Protestant Polemic and the Japanese Martyrs

This is my first post for a while, partly because I’ve been focusing on other things, and partly because, when I did turn my attention in this direction and tried to post, the blog had disappeared!

It took a while, but eventually I managed to sort out the problems and get it back, so here I am – three quarters of a year late, posting details of a paper I presented at the European Association for Japanese Studies Annual Conference at Tsukuba University on September 15, 2019.

The purpose of the presentation was to view the persecution of Catholics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan in the context of the religious controversies between Catholics and Protestants in early modern England.

Here are the notes I used for the presentation:

I’d like to start by discussing the role and nature of characterizations of Japan in polemical literature prior to the martyrdoms of 1597 … and to do that I need to focus on a Jesuit mission very different from that in Japan – the mission to England of 1580-81, which basically hinges on two individuals, the controversialist Robert Parsons and his fellow missionary Edmund Campion, who came to England secretly in 1580 – a pretty risky venture, the penalty for which was death, a price which Campion paid, while Parsons escaped.

The following year, 1581, while the two priests were still in hiding in England. Parsons wrote a work – ostensibly printed in Douai but, like many Catholic texts of this period, actually printed secretly in England – entitled A brief censure vppon two books written in answere to M. Edmonde Campions offer of disputation.

Campion’s offer – dubbed by his enemies “Campion’s brag” – was to discuss the Jesuit – or, more broadly, the Catholic – position with the English authorities. The offer was roundly rejected in two publications by Meredith Hanmer and William Charke.

So … Campion requests an audience with the English authorities, Hanmer and Charke publish their rejections of the offer and Parsons publishes his response to their rejections.

And what does any of this have to do with Japan? Well, Parsons is at pains to reassure the English authorities that the Jesuit presence in England is not political but religious in intent, and he says, “… to retourne to M. Campion againe, whose coming into Englande you wil needs enforce … that it is for practise against the state …” – that is, in response to the charge that the Jesuits are plotting to overthrow the government and return the country to Catholicism by force – he argues that “the Indies Japon can geue example, where they haue dealt so many yeares for the bringing of men to the Christian religion, disallowed by the states of those countries, and yet are no medlers against those estates, nor euer caused subiectes to leaue their obedience to those infidel Princes.”

He says much the same thing in another work published the following year: “The king of Bungo in Japan, being a heathen, hath permitted & protected the Catholic religion in his countries these 28 years only for the commodity he feeleth his commonwealth to receive thereof…”, he says, concluding that the Catholic faith is essential to the “maintenance, continuance, well doing, and secure establishment of a commonwealth”.

The Protestants, as we might expect, put a very different complexion on things. In May 1581, just a couple of months before Campion was seized by the English authorities, one John Keltridge preached a couple of sermons to a captive audience of Jesuits and other “aduersaries to the Gospell of Christ” in the Tower of London: “What presumption was it for you to come to vs” he says; “Wee sought you not. what arrogancie to teach vs? We are not destitute of such as can instruct. What? was it because you would sowe your damnable errors here, as you did of late amongst the Iaponians? a people that might haue beene conuerted, nowe they are infected by you : that might haue seene the light, nowe they are blinded thorowe you …”

He continues his tirade, saying “there be Idols Amida and Zaca, which the men of that countrie worshippe, as they were taught by you. Think you that it is vnknowne to vs? are we ignorant of your dealings? No, I tell you no”. Which I think is a rather nice illustration of a recurring theme in early modern discourse; when in doubt – blame it on the Jesuits!

Keltridge winds up this part of his diatribe with the words, “And come you hither, and haue you hope to preuaile here with vs … come you hither into Englande?” underlining the point that the real focus is on matters close to home, and Japan comes in merely by way of illustration.

So, let’s turn now to the events of 1597. As Dr. Rappo has explained, the Franciscans claimed the crucifixions as martyrdoms, with attendant miracles, as evidence of the importance of the work they were doing in Japan, while the Jesuits denied that there had been either martyrdoms or miracles, and argued that the crucifixions were essentially political, resulting from the Franciscans’ failure to observe the legal restraints the Japanese had placed them under.

 News of the crucifixions spread quickly in Europe. The Franciscan version was told in the Relación of Francisco de Tello de Guzmán, published in Granada and Seville in 1598, and translated in short order into Italian, French and German. Juan de Santa María’s account was published in Madrid in 1599 and, with revisions and additions, in 1601, and Marcelo de Ribadeneira – perhaps the most influential of the Franciscan writers – published his Historia in 1601.

