THE OAKINGTON GRAVES
During the latter part of the year 1916, being a comparative stranger to the village of Oakington, I was told of the existence of three graves in a garden adjoining the parish church and invited to attempt a visit to them. To do this it was necessary at that time to obtain permission of the owner of the garden to view the graves and this was readily granted. The graves were surrounded by some rusting iron railings and the inscriptions were almost indecipherable. Upon enquiries being made of friends in the village I was informed that the reason for the graves being in the garden was that those who were buried there were persons who had regularly preached as independent non-conformists in the district and upon their death were refused burial in “consecrated” ground. Consequently a person who was in sympathy with the tenets of their preaching permitted their burial just outside the churchyard. Later I was able to read an interesting report which was published in connection with what I believe was a bi-centenary commemoration of the death of the worthies who were buried there and it was not until recent date that I received a volume entitled “Spiritual Heroes” by John Stoughton (John Snow, 1850). In this book is an interesting account of the persons who were buried in the Oakington Garden Graves from which the following has been culled. Since my original visit I have taken several persons to see the graves and of more recent years a public footpath was purchased and provided whereby the graves can be approached from the footpath to the church. (Ed.).
About four miles north-west from Cambridge lies the village of Oakington. It has a church dedicated to St. Andrew, whose aisles have been trodden by the feet of many generations. Round it spreads the old churchyard, with its grassy hillocks, beneath which,
“Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”
Bordering that churchyard is another place of sepulture, which was never touched by any prelatical rites of consecration. Its only sacredness arises from its religious associations, and from the precious dust which lies there. Three tombs still remain side by side within that little enclosure, worthy of the visits of those who cherish the memory of Puritan heroes. The men who are slumbering there until the resurrection of the just are little known to fame, save that which speaks within the circles of Nonconformity
Â—fame, whose voice is rarely heard and little heeded by the world at large.
“The tombs,” says Mr. Robinson of Cambridge, “were covered with nettles and elder-bushes, and the inscriptions illegible, till they were cleared away, and the tombs cleaned, in the beginning of 1774. The fences were gone, and a neighbouring cottager then took it into his own garden.” Since then those humble monuments have been preserved, and the reader is invited to pause over the three graves and read the inscriptions.
Here Lyeth the Body
of Mr. Henry Osland, Minister of the Gospel, who, after 17 Years faithful! Dispensation of the same in ye Church gathred at Willingham & Cottehham, ended this life November ye 19th Anno Dom. 1711. in ye 43 year of his Age.
Hear Lyeth bvryed
the Body of Mr. Joseph Oddey,
Minister of the Gosoell. desesed the Third of May, 1687.
Mark the perfect man. and behovld the vpright; for the end of that man is peace.
|Here Lyeth the Body of Mr Francis Holcroft, Minister of the Gospil, who died January 6th: 1692, and in the 50 ninth yeare of his Age. Danie 12th V: 3d And they that be wise shall shine as the brightnes of the firmement, and theay that tvrne many to righeuvsnes as the stares for ever and ever.
I know nothing respecting Mr. Osland, but that he was the pastor of the church at Cottenham and Willingham; but some
very interesting particulars respecting the two other ministers have been preserved
Francis Holcroft was the son of a knight who resided at Westham, in the neighbourhood of London. When he had reached a proper age, his father sent him, together with his brother Henry, to the University of Cambridge. It must have been about the time
that this ancient seat of learning was recovering itself from the confusion of the civil wars, and settling down, like its sister at Oxford, under the newly-established Puritan regimen. Many of its members, because of their disaffection towards the Government, had been ejected from their offices, and among them, no doubt, there were men of learning and piety; but they were replaced by others who were their equals, some their superiors. Cudworth and Lightfoot, not to mention others of less extensive fame in the world of letters, were of the number. Holcroft was entered student of dare Hall, which had been then lately rebuilt by the liberality of several benefactors. Dr. Cudworth was Master of the college; and the learned David Clarkson, who afterwards married Holcroft’s sister, was one of the Fellows, and tutor to the young undergraduate. We can picture to ourselves Holcroft and Tillotson. his college friend, pacing the halls of Clare, or rambling on the banks of the Cam, and then follow them through their subsequent career Â—the one a persecuted Non-conformist, the other Archbishop of Canterbury,Â—we have a striking example of the far divergent paths which open before college associates when they leave the gates of their Alma Mater,Â—contrasts most strongly marked in the days to which this work relates. It is pleasing to remember that Tillotson befriended Holcroft when he was persecuted by the ruling powers.
