Henry Jessey was born at West Routon, Yorkshire, England on Sept. 3, 1601, and was the son of an Episcopal minister. He was carefully prepared for university studies and entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, when 17. He stayed there for six years and was extremely studious. He was competent in the classics and mathematics, Hebrew and Rabbinic works, Syriac and Arabic. He received his Master of Arts there. When 21, he went to the University of Cambridge. While studying at Cambridge, he was saved. When his father died, he was left with very little to support himself, obtain books, and secure food.
His career started when he became a family chaplain and this lasted nine years. It was during this time he increased in knowledge and preparation for his holy call. In 1627 he was ordained in the Episcopal Church, and in 1633 he was rector of Aughton, Yorkshire. He was removed because he refused to conform to the Romish Traditions that was required of his job.
In 1637, he became pastor of a famous dissenting Independent Church in London that Henry Jacob had formed in 1616, and pastored until 1620. He was followed by John Lathrop from 1625-1634. Henry Jessey pastored there from 1637. He was often imprisoned. This church often debated Baptist doctrine, and spun off a whole series of new Baptist churches. Though his work prospered, he consistently lost members to the Baptists. The ones who left were numerous and intelligent people.
In April of 1640, several congregations assembled on Tower Hill. Jessey was to have spoken, but the meeting was interrupted and he was taken to the Tower, and afterwards was held by the Archbishop. A year later he was imprisoned by the Mayor.
He felt compelled to study the subject of baptism and was surprised to find that sprinkling was a new invention, and the Bible clearly taught immersion. So from that point on in 1643, he would only dip children for baptism. But in 1645, after continued study of the Scriptures and continued appeals for light from heaven on the subject, he concluded that only believers should be baptized. This also meant that he himself needed to be baptized in obedience of Scripture.
In June, 1645, he was baptized by Hanserd Knollys and became pastor of the church meeting at Swan Alley, in London. His church is credited for organizing what later became known as the “Particular Baptists.”
Oliver Cromwell appointed Jessey with two other Baptist ministers as “Triers.” They were to examine candidates for the ministry in the national church, and to investigate the character and complaints against other ministers to see if they should be expelled. They were trusted with complete freedom to do as they deemed appropriate. This meant that he was rector of St. George’s church in Southwark, London, (where he received a state provided salary) and pastor of a Baptist church there as well! In the morning he preached at St. George, and in the afternoon he would be among his own people, the Baptists, at Woodmongers’ Hall, which became a very large congregation. He would also regularly preach at Ely House in the Savoy.
His life goal was to produce a translation of the Bible. The Authorized Version had been released (KJV), but he was very disappointed at the Episcopalian slant that was made in the course of translation. So, besides his constant labor in the ministry, he took great pains and many years to make a new and correct translation. Even though he worked tirelessly to learn all he could about the Biblical languages and the languages of Bible times, he never felt his work was good enough, and would frequently write to learned men all over the world for assistance. This became the master project of his life, and he was often heard to say he wanted to see it done before he died. He completed this when Charles II targeted the non-conformists of the country and made the translation void. His work was never published.
Pastor Jessey never married so that he would have more to give to the Lord’s work. He worked tirelessly in raising funds for charity, even raising money to help the poor Jews in Jerusalem so they would not have to enter slavery. He firmly believed that the Second Coming of Christ would not happen until the Jews were converted, and thus it became necessary not only to help them, but witness to them. Thirty families relied chiefly on him for their sustenance. Each day there were people pressing him for aid, and he rarely turned any away.
He published 8 books, and his works were well known and very much appreciated. His first was about Communion and that it should be open to those who are saved.
As a pastor, his usual salutation was: “Verily God is good—blessed be His name—stick to Him.” He knew the Scriptures so well, that if someone began to rehearse a verse, he could finish it and provide the reference where it was found.
On May 29, 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne. Before returning to the throne, he declared that no man would be called into question about differences of opinion in matters of religion. However, Henry Jessey’s close friend and fellow pastor, John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was the first to be arrested after having preached for about five years as a Baptist, and being very popular, even though he made his living as a tinker. There he remained for 12 years.
At the beginning of 1661, a group of 50 men, dissenters, went and murdered a man, and this crime was used as a reason to increase the persecution of Baptists, even though not one in the group was Baptist or from the Baptists.
In 1662, the Act of Uniformity was passed, and over 2000 eminent, godly, learned ministers were evicted from their living. Among these were Pastor Henry Jessey who was evicted form St. George’s church and soon after put in prison twice.
In his last days before he died in prison, he carried on the work of encouraging people to praise the Lord and recounted how God had been so good to him. He tried to walk about on his last day on earth, and was led about his cell as he praised the Lord who had cared for him as Jesus had cared for Peter. He was so weak he soon had to lie down. He continued praying and talking until about 11 that night, at which point he fell asleep. He awoke around 2:30 a.m. and continued to admire the love of God that he should choose the vilest, unworthiest and basest men like himself. When his medicine was brought, he refused it. His last audible words were “He counted me faithful!” He died there on Sept. 4, 1663.
At his funeral, three days later, thousands of people attended from several religious denominations. Although the account of his burial is carefully recorded, it is now impossible to know where his remains were laid in the graveyard.
Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1886; 2003). p. 472.
David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America; The Baptist Denomination in America (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1813; 2003), pp. 204-205.
John C. Carlile, The Story of the English Baptists (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1905; 2003), p. 83-86.
William Cathcart, “Henry Jessey,” The Baptist Encyclopedia, pp. 599, 600
J.M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Close of the Eighteenth Century (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1871; 2003), pp. 280, 356-360..
W.R. Estep. “Law and Gospel in the Anabaptist/Baptist Tradition,” Grace Theological Journal (Grace Seminary, 1991; 2002). Vo. 12 p. 202.
E. Glenn Hinson. “The Baptist Experience in the United States.” Review and Expositor (Review and Expositor, 1982; 2004). Vo.79, Nu.2, p.219.
Avihu Zakai. “The Image of the Jews in the English Reenaissance.” Westminster Theological Journal (Westminster Theological Seminary, 1997; 2002). Vo. 59, p. 229.