In 1673 word reached England that the Rev. Josiah Baxter had been ruthlessly murdered in Boston. Baxter was an Anglican minister who had gotten caught up in a public debate with a group of Baptists over their interpretations of the Bible, and the Rev. Baxter had gotten the better of the argument. But his opponents would not let the dispute end there.
Four men followed Baxter to his home, outside the Boston. They tied up his wife and children and tortured Baxter in revenge. They literally stripped the skin from his scalp and body until he died. Baxter’s brother Benjamin was so appalled by the murder that he published a pamphlet about the crime to keep his brother’s memory alive in London and warn about the treacherous nature of Baptists.
His pamphlet hit the shops in early 1673 with the title: Mr. Baxter baptized in blood, or a sad history of the unparalleled cruelty of the Anabaptists of New England; faithfully relating the cruel, barborous and bloody murder of Mr. Josiah Baxter, an orthodox minister, who was killed by the Anabaptists, and his skin most cruelly flead from off his body. Published by his mournful brother.
“I have published this narrative . . . that the world may see the spirit and temper of those men, and that it may stand as an eternal memorial of their hatred to all orthodox ministers,” Benjamin wrote.
The news triggered a shock wave in England, which was at the time going through wrenching debates over religious tolerance. Charles II had returned to the monarchy. He had Catholic leanings and was attempting to introduce greater religious tolerance into the country, but was being met with resistance. With the major pushing and pulling between the Anglicans and the Catholics, some traditionalists feared that smaller denominations might also attain greater acceptance. Proposals in Parliament to give dissenters greater freedom had been stymied, but had considerable support. The broadside against the Baptists reinforced the notion that these Baptists were a threat to civil society.
Two Bostonians, Richard Martin and Henry Mountfort, sailed literally into the heart of this storm of debate. Martin was captain of the ship, Blossom, and Mountfort was a trader. The Blossom arrived in London as the furor over the murder of Rev. Baxter was peaking. Martin and Mountfort conferred with the mayor of London and gave him some disturbing news: Not only had Rev. Josiah Baxter not been murdered, no one had been murdered in Boston and Josiah Baxter did not exist.
The news sent city officials to visit Samuel Parker, bishop of Oxford. Parker was somewhat moderate in his views toward Catholics, but deeply opposed to other religious dissenters. Parker had published the pamphlet about Baxter and was preparing a second printing, since the first was so popular it had sold out. British authorities demanded to meet Benjamin Baxter, but he could not be found.
Parker admitted that he had published the pamphlet in error. He had been too hasty in accepting it as true, he said, and suppressed the second printing. His critics and historians have suggested that Parker had pulled a hoax. He had written the phony pamphlet himself and that the hoax was designed to inflame anger against religious dissenters and stifle efforts to grant them greater liberty. New England, which was having its own debates about the rights of Baptists and other dissenters, was the perfect backdrop for the story.
Parker blamed the hoax on a man named Laurence Savil. Savil slipped into hiding, but released a statement saying that he had been duped. He had been given the manuscript by a man who authorized him to publish it and collect whatever profit it brought. Savil said he had provided the manuscript to Parker, but both he and Parker were now convinced that the manuscript was fake.
And that’s where the matter dropped. The city published the results of its findings in May of 1673, declaring the story fake, and Parker never acknowledged deliberately pulling a hoax.
Thanks to: New England’s Struggles for Religious Liberty, by David Barnes Ford and The history of the English Baptists, from the Reformation to the beginning of the reign of King George I, by Thomas Crosby.