It would appear as if Holcroft had been educated in High Church principles under his father’s roof; for it is stated that it was in Clare Hall that he adopted his Puritanical principles, probably owing to the instructions of his worthy tutor. Approving of Nonconformist discipline, he became a communicant with Mr. Jephcot of Swaifham Prior, eleven miles from Cambridge. Young Holcroft’s room was over the college gate; and as he sat there by his window on Sunday morning, he often observed a horse waiting to convey one of the Fellows to the village of Littlington, about thirteen miles from Cambridge. Not unfrequently, after waiting some time, the horse was led away without its rider;Â—the man was intemperate; he had not recovered from the last night’s debauch, and therefore the congregation in the church at Littlington must fare as they can. Francis Holcroft was touched with compassion for these poor people, who were indeed as sheep without a shepherd; and not being able to endure the thought of their being thus neglected, while he was doing nothing on the Lord’s day, he resolved to offer himself to supply the parish. The services of the young preacher were gladly accepted; and many a time did he ride over to Littlington, to instruct and edify the people of the village. He received an ample reward for his labours in the success which crowned them.
About the year 1655, Holcroft accepted the living of Bassing-boume. There he preached on Sundays and holidays to very crowded congregations. Not content with the impression produced by his preaching, he was anxious to establish purity of discipline
and promote Christian fellowship among those to whom his ministry had been useful; and therefore he formed a Church in the parish upon those principles of Congregational (Independent) polity which some time before he had espoused. Several gownsmen and inhabitants of Cambridge became members of this Christian community. It was a solemn service when this Church was formed. While the little group stood up, the following Covenant was read:Â—
“We do, in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the awful crowned King of Zion, and in the presence of his holy angels and people, and all beside here present, solemnly give up ourselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God; solemnly promising and engaging in the aforesaid presence to walk with the Lord, and with one another, in the observation of all godly ordinances, and the discharge of all relative duties in this Church of God and elsewhere, as the Lord shall enlighten and enable us.”
The members then proceeded to sign it. After the Church had been thus constituted, and other persons were proposed as candidates for membership, a like simple and touching ceremonial was performed. “Brother,” said Holcroft, turning to the individual, “if you now, in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the awful crowned King of Zion, do solemnly give up yourself to him, signify it by lifting up your right hand to the Lord.” Then he would add, in the name of the Church, lifting up his own right hand, “We likewise, in the aforesaid awful presence, do receive you into our communion, solemnly promising and engaging to carry it towards you as becomes a Church of Christ, watching over you in the Lord as he shall enable us, and in testimony thereof do give you the right hand of fellowship.”
Knit together in love, the Church at Bassingbourne continued through the Commonwealth to enjoy the much-valued services of Holcroft. Gladly did the people flock from miles around to hear their favourite preacher, and on the Sabbath evening they returned musing on what they had heard.
But soon the Restoration came; and all was changed. Holcroft was ejected and his flock dispersed. Still he regarded himself as their shepherd, and resolved to “seek out his sheep in the places where they had been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.” He met them where he could. Some joined him at one Mr. Thurlow’s house, in Cambridge. Another band assembled at Barrington;
another at Clopton; others at Eversden, Guyhorn, and Waterbeach. It was more than his strength allowed to continue the oversight of so many persons in different places, and it was therefore resolved that four members of the Church should be chosen to assist him. Joseph Oddy, who now lies side by side with him in the little graveyard at Oakington, was one of the four. He had been Fellow of Trinity, but was ejected at the Restoration. The companion of Holcroft in brighter days, he clave to him in his adversity; and
prizing the principles of Congregational (Independent) Church government, and being devoted to his work as a Christian minister, he accepted the hazardous office of assistant to his friend.
Oddy was scarcely inferior to Holcroft in popularity as a preacher. Over the dreary country of the fens he often travelled, preaching to the people in the open air. So esteemed were his instructions that some persons went twenty miles to hear him. Of course this popularity greatly provoked his persecutors, and both he and his colleague were imprisoned in Cambridge Castle, with two Elders who had shared in their toils. Holcroft was indicted at the assizes, and was sentenced to leave the realm in three months, or suffer death as a felon. But he had a friend at Court in the Earl of Anglesea, who represented his case to the King, and obtained a reprieve; but notwithstanding this he remained a prisoner in the castle about nine years. Upon the Proclamation of Indulgence in 1672 he had his liberty, but not long afterwards was seized and imprisoned again for three years.
