by Doug Ward
Sabbatarians of the English Reformation
The seventeenth century was a time of great religious and political ferment in England. The Bible was becoming much more readily available, and many people were stirred to action by the truths they were discovering in its pages.
Some, called the “Puritans,” hoped to reform the Church of England, and ultimately all of society, along more biblical lines. More radical Puritans, the “Separatists,” wanted to start from scratch and create new churches that were as much like the first-century church as possible.There was much interest among the Separatists in practices like believers’ baptism, foot-washing, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and abstinence from unclean meats.
There was also widespread excitement about biblical prophecy, and many anticipated the imminent return of Jesus Christ. One group, called the Fifth Monarchists (after Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of Daniel 2, in which God’s Kingdom is portrayed as the fifth andgreatest of a prophesied series of empires), stressed the literal millennial reign of Christ on earth. The most radical Fifth Monarchists hoped to pave the way for that reign by overthrowing the King.
Puritans held the Ten Commandments in very high regard. Applying the Sabbath commandment to the first day of the week, they believed that Sunday should be observed strictly as a day of rest, rather than merely being a day on which to hold worship services. They brought this view to public attention in a number of books in the late 1500s, most notably Nicolas Bownde’s “The Doctrine of the Sabbath” (1595). The ensuing controversy over the fourth commandment was so great that Bownde’s book was eventually banned [5, p. 49].
Given the Puritan respect for the Decalogue and the Protestant belief that the Bible should be the ultimate source of Christian belief and practice, it was inevitable that some would respond to the Sabbath controversy by adopting the biblical seventh day Sabbath. And indeed, that is what happened.
During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, groups of Sabbatarians sprang up in various parts of England and Wales; more than sixty congregations that either met on Saturday or included Sabbatarians have been identified by historian Bryan W. Ball . Many of these groups lasted only a generation or two, but some survived much longer—one of them for over three hundred years. Moreover, through the Mumfords, the majority of the Sabbatarian Christians in the world today can trace their spiritual lineage, directly or indirectly, to these brave and determined people.
A fascinating contemporary description of the English Sabbatarians is preserved in “M. Misson’s Memoirs and Observations in his Travels around England,” a book published by Frenchman Henri Misson in 1698 and translated into English in 1719. Misson, who traveled extensively in England during the 1690s, comments in his book on the various religious groups he encountered there. The Sabbatarians apparently left a strong impression upon him, because he discusses them in some detail as follows (quoted in [1, p. 9]):
“Here and there also you meet with a Millenarian; but I know there is a particular Society, though it makes but little noise, of People, who though they go by the Name of Sabbatarians make Profession of expecting the Reign of a Thousand Years without participating in the other opinions which are ascribed to the ancient Millenarians. These Sabbatharians are so call’d, because they will not remove the Day of Rest from Saturday to Sunday.
“They leave off work betimes on Friday Evening, and are very rigid observers of their Sabbath. They administer Baptism only to adult People [footnote: `in other aspects they subscribe to our Confession of Faith’]; and perhaps they are blameable in these two Things only because they look upon them to be more important than they really are. The major Part of them will eat neither Pork, nor Blood, nor things strangled, but they do not absolutely forbid the Use of those meats; they leave it to the Liberty of every Conscience. For the rest, their Morality is severe, and their whole outward Conduct pious and Christian-like.Were it only for this one Opinion or Belief of theirs concerning the absolute Necessity of keeping the Sabbath on Saturday without paying any Regard to thenext Day …; that alone would be enough to make them unavoidably a Society by themselves.”
Here Henri Misson describes a group of people who believed in a future millennial reign of Christ, but without the radical political activism of the Fifth Monarchists; practiced believers’ baptism; carefully kept the seventh-day Sabbath; observed biblical dietary laws, but not in a legalistic way; and in general were orthodox Christians with a high standard of biblical morality. Not all of the English Sabbatarians fit every part of this picture; but overall, it is a good description of them and many of their spiritual descendants, right up to the present day.
