The death of James I in 1625 precipitated a new wave of religious uncertainty in England. Although Charles I was widely regarded as more urbane and level-headed than his father, he was known to be much more pro-Catholic and anti-Puritan than his father. Added to that, he had married a foreign queen, Henrietta Maria of France—a Catholic. Religious criticism of the marriage surged, fueled by anxieties about what it might portend for English religious life and home and for English foreign policy.
Even the mere suggestion that Charles might marry the Spanish Infanta in 1623 had provoked intense criticism.15 One court preacher was forcibly interrupted when, speaking about Solomon's marriage to an idolater, he announced his intention to "make an application to the present time." It was all too obvious what that application was going to be, and silence seemed to all present to be by far the most prudent policy. The subsequent marriage of Charles to Henrietta Maria provoked outrage in many quarters. Comparing Henrietta Maria unfavorably to Jezebel, the anonymous author of the Sacrae Heplades (1625) gave vent to his hope that "some Jehu" might cause her to be thrown out of her window and trodden underfoot by some passing horse.
When Charles appointed the high churchman William Laud as archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, the Puritan faction within the
Church of England was incensed.16 At this time, Puritans were divided into factions—such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Separatists. Presbyterians believed in an organic church, with a graded hierarchy of government; Congregationalists held fast to the idea of the sovereignty of local congregations. There is no greater disruptive force, no greater incentive to fragmentation, than a common creed held with a difference. The perception of a difference often leads to its accentuation, sometimes to the point where what is held in common seems to recede into the background, overshadowed by the suspicion and hostility evoked by the division. A seemingly minor divergence thus had the potential to become the cause of division and strife within Puritan-ism—if it was allowed to do so.
Yet the increasing perception of a dangerously hostile establishment caused Puritans to see their differences from a somewhat different perspective and to bring a sense of realism to their differences. Internecine hostilities were suspended in order to concentrate on the greater threat that confronted the movement. Puritanism became an increasingly well organized movement, alert to both dangers and opportunities. Whether, taken in isolation, that would have led to anything much remains open to question. In the context of the growing tensions between Charles and Parliament, however, the position of Puritans could be seen as much more serious.
Charles's difficulties with Parliament began early in his reign and reached a crisis in 1629, when Parliament resolved that anyone who brought religious innovations into the country was to be regarded as an enemy of the state. This thinly veiled reference to Charles's interest in Catholicism could hardly be overlooked. The king dissolved Parliament and ruled directly. The "Court of the Star Chamber" was used to dispense legal judgments, without any recourse to appeal. Like his father before him, Charles saw the ideology of the divine right of kings as conveniently legitimating his stance and abrogating fundamental legal rights. Copies of the Geneva Bible, now banned from publication in England, flowed in from the continent, especially Amsterdam. Aware of its devastating critique of this royal ideology, William Laud banned its import as well.
But it would take more than this to staunch the impact of the Geneva Bible. After reading the fine print of Laud's banning order, streetwise Puritan entrepreneurs noted a neat (though inconvenient) way of getting around it. While they were prohibited from reproducing the text of the Geneva Bible, nothing had been said about its marginal notes. Having identified this loophole, they moved quickly to exploit it. They would print the text of the new authorized version of the Bible of 1611 and add the Genevan notes. Since the real strength—and, for Laud, the real danger—of the Geneva Bible lay not so much in its translation as in the marginal notes, it seemed to all that the Puritans had gained a tactical victory.
On the political front, the Laudian attempt to maintain a national Protestant episcopal church, with the king as its supreme governor, began to encounter setbacks. Charles's hand was forced by war—first in Scotland, then in Ireland. In November 1640, he summoned the "Long Parliament" to finance the war. Sensing Charles's weakness, Parliament abolished the Star Chamber and other institutions that had been instruments of his absolutism. To demonstrate where ultimate power really lay, the Parliament also tried to impeach some of Charles's favorites. Thomas Wentworth was impeached and eventually executed for treason in 1641. Most famously, William Laud was impeached and imprisoned. He would be executed for treason in 1645.17
In 1641, John Pym led a parliamentary rebellion against Charles's efforts to raise an army to deal with the rebellion in Ireland; he and his followers were convinced that Charles would first use this army to crush his opponents in England before turning his attention to Ireland. Parliament issued a "Grand Remonstrance," repeating their grievances against Charles, impeaching twelve bishops, and even attempting to impeach the queen. An abortive attempt by Charles to enter the House of Commons and arrest Pym and four parliamentary acolytes polarized matters to a point at which diplomacy was impossible. In August 1642, the civil war broke out.
Initially, the war went well for Charles. Realizing the weakness of its existing military structures, Parliament revoked existing military command structures and created the "New Model Army" under Oliver Cromwell in 1645.18 From now on, a soldier's rank would be based on ability, not social status. Then the king suffered severe military reversals. Under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, Parliament won victories at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). The capture of
Charles's correspondence at Naseby revealed his attempts to raise foreign support for his cause, thus alienating many of his more moderate supporters. In May 1646, Charles gave himself up to the Scottish army, which eventually handed him over to Parliament. He was held captive at Hampton Court.