The Jesuits were equally prolific; Luis Froís, José de Ribera and Luis de Guzmán were among those who published accounts, and there were others, on both sides of the debate, which continued to rage until the pope sanctioned the Franciscan mission in 1608, with the two sides largely burying their differences when the persecution of Christians in Japan intensified in 1614.

But what I want to focus on here is the fact that the debate is being played out in what is very much a European theatre. What impact, if any, did all of this have on little England?

The signs are not encouraging. Robert Parsons speaks of the Jesuits’ “voluntarie sufferinges tortures & martirdomes in the Indies, in Ethiopia, in Iapone, in Englād, Frace & other places” (A temperate vvard-vvord, 1599). That’s right! Blink and you’d miss it; it’s just a passing mention and he doesn’t give any details. Fróis’s letters were translated into English circa 1605, but they were never published. And, so far, I’ve not been able to locate any copies of texts related to the events of 1597 in the Private Libraries in Renaissance England database.

A 1598 translation of Jan Huygen [“haifun”] van Linschoten states that the Jesuits “likewise obtained of the Pope and the king of Spaine, that no mã might dwell in Iapan; either Portingale or Christian, without their licence and consent, so that in all Iapan there are no other orders of Munkes, Fryers, Priests, nor any other religious persons remaining or resident there, but Jesuites alone.”

The text is based on the author’s experience some years previously, so it’s only to be expected that it doesn’t refer to the Franciscan presence or to the crucifixions of 1597. However, it is curious that it appears to be the main source of information about Japan in England for a number of years afterwards. William Clark, writing in 1603, says, “it is reported of Iapona … where they [i.e., the Jesuits] keepe to themselues the sole dominion, and will admit no other Clergie, but play Bishop, priest, and Munck themselues”, citing Jan Huygen as his source.

And in 1604 George Abbot notes that “In Iaponia, of the Portingale, no man hath any authority or power besids the Iesuits … These Iesuits do also diligently take heed, that no mõk of any other order be receiued into those lads”, also based on Jan Huygen’s account.

So, yes, I think it’s fairly clear by now that we’re not really talking about the response in Protestant England, but the lack of it!

Essentially, it’s business as usual; it’s almost as if the crucifixions had never happened. Japan continues to figure as a rhetorical device in anti-Jesuit discourse and accusations of a Jesuit plot to take over England. For example, Andreas Philalethes (i.e., Robert Charnock) writes of  “the great hopes [the Jesuits] haue of making England a Iaponian Island” (An ansvvere made by one of our brethren, 1602). Such accusations persist even after the Jesuits have been driven out of Japan. William Prynne, for example, writing in 1655, complains that the Jesuits seek to “make these Northern Islands a Iaponian Island of Iesuites, and one Iesuitical Monarchy” (, A seasonable, legal, and historicall vindication).

John Donne refers disparagingly to “the Iesuites Letters of Iapan” (Ignatius his conclaue, 1611), and Samuel Purchas makes leave to “borrow of them” in his account of Japan (Purchas his pilgrimage, 1613).  Purchas even gives muted praise to the Jesuits’ work in Japan, saying “a mixed Truth” is better than “a totall errour” and “the Labours of the Iesuites … breed shame to our negligence”. Overall, though, there appears to be very little significant discussion in Protestant England of  martyrdoms and miracles among the Christians in Japan.

The apparent lack of information about Japan in England at this time is all the more curious given that, from 1600, the English had, of course, boots on the ground – Will Adams, an Englishman in Japan (with apologies to Sting) or (if you prefer the Graham Greene version) our man in Nagasaki.

According to John Nelson, Adams’s “Protestant descriptions of a new world view portrayed the Spaniards and Portuguese as ‘papist pirates,’ the Pope as ‘a thief,’ and warned in no uncertain terms that the Spaniards were set on nothing less than world conquest based first on the conversion of subjects of foreign princes … It all sounded very familiar to threats heard during the San Felipe incident in 1597”. And, no doubt, it had some effect on Japanese perceptions of the Catholic presence.

And, from 1613 to 1623 the East India Company was active in Japan, headed by Richard Cocks, a former anti-Catholic spy.

Timon Screech, basing his analysis largely on letters written by Cocks to the Company during this period, makes a compelling case for the role of Cocks and the English in turning the Japanese authorities against the Catholics (The English and the control of Christianity in the early Edo period, 2012).

Some of Cocks’s letters found their way into later editions of Purchas his pilgrimage and, together with more of the Jesuits’ letters coming from Japan, they helped to flesh out the picture.

