Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Biddle, John
BIDDLE, JOHN (1615–1662), unitarian, was son of a tailor of Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, where he was baptised on 14 Jan. 1615. He early showed himself a youth of great promise. He was fortunate enough to come under the notice of George, eighth Lord Berkeley, who allowed him, with other scholars, an annual exhibition of ten pounds, though he was not yet ten years old. 'He was educated,' says Wood, 'in grammar-learning in the free school, by John Rugg and John Turner, successive teachers.' Under the latter he 'outran his instructors, and became tutor to himself.' While still a schoolboy he 'english'd ' 'Virgil's Bucolics and the two first Satyrs of Juvenal.' These were printed in 1634, and dedicated to 'John Smith, Esq., of Nibley,' Gloucestershire, and the 'Mecsenas of the Wottonian muses.' He likewise 'compos'd and recited before a full auditory,' in the beginning of 1634, 'an elaborate oration in Latin for the funeral of an honourable school-fellow.' He was a dutiful son to his mother who was left a widow in straitened circumstances at this period.
He proceeded in 1634 to Oxford, and was entered a student of Magdalen Hall. 'And for a time,' says Anthony à Wood, 'if I mistake not, was put under the tuition of John Oxenbridge, a person noted to be of no good principles.' In his college, an early biographer informs us, 'he did so philosophize, as it might be observed, he was determined more by reason than authority; however, in divine things he did not much dissent from the common doctrine, as may be collected from a little tract he wrote against dancing.'
On 23 June 1638 he passed B.A., and then became an eminent tutor in his college. On 20 May 1641 he proceeded M. A. Before this date he had been 'invited to take upon him the care of teaching the school wherein he had been educated' (Athenæ Oxon.) Soon after the magistrates of Gloucester, 'upon ample recommendations from the principal persons in the university,' chose him 'master of the free school in the parish of St. Mary le Crypt in that city.' He accepted this appointment, and 'he was much esteemed for his diligence in his profession, serenity of manners, and sanctity of life.' 'At length,' says Wood, 'the nation being brought into confusion by the restless presbyterians, the said city garrison'd for the use of the parliament, and every one vented his or their opinions as they pleased, he began to be free oi his discourses of what he studied there at leisure hours concerning the Trinity, from the Holy Scriptures, having not then, as he pretended, convers'd with Socinian books. . . . But the presbyterian party, then prevalent, having notice of these matters, and knowing well what mischief he might do among his disciples, the magistrate summon'd him to appear before him ; and after several interrogatories, a form of confession imder three heads was proposed to him to make, which he accomingly did 2 May 1644, but not altogether in the words proposed. Which matter giving them no satisfaction, he made another confession in the same month, more evident than the former, to avoid the danger of imprisonment which was to follow if he did deny it.'
The matter seemed to have blown over, and Biddle quietly pursued his study in Holy Scripture. His manuscript — which ultimately he meant to print and publish — containing a statement of nis religious opinions, was treacherously obtained by a supposed friend. The parliamentary commissioners were then sitting in Gloucester, and were put in possession of his manuscript on 2 Dec. 1645. The commissioners read his 'Arguments,' and forthwith committed their author to the common gaol till opportunity should offer of bringing nis case before the House of Commons. A local gentleman interposing on his behalf, and becoming bail for him, he was allowed out ' on condition of his appearing before parliament when required, to answer any charges which might be brought against him.'
In June 1646 Archbishop Ussher, passing through Gloucester on his way to London, held a conference with the bailed prisoner of state, but could not convince him of his errors. The great prelate 'spoke to and used him with all fairness and pity, as well as strength of argument,' and it must be added with all respect ; 'for the truth is,' observes Anthony k Wood, 'except his opinions there was little or nothing blameworthy in him.'