Prejudice and Persecution
The decision to observe the seventh day Sabbath was not one to take lightly. Those who made this choice placed themselves conspicuously outside of the mainstream of society. In the seventeenth century, people who adopted practices different from those of the Church of England were placed under close scrutiny and could be subjected to fines or imprisonment. For example, in the 1660s and 1670s, local churchwardens kept careful records of all “Nonconformists”, including anyone who worked or didn’t attend church on Sunday, refused to have infants baptized, or kept the seventh day Sabbath. (These records have provided historians with valuable clues about the identities and locations of Sabbathkeepers.  )
The courage of those who adopted the seventh day is also notable given the strongly anti-Semitic culture of Europe in those days. (Sabbathkeepers were often labeled as “Jews,” and this label was not intended as a compliment.) In England, the anti-Semitism of the time was exacerbated by ignorance. All Jews in England had been expelled from the country in 1290 AD.
By the early seventeenth century, there was a small Jewish community in London, but it kept a very low profile. As a result, most people had probably never met a Jew, and those who embraced “Jewish” practices would have seemed strange and threatening to many.
One well-known example of the persecutions faced by early English Sabbatarians is the story of John and Dorothy Traske. John Traske (1585-1636) was a controversial and apparently rather colorful traveling preacher whose words and actions repeatedly got him into trouble with the authorities. What exactly he taught is difficult to determine, because the available sources on his life are largely hostile ones (see [1, pp. 48-51] ). It is also not certain how many followers he attracted; only the names of a few have come down to us, including Hamlet Jackson, Returne Hebdon, and Christopher Sands. We do know that in 1617, Traske was in London teaching that one should obey the fourth commandment by resting on the seventh day and working on each of the other six days. He also taught obedience to biblical dietary laws and is said to have advocated Christian observance of the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Traske’s preaching was too radical to go unnoticed for long. By late 1617, Traske and several associates had been arrested, and on June 19, 1618, he was charged with “having a fantasticall opynion of himselfe with ambicion to bee the Father of a Jewish faccion” and making “the people of God, his majesty’s subjects, little better than Jews.” [4; 5, p. 51] Traske was whipped and pilloried, and his forehead was branded with a letter “I” (for “Iew”, as “Jew” was written at that time). He was also sentenced to life in prison, where he subsisted on a meatless diet (rather than eat the pork prescribed by the court) until he recanted his “Jewish” views and was released in 1619. He published an account of his changed beliefs in “A Treatise of Libertie from Judaisme” (1620) and apparently never taught seventh-daySabbathkeeping after that. However, two of his associates refused to recant and eventually died in prison—Returne Hebdon in 1625, and his wife Dorothy in 1645. The example of Dorothy Traske, who remained steadfast over many years in prison, was a great inspiration to other seventeenth-century Sabbatarians.
John Traske was by all accounts very eccentric, and he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment both before and after he advocated observance of the Sabbath. However, one didn’t have to be as provocative as Traske to face persecution; a thoroughly orthodox Christian who wrote or spoke in favor of the Sabbath was also in danger in the early seventeenth century. Such was the case with Theophilus Brabourne (1590-1662), an Anglican clergyman who hoped to persuade the Church of England to adopt the seventh day Sabbath in two books that he wrote in 1628 and 1632. In 1634 and early 1635, Brabourne was imprisoned, repeatedly examined by church officials, and threatened with excommunication and a fine of 1000 pounds before his carefully-worded recantation was accepted on April 30, 1635 [1, p. 66]. (Brabourne claimed that he never recanted anything of any substance, and in the more tolerant climate of the 1650s he wrote again in favor of the Sabbath.)
During the Puritan rule of the Commonwealth period of the 1650s, there was much more religious freedom for Separatists, and both Sunday and Sabbatarian Baptists began to worship openly throughout England and Wales. But a new wave of persecution followed the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 under Charles II. The king feared that groups like Fifth Monarchy Men and Baptists were a threat to his government, especially after Fifth Monarchist Thomas Venner and a group of fifty armed men terrorized London for four days in January 1661. In the resulting crackdown, John James, the pastor of the Seventh Day Baptists in Bullstake Alley, Whitechapel Road, London, was arrested while preaching to his congregation on October 19, 1661.
