William Kiffin, Conspirator against the King?

Life for Dissenters during the reign of Charles II could be very difficult, especially for those of prominence. William Kiffin was marked in two ways: he was a wealthy and successful merchant in London, and he was the well-known pastor of a Baptist congregation in the city. Together, these marked him for sometimes very unwanted attention. His enemies hatched a variety of schemes to bring him down. One is reported in Vol. 1 of John Stoughton’s Ecclesiastical History of England.Here is Stoughton’s report:

An example of the method employed to criminate innocent persons may be adduced, and it will furnish an illustration of some of the evidence to which Clarendon alluded.

William Kiffin was a rich London merchant, and a famous Baptist preacher. Whilst held in honour by his fellow-citizens for commercial integrity, and by his fellow- religionists for fervent zeal, he was the object of relentless persecution to the party now in the ascendant, and his steps were tracked by informers with lynx-eyed vigilance, and wolfish ferocity. When other methods had failed to bring him within the reach of the law, one of the most abominable schemes which cunning and malignity ever contrived, was adopted with a view to compass his ruin.

A letter was posted at Taunton bearing the signature of Colonel Basset of that town, and directed to one Nathaniel Crabb, Silk-thrower, in London, “residing at his house in Gravel Lane.” The letter is preserved in the State Paper Office. It is written in a spirit of fanaticism, expressing a desire for the destruction of the sons and daughters of Belial, and declaring that there were thousands of “dear saints ” who were ready to “lay down their lives to do the work of God.” “We do desire you,” it is said, “to be careful to get into your hands powder and arms; as many as you can between this and Easter, and we will do what we can to perfect the work.” The name of Kiffin is introduced, together with the names of Jesse and Griffin, as conspirators in the design. At first sight the letter appears genuine.

Nothing is indicated to the contrary in the Calendar of State Papers. When I read it at first, it startled me; yet this letter is a fabrication. An autobiography, written by Kiffin, is at hand to expose the fraud. He was summoned before the Council. The letter was read to him. He replied that he knew nothing of the matters to which it referred; and afterwards, before the Chief Justice, by whom he was examined, he proceeded to show, from certain anachronisms in the document, that it must be a forgery. His Lordship expressed his satisfaction with Kiffin’s defence, assuring him that the author of the letter, if discovered, should be punished.