About six months after he had been liberated on bail, he was cited to Westminster to make his defence. The parliament appointed a committee to examine him. He admitted that he did not believe in the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, and express his readiness to discuss the subject with any theologian whom they might appoint. There was delay, and Biddle desired Sir Henry Vane of the committee to see that his cause might be heard or he be set at liberty. Vane proposed this on the floor of the house, and otherwise showed a friendliness to Biddle which did not improve his prospects. Biddle therefore boldly published 'Twelve Questions or Arguments drawn out of Scripture, wherein the commonly received Opinion touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit is clearly and fully refuted,' 1647. Prefixed is a letter to Vane, and at the end 'An Exposition of five principal Passages of the Scripture alledged by the Adversaries to prove the Deity of the Holy Ghost.' Called to the bar of the house, he owned the book, and was remanded to prison, and on 6 Sept. 1647 the ' Twelve Arguments ' was ordered to be burnt by the hangman as being blasphemous.
The 'Twelve Arguments' attracted great attention, and was reprinted in the same year. It was answered by Matthew Poole in his 'Plea for the Godhead of the Holy Ghost,' subsequently enlarged. The letter to Vane is able and dignified. Nicholas Estwick, B.D., and others, exposed mistakes of fact in the book, but Biddle, who read all, would not admit that he was confuted.
On 2 May 1648 an ordinance was passed that inflicted the penalty of death upon those who denied the doctrine of the Trinity. None the less Biddle published in the same year his 'Confession of Faith touching the Holy Trinity according to Scripture,' and in quick succession 'The Testimonies of Irenæus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Novatianus, Theophilus, Origen (who lived in the first two centuries after Christ was born or thereabouts), as also of Arnobius, Lactantius, &c., concerning that One God and the Persons of the Trinity, with observations on the same. Upon the publication of the 'Testimonies' the assembly of divines sitting at Westminster made their appeal to the parliament that he might suffer death. The divines had given him up as hopelessly unconvertible. Dr. Peter Gunning, indeed, visited him still, but with no success. But parliament did not confirm the divines' appeal. He never was brought to trial, and at length personal friends united, and one of their numoer once more procured his liberation 'by becoming surety for his appearance whenever he might be called upon.' He went down with a friend to Staffordshire, and not only became his chaplain, but also a preacher in a church there. Tidings of these things having been conveyed to the lord president Bradshaw, Biddle was once more apprehended and closely confined. Almost contemporaneously his Staffordshire benefactor died, and left him a small legacy. This was 'soon devoured by the payment of prison fees,' and he was left in utter indigence. His chief support, it is pathetically recorded, consisted of 'a draught of milk from the cow every morning and evening.'
Relief came unexpectedly. A learned man, who knew his competency, recommended him as a corrector of the press to Roger Daniel, printer, who was about to publish an edition of the Septuagint. This and other like literary employment enabled him, while it lasted, to procure a comfortable subsistence. Thomas Firmin dared to deliver also at this time to Cromwell a petition for his release from Newgate. Bishop Kennet thus reports the Protector's answer: 'You curl-pate boy, do you think I'll show any favour to a man who denies his Saviour, and disturbs the government?' (Register and Chronicle, p. 761).
On 10 Feb. 1662, by the will of Oliver, the parliament passed a general act of oblivion. This restored Biddle and many others to their full liberty. The first use which he made of his recovered freedom was ' to meet each Lord's day those friends whom he had gained in London, and expound the Scriptures to them.' He is also alleged to have translated and published at home and in Holland a number of Socinian books. It is very uncertain which were really translated by him. He further organised a conventicle, and conducted public worship.
In 1654 he again laid himself open to legal penalties. He published now 'A Two-fold Catechism, the one simply called A Scripture Catechism, the other A Brief Scripture Catechism for Children.' Complaint was made of these catechisms in parliament. Early in December 1654 the author was placed at the bar of parliament and asked whether he wrote the books. He replied by asking whether it seemed reasonable that one brought before a judgment-seat as a criminal should accuse himself. After debate and resolutions, he was on 13 Dec. 'committed a close prisoner to the Gatehouse and forbidden the use of pen, ink, and paper, or the access of any visitant; and all the copies of his books which could be found were ordered to be burnt.'
