Free Will Men
An early English separatist group active from the late 1540's to ca. 1560. They were probably an outgrowth of an older existing Lollard tradition that expressed itself in light of the new Protestant Reformed Church of England during the reigns of Edward VI, and Mary I. They were commonly referred to as: Freewillers, Free Will Men, or Freewill Men.
Like their Lollards antecedents, these Freewill Men, questioned this "new" reformed Church of Edward VI, and its clerical manners (i.e., Protestantism). Old issues such as: "freedom of the will"; the emphasis on the literal Bible; Bible based teaching; and the enlightened Word of God were raised. The common man questioning the religious and civil establishments and its foibles.
A group of individuals were arrested at a conventicle at Bocking in Essex (1550). These individuals were held and then tried at the King's Bench Prison (Southwark) in 1550. There is a fair amount of documentation generated from this event which provides a good insight to the varied political and societal view of this group of individuals. Other similar groups were known at: Faversham, Maidstone, Ashford, and Lenham.
Due to their varied religious views, Freewill Men were often characterized as "Anabaptists" or "Peligians" by some of their opponents for their anti-predestination theology. Later generations might well have referred to them as Arminians. The movement supported a wide spectrum of views, but the emphasis was always on "personal religion" and the free will of the individual. Religious, political, and social conditions were also being questioned.
Well known members
Freewill Men became a type of "back-seat driver" to many of the religious and political discussions of the period. Raising their voices in many different venues to call attention to their concerns regarding the new Church reforms and its place in English society. Being outside the official framework, these people caused much concern for both the Church, and the civil authorities with their dissenting opinions. This was most true during the Reign of Queen Mary I with their very visible protestant positions.
Some of these Freewill Men argued for a separation from this new "Reformed
Church of England". Unlike their Lollard predecessors who only wanted
to reform the Church from within these "Free Will Men" became in effect
the first advocates of Separatism in English history.
As a cause, the Freewillers literally died out during the reign of Queen Mary I, as did a number of other dissident voices. They as their Lollards predecessors before and others have raised issues that would kindle later discussions. The Freewillers help to establish a liberal English religious tradition within Society, and anticipated the later works of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian, and others. A small group of individuals who raised many large and difficult issues who deserve more recognition of their place in English history.
FREEWILL MEN BIBLIOGRAPHY
[Anon.] Examinations and Writings, Eden, R. (ed.) (1842)
Augustine, St. (353-430). A Work of the Predestination of Saints, ... Lesse, Nicholas, Translator (1550)
Bradford, John. Defence of Election
______.Writings, Townsend, A., (ed.) (2 vols.; 1848-53)
Champneys, John.The harvest is at hand, wherein the tares shall be bound, and cast into the fyre and brent (1548) [STC 4956]
Cole, Thomas. A godly and frutefull sermon, made at Maydstone ... (1553) [STC 5539]
Hart, Henry. A godly newe short treatyse instructyng every parson, howe they should trade theyr lyves (1548) [STC 12887]
______. A Consultorie for all Christians (1549) [STC 12564]
______. A godly exhortation (1549) [STC 12887.3]
______. The Enormities Proceeding of the Opinion that Predestination. Calling, and Election Is Absolute in Man as It is in God
[Helwys, Thomas]. An advertisement or admonition unto the congregation which we call the New Fryelers in the lowe countries (1611), written in Dutch, and published by Thomas Helwys.
______. An advertisement or admonition unto the congregation in the Lowe Countries (1611) [STC 13053]
Strype, John, c.1543-91. Ecclesiastical Memorials, Relating Chiefly to Religion, and the Reformation of It, and the Emergencies of the Church of England, Under King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, and Queen Mary I (3 vols. ; 1822)
Trew, John. The Cause of the Contention in the King's Bench, as Concerning Sects in Religion
______. [Another ed.], in Authentic Documents Relative to the Predestinarian Controversy , Laurence, R., ed. (1819)
Burrage, C., "Historical Data relative to the English Conventicles at Bocking and Faversham in 1550 and 1551", in The Early English Dissenters in the light of Recent Research, 1550-1641, Vol. 2 : Illustrated Documents (1912; 1967 ed.)
Dickens, A. G., The English Reformation (1964)
Dixon, R. W., History of the Church of England from the Abolition of the Roman Jurisdiction (6 vols. ; 1884-1910)
Hargrave, O. T., "The Freewillers in the English Reformation", Church History, 37 (1968)
Horst, I., B., The Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation to 1558 (1972)
Hughes, P. L., and Larkin, J. F., (eds.) Tudor Royal Proclamations (3 vols. ; 1964-69)
Knappen, M. M., Tudor Puritanism (1965)
Kirby, E. W., "The Lay Feoffees: A study in Militant Protestantism", Journal of Modern History, 14 (1942)
Martin, J. W., Religious Radicals in Tudor England (1989)
______. "English Protestant Separatism at its Beginnings: Henry Hart and the Free-will Men", The Sixteenth Century Journal, 7 (1976)
______. "Henry Hart and the Impact of the Vernacular Bible", in Religious Radicals in Tudor England (1989)
______. "Biographical Register of Freewillers", in Martin, J. W., Religious Radicals in Tudor England (1989)
Robinson, H. (ed.), Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation (1864)
Wallace, D. D., Puritanism and Predestination in English Protestant Theology, 1525-1695 (1982)
White, B. R., The English Separatist Tradition from the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (1971)
Williams, G. H., The Radical Reformation (1962)
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