This is the second episode in which we look at English Puritanism.
We left off last time with King Charles I fleeing London after breaking into The House of Commons to arrest some Puritan members of Parliament he accused of treason. The men had been warned and had fled. What Charles had hoped would be a dramatic show of his defense of the realm against dangerous elements, ended up being an egregious violation of British rights. So in fear for his own life, he packed up his family and headed out of town.
Back in London, John Pym the leader of Parliament, ruled as a kind of king without a crown. The House of Commons proposed a law excluding the king-supporting faction of bishops in the House of Lords from Parliament. Other members of the House of Lords surprisingly agreed, so the clergy were expelled. This commenced a process that would eventually disbar anyone from Parliament who disagreed with the Puritans. The body took on an ever-increasing bent toward the radical. Feeling their oats, Parliament then ordered a militia be recruited. The king decided the time had come to respond with decisive action. He gathered loyal troops and prepared for battle against Parliament’s militia. Civil War had finally come.
Both sides began by building forces. Charles support came from the nobility, while Parliament found its among those who’d suffered most in the recent royal shenanigans. Parliament’s army came from the lower classes, to which were added some form the emerging merchants middle-class, as well as a handful of those nobles who’d not been in favor at court. The king’s strength was the cavalry, which of course was traditionally the noble’s military specialty. The Parliamentary forces strength was in their infantry & navy. And the navy controlled trade.
At the outset of the war, there were only minor skirmishes. During this time Parliament sought help from the Scots, while Charles sought it from Irish Catholics. In its efforts to attract the Scots, Parliament enacted a series of measures leaning toward Presbyterianism. English Puritans didn’t agree with the Presbyterian plan for church government, but they certainly didn’t like the episcopacy of the Church of England’s King-supporting bishops. English Puritans ended up adopting the Presbyterian model, not only because it tweaked the Bishops, but because it made more Biblical sense at the time, and because confiscation of bishops’ property meant Parliament could fund the war without creating new taxes.
Parliament also convened a groups of theologians to advise it on religious matters. The Westminster Assembly included 121 ministers and 30 laymen & 8 Scottish representatives. Being that the Scots had the strongest army in Great Britain, though they numbered only 5% of the total participants in the assembly, their influence was decisive. The Westminster Confession which they produced became one of the fundamental documents of Calvinist orthodoxy. Although some of the Assembly’s members were independents who followed a congregational form of government, and others still leaned toward an episcopacy, the Assembly settled on a Presbyterian form of government, and urged Parliament to adopt it for the Church of England. In 1644, Parliament joined the Scots in a Solemn League and Covenant that committed them to Presbyterianism. The following year the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was executed on the order of Parliament.
As Parliament built up its army, Oliver Cromwell came to the fore. He was a relatively wealthy man, descended from 1 of Henry VIII’s advisors, who was the subject of a recent TV miniseries called Wolf Hall. A few years before, Oliver had become a Puritan, and was now an avid reader of Scripture. He was convinced that every decision, both personal and political, ought to be based on the will of God. Although he was often slow in coming to a decision, once he’d set upon a course he was determined to follow it through to its final conclusions, believing it to be, in fact, God’s Will. Although he was respected by fellow Puritans, until the Civil War he was simply known as just another member of the House of Commons. But when he was convinced armed conflict was inevitable, Cromwell returned home where he recruited a cavalry corps. He knew cavalry was the king’s main weapon, and that Parliament would need their own. His zeal was contagious, and his small force accomplished great deeds. They charged into battle singing psalms, convinced they were engaged in a holy cause. That attitude spread to the rest of the Parliament’s army which crushed the royal army at the Battle of Naseby.
That was the beginning of the end for the king. The rebels captured his camp, where they found proof he’d been asking foreign Catholic troops to invade England. Charles then tried to negotiate with the Scots, hoping to win them with promises. But the Scots took him prisoner and turned him over to Parliament. Having won the war, Parliament adopted a series of Puritan measures, including setting the precedent that Sunday was to be reserved for religious observances not frivolous pastimes.
The Puritans, who’ had to unite due to war, now fell to arguing among themselves. Most of Parliament supported a Presbyterian form of church govt, which made for a national church without bishops. But the Independents who made up the majority of the army leaned toward congregationalism. They feared a Presbyterian church would begin to limit their ability to pursue their faith the way their conscience demanded. Tension grew between Parliament and the army.
In 1646, Parliament unsuccessfully tried to dissolve the army. Radical groups gained ground in the army. A wave of apocalyptic fervor swept England, moving many to demand a transformation of the social order thru justice and equality. Parliament & the leaders of the Army began to square off with each other.
And then è The king escaped. He opened negotiations with the Scots, the army, and Parliament, making contradictory promises to all 3. Somehow he managed to gain support from the Scots by promising to install Presbyterianism in England. When the Scots invaded, the Puritan army defeated them, captured Charles I, and began a purge of those factions in Parliament they deemed inconsistent with the reforms they envisioned. 45 MPs were arrested. What remained was labeled by its enemies the Rump Parliament because all that was left was the posterior of a real parliament.
