Thrown out of the church – the Great Ejection from the CofE


This year sees the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection.

In 1662 about 2,000 ministers and others in the pay of the National Church in England and Wales were silenced or ejected from their livings for failing to conform to what the Church of England required.

Most of the names of the men who were ejected and their wives, who suffered with them, are unfamiliar to us, though names such as Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton and Thomas Watson are well known. Though a few good men did remain in the national church, Gerald Bray is right to say that almost all of the ejected ‘were Puritans, and so the Act [of Uniformity, 1662] may be said to represent the expulsion of Puritanism from the national church’.

All that is good

In 1962, speaking at the Evangelical Library, Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that practically all that is good in evangelicalism finds its roots in Puritanism.

Joseph Alleine (1634-1668) was the author of the posthumous bestseller Alarm to the Unconverted. He was ejected from his living in 1662 and imprisoned in Ilchester the following year. His older brother Edward had been a minister, but died aged only 26. This prompted Joseph to enter the ministry. In 1655 Alleine married his cousin, Theodosia Alleine, whose father, Richard Alleine, and uncle, William Alleine, were also ejected. Theodosia subsequently wrote of her husband: ‘He would be much troubled if he heard smiths or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades before he was in his duties with God, saying to me often, “O how this noise shames me! Doth not my Master deserve more than theirs?”’

Arrested

She also tells how they were at home one Saturday evening in 1663 when her husband was seized by an officer of their town who was reluctant to perform this duty but was forced to by his superiors.

The warrant required Alleine to appear at the house of a justice. He asked if he could eat with his family first. This was initially denied, but a prominent man in the town agreed to guarantee his speedy appearance after that. Theodosia continues: ‘His supper being prepared, he sat down, eating very heartily, and was very cheerful, but full of holy and gracious expressions, suitable to his and our present state’.

After supper, having prayed with the family, he went with the officer and some friends to the justice’s house, where he was accused of breaking the law by preaching, which he denied. He was accused of ‘being at a riotous assembly’ though involved in nothing but preaching and prayer.

‘Then he was much abused with many scorns and scoffs from the justices and their associates, and even the ladies as well as the gentlemen often called him rogue, and told him that he deserved to be hanged, … with many such like scurrilous passages, which my husband receiving with patience, and his serene countenance showing that he did slight the threatenings, made them the more enraged. They then urged him much to accuse himself, but in vain.

Very cheerful

‘Despite a lack of evidence, after keeping him until 12 with their abuse and mocking, they made out an arrest warrant committing him to gaol the following Monday. It was about two in the morning by the time he was home, so he lay on his bed still dressed to sleep for a few hours before rising to pray at about eight o’clock, by which time several friends had arrived. He was not allowed to preach but was free to speak with the various groups that flocked in from the town and nearby villages and to pray with them.’

Theodosia continues: ‘He was exceeding cheerful in his spirit, full of admiration of the mercies of God, and encouraging all that came to be bold, and venture all for the gospel and their souls, notwithstanding what was come upon him for their sakes. For, as he told them, he was not at all moved at it, nor did not in the least repent of anything he had done, but accounted himself happy under that promise Christ makes … that he should be doubly and trebly blessed now he was to suffer for his sake; and was very earnest with his brethren in the ministry that came to see him, that they would not in the least desist when he was gone, that there might not be one sermon the less in Taunton; and, with the people, to attend the ministry with greater ardency, diligence, and courage than before; assuring them how sweet and comfortable it was to him to consider what he had done for God in the months past; and that he was going to prison full of joy, being confident that all these things would turn to the furtherance of the gospel, and the glory of God.

Streets lined with people

‘Not wanting to leave his people without some final words, he met with them in the small hours of the following morning. Several hundred gathered to hear him preach and pray for about three hours. At about nine, again with friends accompanying him, he set out for Ilchester. The streets were lined with people on either side. Many followed him out of the town for several miles, earnestly lamenting their loss. Alleine was very moved by all this but did his best to look cheerful and say something encouraging. He carried his arrest warrant himself, and had no officer with him. When he came to the prison the gaoler was not there, so he took opportunity to preach one final time before entering, which he was later vilified for. When the gaoler came, he delivered his warrant and was clapped up in the Bridewell chamber, which is over the common gaol.’

On arriving, Alleine found there his friend John Norman from Bridgwater, imprisoned a few days before. Norman’s great fear was ending up as an indentured labourer on one of the plantations of the West Indies, a realistic fear for Nonconformists at that time.

Alleine spent the next four months in this hole. At that time the gaol held 50 Quakers, 17 Baptists and about 12 others, who, like Alleine, had been arrested for preaching and praying. Through the summer months, the heat inside the low-ceilinged prison was quite unbearable. There was little privacy and nowhere to eat. Night and day they could hear the singing, cursing and clanking chains of the criminals in the cells below. The professed Quakers could be a nuisance too.

Taking turns to preach

Alleine and his companions took it in turns to preach and pray publicly once or twice a day. There were usually crowds from the villages around listening at the bars of the prison. The rest of the day was spent speaking to those who thronged to him for counsel and instruction. He would spend much of the night studying and in prayer. He was allowed to curtain off a corner of the room big enough for his bed, where he could pray in private. Theodosia bravely chose to share imprisonment with him. After some weeks, he was allowed to walk in the countryside, if the gaoler was willing. Friends supplied him with food and money and he stayed healthy in body and mind.

On July 14, he was taken to court in Taunton and indicted for preaching. Despite a lack of evidence he was returned to prison where he and his companions would soon have to face the cold of winter, every bit as trying as the heat of summer. It was a whole 12 months before he was released. He kept busy writing books, including an exposition of the Shorter Catechism. There were also weekly letters to his people, a number of which were later collected and published. He also sent out catechisms for distribution among poor families. When the gaol chaplain fell ill, Alleine dared to take his place, and, until prohibited, preached to the criminals in the gaol and helped them in other ways. He was much in prayer throughout his time in prison.

Once free again, Alleine set about his work with alacrity, but some three years on he was re-arrested, along with his wife, her aged father, seven other ministers and 40 others. Alleine was not well when he entered prison this second time, and it greatly weakened him so that, after returning to Taunton in February 1668, his health broke down completely. Nine months later, at the age of only 34, weary from hard work and suffering, he died.

Continuing challenge

How such a story should stir us up to zeal for serving the Lord in our generation. This is only one example of such faithfulness among hundreds. As Spurgeon once said, ‘These were men who counted nothing their own. They were driven out from their benefices, because they could not conform to the established church, and they gave up all they had willingly to the Lord. They were hunted from place to place … they wandered here and there to preach the gospel to a few poor sheep, being fully given up to their Lord. Those were foul times; but they promised they would walk the road fair or foul, and they did walk it knee-deep in mud; and they would have walked it if it had been knee-deep in blood too’.

Gary Brady, 
Childs Hill Baptist Church, London
(This article is edited from a piece that first appeared in Reformation Today, and is used with permission)