RELIGIOUS CURRENTS IN ENGLAND

This page continues a  survey of England's religious and secular situation following the Elizabethan period. Continuing reform efforts culminate in civil war.

This material takes us well into the colonial period. I mention that because the English civil war leaves its mark on the New England colonies as well as England. When we direct our attention to the new world, you will see how this event affects the colonies. Right now, this takes us to a point where a semblance of religious liberty takes hold in England.

I. The Growth of Absolute Monarchy in England

Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch, died in 1603 without an heir. Scotland's James VI was her nearest relative. James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Lord Darnley, professed Catholicism although he eased English minds with his marriage to the Protestant Anne of Denmark. James VI of Scotland became England's James I finally uniting Scotland and England under one crown.

France's Henry IV called James "the wisest fool in Christendom." He was a curious mixture of stubbornness, vanity, and broad knowledge. James claimed his crown came from God and by "divine right" he submitted to no earthly power. He argued that "as it is atheism and blasphemy to dispute what God can do, so it is presumption and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can do." Englishmen used to traditional liberty, particularly the limitations of government expressed in the Magna Charta, protested with little effect.

James found the monarchy without funds but he feared taking funding requests to Parliament. He felt such action implied Parliament's superiority. With Parliamentary fiscal support, James had only two avenues open: (1) He could directly tax land. (2) He could directly tax trade. James sought merchant favor by granting monopolies. Then, without considering his nation's economic interests, he conducted foreign relations in such a way as to benefit self.

In the religious sphere, James viewed Puritans and Presbyterians as dissidents and troublemakers. Still, James did not tax these groups directly. Indirect taxation was another matter. England's landed classes and England's merchant classes both came from those two Protestant factions. As a nominal Catholic, James promoted Catholic toleration to the common man's dismay. He viewed Puritans as troublemakers because they repudiated the Episcopal system. James interpreted this repudiation as a threat against the monarchy itself. In his mind, a refusal to submit to royally appointed bishops smacked of disloyalty to the monarchy. In time James determined to harry the Puritans from England. At this point strict Puritans emigrated to Holland.

James died in 1625 and his son, Charles I (1625-1649), followed him to the throne. Charles viewed royal power just like his father did. Parliament and Puritans soon confronted him.

Charles alienated the people with careless economic and foreign policy. Soon after his coronation he declared war on France. Needing war funds, Charles went to Parliament but it refused to appropriate the funds. Charles then forced his subjects to loan monies and punished those who refused. Parliament then passed the Petition of Right in 1628 making it illegal for the king to levy taxes not approved by Parliament.

Charles next alienated Puritan reformers remaining in England. He appointed William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Laud, a determined man, saw himself as a reformer although quite definitely a high church Anglican. A united kingdom demands uniformity in worship. He set out to enforce that uniformity throughout the English church. He demanded conformity to the liturgy set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. He then enraged those holding to strict "Sabbath" observances by authorizing public games on Sunday. Not content to enforce compliance in England, Laud turned his attention to the Scots as well. In 1637 he tries to impose Anglicanism upon these fierce Picts with little effect except rebellion.

Puritans, of course, strenuously objected to Laud's efforts. Their objections seemed tame compared to Scottish reactions. The Scots hated The Book of Common Prayer believing it to originate in the Catholic Mass Book. When Laud's order reached Scotland in 1637, riots broke out in Edinburgh. In 1638, the Scots drew up the National Covenant and refused compliance. The Scots then mustered the Clans and made preparations for war.

The Scottish Presbyterian reaction served as a prelude to the English civil war. Charles called out his troops but he refused to fight when he discovered he was outnumbered. To gain time he signed a treaty. Lack of money to raise and pay the English troops plagued Charles and provided his major obstacle. Charles convened Parliament hoping to raise needed funds but found it so demanding of reform that he dissolved it after three weeks (the Short Parliament). The situation worsened when the Scots moved across the Tweed River into England where they stood until paid by the king. Charles reconvened Parliament and found himself totally at their mercy.

Parliament moved to secure control immediately. They refused payment to the Scottish troops then impeached and imprisoned the king's chief subordinates including Archbishop Laud. Parliament then passed the Root and Branch Bill abolishing bishops. Furthermore, Parliament presented Charles with The Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances. In one last major action, Parliament enacted legislation prohibiting the king to dissolve Parliament.