Slowly but surely, the news that Japan had “persecuted the Christians, and banished the Iesuites” started to filter into Protestant England.

Meanwhile, Catholic accounts of the crucifixions of 1597 and related events were beginning to appear in English. As Alexandra Walsham observes, “These books were expected to fall into the hands, not just of committed adherents of the Church of Rome, but also of lukewarm waverers and convinced Calvinists”. The Anglican clergy, of course, were exempt from the prohibition on reading Catholic literature and were, indeed, expected to do so, in order to be in a position to confound the adversary. It took a surprising amount of time, but by about 1630 Protestant England was reasonably up to date regarding the persecution of Christians in Japan.

However, it is not until the later part of the seventeenth century that the threads of historical detail and religious polemic start to weave themselves into a coherent Protestant narrative. John Evelyn’s 1670 translation of de Pontchâteau and Arnauld is a good example: “… for a mark of the Jesuites blinded self-love, he says, that no Fryar of any other order must be permitted to pass into England” – “he” here being our old friend Robert Parsons – concluding “thus they make nothing of ruining the Church, providing it may conduce to make them Masters of all”.

And in that context of hostile relations between Jesuits and other orders he introduces Japan, where “the Jesuites were Cheats and Impostures who made pretence of preaching, came to raise the people, and plot some treason against him [i.e., the emperor], and the kings of Japan”, where they were seen as seditious, as “dispos[ing] the people to war”, and where they were “persecuted and chased away as Cheats and Impostors”. He then goes on to argue that “It cannot be said that the Emperour did this out of hatred to the Christian Faith, who gave permission in writing in 1593 to the Order of St. Francis to enter his Empire, to found there Churches, Hospitals and Convents, and appear publickly in their poor habit : All which notwithstanding the persecution continued against the Society, who had but one Church left at Nangazaqui…”

In the following year, 1671, the Dutch account of Arnoldus Montanus appeared in English, noting that in 1596 (by the Julian calendar) the Emperor “proceeded cruelly against the Christians” ordering the “Governor of Nangesaque, to take five Franciscans, and three Jesuits, and having Crucified, run them through with Spears”. Montanus goes on to pour scorn on the accounts of miracles surrounding this event – “concerning the Miracles wrought by these Priests, let him believe, who according to St. Augustine, desired and depends upon now Miracles for establishment of Religion, already confirm’d by Wonders”, but goes on to list them nevertheless.

Montanus also comments, interestingly, that “These Examples manifest sufficiently, that the Japanners are not only of Noble Hearts, but constant Resolutions, enduring the greatest Tortures in their Infancy with inexpressible Valour, for a Religion, the first beginning whereof they scarce understood: For besides reading the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and some Prayers to the Saints, they have little or no knowledge of either the Old or New Testament: Therefore we may judge the Japan Martyrs to be very Zealous and Constant.”

This line of thought is also found in the works of the puritan Richard Baxter, who in 1692 argues that Christianity may exist independently of the scriptures, saying, “a man may be a true Christian who knoweth not that there is any Scripture which is Gods Infallible word”, and in that context goes on to say that “in Japan, Congo, China, and other countries of the East, they [i.e., the Jesuits] did teach them onely by Creeds, Catechismes, and preachings: And I remember no knowledge that they gave to most of them of the Scriptures : And yet the most cruel torments and martyrdoms never before heard of, which the Christians in Japan endured … doth put all sober readers past doubt, that there were many excellent Christians”.

So, let’s try to get some kind of gestalt on all of this. What does it all add up to? Essentially, we’re dealing, especially in the early stages, with an anti-Jesuit narrative, in which Japan is cast as “Jesuitized” and perceived negatively, while England is “Jesuit-free” and perceived positively. Japan is held up as the epitome of all the harm the Jesuits do.

The martyrdoms of 1597 and the ensuing persecution of Christians in Japan are recounted from the varying perspectives of the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Dutch and the English themselves, and as these accounts slowly filter into English discourse the focus begins to shift gradually away from Jesuit conspiracy and towards greater historical accuracy, the question of the veracity of miracles, and a recognition of the commonality of suffering. Obviously, the diagram is a simplification. Anti-Jesuit polemic doesn’t just die out at this time, and Protestant attacks on the Catholic belief in miracles go right back to the early days of the Reformation. But there does seem to be a general shift of perspective, away from the early modern worldview and anticipating the more rational discourses of the Enlightenment.

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