It was this Rump Parliament that began proceedings against Charles, accused of high treason and of having trust England into a bloody civil war. The 14 lords who appeared for the meeting of the House of Lords refused to agree to the proceedings. But the House of Commons carried on, and Charles, who refused to defend himself on the grounds his judges had no legal standing, was beheaded on at the end of Jan, 1649.
Now, I’m sure someone might be asking, “Wait; is this Communio Sanctorum or Revolutions?” Though I can’t hold a candle to the eminent Mike Duncan’s brilliant podcast. Yeah, this doesn’t sound much like CHURCH history. It’s more English History. So what’s up?
Well, it’s kind of important to realize the roll Puritanism & Presbyterianism played in this period of English history. The Reformation had a huge impact on the course of events in the British Isles.
Fearing the loss of their independence from England, the Scots quickly acknowledged Charles’ son Charles II, as their sovereign. And in the South, England descended into chaos among several factions all vying for power
That’s when Cromwell took the reins. He commandeered the Rump Parliament, stamped out a rebellion in Ireland, then the royalists in Scotland. Charles II fled to the Continent. When Parliament moved to pass a law perpetuating its power, Cromwell expelled the few remaining representatives, and locked the building. Seemingly against his will, Cromwell had become master of the nation. He tried to return some form of representative government, but eventually took the title “Lord Protector.” He was supposed to rule with the help of a Parliament that would include representatives from England, Scotland, and Ireland. In reality, the new Parliament was mostly English, and Cromwell was the real government.
He set out to reform both church and state. Given the time, his policies were fairly tolerant. Although he was an Independent, he tried to develop a religious system with room for Presbyterians, Baptists, and even some advocates of episcopacy. As a Puritan, he tried to reform the customs of the culture through legislation. These laws were aimed at the Lord’s Day, horse races, cockfights, theater, and so on. His economic policies favored the middle class at the expense of the nobility. Among both the very wealthy and the very poor, opposition to his rule, which is called the Protectorate, grew.
Cromwell retained control while he lived. But his dream of a stable republic failed. Like the monarchs before him, he was unable to get along with Parliament—even though his supporters kept his opponents from taking their seats. Since the Protectorate was clearly temporary, Cromwell was offered the crown, but refused it, hoping to create a republic. In 1658, shortly before his death, in a move that seems almost politically schizophrenic, Cromwell named his son as his successor. But Richard was not his father and lacked his ability. He resigned his post.
Parliament then recalled Charles II to England’s throne. This brought about a reaction against the Puritans. Although Charles at first sought to find a place for Presbyterians within the Church of England, the new Parliament opposed it, preferring a return to the bishops’ episcopacy. The Book of Common Prayer was reinstalled after being out of favor for several years, and dissenters were banned. But such laws weren’t able to curb the several movements that had emerged during the previous unrest. They continued outside the law until, late in that 17th C, toleration was decreed.
In Scotland, the consequences of the restoration were more severe. With the episcopacy reinstalled in England, the staunch Presbyterianism of the North was challenged anew. Scotland erupted in riot. Archbishop James Sharp, the prime prelate of Scotland, was murdered. This brought English intervention in support of Scottish royalists. The Presbyterians were drowned in blood.
On his deathbed, Charles II declared himself a Catholic, confirming the suspicions of many that he’d been an agent of Rome all along and thus all the blood of Puritans & Presbyterians. His brother and successor, James II, moved to restore Roman Catholicism as the official religion of his kingdom. In England, he sought to gain the support of dissidents by decreeing religious tolerance. But the anti-Catholic sentiments among the dissidents ran so strong they preferred no tolerance to the risk of a return to Rome. Conditions in Scotland were worse, for James II—James VII of Scotland—placed Catholics in positions of power, and decreed death for any who attended unapproved worship.
After 3 years under James II, the English rebelled and invited William, Prince of Orange, along with his wife Mary, James’s daughter, to take the throne. William landed in 1688, and James fled to France. In Scotland his supporters held on for a few months, but by the next year William and Mary were in possession of the Scottish crown as well. Their religious policy was tolerant. In England, tolerance was granted to any who subscribed to the 39 Articles of 1562, and swear loyalty to the King & Queen. Those who refused, were granted tolerance as long as they didn’t conspire against the crown. In Scotland, Presbyterianism became the official religion of State, the Westminster Confession was its doctrinal norm.
But even after the restoration, the Puritan ideal lingered & greatly influenced British ethics. Its 2 great literary figures, John Bunyan and John Milton, along with Shakespeare, long endured among the most read of English authors. Bunyan’s most famous work, known by its abbreviated title Pilgrim’s Progress, became a hugely popular, and the subject of much meditation and discussion for generations. Milton’s Paradise Lost determined the way in which the majority of the English-speaking world read and interpreted the Bible.