Hugh Peters, 15991660
HE MOST SLANDERED MAN of his times was Hugh Peters, who was executed at the Restoration as a ringleader in the so-called Great Rebellion. He is usually set down as a wretched jester, and traduced as a mountebank, whereas there is far more evidence to show that he was a zealous preacher of the gospel. We give him a place here, not because we altogether admire him, but as a matter of justice to one who has been falsely accused.
In his unconverted life he was a daring sinner; but after he was converted he became a powerful preacher of the word. At St. Sepulchre's Church his preaching was very popular, and, better still, it was made useful in the conversion of hundreds. Having in a prayer for the queen uttered words which were taken to imply that she was in need of repentance, as in all probability she was, he was imprisoned by Laud. He ultimately fled the country, and became a pastor, first in Holland, and then in America. His reputation was so great that his brother colonists sent him home as a mediator upon important business. Here he was detained by the breaking out of the civil wars, during which he became an army chaplain, was present at many great battles, and was frequently sent up to the parliament to report progress.
Peters was at one time secretary to Oliver Cromwell. Carlyle quotes his description of the taking of Basing House, and speaks of him as "a man concerning whom the reader has heard so many falsehoods." The utmost malice of the Cavaliers was expended in blackening this man's character with the view of excusing his execution by Charles II., which was nothing better than a judicial murder. A respectable biographer says of him, "Peters was not a wise man in all things; he was forward and hasty of speech, but he was a true and sincere man; a man of unblemished reputation in circles where nothing foul or mean was tolerated, and a man who in every respect was immensely the superior of those who traduced him.
It was the common expression of those days that the saints should have the praises of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their hands, and this was far too prominently the case with Peters. He was "the fighting parson" of his day; but like the Ironsides among whom he ministered he was a devout soldier, and was made a soldier by his devotion. Our views and sympathies do not run in that direction, but we are too much indebted to the warriors of the Commonwealth to be in a hurry to condemn them. There was an intense earnestness about Hugh Peters, and as his sermons were meant for soldiers, and had relation to stormy politics, they were in all probability rough-hewn, and by no means pleasant in the ears of cavaliers; but the coarse jests which were imputed to him were evidently none of his, since they were current long before he was born. Some studious owner of the little volume in the British Museum which records these vile witticisms has annotated it in such a way as to prove that the larger number of the anecdotes are fabrications. Thus, "Jest 1: This is a Norman tale of the twelfth or thirteenth century. Jest 14: Taken from Taylor, the water poet's works," etc.
Nevertheless, such stories as the following may have some truth in them: "Praying in a village, he espied in the church the king's arms, whereupon he brought in these words, Good Lord, keep us from the yoke of tyranny; and spreading his hands towards the king's arms, saith he, Preserve thy servants from the paw of the lion and the horn of the unicorn.
"Discoursing of the advantage Christians have above heathens, and showing that the heathen are guided by a natural instinct, but we have the word preached to us; and indeed, saith he, the gospel hath a very free passage amongst us, for I am confident it no sooner enters in at one ear, but it is out at the other.
"Mr. Peters espying a friend of his, deeply cut in the head, through having engaged in a foolish fray, he began to check him for his indiscretion. But, saith he, 'tis too late now to give you counsel; come along with me to a surgeon, and I'll see you drest. Where being come, the surgeon begun to wash away the blood, and search for his brains, to see if they were hurt. At which Mr. Peters cries out,' What a mad man are you to seek for any such thing; if he had possessed any brains he would never have ventured into so foolish a contest.'"
Hugh Peters sinned against the whole party of Church-and-King by his zealous defense of the Parliamentary cause, and at the same time he shocked the Presbyterians by pleading for A TOLERATION OF ALL SECTS, and this was reckoned to be the very worst of crimes. Men who are in advance of their age are abused for principles which in due time become accepted. A man who was secretary to Oliver Cromwell, who had Philip Nye and Goodwin for intimate friends, and Milton for his apologist, was not a bad man: this is morally certain. His peculiarities arose out of his passionate enthusiasm for the cause of liberty, and the remarkable combination in his person of soldier and preacher.
In the works of Hugh Peters there are no indications of his being a jester, but abundant evidence of his genius and fertility of mind. The little book entitled "A Dying Father's Last Legacy to an only Child" was written by his own hand just before his execution, and is rich in holy instruction. Here are extracts:
"He that sets up religion to get anything by it more than the glory of God and the saving his own soul will make a bad bargain of it at the close."
"Make Christ your wisdom. Oh that you were thus wise! Much of wit must be pared off before it will be useful. I have seen the ways of it though I never could pretend to much of it: but this I know, that being unsanctified, wit is a sword in a madman's hand. It spends itself in vanity, foolish jesting, and abuse of those who are weaker than ourselves, yea, it often leads men to play with the blessed word of God."
"If I go shortly where time shall be no more, where neither cock nor clock distinguishes hours, sink not, but lay thy head in his bosom who can keep thee, for he sits upon the waves."