Rev. Edward Wightman

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Edward Wightman

Also Known As: "Whitman"
Birthplace: Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England
Death: Died in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England
Cause of death: Burned at the stake
Immediate Family:

Son of John Wightman and Mawdelin Haytor
Husband of Frances Darbye
Father of Priscilla Wightman; John Wightman, of London & RI; Maria Wightman; Anna Wightman; Samuel Wightman and 1 other
Brother of Elizabeth Wightman; Valentine Wightman; Richard Wightman; William Wightman and Edward Whightman
Half brother of John Wightman and Thomas Wightman

Occupation: Minister
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Rev. Edward Wightman

from Lichfield remembers Edward Wightman Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Market Square this afternoon played host to a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the death of Edward Wightman, who was burnt at the stake in Lichfield 400 years ago today.

Wightman was the last man to be killed in this way for heresy in England.

Today, four centuries on, some of his American descendants joined council dignitaries and Lichfield residents for a quiet, dignified service to honour his memory.


Edward was a religious radical. He was executed for heresy against the Church of England by burning at the stake in 1612; the last person to die in this way for this reason in England by act of law. Edward's radical brand of Protestantism included a rejection of the trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ (and therefore still would be considered non-traditional to most modern Protestants and Catholics), a rejection of the creeds that serve as a foundation of both Catholicism and Protestantism, and a complete rejection of the institutionalized Church of England. While personal and economic struggles may have helped to advance Edward's radicalism, his theology can also be seen as a very radical outcome of early puritan theologies that grew out of Elizabethan era debate surrounding the historical and theological descent from the early Roman church.

According to some sources, Edward was a minister of the Six-Principle Baptist Church or celebrated as a proto-Unitarian, but these assertions have not been supported by the work of historians. Certainly his religious views included central tenants of Baptist and Unitarian traditions as they were practiced later, but Edward's theology was much more radical, even by today's standards. Furthermore, while Edward's religious development was contemporary with, but not necessarily dependent on, the early English Baptist church, it quite obviously preceded the development of the organized American Unitarian movement, which was an 18th century creation. Both adult baptism and a rejection of the trinity were ideas that had found favor with a few Protestant dissenters, particularly on the continent, during the late 16th century. Edward's theology borrowed from these ideas, but in several important ways pushed them further than most others.

Leonard Williams Levy, in his 1995 book entitled "Blasphemy" argues that Edward was a member of the Church of England until about 1609 or 1610, at which time he experienced a revolutionary conversion to a radical and distinctive theology. However, other scholarly sources have pointed to evidence that show that Edward was active in puritanism and separatism as early as the 1590's. It does appear that he may have retained a relationship with his local parish, despite his separatist views.

The religious environment in which Edward grew up was probably unremarkable. According to documents from the 1612 era, his parents were members of the traditional Church of England, and had no reported separatist or puritan leanings. The religious environment in Burton in the 1570's was dominated by Thomas, Lord Paget, the leading local noble. Lord Paget was a papist, who sought to promote Roman Catholicism in Burton. Most locals, apparently including the Wightman family, were fairly committed to the Church of England; evangelism and puritanism did not have a major presence.

Edward was born at Burbage, Leicestershire, the son of a schoolteacher and a cloth trader (draper). He grew up, at least during his later childhood, in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire. He probably attended grammar school there, and was reasonably well-educated. Edward initially entered his mother's business, the cloth trade. In the 1580's, he was apprenticed to John Barnes, a wool cloth trader, in Shrewsbury, Salop Co., west of Staffordshire (and near the Welsh border). When Edward arrived in Shrewsbury in the 1580's for his apprenticeship, he found a thriving and growing puritan movement headed by John Tomkys. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that he began to develop his radical brand of Protestantism during his time there. In 1590, he was admitted as a master into the Shrewsbury Drapers' Company, but within a few years, he returned to Burton-on-Trent, where married Frances Darbye in 1593 (there is some confusion as to whether their marriage was on September 2 or September 11) and entered the Burton clothing business.

When Edward returned to Burton, the religious environment had changed quite dramatically from his childhood. In 1583, Lord Paget fled England after ending up on the losing side of some political plotting involving Mary, Queen of Scots. Henry Hastings emerged as the new local noble and political leader, and he was a committed Protestant. Under his leadership, a new evangelical puritanism emerged in Burton. Peter Eccleshall, the Burton curate, was indicted in 1588 for not using the Book of Common Prayer. A puritan evangelist, Philip Stubbes, lived in Burton for a time during the early 1590's. By 1596, curate Eccleshall established a new "common exercise." Thus a modest form of puritanism quickly became well-established in Burton. The clothiers and various influential business people in Burton were very much involved in the religious transformation, thus Edward's turn to puritanism was part of a town-wide trend. In 1595, Lord Hastings died, and William Paget, son of the previous noble, was reinstated in the lands of Burton. Despite Paget's establishment as Baron in 1604, he spent little time in the Burton area, and did not reverse the course of evangelical puritanism in Burton.

Edward was a religious radical. He was execuded for heresy against the Church of England by burning at the stake. The authorities first carried out an aborted attempt at execution. When the flames started to burn Wightman, he shouted out something that seemed to imply that he had changed and was ready to accept the faith of the Church of England. The sheriff released him from the stake. Wightman refused to make a formal retraction and continued to preach his "heresies"; a few weeks later he was again tied to the stake and his body burned on April 11, 1612.

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Rev. Edward Wightman's Timeline

December 20, 1566
Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England
December 1596
Age 29
January 7, 1598
Age 31
Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England
February 1602
Age 35
September 1608
Age 41
August 1611
Age 44
April 11, 1612
Age 45
Lichfield, Staffordshire, England
April 11, 1612
Age 45
March 15, 1943
Age 45