The story of Thomas Tillam and the "Counterfeit Jew" stands out as a dramatic occurrence, even in the turbulent times of the mid-seventeenth century in England.
As a lecturer at Hexham Abbey, Tillam had founded a Baptist church that was gathering 30-40 new members per year in 1653-1954. However, Tillam was duped by a Scotsman named Thomas Ramsay into believing that Ramsay was a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Tillam even baptized Ramsay into his church. The deception was uncovered soon afterward and publicized widely. The story can be reconstructed from an amalgamation of the reports printed soon after the event. (1)
Thomas Tillam's character, the political and religious situation at the time, and the motives behind the actions of persons in the drama are considered in this paper, along with a reason for why this strange event became so prominent in the nation's consciousness at this time.
Thomas Tillam's ministry during the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell had such an effect upon the Warrington Baptist Church that the congregation prayed that "he of whom the Lord has made such a blessed use, shall shine as a star in glory." (2) However, Tillman also generated intense hatred and opposition. Thomas Weld, rector of St. Mary's, Gateshead wrote of Tillam that "he set the house on fire where ever he comes." (3) And for some men he was "a ball of wild-fire, tossed from one end of the nation to the other, scattering pestilent error." (4) There is no doubting Tillam's strong charismatic evangelism and the fierce certainty of his beliefs.
The Political and Religious Background
The county of Northumberland has always been a relative backwater with its wild landscape and sparse population. In the mid-seventeenth century, after the chaos of the English Civil War, it was reported that the North of England lacked effective clergy. A petition from the town of Muggleswick had made the point graphically:We are a people... who have been destitute of a preaching minister, yea, even since any of us, that are now breathing, were borne, to our souls griefe and dreadful hazard of destruction; neither is it our case alone, but ten or twelve parishes all adjoining are, in like manner, void of the means of salvation. (5)
In response, a "messenger" was sent from London to take up the post of lecturer at Hexham Abbey in December 1651. This evangelist was Thomas Tillam. Upon arrival he immediately established a Baptist church that flourished until he was forced to leave in 1665.
Following the civil war, the Protestant rulers of England had reason to fear Catholic subversion of their country. They stood against the Catholic countries of France and Spain, and the experiences of the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot still lingered in their memory. It is no surprise that the Jesuit authorities on the Continent should have considered sending an agent to attempt to infiltrate the Northumberland religious community in 1653. This was an area...