Edward Wightman: The Burton ‘Heretic’

Burton is famous for its brewing heritage, the Abbey ruins, and Marmite. But it has a darker claim to fame also. The last man in England to be condemned to burning at the stake was a Burtonian, back in 1612.

In the seventeenth century, the church had a strong hold over ordinary people’s lives. They feared its teaching about hellfire and eternal punishment, and the king could easily arrest you and imprison you for not respecting it. If you didn’t believe what the church taught, you were in big trouble.

Edward Wightman, who probably lived in Burton’s High Street, was a man who wanted to believe what was right, rather than be told what to think. He probably saw one of the first English Bibles, newly available for people to read. We don’t know very much about him, but what does survive is the Royal Writ from King James I sent to the Bishop of Lichfield in 1612 ordering his arrest and execution.

It gives us an amazing insight into what Wightman believed, since his beliefs were the reason for his arrest. We know that they included the following, quoting from the document itself:

  • THAT there is not the Trinity of Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the unity of the Deity
  • THAT Jesus Christ is not perfect God and of the same substance, eternity and majesty with the Father in respect of the Godhead
  • THAT the Person of the Holy Ghost is not God co-equal, co-eternal and co-essential with the Father and the Son
  • THAT the (Nicene and Athanasian) creeds are the heresies of the Nicolaitans
  • THAT the soul doth sleep in the sleep of the first death as well as the body and is mortal, and that the soul of the Lord Jesus Christ did sleep in that sleep of death as well as his body
  • THAT the souls of the elect saints departed are not members of the triumphant church in heaven
  • THAT the baptizing of infants is an abominable custom
  • THAT the use of baptism is to be administered in water and only to converts of sufficient age of understanding
  • THAT Christianity is not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England

This was an age where it was dangerous to disagree with church teachings. And yet, the reason why Wightman believed different things was because he read the Bible and came to the conclusion that church doctrines were not taught in the pages of Holy Scripture.

To Edward Wightman, it mattered what you believed. It wasn’t enough to agree with the priest, every man had a duty to find the Bible Truth out for himself, and then to stand up for it. Such an attitude is quite rare today, but the Christadelphians are among those who firmly base their beliefs on the Bible and no other authority. In fact, we would agree with Wightman on all of the above bulleted statements.

He was burnt at the stake in Lichfield Market Place on 11th April 1612, where a plaque still commemorates his status as “the last person in England so to die”. History has marked him as a heretic, but perhaps he should be remembered simply because he read his Bible for himself.

Burton Library is hosting a talk about Edward Wightman on Monday 17th September, where Dr Ian Atherton of Keele University will speak on the subject ‘Edward Wightman: The Burton Heretic’. Tickets cost £3.50 or £3.00 for library members, and are available at the library or on 01283 239556. This talk is not affiliated to the Christadelphians.

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