Henry Forty, preacher and occasional religious writer, was the first professional minister to lead the Abingdon Baptist community after the death in 1656 of its founder, John Pendarves.
His origin and early career are obscure. Accounts differ on the year of his birth, and are silent as to the place. Most probably, he was a Londoner, since he seems in the 1640s to have had some role at the proto-Baptist church at Swan Alley, off Coleman Street. By 1651, Forty was prominent enough to sign on behalf of his congregation a Confession of Faith of the Particular or Calvinistic Baptist sect that had been set up some years earlier and which Pendarves represented in Abingdon.
Soon after this we find him in the West Country as minister of a Particular Baptist community in Totnes. Pendarves was himself a west-countryman and kept up his connections there; in 1656 both Pendarves and Forty were among the signatories to a controversial tract called Sighs for Sion which might be read as a call for armed resistance to the Cromwell government. In the same year, Forty was one of the many Baptists who gathered in Abingdon for Pendarves’ funeral and had to be ejected from the town by the militia after disturbances.
Several accounts say that at the Restoration in 1660 Forty was arrested and held in prison at Exeter for twelve years. He may well have been held there for some time, but was back in London, probably at Swan Alley, by May 1670 when there was a crackdown on illegal religious assemblies. He was imprisoned at Southwark, and released two years later. It has been suggested that Forty was now officiating at Swan Alley, but this is uncertain. He published at least one tract from there in the 1670s, but in 1675 moved to Abingdon as minister.
For almost twenty years after Pendarves’ death, the congregation he had founded was led by its lay preachers, notably the wealthy maltster John Tomkins (1621-1708). Forty now took it in hand. Probably his greatest achievement was the revival from 1678 of Pendarves’ Abingdon Association, a regional grouping which held regular conferences at which representatives – ‘messengers’ – of the member churches worked to maintain unity of practice and administration. This now covered a much greater area than it had in Pendarves’ day, extending from its Abingdon centre as far as Reading and Cirencester.
Persecution of religious Dissenters intensified in the 1680s. Forty was excommunicated by the Church of England in 1684, which will have been intended as a financial rather than an ecclesiastical penalty since excommunicated persons were effectively excluded from the civil courts. But he had his triumph in July 1686 when James II was granting Protestant Dissenters dispensations from the repressive laws in the hope of gaining toleration also for his Catholic coreligionists. Forty was at the head of a group of twenty-five Abingdon Baptists on trial at the Berkshire assizes when their defending counsel, Thomas Medlycott, came with a royal dispensation in due form and they had to be acquitted. The hearing was on a Saturday. The Baptist chapel had been closed and, it seems, vandalised, but was cleaned up overnight and triumphantly re-opened for services the next day.
In June 1689, after the accession of William and Mary, the repressive laws were relaxed. Forty led some fifty members of his flock in publicly taking the oaths of allegiance to the new regime.
Forty’s position in the doctrinal debates of his time seems to have varied during his career, following changes in intellectual fashion. He moved early from the principle of open communion to one where access to the Lord ’s Supper was limited to those baptised as believing adults – but may have moved back again later. In the 1680s, there was controversy among the Baptists on whether hymn singing should be part of divine service, and he accepted this. It seems that he never did accept the laying on of hands as a qualification for the Baptist ministry and never underwent this ritual.
Forty died on 25 January 1692/3, presumably at Southwark where his funeral took place. The minister officiating described him, in spite of his effective pastoral work at Totnes and Abingdon, as merely a lay preacher.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms
© AAAHS and contributors 2017