William Twisse – a 17th-century Polemicist

William Twisse – a 17th-century Polemicist

            To bow or not to bow? It was a key question for ministers in the Church of England, in relation to the Lord’s table. Many believed that bowing or kneeling before the table was a mark of idolatry, pointing to the adoration of the elements.

            This was the position of the Scottish John Knox who, in 1552, opposed this regulation in the Book of Common Prayer. Unable to reassure him otherwise, Thomas Cranmer added to the Book a short insert (known as Black Rubric because of the color of the ink), in which he explained that kneeling during the Lord’s Supper didn’t imply adoration of the bread and wine.

            The controversy continued, reaching a peak in the 17th century, when Archbishop Laud enforced strict adherence to the rules. Some ministers refused to conform and suffered the consequences of their opposition. Others argued, as Richard Hooker had done a century earlier, that these were indifferent matters and shouldn’t distract from worship. In other words, if the authorities required bowing, ministers could bow without making a big deal of it.

            William Twisse disagreed with the whole argument. He just didn’t understand the primacy given to the Lord’s Supper. He agreed, as the Reformed confessions stated, that it points to the realities of Christ’s death and resurrection, but aren’t the same realities expressed in baptism and in the preaching of Scriptures? If forced to bow to the altar, he could do so, but would also bow to the font and the pulpit.

            Twisse’s reputation spared him from punishment for these dissenting thoughts, even when he went as far as refusing to build the mandatory railed altar in his church. To him, the same logic applied here: if ministers were supposed to build a rail around the Lord’s Table to protect the sanctity of the elements, why not build a rail around the baptismal font and the pulpit as well?

Twisse’s Reputation

            Born at Speenlands (near Newbury, Berkshire) to a family of German descent, Twisse described himself as a “very wicked boy.” He attributed his conversion to the appearance of a “phantom of a rakehelly boy, his schoolfellow, who said to him, ‘I am damned.’”[1] After graduating at Oxford, he quickly became known boh for his piety and his abilities to dispute heresies and preach the gospel. By this time, he had “shaken off his wild extravagances,” although some Oxford colleagues still considered him “hot headed and restless.”[2]

            By 1613, he had earned such an excellent reputation that King James I employed him as chaplain to his daughter Elizabeth, Princess Palatine, during her trip to Germany. Twisse took advantage of his time in Heidelberg to visit other theologians and discuss different matters.

            Seven years later, he was called to be a pastor in Newbury – a calling he found preferable to more prestigious offers he received at the same time. He continued to enjoy the respect of King James and his successor, Charles I, so much that he was exempted from prosecution when he refused to obey the King’s Book of Sports (a royal declaration of everyone’s right to watch or perform sports on Sundays). Like most Puritans, Twisse believed that sports could distract people from devoting Sunday to worship, prayer, study of Scriptures, and deeds of Christian charity.

            The main reason for Twisse’s high reputation was his ability as Christian polemicist – particularly against semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism – two religious currents on which he was considered an expert. He helped to edit the anti-Pelagian works of 14th-century Thomas Bradwardine, and wrote a long critique to the works of Thomas Jackson, another Oxford theologian, who leaned heavily on Greek philosophy in order to defend human free will and inborn ability to find God in nature.

            He also wrote an anti-Arminian work called A Vindication of the Grace, Sovereignty, and Providence of God, as well as works against Roman Catholics, such as Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and the Jesuits.

            In spite of his good relations with members of the royal family, the great esteem he had earned from them, and some avid coaxing by Prince Rupert (son of Elizabeth Palatine), he remained a staunch Parliamentarian from the very onset of the civil war. When the Royalists attacked Newbury, he fled to London, where he became a lecturer at St. Andrew Holborn.

Twisse at the Assembly

            His reputation made him a logical choice as delegate to the Westminster Assembly, which gathered in 1643. It was probably the reason for his election as prolocutor (chairman). In this capacity, he preached the sermon at the opening service, which lasted three hours. At a time when people could hardly lift their thoughts from the civil war that was raging around the country – a war that was affecting the properties and families of many delegates to the assembly – he chose as his text John 14:18: “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.”

            By that time, however, his health was already failing, and his silence during some debates (particularly one on the precise wording to use regarding justification) caused some to believe he was too ill to serve as prolocutor. These feelings might have fueled the complaints of the more radical delegates who were disappointed by his moderate views of worship. Others thought he was simply modest, while the theologian Richard Baxter (not included in the delegates) suggested that some discussions were outside Twisse’s area of expertise.

            Whatever the reason, in January 1645, Twisse’s health forced him to retire from his post and he was succeeded by Cornelius Burges. Twisse returned to Holborn where his physical condition continued to deteriorate. A fainting spell on the pulpit on March 30, 1645 put an end to his preaching. He died on July 20, 1646 after months of bed-rest.

            Little is known about his family life. He was twice a widower and had a total of seven children, two daughters and five sons.

            Today, Twisse is largely unknown, but his reputation lived on long after his death, particularly for his lucid replies to the Arminians and for his clear reasoning in matters both of theology and liturgy. His unconventional conclusions to the imposition of bowing at the Lord’s Supper are a good example of his biblical understanding of the sacraments and preaching as expressions of the same gospel.

[1] Anthony A. Wood, Athenae Oxonienses: An Exact History of All the Writers and Bishops Who Have Had Their Education in the University of Oxford, vol. 3, London, 1817, p. 170.

[2] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr