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Nonconformity has ever flourished most in our manufacturing districts, where the people are more independent than in the small towns and rural districts, and less under the power of the privileged classes. Birmingham forms no exception to this general rule, as the sequel will shew.
It would be quite useless even to attempt to ascertain how far the spirit of Puritanism, which if it did not spring up, greatly increased during the reign of Elizabeth and James I., extended itself to this town, and whether amongst its manufacturers there were any who had read the books and imbibed the sentiments of such men as Cartright and other advocates of farther reform in church government; or whether there were any from among them who, preferring the blessings of civil and religious liberty to the comforts of their native country, fled like the exiles of the Speedwell and the Mayflower to the wilds of America. That there might have been such is not improbable, since from the time of Henry VIII. there were many of them scattered through the country.
When the contest between Charles I. and his parliament commenced, a large portion of the people of Birmingham took up warmly the cause of the latter. Clarendon in his history of what he designates “ The Great Rebellion," has the following passage: speaking of the battle of Edge Hill, he says, “The circuit in which it was fought being very much in the interest of the Lord Say and the Lord Brooke, was the most eminently corrupted of any in England.” By which he means the most disaffected to the King. He then goes on to speak of Birmingham, and affirms, “that it was so generally wicked, that it had risen upon small parties of the King's soldiers, and killed or taken them prisoners and sent
them to Coventry, declaring more personal malice to his Majesty than any other place." Now as the royal cause and episcopacy were almost identical, and the town of Birmingham was generally alienated from Charles, we are tolerably certain that it must have been equally disaffected to the Established Church, and must have approved of the conduct of parliament in abolishing it.
Baxter, in his “Life and Times,” says, rison of Coventry consisted, half of citizens and half of country men ; the country men were such as had been forced from their own dwellings, the most religious men of the parts round about, especially from Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield, &c. These were men of great sobriety and soundness of understanding as any garrison heard of in England.” This is another proof of the prevalence of nonconformist principles at that time in our town, and also a fine testimony to their piety, their intellect, and their general good conduct.
That nonconformity existed in Birmingham at, and perhaps, before this time, though it moved, for fear of the law, somewhat stealthily, is not unlikely, for in an old tract, entitled “Prince Rupert’s burning Love to England discovered in Birmingham's flames, &c." printed in 1643, it is said the royalist soldiers having assaulted a Mr. Whitehall, a minister, who had long been a lunatic, and held Jewish opinions, they “asked him if he would have quarter; he answered to this, or like purpose, he scorned quarter from any Popish armies, or soldiers ; whereupon, they, supposing him to be Mr. Roberts, of Birmingham, did most cruelly mangle and hack him to death; and found certain idle and foolish papers in his pocket, which they spared not to divulge (as they thought to the Roundheads' infamy), and so went insulting up and down in the town, that they had quartered their minister; out of whose bloody hands the Lord delivered him a little before the town was assaulted, and blessed be God he is neither slain nor hurt.” In another place the narrative, speaking of the calamities which the people of Birmingham had suffered, thus proceeds, “Their minister is driven from home, detained from all employment, and deprived of all his maintenance, besides his many losses by fire and plundering; and till these parts be cleared, small hopes of his safe return, being so much maligned, and threatened by the Cavaliers, and the domineering anti-guard left in Birmingham. The people that are left are fed with such rayling sermons as one Orton, curate to parson Smith, the antient pluralist, can afford them, rankly tempered with the malignancy of his owne distempered spirit.”
