William Twisse: a 17th-century Polemicist

William Twisse didn’t understand the primacy given to the Lord’s Supper.

Twisse agreed, as the Reformed confessions stated, that the Lord’s Supper points to the realities of Christ’s death and resurrection, but aren’t the same realities expressed in baptism and in the preaching of Scriptures? If forced to bow to the altar, he could do so, but would also bow to the font and the pulpit.

 

To bow or not to bow? It was a key question for ministers in the Church of England, in relation to the Lord’s table. Many believed that bowing or kneeling before the table was a mark of idolatry, pointing to the adoration of the elements.

This was the position of the Scottish John Knox who, in 1552, opposed this regulation in the Book of Common Prayer. Unable to reassure him otherwise, Thomas Cranmer added to the Book a short insert (known as Black Rubric because of the color of the ink), in which he explained that kneeling during the Lord’s Supper didn’t imply adoration of the bread and wine.

The controversy continued, reaching a peak in the 17th century, when Archbishop Laud enforced strict adherence to the rules. Some ministers refused to conform and suffered the consequences of their opposition. Others argued, as Richard Hooker had done a century earlier, that these were indifferent matters and shouldn’t distract from worship. In other words, if the authorities required bowing, ministers could bow without making a big deal of it.

William Twisse disagreed with the whole argument. He just didn’t understand the primacy given to the Lord’s Supper. He agreed, as the Reformed confessions stated, that it points to the realities of Christ’s death and resurrection, but aren’t the same realities expressed in baptism and in the preaching of Scriptures? If forced to bow to the altar, he could do so, but would also bow to the font and the pulpit.

Twisse’s reputation spared him from punishment for these dissenting thoughts, even when he went as far as refusing to build the mandatory railed altar in his church. To him, the same logic applied here: if ministers were supposed to build a rail around the Lord’s Table to protect the sanctity of the elements, why not build a rail around the baptismal font and the pulpit as well?

Twisse’s Reputation

Born at Speenlands (near Newbury, Berkshire) to a family of German descent, Twisse described himself as a “very wicked boy.” He attributed his conversion to the appearance of a “phantom of a rakehelly boy, his schoolfellow, who said to him, ‘I am damned.’”[1] After graduating at Oxford, he quickly became known both for his piety and his abilities to dispute heresies and preach the gospel. By this time, he had “shaken off his wild extravagances,” although some Oxford colleagues still considered him “hot headed and restless.”[2]

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