Arthur Hildersham: prince among puritans
2013 marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of this important figure, but Arthur Hildersham could to a great extent be considered a forgotten puritan.
Since the 13-page account of his life compiled by Samuel Clarke in the seventeenth century (in his A general martyrologie and also his The lives of two and twenty English divines), there has been no new biography of Hildersham.
Although Hildersham’s name appears in many collections of godly ‘lives’, the entry is usually brief and based almost solely on information from Clarke. Hildersham’s sermons are no longer in print, and do not have a place on our bookshelves, alongside those of his contemporaries.
Ask people in our churches to name leading lights of the puritan movement, and few would include Hildersham on their list. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that most present-day Christians have never heard of him,
But this was certainly not the case in the late sixteenth century and first half of the seventeenth century. During his lifetime, Hildersham was one of the most revered and prominent puritan figures.
Related to royalty and many of the highest noble families in the land, his leadership of the puritan Millenary Petition, presented to King James I on his accession to the English throne in 1603, reflected the esteem in which Hildersham was held by his brethren.
Few others had to suffer the level of persecution that Hildersham did for following the dictates of his conscience. Amongst his closest friends, he could count men like Thomas Cartwright, Richard Greenham, John Dod, John Preston, John Cotton, William Gouge and William Bradshaw.
Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the town in which he ministered for over 40 years, was regarded as a beacon of the Reformed faith. Even after his death in 1632, Hildersham’s views and example continued to be influential for the next generation of spiritual leaders, including the New England settlers, the Westminster divines and Richard Baxter.
Why then has Hildersham been neglected, despite a renewed interest in our puritan forefathers in the second half of the twentieth century?
Many of Hildersham’s papers have been destroyed or lost, which has not helped matters, but the main reason lies elsewhere. The revived interest in the puritans in recent years has been mainly print-driven. We have rediscovered the richness of our puritan heritage through the medium of reprinted sermon collections.
We take delight in pithy sermons, full of striking quotes and apt metaphors, which lodge in the memory and the heart. And here we find the difficulty with Hildersham — he is less accessible to the modern reader.
By the standards of his age, Hildersham published relatively little anyway — two large sermon series (one on the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, the other on Psalm 51), one shorter volume of sermons and a small treatise on the Lord’s Supper.
His thorough, judicious style can be off-putting initially for someone seeking a spiritual ‘quick fix’. Although the diligent student will be richly repaid by a study of Hildersham’s sermons, even Spurgeon, who valued his works highly, was forced to admit, ‘He is copious and discursive, we had almost said long-winded’ (Commenting and commentaries).
Another reason that so little has been written about Hildersham was his self-effacing nature. A serious and humble man, his aim was always to direct others to Christ, not himself. It was his second, rather than his first, birth which gave him cause to rejoice.
Like many other godly men of his time, he requested that at his funeral no sermon praising him should be preached. Nevertheless, the highest regard in which he was held by his brethren, as well as his noble birth and royal blood, make the appellation ‘prince’ not unfitting.
Hildersham’s story has lessons for us today. He was born to a devoutly Roman Catholic family in 1563, only five years after his relative Queen Elizabeth I had come to the English throne.
He was converted as a schoolboy and went on to study at Cambridge University. However, his father disinherited Arthur for his refusal to enter the Catholic priesthood and, penniless, he was forced to leave the university.
Providentially, he was rescued by his cousin, the godly Henry Hastings, third Earl of Huntingdon (known as ‘the puritan earl’), who became his patron.
The earl paid for him to continue his studies and then enabled him to enter the ministry as lecturer at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, in 1587. Also in 1593, the earl invited him to become Vicar of Ashby.
It was a fruitful time, with many conversions. But Hildersham was only to serve as Vicar of Ashby for a mere 12 years, before he was deprived of his office. He considered certain rituals prescribed by the Church of England as unbiblical and refused to conform to them.
The three main ceremonies to which he and others objected were making the sign of the cross in baptism, wearing the surplice and kneeling to receive Communion.
During Elizabeth’s reign he had been partially shielded from the worst consequences of his nonconformity, but after James I succeeded to the English crown in 1603, Hildersham was to suffer the full blast of the king’s opposition to Puritanism.
Several suspensions for a refusal to conform to the ‘ceremonies’ of the Church of England meant that his opportunities for preaching were severely curtailed. From 1613-1625 (the year of James’s death), he was banned from the pulpit completely.
He also underwent a spell in prison and was heavily fined, all for following his conscience. However, in the last seven years of his life, from 1625-1632, Hildersham was restored to the ministry and permitted to preach in Ashby again, delivering his great series of 152 lectures on Psalm 51. His death was greatly mourned by the whole community.
Hildersham faced some big issues which are still relevant to us. What is a true church? What is the nature of true worship? When is it right to separate from a church? How should we relate to other believers who hold different opinions? How far are we bound to obey our consciences, even when this brings us into conflict with the state?
We can learn much from Hildersham’s biblical approach and peaceable manner.
His response to frequent suspensions from the Church of England and prohibitions on his preaching provides us with a valuable model of how to endure persecution and an inspiration to greater commitment.
Preaching was for Hildersham the highest calling, but when the pulpit was closed to him, his pastoral heart made him seek other means, such as education and charity work, to carry on serving his people. He continued to live in Ashby and maintained a strong personal witness in the town.
His example of ongoing faithfulness in godly living, despite restricted circumstances, reminds us that he was ‘doing what he could, when he might not do what he would’ (written of ejected minister Rowland Nevet of Oswestry, who also continued to live among his people after he was silenced; The lives of Philip and Matthew Henry, J. B. Williams, Banner of Truth).
A visitor to Ashby-de-la-Zouch today will find much has changed since Hildersham’s time. The ancient castle, so familiar to Hildersham, lies in ruins, a casualty of the Civil War. Hildersham’s house too was destroyed in 1644 during that same conflict. However, St Helen’s Church, where he preached and taught, remains.
Hildersham is buried in its chancel, where there are monuments to several of his aristocratic relatives, including the later Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (wife of the ninth earl).
The memorial tablet to Hildersham, erected by his son Samuel, was moved during nineteenth century building work to an obscure location, high up on the wall of the south-east corner of the nave.
This year, the 450th anniversary of Hildersham’s birth provides an opportunity for people to rediscover this forgotten ‘prince among puritans’, and especially the message of God’s free and saving grace that Hildersham preached so fervently.
Lesley A. Rowe
The author is Associate Fellow in the history department of Warwick University, having completed a PhD on the ministry and works of Arthur Hildersham in 2009. Her book, The life and times of Arthur Hildersham: prince among puritans, will be published by Reformation Heritage Books in Spring 2013. She will deliver a public lecture on Hildersham in St Helen’s Parish Church, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, on Wednesday 1 May 2013, at 7.30 pm,
to which all are welcome.