Thomas Edwards was born in London in 1599. He attended Queens' College and graduated from Cambridge University in 1622. Four years later he was ordained as a deacon. He was deeply influenced by the ideas of John Calvin. and became a strong Presbyterian. In February 1628 the vice-chancellor's court heard evidence that Edwards had instructed the congregation to "reject the orders of carnal humanity at moments of crisis and to follow the dictates of the conscience". The court ordered Edwards to preach a recantation sermon. (1)
Edwards moved to London and became a preacher at St Botolph Church in Aldgate. He emerged as an early and vociferous opponent of liberty of conscience or, as he termed it, toleration. He strongly disapproved of Puritan groups such as the Anabaptists and Congregationalists and wanted them suppressed. He warned about the growth in radical preachers touring the country, included "all sorts of illiterate, mechanic preachers, yea of women and boy preachers". (2)
Katherine Chidley was one of those women preachers who Edwards had been complaining about. In November 1640, she published, The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ. It was an eighty-one-page rejection of the arguments of Thomas Edwards for "hierarchical and centralized church government". It was claimed that Edwards was afraid that "religious toleration would undermine the authority of husbands, fathers, and masters over their wives, children, and servants". (3)
Chidley argued that when "God brought his people into the promised land, he commanded them to be separated from the idolaters". Churches did not need pastors or teachers, for "all the Lords people, that are made Kings and Priests to God, have a free voice in the Ordinance of Election, therefore they must freely consent before there can be any Ordination". She went on to suggest that the humblest members of society, were better qualified to create churches than "ill-meaning priests". She concluded by admitting that although she was "a poor woman" she was willing to debate publicly with Edwards on the subject of religious separatism. (4)
In 1641 Thomas Edwards published Reasons Against the Independent Government of Particular Congregations. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church was in decline and the fruits of Reformation were now threatened by new errors in the form of different radical sects. He defined the true features of the true church as "edification, order and peace" whereas "limitless toleration" was a threat to the social order. (5)
Once again it was Katherine Chidley who was willing to criticise Edwards. In January 1645 Chidley published A New-Years-Gift to Mr. Thomas Edwards. She argued that it was "most befitting a woman" to answer the attacks by Edwards. The Church of England was, she wrote, not a true but a deformed church, which, by admitting all comers to the sacraments, was guilty of "casting God's holy things to dogs". She rejected the idea that religious toleration would result in "toleration to sin". (6)
Thomas Edwards responded to this pamphlet by describing Chidley as "a brazen-faced audacious old woman". Ian J. Gentles has pointed out: "Whatever her physical appearance, there is no doubt about her audacity. Not only did she write boldly about religious questions, she was a zealous evangelist." Chidley was later to become one of the leading figures in the Leveller movement. (7)
In 1646 Edwards published Gangraena in three instalments, in February, May and December. He claimed that church ministers had sent him precise evidence about the heretics, backed in some cases by sworn statements. This included details of 300 heresies and errors preached in England during the previous four years. He warned Parliament that "God who is said to scatter kings can scatter you" and that "toleration" was the "grand design of the devil". (8) £4,000.
As Henry N. Brailsford, the author of The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961) has pointed out: "Edwards informed the Presbyterian rulers of England that their ordinances forbidding laymen to preach had had no effect. The sects were steadily growing... With much quoting of the Church Fathers, including both Luther and Calvin, he predicted that the judgment of God, perhaps in the shape of a pestilence, would fall upon a land which tolerated such doings." (9)
Despite running to more than 800 pages, the book was a 17th century bestseller. "Yet its author was a poor heresiographer. Edwards's clumsy list-making and classifications give the impression of a man overwhelmed by the reality of the horrors around him, the sheer scale of his material having got out of hand. But this was not a simple catalogue of errors, and its ramshackle appearance was determined by the urgency of the context in which it was produced... The author's vociferous narrative of horror welded these descriptions together in an effort to call the innocent to action and shame and silence the guilty. Independency was the root of error and Edwards's main polemical purpose was to implicate leading Independent ministers in the spread of heresy. For toleration was protean, a slow creeping disease - a gangrene - that would corrupt the entire body if not cut off.". (10)
Thomas Edwards attacked Hugh Peters, a chaplain to the New Model Army and Katherine Chidley for establishing her own church in Bury St Edmunds. However, his main criticisms was of John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince, and William Walwyn. These men, the founders of the Leveller movement, were demanding voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%. (11)
Worried about the growing power of military leaders such as Thomas Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell, and Thomas Harrison, Edwards called for the Parliamentary Army to be disbanded. This was supported by Denzil Holles, the leading Presbyterian in the House of Commons. However, it soon became clear that the power was now with the Independents and Edwards fled to Amsterdam in the summer of 1647. (12)
Thomas Edwards died on 7th February, 1648.
In Michaelmas term 1618 Edwards, described as of London, matriculated as a pensioner from Queens' College, Cambridge. He graduated BA in 1622 (the degree was incorporated at Oxford in 1623), proceeded MA in 1625, and was ordained deacon on 18 January 1626. Queens' was then renowned for its puritan reputation, and Edwards's time in Cambridge provided the opportunity to establish spiritual ties with the godly. Among those he befriended were William Bridge and Thomas Goodwin, men from whom he turned during the debates in the 1640s over church government. Indeed Edwards's near contemporaries at Cambridge included both future allies and opponents, most notably John Goodwin, a fellow of Queens' at his arrival and one of the principal targets (and critics) of his later works. Perhaps when in 1646 Goodwin mocked Edwards's ability at grammar and translation he remembered an indifferent student from twenty years before.