English civil strife lasted from 1642 to 1649. Most nobles sided with the king as did many landowners, Catholics and staunch Anglicans. Small landowners, tradesmen and manufacturers supported Parliament but Parliament's greatest support came from Puritans and Presbyterians. As conflict began the king's forces enjoyed early victories but the tide turned in 1644 when Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) reorganized and led the Parliamentary army.

In 1648 Charles recognized his cause's hopelessness and opened negotiations with Parliament but the conflict continued. Cromwell, an Independent (essentially a Congregationalist), defeated Charles and then determined to put an end to Charles. After purging Presbyterians from Parliament, the Independents set out to restructure the government and do away with the English monarchy altogether. They tried Charles as a traitor, found him guilty and ordered his execution.

With Charles out of the way, Cromwell became "Lord Protector" ruling under a document known as The Instrument of Government, a constitution of sorts. Under this constitution England became a republic. In truth, though, Cromwell wielded more power than many English monarchs. His regime depended on an Oligarchy (the rule by few) and was destined for trouble. Royalists, Anglicans and more radical Puritans opposed him.

When Cromwell died in 1658, his son, Richard, succeeded him. Richard held office until May, 1659, when England reacted to the austere Calvinism of its Lord Protectors. In 1660, Parliament named Charles II king and invited him to return to England. Charles II promised to uphold the Magna Charta and the Petition of Right. His return began the period known as the Restoration. It continued through the reign of James II (1685-1688). Still history failed to run smoothly for England. The Stuart reign ended with "The Glorious Revolution" of 1688-1689. Parliament invited Prince William of Orange and Mary, James II's eldest daughter, to become joint rulers. William arrived with an army from Holland and James took refuge in France. No one fired a shot! In 1689, Parliament passed the Toleration Act which granted religious freedom to all Christians, except Catholics and Unitarians. Then on December 16, 1689, Parliament passed the Bill of Rights. From that Bill came many of the rights expressed in our own Bill of Rights.

II. Wacky Groups Arising During the Years of Crisis

A number of radical groups arose during Cromwell's rule. Christopher Hill wrote one of the most interesting little books on this period entitled The World Turned Upside Down. Let me mention just a few of these groups.

A. The Levellers and the True Levellers. These radical Puritans believed it was God's will that men be levelled to a classlesls society. The Diggers, a splinter faction, saw their mission as the establishment of societies in England's "waste lands." These waste lands were farmed over areas where agriculture was unprofitable. Gerrard Winstanley was one of the Levellers' leaders. He saw Jesus as "the Head Leveller."

B. The Seekers and Ranters. Seekers gave up on ever finding the true church of God in any sect. They believed the end of the world was near so they withdrew from all sectarian controversy, rejected all sects along with all organized religion. Ranters were extremists in every detail. George Fox said he met Ranters in 1649 who said they were God. Some Ranters denied Christ's existence; others claimed to be Christ. Such people believed Christ came in His Spirit and thus they no longer needed such mundane helps as preaching, communion, or Bible study. For the Ranter, Christ in us is far more important than the historical Christ who died in Jerusalem.

C. The Grindletonians. These people took their name from Grindleton, a community in Yorkshire. Grindletonian teaching developed because no resident rector or vicar provided guidance. These folks believed in the priority of the Spirit over the letter of Scripture, denied ordination's validity, believed they could live without sin and even attain heaven in this life.

D. The Fifth Monarchy Men. Fifth Monarchy Men expected King Jesus to directly intervene in English politics to bring about democratic institutions and practices. These men were the millenarians of their day.

All these groups shared common political objectives--the abolition of tithes and a state church, legal reform, educational reform, and a strong hostility to class distinctions. Each group utilized different means to accomplish those ends.

Many groups became totally aberrant in their religious practices. The Levellers and Diggers became Pantheistic. Others demonstrated extreme views regarding the Holy Spirit. Still others claimed spiritual guidance to instigate polygamy, communal living, and promiscuity. England saw so many family experiments that in seventeenth century England one of every three brides went to the altar pregnant. Some groups argued for female nudism, not as a symbol of regained innocence, but because nakedness would be less provocative than the clothes which women wore.

As you can see, it was a strange time. Overseas, however, things progressed nicely. Puritans in North America rejoiced that they could build God's society unhampered and protected by 3,000 miles of ocean. But that's another story.

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