James was no threat to the king; he did not advocate violent overthrow of the government. However, he did actively preach that Christ would return to rule over all nations—his favorite scriptural text was said to be Rev. 11:15—and that was enough to get him into serious troublein the tense political climate of the time. James was executed, then drawn and quartered, on November 26, 1661 .
The government of Charles II hoped to bring greater peace and stability to the kingdom by enforcing religious uniformity. In 1662, it introduced the Act of Uniformity, which excludedfrom parish churches all ministers who would not conduct services according to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. The Act of Uniformity resulted in the ejection from Anglican pulpits of many Nonconformist ministers who had gained their positions during the 1650s.
In order to silence those ejected clergy, the government went on to institute the Conventicle Act in 1664. (A “conventicle” is a secret religious meeting.) The Conventicle Act forbade any worship service not conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer that involved more than five people in addition to the family of the house. Anyone caught violating this rule for the third time could be banished to the West Indies.  The persecution that followed this harsh legislation was probably what led Stephen and Anne Mumford to leave for Rhode Island in 1664.
In [1, p. 257], Ball describes the precautions taken by one Sabbatarian Baptist congregation during this era to avoid arrest under the Conventicle Act. This congregation met on Saturday evenings at a roadside cottage near the village of Stalham in the county of Norfolk. According to Ball, “John Woolstone, who at the time lived four or five miles away at Walcott, would frequently arrive to conduct worship disguised as a drover and carrying a whip to allay suspicion. The large, lower room of the cottage would be laid out as a dining-room, and Woolstone would preach from a seat at the table, to a congregation assembled in the upper rooms. On other occasions, meetings were held in a barn at the rear of the cottage, and look-outs were posted at strategic points to warn of the approach of informers. Many of the worshippers lived at a distance from the meeting-place, and would travel home by various routes to avoid detection. It was a situation typical of many Nonconformist gatheringsthroughout he country at the time.”
Not all were able to escape persecution. For example, Francis Bampfield (1615-1684), an early leader among the English Sabbatarians, was imprisoned for over ten years of his life.Originally an Anglican, Bampfield prepared for the ministry by obtaining B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oxford. He then served congregations in Rampisham and Sherborne, becoming known for his “eloquence, learning, and pastoral concern” [1, p. 145]. During the 1650s, he began to adopt Nonconformist beliefs, and he lost his position as vicar in Sherborne in 1662under the Act of Uniformity.
After that, he began to conduct services in his home, but he was soon arrested and spent much of the next decade in jail. While in jail, he became convinced of the seventh-day Sabbath and the validity of believers’ baptism by immersion. For several years before his release in 1672, he conducted Sabbath services in prison. Later, in 1676, he founded the Pinners’ Hall Seventh Day Baptist congregation in London, which he served as pastor until a final arrest in 1683. When he died in prison in 1684, the Seventh Day Baptists lost one of their ablest spokesmen.
First and foremost, the Seventh-day Men looked to the Bible as the ultimate authority for their faith and practice. Like other Puritans, they viewed the Sabbath as divinely established at Creation and confirmed as part of the eternal moral law of the Ten Commandments. They also recognized Sabbath observance as the custom of Jesus and the early church, and they saw no biblical directive to abrogate or change the Sabbath.
Like other Protestants of their day, the Sabbatarians saw the Roman Catholic Church as the “little horn” of Daniel 7:24-25 that would “think to change times and laws.” For them, observance of the seventh day was part of a return of the church to its first-century foundations, before its corruption by centuries of Catholic traditions. And they werestrengthened by an awareness that through the centuries, there had been many Christians who had kept the Sabbath (see [1, Chapter 1]).
