British Anabaptism

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During the late Tudor period (1530–1603) many English dissenting sects were lumped together under the term Anabaptism (even William Tyndale, the Bible translator, was charged with Anabaptist heresy), so it is hard to know about the groups of Anabaptists present in the British realms.[1]


Dutch and Flemish Anabaptists founded congregations in England as early as 1534, but for the next ten years they were heavily persecuted; large numbers of foreign Anabaptists were executed or burned at the stake.

After 1550 popular Anabaptist literature became available in English and eventually preachers and congregations appeared. The doctrine was disseminated among businessmen, aborers, women, and artisans. Between 1549 and 554 Thomas Putto, a tanner from Colchester, disrupted religious services, preached Anabaptist doctrines in London. Joan Bocher (also known as Boucher, Butcher, Knel) of Kent was a prominent Anabaptist and a member of the Stranger churches was held in jail for a year before being sentenced and condemned to be burned at the stake on May 2, 1550 at Smithfield (London) for holding heretical views of Christ.

In 1590 Anabaptists were ordered to leave England or join the Anglican Church (or the Strangers Church). The exile increased contact with Continental Anabaptists.

A family named Legatt or Legate was active in London about 1590–1612. They were cited as having Anabaptist or Seeker beliefs. One brother was drowned, a second died in prison for heresy. Bartholomew Legate (1575?–1612) and Edward Wightman (d. 1612) (or Thomas Withman) were burnt at the stake in 1612, that would be the last two heresy burnings in England.[2]

English separatist congregations in exile on the Continent during 1580–90s probably provide a conduit for early English Anabaptist traditions. Separatist congregations such as Francis Johnson (1562–1618), and John Smyth (ca. 1554–1612) in Holland from 1593–1614 have often been cited as possible sources of Anabaptist influences into England. Thomas Helwys' congregation which had been associated with John Smyths' congregations in Holland returned to London about 1612. Helwys has been cited as the first English Baptist congregation on English soil.[3]

During the Interregnum, the term Anabaptist was often used to describe sects who seemed to hold or practiced believers baptism or baptism by immersion by their opponents. These included the General Baptist, the Particular Baptist, Barrowists, and other nonconformists groups.

It is generally assumed that the Baptist and other dissenting groups absorbed the British Anabaptists. The relations between Baptists and Anabaptists were early strained. In 1624 the then five existing Baptist churches of London issued an anathema against the Anabaptists.[4] Today there is little dialogue between Anabaptist organizations (such as the Mennonite World Conference) and the Baptist bodies.


  2. After 1612 most heretics were simply sent to prison and there left to die.
  3. Wright, Stephen (2004), "Helwys, Thomas", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Melton, J.G. Baptists in "Encyclopedia of American Religions". 1994


  • Heriot, D., "Anabaptism in England during the 16th and 17th centuries", Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 12 (1935–36)
  • Horst, I. B. Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation in 1558 (1972)
  • Loades, D. "Anabaptism and English Sectarianism in the Mid-Sixteenth Century", Studies in Church History, 2 (1979)
  • "England" in Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online