Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
John Thorogood, Dissenter
By Charles Edwards Lester (18151890)
[Born in Griswold, Conn., 1815. Died, 1890. The Glory and the Shame of England. 1841.]
CHELMSFORD, , 1840.
YESTERDAY I came to this place, which is thirty miles northeast of London, chiefly to see John Thorogood, who is a victim of the tyranny of the Established Church. I have spent several hours with him in the Chelmsford jail; and I have seen no man for a long time for whom I feel more sympathy and admiration. I found my way to the jail, and asked permission to see Mr. Thorogood. The keeper reluctantly turned the key and unbarred the door.
Yes, sir, said he, you must come in, I suppose, but I wish the authorities would take this Thorogood away; for once in a few minutes, day after day, and month in and month out, some one comes to the door, Can I see John Thorogood, sir? Can I see Mr. Thorogood, sir? I have come to see this famous Thorogood; and I have got sick of his very name. Why, if you were to stay here one week, you would think there was nobody in all England worth seeing but John. But I dont complain of him or his wifethats all well enough; still I dont want to be bothered with John any longer.
The jailer led me to Mr. Thorogoods apartment, and I introduced myself. He seemed to be about thirty-five or forty years old, with a stout and well-made person. His countenance wears a kind but resolute expression, and his forehead denotes a considerable degree of intellect. He is a mechanic, and has always moved in the common walks of society; but he is a man of extraordinary intelligence and great firmness of character. I told him that I had come to Chelmsford to see him; that I considered him a persecuted man, and wished to know something of his history.
Yes, sir, said he, I am a persecuted man, and I thank you for coming to see me. I am an obscure and unworthy individual, but the Providence of God has placed me in circumstances very trying, and I have endeavored to act like a free man in Christ. I said I was glad to see you, and I am; and I thank you for the sympathy you manifest in my behalf: not because I begin to grow irresolute and faint-hearted; for I should be just as firm, I think, if I stood alone; but then, you know, it does one good to see the face of a friend, and take hold of his hand, when one is in trouble or persecution for conscience sake.
Eighteen months, sir; and all for what some consider a very small matter. They say John Thorogood had rather lie in jail eighteen months than pay five and sixpence church-rate. Just as though I cared anything for that five and sixpence. Why, I will give any of those gentlemen half a sovereign or more any time for a good cause; but I am not in Chelmsford jail for five and sixpence at all. I am here because I will not surrender my liberty of conscience. That is the highest and most inviolable of all human rights. I can bear oppression until you invade the sacred ground of native moral rights; and then I cannot, and will not, give way to the wicked claims of despotic civil rulers.
But I will tell you something about the history of this matter, and then you can judge for yourself. I am, as you well know, a Dissenter. For many years I felt it my duty to oppose the Established Church. I wept over its corruptions, its abuses of power and truth, its tyrannical oppressions of the consciences of good men; but still I paid my church-rates, although I received no advantages whatever from the institution I supported. I regarded this payment of church-rates rather as a civil duty.
But after suffering a good many trials of feeling, at last I became satisfied that it was wrong for me in any way to give my countenance to the Establishment, and I refused to pay five and sixpence church-rate. I was summoned before the Ecclesiastical Court to be tried, and, of course, condemned by my enemies; for in England, when the Church prosecutes a suit at law, you must know that they are both judge and jury. I thought and prayed over the matter, and concluded it was best for me to pay no attention to it.
The result of it all was, that for contempt of court, as it was called, I was thrown into this jail, the 16th of January, 1839, where I have remained ever since, and where I will remain till I die, rather than surrender the principle for which I am contending. That principle is no less than that for which Protestant reformers in all ages have contended: the very principle for which England broke away from her allegiance to Rome; for which Huss and Jerome, and ten thousand others, went to the stake; the same principle for which John Bunyan lay twelve years in Bedford jail; the greatest, the dearest principle for which man ever contendedthe high and sacred right of conscience .
They are right in saying, The question is not whether we shall let an honest and worthy man go out of his prison and enjoy his freedom; for they all would be glad, undoubtedly, to see me liberated; but the question is, Shall we surrender the rights of the Church? Shall we concede the great question of church-rates, tithes, and government patronage? If we let this man go, we must give up the Church; and the consequence of it would be a dissolution of the union of Church and State.
It has always happened, I believe, that every great question which has ever yet been disposed of has been settled in this way. Nothing has pained me so much as to see how insensible the great mass of the Dissenters are to the infinite importance of this question. Why, sir, multitudes of them have come to me, and besought me to give it up; they said, Why, John, you are only one man! So was Luther only one man; and suppose he had given up.
Look back on the history of the world, and you will find that one man has worked a revolution. One man is enough to start a Reform; but he must have help to carry it on. Oh! brethren, I say to them, if you would all come along with me; if the millions of English Dissenters would take the same stand that I have, what a spectacle would be presented! Why, we would gain our cause at once. To assert our rights would be to secure them; it would be a pretty sight, surely, to see half the people of England in jail! Oh! would to God the faint-hearted and policy-bewitched Dissenters would go along with me. I want to see no violence; none is needed. We could dissolve the Unholy Alliance of the Cross and the Throne as peaceably as we effected the Revolution of 1688.
It is a mystery which I cannot unravel, why the Dissenters submit to these abuses. They will get up great meetings; they will make enthusiastic speeches; they will write flaming pieces about the corruptions of the Church; they will clamor violently about rights of conscience, and yet not a soul of them has the courage to take the stand that poor, ignorant John Thorogood, the shoemaker, has. But they will have to do it before they ever get their liberty.