once again began to write and publish. From this point until his death in 1691, Knollys's focus would centre on eschatology and the apocalyptic passages of the Bible, particularly the Revelation of John. He would publish six treatises on the subject, two of which appeared in 1667 and 1674 during the period when Dissenters expressed growing concern over the Catholic sympathies of both Charles and James. (6) Two more treatises appeared in 1679 at the height of the "Popish Plot" and the final two works, his most extensive ones, were published in 1681 and 1688. (7) For the purposes of this study, I would like to focus attention primarily on the two treatises written during the pinnacle of "Popish" hysteria in 1679, as well as his treatise of 1681, written as a sense of calm returned to England, albeit a tenuous one. Although Knollys touched on various apocalyptic and eschatological themes in these works, that of greatest interest for this study was his understanding of the Church of Rome and his interpretation of the eschatological Antichrist, particularly as it related to the former.

II. Historiographical Notes

In 1978, Paul Christianson published his first book, Reformers and Babylon, the fruit of his doctoral research. One might surmise that Christianson published this work on apocalyptic themes in early Stuart England, whether consciously or unconsciously, in honour of the tri-centennial of that dubious event, the "Popish Plot. …

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