I first learned about Edward Wightman from David Damron, a member of Stories From the Past‘s Facebook group. Wightman is Damron’s 12th great-grandfather, and holds the dubious distinction of being the last man burned at the stake for heresy in England. But if there’s any justice in this world, Wightman’s great-grandson Valentine was it.
Edward Wightman was born in 1566 in Burbage, Leicestershire, England. Edward’s family were members of the Church of England, the approved church in England at the time, but Roman Catholicism was at least tolerated, if not accepted. The family had no special leanings outside of the church.
In a time where it was uncommon for a married woman to hold a job, both of Edward’s parents were employed. Edward’s mother was a draper (someone who sells cloth), and his father, a schoolteacher. As Wightman grew into adulthood, he followed his mother’s footsteps and moved to Shrewsbury to apprentice as a draper.
It was in Shrewsbury where Edward was introduced to, and began exploring, a radical type of Protestantism rejecting the divinity of Jesus Christ and the holy trinity. Wightman was admitted as a master draper into the Shrewsbury Draper’s Company in 1590, and he opened his own clothing business at Burton-on-Trent.
Edward’s puritanical turn from both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church would have been problematic anywhere in England during the early 17th century after King James I took the throne. King James tolerated Catholics while pushing for a more liberal Church of England, but puritans were looked upon with scorn and suspicion. But Edward wasn’t alone in his change. Many of the town’s other business leaders had become involved in a town-wide transformation to puritanism despite the greater established, “acceptable,” religious community.
In the late 1590’s England hit an economic downturn, and Edward’s clothing shop was no longer able to turn a profit. Edward then opened an alehouse, likely borrowing money for it. And although Edward was still looked upon as a community leader, by 1603 he was completely impoverished.
Five years later, Edward’s luck in the religious community also began to change. In January 1608, Edward told guests staying in his home that it was his belief that the soul stays with the body even after death, and will only be released upon Judgement Day, when all souls will stand before God and be assigned either to heaven or hell. This was Edward’s first step away from the religious community of Burton who barely tolerated puritans in the first place, and took a solid stance of either Catholicism or Anglicanism.
Edward continued to voice his disagreement with established theology, and quit attending services at the Burton Parish Church. Religious leaders of the area began meeting with Edward privately in an attempt to convince Edward of the “wrongness” of his ways. But Edward continued to persist in openly challenging the crown’s religious norms. It was not long before Edward became locked in public heated exchanges with community religious leaders. Those same leaders began writing and preaching sermons in opposition to Edward’s views in attempt to quell the exodus of their own followers.
As Edward’s public outcries continued, so did his determination to share his beliefs. Although he was never anything more than a lay leader, he developed a following which further enraged the officially recognized religious leaders in the area. He spent large amounts of time writing manuscripts detailing his views. It was even said that he would never leave home without his books which he would preach from whenever he could find a listening ear.
Because of Edward’s refusal to align with both Catholicism and Anglicanism, he was seen as a direct opponent to the King. Knowing he was borrowing trouble, Edward compiled a detailed explanation of his theology, and delivered copies to the clergy. It was most unfortunate that he even chose to deliver a copy to King James himself. While open exchanges of opinion and peaceful demonstrations are part of the human discourse in the 21st century, the only opinions that accounted for anything in 17th century England were those of the King and his trusted advisers. Edward had just handed the king a detailed summary of evidence to be used against him.
None of Edward’s many writings survived to tell Edward’s side of the story. It is unknown how much is actually accurate, but at least sixteen charges were leveled at him:
There is no Trinity;
Jesus Christ is not God, perfect God and of the same substance, eternity and majesty with the Father in respect of his God-head;
Jesus Christ is only man and a mere creature and not both God and man in one person ;
Christ was never incarnate and did not fulfill the promise that the seed of the woman shall break the serpents head;
The Holy Ghost is not God, co-equal, co-eternal and co-essential with the Father and the Son;
The three creeds of the apostolic church are the heresies of the Nicolaitanes;
He, Edward Wightman, is the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18 in the words “I will raise them up a prophet” and in Isaiah “I alone have trodden the wine press” and in that place “Whose fan is in his hand”;
He was the Holy Spirit, the Comforter spoken of in John 16;
The words of Jesus on the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit refer to him;
The fourth of Malachi refers to his person (the prophecy of Elijah);
The soul and body does sleep and this sleep is the first death, and that the soul and body of Jesus did also sleep in the sleep of death;
The souls of the elect departed (that is dead) are not in heaven;
The baptizing of infants is an abominable custom;
The practice of the Church of England in reference to the Lords Supper and baptism are incorrect and baptism of water should be administered only to those with sufficient age and understanding;
God has ordained and sent him, Edward Wightman, to do his part in the work of the Salvation of the world, (to admonish the heresy of the Nicolaitanes); in comparison to Christ who was sent to save the world and by his death to deliver it from sin and to reconcile it to God;
Christianity is not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England, but only in part.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Wightman#Summary_of_charges_by_the_Commission
I actually agree with at least a couple of Edward’s “heresies,” but whether one believes or does not is of no consequence today. Our world today is full of varying opinions of God or of no God. Most subscribe to the belief that all people should be allowed to worship, or not, according to the dictates of their own conscience. Perhaps I would have joined Edward’s funereal pyre if I had lived back then.