Moreover, the Sabbatarians valued the biblical meanings of the Sabbath as a memorial of creation, a symbol of the rest in Christ enjoyed in this present life by believers, and a foretaste of the eternal rest of God’s Kingdom. The first of these meanings is discussed in William Saller’s “A Preservative against Atheism and Error”(1664). Saller, a Sabbatarian leader in London from about 1653-78, stressed in this work that the Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the fact that God is our Creator.
The second and third meanings are expressed poetically in the classic hymn “Another Six Days’ Work is Done” by Joseph Stennett (1663-1713), the distinguished pastor of the Pinners’ Hall congregation from 1790 until his death. This hymn mentions the present peace and anticipation of future joys that have always been part of the Sabbath experience:
Another six days’ work is done,
Another Sabbath is begun;
Return, my soul, enjoy thy rest,
Improve the day that God hath blest.
O, that our thoughts and thanks may rise,
As grateful incense, to the skies,
And draw from heav’n that sweet repose
Which none but he that feels it knows!
A heavenly calm pervades the breast,
The earnest of that glorious rest
Which for the Church of God remains,
The end of cares, the end of pains.
With joy, great God, thy works we view,
In various scenes, both old and new;
With praise, we think on mercies past;
With hope, we future pleasures taste.
In holy duties let the day,
In holy pleasures, pass away;
How sweet a Sabbath thus to spend,
In hope of one that ne’er shall end!
On the other hand, it should be emphasized that the Sabbatarians did not view Sabbathkeeping as a means of earning salvation. William Saller stated this clearly in 1671 when he wrote thefollowing (quoted in [1, p. 87]):
“Let him not slander Christ whatever he casts upon the Sabbath-keepers. But this I shall say for my brethren as well as for myself, we are all of us of the Apostles mind, quite dead to the Law, not having the least hope or expectation to bring forth any acceptable fruit unto God by virtue of it. We look not at all to receive grace or strength from the Law, to sanctify us no more than to justify us.”
It is also the case that they did not generally avoid fellowship with Christians who did not share their convictions about the Sabbath, nor did they claim to constitute the “one true church.” In Salisbury, Seventh Day and Sunday Baptist congregations cooperated in using the same building throughout most of the eighteenth century [1, p. 141]. A number of SeventhDay Baptist pastors—e.g., Joseph Stennett—preached for Sunday congregations as well. And in various parts of England and Wales, scattered Sabbatarian Baptists who did not have congregations of their own worshipped with their Sunday-keeping Baptist brethren. For instance, the Tewkesbury congregation with which Stephen and Anne Mumford fellowshipped before their move to Rhode Island apparently included people of both persuasions.
In summary, the English Seventh Day Baptists determined to obey what they saw as a clearbiblical command, regardless of the cost. With the Psalmist, they said, in effect, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?” (Ps. 118:6) They saw their Sabbathkeeping as an appropriate response to God’s grace, not as a means of earning salvation or of determining the identity of “true Christians.”
Interest Waned in England—Why?
After the persecutions of the seventeenth century had died down, English Sabbatarians enjoyed substantially greater freedom of worship, but by this time their movement seemed to have expended much of its energy. Several congregations flourished for a while, especially those in London, and they counted among their members such distinguished citizens as barrister Sir William Tempest and lexicographer Nathaniel Bailey. However, they slowly diminished in numbers and impact as the eighteenth century passed, and by 1800, only a few small congregations remained.
Several factors seem to have been involved in this decline. One is the failure of the congregations to organize together on a national level to promote evangelism, train pastors, and instruct and support their young people. As a result, many of the congregations faded away when their pastors died and no replacements could be found.
Part of the blame for their lack of organization may lie in divisions stemming from differences on other points of doctrine. In London, for instance, the Mill Yard congregation consisted ofArminian or “General” Baptists who felt that Christ had died for the sins of all and believed in man’s free will. Other London Sabbatarian congregations were Calvinist or “Particular” Baptists who believed that Christ had died only for the elect, those predestined to be saved. The two groups often cooperated in certain ways, sometimes sharing meeting places and speakers, but there was also frequent friction between them that hindered their working together on larger projects. This friction was heightened in the eighteenth century when there were many in the Mill Yard congregation who were not Trinitarians.
