FRANCIS HOLCROFT 1629-1692
A PERSECUTED PREACHER.
In April 1971 there appeared in this magazine (Vol. 3 p.315.) an account of three interesting graves in the Cambridgeshire village of Oakington. These are the graves of three gospel preachers. Henry Osland, Joseph Oddy and Francis Holcroft. Since these graves had been neglected for years and the men whose lives they commemorated are little known, it was gratifying to read a report in the Evangelical Times (July 1974) of an open air service of commemoration held near the graves on May 18, 1974. Through the efforts of local Christians the graves have been tidied and a new metal plaque attached to the railings round the graves giving information about these three faithful men. A summary of their lives has also been placed on a notice board nearby.
The following interesting account of Francis Holcroft is extracted from Hine’s History of Hitchin and gives some idea of the labours and sufferings of this man of God. Further material follows which will help to fill in some of the background to this gracious man’s life and ministry.
“About this time, says Calamy (Nonconformist’s Memorial. Ed. S. Palmer I. 259-62,) Francis Holcroft, formerly Fellow of Clare Hall and the ejected minister of Bassingbourne, being ‘touched with compassion for the souls of the neglected country-people,’ began to
visit them secretly in their several villages. He had a famous chestnut nag which carried him from place to place over three counties, and often galloped him out of the hands of those who sought to take him. ‘He was indefatigable in his labours,’ continues Calamy, ‘preaching , perpetually about the country; so that there is scarcely a village in
Cambridgeshire but some old person can show you the barn where Holcroft preached.’ As for his preaching, said Milway in preaching
his funeral sermon, ‘it appeared to me truly apostolical, primitive and divine’. A certain Mary Churchman, the daughter of a High
Constable and a strong churchwoman, as her name suggests, went once out of curiosity to hear him. In her Memoirs, which were edited by Samuel James, a pastor in later years of the Hitchin Baptist Chapel, she speaks of going ‘to hear that great man of God, Mr. Holcroft.
Calamy speaks of Holcroft as having ‘a lion-like courage, tempered with the most winning affability in his whole deportment,’ And this in spite of trials which would have broken any ordinary man. His meetings were constantly disturbed by Cambridge undergraduates, whose evil habit it was to follow him about and beat drums furiously as soon as he began to preach. His estate, which at one time was considerable, for he was the son of a knight, dwindled away in paying fines and in helping other sufferers for truth’s sake in their need. His books he contrived to keep only by hiding them in the houses of his friends. They were worth as much as Â£40 on his death. For most of the period from 1664 to 1672 he was imprisoned in Cambridge Castle. The original sentence upon him was to abjure the realm or suffer death as a felon. But the Earl of Anglesey represented the injustice of his case to Charles II and obtained a reprieve. Sometimes, when Holcroft had not freedom to visit his people, he would write a circular letter for them; one of these was printed in 1668 entitled A Word to the Saints from the Watch Tower. It was due to another college friend, John Tillotson, who became Chaplain to the King in 1670 and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, that Holcroft enjoyed more liberty in gaol and more frequent leave to go out preaching than was usual. Unhappily the Toleration Act of 1689 came too late for Holcroft. Like his old chestnut nag, he was worn out with hard quarters and hard work. Taking cold whilst preaching to a great crowd in the stifling prison at the Fleet, he sank into a melancholy and so declined. But as he lay dying in 1692 the cloud of ‘deep dejection’ was removed. He had, says Milway, ‘a prelibation of glory in his spirit. The sun of righteousness did arise before he gave up the ghost, that gave him an abundant entrance into the heavenly kingdom.’ He departed with great joy uttering these words: ‘For I know that if my earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved, I have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’ ”
A most interesting account of the way in which Holcroft began to preach is recorded by Richard Conder in the church book of the Strict Baptist chapel at Great Gransden, Hunts. Originally in the unfamiliar spelling of the day, this extract has been expressed in slightly more modern style.
“His desire was that God would lead him into some dark place, to preach the gospel where the name of Jesus had not been named, looking that God would call him beyond the seas. But continuing in his studies in the college, his chamber being over the college gate, he observed that there was a horse brought on the Lord’s day mornings for a supply (itinerant preacher) to go into the country, and being supplied .by a drunken scholar the horse would stand there a great while and sometimes he would be had away again and no supply was sent.
And the observation of these things grieved God’s servant to think that they lay still there and the poor country wanted a supply. And the horse being brought after the usual manner and none to go, God’s servant, having a sense of the worth of precious souls, he came down out of his chamber and took the horse and came into the country about nine or ten miles to Litlington, not knowing at all the way.
And he thought it was very like the place that he desired to preach in, the place being so dark, and so it pleased the Lord to bring him and to continue him, and soon owned him in his work, and from thence to Bassingbourne and there he preached on the week days as well as the Sabbath.
Soon after the work of God went forward and souls were converted and the Lord was much with him and soon set his heart to build Him an house. And the Lord’s hand was seen in that day in calling several of the young scholars in the University which did preach about in the country towns, as Mr Oddy at Meldreth, and Mr Ekins at Chishill and Mr Ponder at Whaddon.
And God’s servant, being fixed for the rules of God’s house, was soon set apart Pastor by Mister Staloms and some others which I have forgot, then being very young, but this I remember they kept the day and all the night after with great joy and singing. And I remember that my father and my mother came home in the morning and as soon as my mother had done milking she came in and told my father that she must go to Bassingbourne again, and they took their horse and went away.
But the work of God went forward and there was daily added to the church, and God’s servant was for going on in church order and for choosing elders, and at a meeting at Great Eversden was chosen four, namely Mr Oddy and Mr Corbyn and Mr Waite and Mr Bard. And God’s servant, after he was turned out at Bassingbourne preached in the public at Croydon-cum-Clopton and then was turned out and then he preached at Great Eversden publicly and there they took him and would let him preach no longer. But having others engaged for his appearance the next day before Sir Thomas Chichely, he had his freedom that night and had a wonderful season in the presence of God, and the next day went before the magistrate and he sent him to prison, and soon after Mr Stoarie came with his soldiers and took Mr Oddy at Meldreth while he was preaching and carried him away to prison also, and thus the church’s affliction began upon her, but the more she was afflicted the more she grew”.
There now follows a letter written by Francis Holcroft from the prison in Cambridge Castle, and then his funeral sermon preached by Thomas Milway. The original form has been retained making the reading a little difficult in places but it is hoped that readers will not be deterred by this.