Mr. Oddy was released after an imprisonment of five years;
but, like his companion, he was again apprehended and confined. It is related, that, when preaching one night in a wood, between Willingham and Cottenham, as he was sitting on his horse, that he might more readily escape from his enemies, they assailed him with such abruptness and violence as to throw him on the ground, so that he became insensible from the fall. In this state he was laid across the horse’s back by his merciless persecutors, and in this mournful plight conveyed to Cambridge Castle.
Mr. Oddy was a wit as well as a divine, and a proof of this occurs in connexion with the story of his release from prison. It is a common thing to regard the Puritans as a set of moping fanatics, thinking it a sin to smile; but this notion is the result of prejudiceÂ—not of an impartial study of their history. Indeed, the pious elevation and habitual dignity of these men did not allow of their descending to the vulgar buffoonery of courtly jesters and cavaliers; nor were their afflictive circumstances at all favourable to the sallies of cheerful humour: yet did the latter sometimes playfully gleam in their conversations, and exhilarate their more melancholy companions, like sunlight falling on a sombre landscape. Their wit was often called forth by the abusive language of their High Church persecutors; and then, occasionally, it proved severe and cutting, as in the following instance. A Cambridge man addressed Mr. Oddy, soon after his release from prison, with the insulting lines:Â—
“Good day, Mr. Oddy;
Pray, how fares your body?Â—
Methinks you look damnably thin.”
To which the Puritan quietly replied,Â—
“That, Sir’s, your mistake;
Tis for righteousness’ sake;Â—
Damnation’s the fruit of your sin!”
The confinement of such men as Holcroft and Oddy was not always very strict,Â—much depended on the gaoler; and sometimes, when he chanced to be a kind-hearted man, and, perhaps, a little touched with Puritan sympathies, he would allow his captive secretly to leave his cell for a little while, upon promising to return at an appointed hour. So the gaoler at Bedford, as is well known, treated Bunyan; and so the keeper of Cambridge Castle treated Holcroft. The congregations he had formed still continued to meet for worship, and spent their time in fasting, reading the Scriptures, and prayer; and sometimes, under cover of the night, through the connivance of the gaoler, Holcroft clandestinely visited his endeared flocks.
At Eversden there still stands a plain old manor-house, moated round, and approached by an ancient little bridge. At the time of which I am speaking, it was inhabited by a gentleman of wealth and influence, a member of Holcroft’s Church, and an attached friend. Village tradition relates that a vehicle might often be seen crossing that old bridge in the evening, on its way to Cambridge, to bring back Holcroft, who was to preach at midnight in Eversden Wood, which skirted the back of the manor-house. Till within a few years, there also remained in the midst of the wood, serving as a shelter for the confessor in bonds, a fine old oak, known through all the neighbourhood as the pulpit-tree. The manorial houses and manorial trees of Great Britain are among the most interesting of our national relics. Surely, among such objects, the old tree, now hewn down, and the manor-house still standing at Eversden, deserve to be classed. There was once the Gospel Beech in the wolds of Gloucestershire; and there is still the Gospel Oak at Stonely, near Wolverhampton, “favourable,” as Strutt says, “to thought and devotionÂ—to the reveries of the philosopher on ages past, and the contemplation of the Christian on the ages to come.” Holcroft’s pulpit-tree may be added to these.
Holcroft was ever intent on the welfare of his flock; and when he could not reach them with his voice, he addressed them by his pen, and despatched his pastoral letters round the circuit of his truly primitive diocese. One of these epistles he afterwards published, under the title of “A Word to the Saints from the Watch Tower.” When the time of his release came, he returned to his public duties with renewed vigour, and, re-associating with his former colleague, Mr. Oddy, preached in Cambridge, in spite of the interruptions of the gownsmen, who would assemble at the place of the Nonconformists’ meeting, and beat a drum to disturb their worship. All round the country, too, did these earnest evangelists persevere in their efforts, followed sometimes by such crowds of people, that they were compelled to preach to them in the open
air. For some time a union existed among all the brethren in the different parts of Cambridgeshire who had been gathered into fellowship by Holcroft’s labours, and, in common, they looked up to him as their bishop. At the same time, though scattered over the country, the members formed but one Church, quite independent of other Churches, and maintaining Congregational order and discipline.