Another factor detrimental to the Sabbatarian cause was the occasional extremism exhibited by some of its proponents. As I have mentioned above, the English Seventh Day Baptistsusually did not have a legalistic or exclusivistic outlook, but one exceptional episode in the mid-seventeenth century dealt a great blow to their reputation and the progress of their movement in the northern and eastern parts of England.
Thomas Tillam, the pastor of a Sabbathkeeping congregation in Colchester beginning in the late 1650s, became convinced that Sabbatarians should not associate with those who would not accept the seventh day Sabbath. He also believed that Christ would return soon to judge England. In order to flee the persecution of the 1660s, Tillam and Christopher Pooley led a group of Sabbatarians to a “place of safety” in Germany. They hoped to set up a community there that would live strictly according to biblical law and wait in peace and safety for the coming judgment. Their community did not survive long, and some of the congregations in Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and counties further north greatly suffered from loss of members. In 1667, seven Sabbatarian leaders published a tract denouncing the Tillam-Pooley scheme, butnot before some lasting damage had been done.
In the final analysis, though, the best explanation for the decline of the English Sabbatarian movement may be that the early persecution it endured was ultimately too great for it to overcome. In coping with the Conventicle Act and other persecution, the Sabbathkeepers apparently became accustomed to being a scattered, underground community. As Henri Misson put it in his 1698 memoir, they made “but little noise.” When circumstances eventually became more favorable, they were not prepared to take full advantage of new opportunities.
Although the Sabbatarian movement largely died out in England, it should not be viewed as a failure. In addition to leaving us a commendable example of integrity and courage, the English Sabbathkeepers succeeded in exporting their cause to America, where it enjoyed a freedom that was much more conducive to growth. Let us now turn to the story of the Mumfords and their American brethren.
The Sabbath in America
The Baptist congregation in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, to which Stephen and Anne Mumford belonged in the early 1660s kept its membership records in code to ensure secrecy. When the Mumfords arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1665, no further secrecy was required. The charter that Baptist leader Dr. John Clarke had secured for the Rhode Island colony in 1663 explicitly guaranteed freedom of worship. The Mumfords could worship openly with the First Baptist Church of Newport, which had been founded under Clarke’s direction in 1644.
Two other Newport Baptists, Samuel and Tacy Hubbard, began to keep the seventh day Sabbath in the spring of 1665, and soon the number of Sabbatarians in the group increased to eleven. For a while, their relationship with the rest of the congregation was peaceful, but fellowship became strained in 1669 when four of the eleven changed their minds and started to speak against the Sabbath [5, p. 98]. At this point, the remaining seven were not sure what to do. Should they remain together with the rest of the Newport Baptists, a course of action that was becoming increasingly difficult, or should they form their own separate congregation?
Counsel on this question came to Newport from several sources. Baptist churches in Boston and Providence urged the Newport congregation to stay together. On the other hand, letters to the Mumfords and Hubbards from fellow Sabbatarians in London encouraged them to start a new congregation. One thing that probably increased the tension in Newport was the fact that about ten years before, twenty-one members had left the Newport Baptists in a disagreement over the practice of laying on of hands and other doctrines of Heb. 6:1-2. This incident may have made the congregation wary of other doctrinal differences. In any case, the situation reached a crisis point in 1671 when Obadiah Holmes gave a sermon against the Sabbath, saying it was causing people to leave Christ and go to Moses. On January 3, 1672 (by today’s calendar), the Mumfords, Hubbards, William Hiscox, Roger Baster, and Rachel Langworthy signed a covenant to become the Newport Seventh Day Baptist Church.
This first Sabbatarian congregation in America received continuing moral support from the Bell Lane Seventh Day Baptist Church in London, which kept in touch with the Newport group for about twenty years. Stephen Mumford returned to London for a brief visit in 1675, and shortly thereafter, Bell Lane member William Gibson and his family joined the Mumfords in Newport. Gibson would later succeed William Hiscox as pastor of the Newport church.