In another tract, printed also in 1643, entitled “A Letter written from Walsall by a worthy gentleman to his friend in Oxford, concerning Burmingham,” speaking of the same circumstances the writer says, “One thing more I heard of at the taking of Burmingham, which made some impression with me, which was the death of a minister, killed presently after the entry of the soldiers into the toune. But it is alleged he told the soldier who killed him, that the King was a perjured and Papistical King, and that he had rather die than live under such a king, and that he did and would fight against him; and that in his pocket, after his death, were found some papers sufficient to make one believe the man was either mad or one of the new enthusiasts ;”—“And surely, whatever the principles of their teachers may be, the conclusions made by their disciples are very strange. One of the best sort of their prisoners here, being discoursed withall concerning his taking up armes in that manner, considering his oaths of allegiance and supremacy, peremptorily answered, he never did nor never would take these oaths.'*
From this account it is tolerably clear that at the time, Smith was rector of St. Martin's, and Orton his curate, and that Roberts was the pastor of a congregation of dissenters from the Established Church, but of what denomination nothing remains to shew. These despised and persecuted Puritans met, no doubt, in some hired room, for as yet no place of worship, otherwise than the parish church, had been erected.
Smith was succeeded in the rectory of St. Martin's by Mr. Samuel Wills. This change was in all probability effected by the intervention of a committee appointed by Parliament, for trying and ejecting scandalous and incompetent ministers. Dr. Calamy, in his Nonconformist Memorial, gives the following account of Mr. Wills :—“He was born at Coventry, and first called to the ministry at Croxal, in Staffordshire. Being driven from thence in the time of the civil war, he removed to London, and was chosen at Great St. Helen's, where he spent a considerable time to the great satisfaction of his hearers. The people of Birmingham being destitute, Mr. Simeon Ashe recommended Mr. Wills to them. There he had a large congregation, many of whom were very intelligent and pious people, and very diligent in searching the scriptures. He continued with them twenty years in great reputation for his probity, wisdom, and seriousness, till the year 1660 or 1661, when one Mr. Slater, an apothecary, encouraged by the alterations expected from the Restoration, pretended a claim under the widow of the former incumbent. Though the Court of Arches had declared themselves in favour of Mr. Wills' title, yet partly by fraud and more by force, this apothecary got possession of the church, and became preacher there.* Mr. Wills being
* These extracts are from Mr. Wreford's Sketch of the History of Presbyterianism in Birmingham.
* Slater could not have long retained his ill-gotten pulpit, as we find from that rancorous and most mendacious work,“Walker's Sufferings of the Clergy,” that in 1665 the Rev. John Riland, A.M. was inducted to the living of St. Martin's. This gentleman was the lineal ancestor of another John Riland, whom God in his great goodness sent to this town a little more than a century after, I mean the former minister of St. Mary's chapel, and of course the father of the present much-esteemed and beloved minister of the chapel connected with the Magdalene Asylum. Of this venerable Archdeacon of Coventry and Rector of St. Martin's I find the following beautiful account in Walker, drawn up probably by Mr. Riland's son:-“He was very constant in his meditations and devotions, both public and private, wbich he delivered with that plainness and simplicity of speech and deportment, that there was not the least appearance of any unnatural and forced flights and enthusiastic raptures. There was such a strict and universal holiness in his life and conversation, that he is now called at Birmingham • That holy man. He was so very affable and humble that he never passed by any one without some particular regard and friendly salutation. He was such a lover of peace, that he laboured much for it; and when he could not persuade those that were at variance to abate anything of the height of their demands, he many times deposited the money out of his own pocket that he might make one of two contending parties. He was so charitable that he carried about a poor box with him, and never reckoned himself poor but when that was empty ; and it was not a single charity he gave them, because he not only fed their bodies, but their souls; for when he gave them a dole of bread in the church, he called them together and then framed a discourse to them particularly suited to their circum. stances: and indeed his exhortations on these occasions were so excellent and edifying, that several of the chief inhabitants came to hear them, and went away as well satisfied with these as the poor with the bread.” From this simple and beautiful narrative we would hope that St. Martin's was favoured with a successor to Mr. Wills not altogether unworthy of that good man. That parish seems marked out by God for special favour, for in the Rev. Thomas Moseley, its last incumbent, it possessed one of the most holy and conscientious clergymen in the land, and in its present, one of the most devoted, faithful, and, I rejoice to add, successful of pastors. May the parishioners of St. Martin's know this the day of their merciful visitation.