But circumstances at length occurred which rendered it desirable, in the estimation of all, to alter the arrangement. Holcroft’s health had been undermined by his imprisonments, and by his preaching in small places to crowded assemblies. Throwing off his coat, he would exert himself till he was much heated, and then passing, without due precaution, into the open air, took cold. With impaired health, and enfeebled nerves, he sunk into a state of profound melancholy, with incapacitated him for his loved employ. The different little parties in the country, whom his influence had held together, now lost that endeared bond of friendship; and this, in connexion with the inconvenience of the plan,Â—to say nothing of other objections, and the passing of the Act of Toleration,Â— induced them to form themselves into distinct Congregational Churches. Holcroft survived his colleague five years, but he continued to decline in health and spirits till the time of his death in 1692. Before his departure, however, the strength of his faith and the tranquillity of his mind were restored, and he died exclaiming, “For I know, that if the earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved, I have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
This Puritan worthy was no common man: with great natural talents he united eminent literary attainments, and was especially renowned for his theological learning and knowledge of the Scriptures. But as a preacher he seems to have been most celebrated. “His preaching was less methodical than that of his contemporaries, but then it was more useful. ‘It appeared to me,’ says Mr. Mildmay, in his funeral sermon, ‘truly apostolic, primitive, and divine.’ His words were sharp arrows in the people’s hearts;
they had a quick, penetrating power and efficacy.Â—so that his converts were very numerous. He was so indefatigable in his labours that he preached perpetually;Â—there is scarcely a village about Cambridge, but some old person can show you the barn where Holcroft preached. He had a lion-like courage, tempered with the most winning affability in his whole deportment: his doctrines were Calvinistic: he had a great zeal for Non-conformity, though a greater zeal for true piety, which he revered even in his enemies,Â—if, indeed, any such could be enemies to so good a man. During the twelve years of his imprisonment in Cambridge Castle, he was of the most cheerful disposition; and though in the latter part of his life his spirits failed, yet all his conversation was heavenly and useful.”
Enough is preserved respecting the Puritans to convince us of
their virtues, piety, and worth. Distinguished as many of them were by mental superiority and literary attainments, it was their spiritual excellence which imparted to them, as a class, their highest distinction. Their piety was intimately connected with their peculiar views of theology and ecclesiastical discipline. Their humble and devout frame of mind led them to adopt the most spiritual and evangelical conceptions of Christianity, and to strive after the utmost purity, and the nearest resemblance to the Divine models in Church government. Their system was not so much a theory elaborated by study and speculation, as a form of spiritual life and activity produced and supported by their piety. Their reformation was like Luther’s,Â—a reformation beginning in Christian experience, in the struggles of the heart, in inward pantings after light, and love, and excellence They wanted to attain to greater spirituality in their faith, in their discipline, in all their actions. They did not form a theory first, and then work by it; but they were led on by the inward life of religion step by step,Â—their theory, in the meanwhile, gradually evolving itself before their view. They were led by a way that they knew not, like Israel through the desert, by God’s guidance, farther and farther from the Egypt of error, formalism, and intolerance, till, after long wandering and severe discipline, the pillar of cloud and fire brought them to the borders of the Promised Land of religious truth, spirituality, and freedom.
For the most part, their history is one of conflict; the history of a band of men, linked together by the force of sympathy, entering a protest against the vices of the world and the secularity of the Church,Â—against abuses and errors, venerable because of their antiquity, and formidable because of their being founded on the strongest prejudices of mankind. It is a history of self-denial and sacrifice, confessorship and imprisonment, suffering and death. In the circumstances of their lot, the Puritans were veritable successors of the men who had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment; who were stoned and sawn asunder; were tempted; were slain by the sword; who wandered about in sheep-skins and goat-skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy); who wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. Disciples of such a peculiar system, and the victims of such afflictive circumstances,Â—holding an unpopular, because spiritual creed,Â—smitten and crushed by the world, because they were not of it,Â—what could have supported themÂ—what could have given heroism to their hearts, and life to their labours, and perpetuity to their profession, but grace from heaven.