Under Hiscox and Gibson, the Seventh Day Baptists thrived in Rhode Island. There were thirty-seven members in 1678 and seventy-six by 1692. In 1708, a second congregation was formed in Westerly, Rhode Island. The Westerly Church (later called the First Hopkinton Church) became the leading Seventh Day Baptist congregation in the United States, with 764 members by 1800 . These congregations maintained a good relationship with the Rhode Island Baptists who met on Sunday.
Seventh Day Baptists played a significant role in the history of the American colonies. Especially notable are the descendants of Thomas and Amy Ward (no relation to the author), early members of the Newport congregation. Their son Richard was governor of Rhode Island from 1740-1742, and their grandson Samuel (1725-1776) was governor of Rhode Island in the 1760s and later represented the state in the First and Second Continental Congresses.
Samuel Ward, who became a baptized member of the Westerly congregation in 1769, was chairman of the Committee of the Whole of the Continental Congress. Unfortunately, he did not live to be able to sign the Declaration of Independence, dying of smallpox on March 15, 1776. His great-granddaughter Julia Ward Howe later wrote the words of the famous Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Meanwhile, some people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, two other havens of religious liberty, became Sabbatarians during the colonial period. When the Seventh Day BaptistGeneral Conference was organized in about 1802, it consisted of 1119 members in eight churches in four states. During the nineteenth century, the denomination spread across the United States, and by 1902, there were 9098 members in 100 churches in twenty-three states. Missionary efforts and the discovery of the Sabbath by people in various parts of the world have since resulted in the founding of Seventh Day Baptist congregations in a number of countries. Today the churches in the Seventh Day Baptist World Federation include well over 50,000 members, the vast majority outside of the United States. For over 300 years, the Seventh Day Baptists have provided a living testimony to the fact that Sabbatarianism does not necessarily lead to legalism or exclusivism.
The Seventh Day Baptists are also indirectly responsible for the acceptance of the Sabbath by other groups of Christians. In particular, they helped introduce it to the Adventists of theMillerite movement. In 1841, Rachel Preston Oakes, a Seventh Day Baptist, joined a congregation of Adventists in Washington, New Hampshire, and convinced her pastor, Frederick Wheeler, to accept the Sabbath in 1844. Other Adventists soon adopted the seventh day Sabbath, and two Sabbatarian denominations—the Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of God Seventh Day—soon came out of the Millerite movement. Later, in the 1930s, Herbert W. Armstrong and others associated with the Oregon Conference of the Church of God Seventh Day began the Radio Church of God (later called the Worldwide Church of God), which itself has had a number of Sabbatarian offshoots.
At present, there are well over ten million Sabbatarian Christians in the world, and that number is likely to continue growing in the years ahead. In today’s fast-paced world, the value of a weekly appointment with our Creator is greater than ever. And as more and more Christiansreclaim the Hebraic roots of their faith, the number who choose to keep that appointment on the biblical seventh day will increase. The courageous Sabbatarians of the seventeenth century would no doubt be glad to know about the ultimate fruits of their efforts. I, for one, am honored to follow in the footsteps of such people of integrity and am very thankful for the freedom to do so openly.
1. Bryan W. Ball, The Seventh-day Men: Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600-1800, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994.
2. David S. Katz, Sabbath and Sectarianism in Seventeenth Century England, E.J. Brill, New York, 1988.
3. James McGeachy, `The Times of Stephen Mumford,’ Seventh Day Baptist Center, 3120 Kennedy Road, P.O. Box 1678, Janesville, WI 53547. (This 1964 paper is available on the internet at http://www.ozemail.com.au/~sdbbris.)
4. Ralph Orr, From Sunday to Sabbath: The Puritan Origins of Modern Seventh-day Sabbatarianism. (This 1999 paper is available on the internet at http://www.wcg.org/lit.)
5. Don A. Sanford, A Choosing People: The History of the Seventh Day Baptists, Broadman Press, Nashville, 1992.