Edward’s sentence was pronounced on December 14, 1611. He was to be burned at the stake on March 20, 1612. On that day, Edward was tied to a post in the midst of a pile of fast-burning sticks. As the fire licked at his legs and feet, he cried out in pain, begging to recant his heresy. People in the crowd waded in to relieve Edward, pulling at the burning wood to reach him. Several were severely burned in the process, but Edward, also badly burned, was released from his scorching prison.
Edward’s relief was only temporary. While he recovered, a recantation was written and Edward agreed orally. But when he could finally use his burned hands well enough to put pen to parchment, he refused to sign. He was sent back to the fire on April 11, 1612. Once again, Edward screamed out in pain as the fire reached him, again begging to recant. This time, the sheriff was having none of it and ordered more bundles of sticks to be added to the raging inferno.
Edward was reduced to ashes, but he’d just been made a martyr for the puritan cause. King James was quickly learning that the threat of death meant nothing to the religious rebels, and that martyrdom increased uprising. With more and more puritan sects arising, it was decided that it would be better send the guilty quietly off to spend the remainder of their lives in prison rather than make a public spectacle of the outspoken believers. After Edward, it was agreed that convicted heretics should no longer be burned at the stake. However, it took another 65 years to finally secure an act of Parliament forbidding the burning of heretics.
Edward was officially the last.
What Happened to Edward’s Family?
Edward was married to Francis Darbye during his early years as a draper. They had seven children, two boys and five girls. Little is known about the fate of most of Edward’s descendants, but Edward’s oldest son, John Wightman, emigrated with four of his five sons to Rhode Island Colony in America in 1654. John’s wife, and mother to the five sons, most likely died in England before the family’s departure.
John’s youngest son, George Wightman (1632–1722), had at least four sons and one daughter. Most of George’s children remained in Rhode Island, but George’s youngest, Valentine Wightman (1681-1747), struck out on his own, making a name for himself and his family in both Connecticut and New York.
Edward’s great-grandson Valentine turned out to be Edward’s saving grace. Like Edward, Valentine had a passion for both politics and religion, and at just 18, found himself in the midst of a political uprising in North Kingstown. At 20, Valentine joined the Free Will Baptist Church of Kingstown. The next year, Valentine married Susannah Holmes, granddaughter of the well-known Baptist minister, Reverend Obadiah Holmes who refused to quit his Baptist ways and had been publicly whipped for his “heretical” beliefs.
When Valentine was just 23, he was called upon to lead a small group of religious dissenters from Groton Connecticut. Valentine agreed, becoming Connecticut’s very first Baptist minister and initiator of the colony’s lasting Baptist heritage. In return for his service, Valentine and his new family were given twenty acres of farmland and a house which served as the first Baptist parsonage in Connecticut.
Like his great-grandfather, Valentine became a leader in the face of political oppression. Puritanism was the only accepted religious order allowed in Connecticut Colony. He was subpoenaed in 1707 to answer charges of heresy, and ordered to leave the colony. Valentine refused, and was once again called to court where he was fined 20 shillings for his obstinacy. The harassment continued until 1708 when a law was passed banning religious itolerance.
For the remainder of his years, Valentine found favor within the religious community and spent much of his time as a traveling minister. He established baptist churches throughout the area, and is even credited with the establishment of the first Baptist church in New York City.
I think Edward and Valentine would have found much to disagree with on the subject of Christianity, and had they known each other, there may have even been some animosity between them. But Edward’s great sacrifice was the beginning of a new era in Anglican Christianity, and Valentine lived to see the rewards of it. It’s quite possible that Valentine held his great-grandfather’s determination and commitment in great respect, and vowed to follow his example. Valentine lived to be an active participant in the Great Awakening, and by the time he died in 1747, religion was no longer compulsive by law but a personal freedom.
Edward would have been proud.
Sources and Related Links
“1612 Last Heretic – Edward Wightman,” The Local History of Burton upon Trent. accessed 10 February 2019. http://www.burton-on-trent.org.uk/1612-last-heretic.
Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Find A Grave. Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi.
Historical Committee, ABCCONN. “Valentine Wightman,” ABCONN.org. last modified 13 July 2015, accessed 12 February 2019. http://abcconn.org/history/index.php?title=Valentine_Wightman.
History.com Editors. “Great Awakening,” HISTORY. published 7 March 2018, accessed 12 Febrary 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/great-awakening
Sharp, Sherry. “John* Wightman, (immigrant),” Our Family History. accessed 13 February 2019. http://sherrysharp.com/genealogy/getperson.php?personID=I2060&tree=Roots.
Wikipedia contributors, “Edward Wightman,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed 10 February 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edward_Wightman&oldid=868054721.