This resolution was carried out on the following day, and a bill afterwards ordered to be brought in for punishing him. But after about six months' imprisonment he obtained his liberty at the court of the Upper or King's Bench, 28 May 1 656. He was only out a month when he was entangled in a disputation with one John Griffin, pastor of a baptist church. Griffin was illiterate, and could not possibly have held his own against Biddle. But instead of mere disputation the law was invoked, an information was lodged against Biddle, and he was apprehended, and put first into the Poultry tfompter and then into Newgate. At the next sessions he was indicted at the Old Bailey under the obsolete and abrogated ordinance called the 'Draconick ordinance,' which had been passed on 2 May 1648, but had never acquired the force of law. At first the aid of counsel was denied him, but after a time, on putting in a bill of exceptions, his request was complied with, and the trial was fixed for the next day. But Cromwell interposed his authority and put a stop to the proceedings. A miserable tangle ensued. The upshot of the whole was that, as the lesser of two evils, he was 'banished to the Scilly Islands 5 Oct. 1655, to remain in close custody in the castle of St. Mary's during his life.' On the day previous (4 Oct.) there came out 'Two Letters of Mr. John Biddle, late Prisoner in Newgate, but now hurried away to some remote Island. One to the Lord Protector, the other to the Lord President Lawrence, 1655.' He expressly separates himself from Socinus as to the personality of the Holy Spirit.
The Protector allowed him 100 crowns per annum. He remained in prison until 1658. In the interval many means were taken to obtiiin his release. Calamy interceded. Baptist ministers interceded. He himself wrote with pathos and power. At length, through the intercession of many friends, he was conveyed from St. Mary's Castle by habeas corpus to the Upper Bench at Westminster, and, no accuser appearing, he was discharged by Lord Chief Justice Glynn.
Hereupon with alacrity he re-founded a 'society on congregational principles, and resumed his long suspended classes among his friends.' Thus he continued until Cromwell's death on 8 Sept. following. Before the parliament summoned by Richard Cromwell met, he was advised to retire into the country by, it is believed, the lord chief justice. It was a prudent step, though he was reluctant to assent. A committee was appointed by the house to examine into the state of religion, and one of its first acts was to institute an inquiry into his liberation. The matter subsided. He ventured back to London. But on 1 June 1662 he was seized in his lodging 'with a few of his friends who were assembled for divine worship, and carried before a justice of the peace, Sir Richard Brown.' They were 'all sent to prison without bail.' The trial lingered. At last he was brought in guilty and fined 'one hundred pounds, and to lie in prison till paid; and each of his hearers in the sum of twenty pounds.' In less than five weeks after the sentence, the closeness of his imprisonment and the foulness of the air brought on a disease which terminated fatally. Sir Richard Brown refused any mitigation of the prison rules in his favour; but the sheriff whose name was Meynell, granted permission for him to be removed 'into a situation more favourable to his recovery.' The indulgence came too late. In less than two days he died 'between the hours of five and six on the morning of 22 Sept. 1662, in the forty-seventh year of his age.'
[Johannis Biddelii (Angli) Acad. Oxon. quondam A. M. celeb. Vita. 1682; Short Account of the Life of John Biddle, M.A., 1691; Wood's Ath. Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 693-603 ; Biog.Brit.; Toulmin's Review of the Life, Character, and Writings, 1791 ; Edwards's Gangræna, iii. 87; Whitelocke's Mem. pp. 270-1. 500, 691 ; Rushworth, vi. 259, 261; Crosby's Hist. of Baptists, i. 206–16; Life of Thomas Firmin, 1698, p. 10; Wallace's Anti-Trinitarian Biography; Biddle's Works.]