Lo-lathrop Family Association Conference
October 13-15, 1989
Wm. Stevens Taber, Jr.
Reprinted from A New Home In Mattakeese: A Guide to Rev. John Lothropp's Barnstable (with permission from author).
Religious freedom, which we take for granted in America today, is not a right enjoyed by everyone in the world. In Iran and Lebanon, in Haiti and Nicaragua, in Sri Lanka and the Punjab, people today still suffer persecution, imprisonment and death for their religious beliefs. At the time of Reverend John Lothropp, such persecution was the lot of virtually all people in the world. The very idea of religious freedom was born in that time and was given life by the struggle and the sacrifice of a handful of English men and women known as Puritans. Reverend John Lothropp was among these people. He was a man with no ambition to shape history and no desire to rebel against authority, but his destiny would compel him into prominence and his unwilling genius would come to shape the religious and secular life of England and America.
Since the time of Richard the second, it had been a crime in England to worship outside of the established church. His successor, Henry IV, had given teeth to Richard's law by providing that persons suspected of such independent worship be burned at the stake. Henry IV's successors, down to James I and Charles I, Kings of England in the time of John Lothropp, all consolidated and strengthened the control of the English throne over the religious life of the English people, claiming that the authority of God flows directly to the King, and from him to the clergy, and from them to the congregation.
The Puritans, by contrast, believed that the authority of God flows not through the King but arises directly from the people of the congregation, and that the people have the right to choose their own minister and to worship as they please. The Puritans also believed that a person should find God in his or her own heart, not externally in the teaching of the church, and that noone should be bound to any congregation by other than his own conscience. As John Wickliffe, the great early reformer of the Christian Church, had taught, to restrain men to a prescribed form of prayer is contrary to the liberty which is granted to them by God.
Now by birth, John Lothropp was a member of the English privileged classes, those people who most benefited from the tyranny against which he would later rebel. He studied at Oxford and Cambridge, the two greatest universities in the world at the time, where he was a protege of Dr. John King, then Bishop of London and Vice Chancellor of Oxford and one of the most powerful men in England. Upon graduation, he was promptly ordained a deacon and curate of the Church of England and took up his pastoral duties at the Egerton Church in Kent. The English countryside in those days was a prosperous and peaceful place, and the life of a clergyman was a privileged and enjoyable one. During his 11 years at Egerton, he took his first wife, Hannah House, he saw four of his children born, and he lived an outwardly peaceful and settled existence. John Lothropp was a gentle man by nature, much loved by his family and friends and passionately in love with life, with the very ordinariness of daily life as much as with its moments of exhilaration. His years in Egerton must have been happy ones indeed. But also during these years, his doubts about the established church, about its rituals, its hierarchies, its authoritarian character, were growing, and his conscience was increasingly troubled.
John Lothropp was originally enrolled to study at Oxford, but in approximately 1602, he had followed his brother Thomas to study at Cambridge. This was one of those seemingly coincidental turns of fate which will shape events for centuries to come. Oxford had previously been a center for religious dissent. Early in the sixteenth century, Elizabeth I had appointed Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester and Chancellor of Oxford, and Leicester had encouraged religious debate at Oxford. With the death of the Earl of Leicester, however, Oxford became a stronghold of conservative Anglican theology, and remained so when John Lothropp enrolled there, while Cambridge became the center of religious thinking at the cutting edge. John Lothropp must have been exposed at Cambridge to the teachings of the great reformer John Wickliff and to the radical thinking of his contemporaries, and Lothropp's own ideas, about the appropriateness of high religious ceremony, about democracy, and about the importance of the individual conscience in seeking God, had germinated. Upon leaving Cambridge, John Lothropp was appointed to a curate in Kent, and as it happened, the county of Kent was also a hotbed of religious reform, so the beliefs which would ultimately compel John Lothropp to his place in history were nurtured there as well.
Finally, in 1623, with a wife and four children to support, Reverend John threw over the security and comfort of his career in the Church of England and became minister of the First Independent Church of London. The church had been led by the Reverend Henry Jacob. In his last years, however, Jacob resigned as pastor of the church and went to Virginia. Upon his leaving the congregation in 1622, he wrote : "The Lord, I doubt not, will raise up others that shall in time bear witness unto this truth more effectually than I." His words were prophetic, for his successor was Reverend John Lothropp. Two years later, Jacob was dead.
Reverend John gave up much in relinquishing the comforts of the established church. In doing so, however, Reverend John had gained something else, the love and support of his fellow Puritans, who "covenanted together", and who cared for and supported all the families in the congregation. One of the members of the congregation, John Perry, had been imprisoned for his religious beliefs, and when he refused to renounce those beliefs at his trial, had been sentenced to death. He was then the father of four daughters, none older than four. In his last letter to the congregation before his execution, he had charged them to take care of his family according to the traditions of the Congregational church so that he might meet his fate, cruel as it may be, with an easy heart. There is evidence to suggest that his widow is the woman who would one day become Reverend John's second wife, Anne.
Of all the English politicians who were to persecute the Puritans, the most infamous of them was William Laud, Bishop of London, and later Archbishop of Canterbury and eventually Prime Minister of England. Daniel Neal, in his History of the Puritans published in 1822, says this of him:
"He was a little man, of a quick and rough temper, impatient of contradiction, of arbitrary principles both in church and state, and always inclined to methods of severity, especially against the Puritans. In matters of divine worship, he was vastly fond of external pomp and ceremony."