The death of Laud and the capture of Charles marked the end of the defining vision that had guided English Protestantism since Elizabeth I. Whatever else it may have been, the English Civil War was fundamentally a battle for the soul of English Protestantism. Both sides regarded themselves as embodying the true ideals of Protestantism. Their soldiers found passages in the Bible that seemed to support their cause.19 Indeed, the famous "Soldiers' Pocket Bible" of 1643, intended to encourage the parliamentary army in its fight against the king, was repub-lished fifty years later—with some significant additions—as a royalist tract. The defeat of Charles removed the linchpin of the now-traditional Anglican doctrine of a national Protestant episcopal church, with the monarch at its head.
As long as Charles posed a serious threat, Puritanism was forced to unite in opposition to him. Once this incentive to unity had been removed, Puritanism began to fragment. Presbyterians and Congrega-tionalists were locked in theological combat in Parliament. The command structures of the New Model Army were threatened by the rise of "Levelers," who held that the notion of "rank" was unbiblical.20 Irritated at the aristocratic leanings of Cromwell and his right-hand man, Henry Ireton, radical Puritans pressed for the total abolition of the monarchy and a series of constitutional rights.
In a series of meetings at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Putney during late October and early November 1647, radicals met Cromwell and others, pressing for more radical reformation of the English state and army. In terms that presaged those of the American Revolution, they demanded the right of all freeborn Englishmen to vote, equality before the law, and freedom of religion. Colonel Thomas Rainborough argued that every man who is ruled by a civil government ought to have a voice in that government. Cromwell demurred, insisting that this right be limited to landowners. Sensing that things were spiraling out of control, Cromwell suspended the discussions and imposed his own set of reforms. These were so badly received that they led to a near-mutiny later that month. However, the escape of Charles I from Hampton Court that same month concentrated minds. Just as quickly as the removal of any serious external threat led to fragmentation within Puritanism, its reappearance consolidated unity. Charles was recaptured. But what should be done with him?21
The answer was suggested by a new doctrine that had arisen within Reformed Protestantism after the death of Calvin. Though he had advocated lawful resistance to tyrants, Calvin had not endorsed the justifiable regicide—that is, the killing of oppressive monarchs.22 Calvin's death in 1564 removed the last remaining obstacle to this new doctrine, which became increasingly significant in the late 1560s. In his Short Treatise of Politike Power (1556), John Ponet (1514-56) asserted that the people had the right to revolt against their oppressors—including "Kinges, Princes and other gouvernors"—and to destroy them before they destroyed the people.23 Christopher Goodman (1520-1603) took a similar line in his How Superior Powers Ought to Be Obeyed (1558). Just as a surgeon might amputate a limb to save the whole body, so society ought to be able to eliminate oppressors through the death sentence.
On January 1, 1649, Charles I was charged by Parliament with being a "tyrant, traitor, and murderer." The use of these three words in the charge ensured that both a legal and a theological foundation were laid for the anticipated death sentence. The "Rump Parliament"—so-called because Cromwell had allowed only those who supported the trial to attend—duly convicted Charles, who was executed on January 30. On the evening before his death, Charles told his thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, that he was to die for "maintaining the true Protestant religion" and urged her to read the works of Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker "to ground [her] against Popery." Charles saw himself as the defender of a specific form of Protestantism that was now imperiled, threatened by a rival that seemed to have triumphed at every level.
So a republic was proclaimed, and the monarchy abolished. But it was not merely the English state that was to be radically reformed. Between the years 1643 and 1647, the Church of England was systematically dismantled. Bishops, deans, archdeacons, and priests were abolished and replaced by presbyters. English Protestantism was now decisively polarized between the supporters and the opponents of episcopacy; the old middle ground occupied by consciously Reformed
Protestant archbishops after the manner of Thomas Cranmer or Matthew Parker and their Jacobean successors had vanished. For the moment, the opponents of episcopacy had won, yet their victory meant that, after the Restoration, a very different attitude toward episcopacy would emerge.
The sweeping measures brought in by Parliament to end the established church did not end with the abolition of episcopacy. Every effort was made to eradicate its instruments. The Book of Common Prayer, detested by Puritans, was proscribed. The celebration of any Christian festival—including Christmas Day—was prohibited. The universities were purged of those with marked Anglican sympathies. The noted Puritan writer John Owen, who managed to preach to Parliament on the day after Charles's execution without actually mentioning that not unimportant event, was appointed vice-chancellor of Oxford University. England had found its own way to Protestantism in the Elizabethan period and shaped its own distinctive form of that faith. Yet all was now changed. For the first time, England became a state modeled along the lines of Calvin's Geneva rather than contemporary Lutheran-ism. The radicals had won—for the time being.
Yet disenchantment and disillusion soon set in. The religious ideas might have changed, but in just about every other respect England seemed merely to have swapped one rather oppressive regime for another. The "new" national order seemed depressingly similar to the old. Some lines penned on the eve of the Puritan Commonwealth by the Puritan poet John Milton—a vigorous defender of educational and libertarian ideals—seemed to sum up the gloomy mood within Puritanism as it became increasingly obvious that the Commonwealth was imploding. Milton's twenty-four-line poem "On the New Forcers of Conscience Under the Long Parliament" (1646) argued that those who had overthrown Archbishop Laud were subverting Christian freedom, declaring the orthodox to be heretics for their own ends, and setting up a dogmatic religious institution that rivaled anything produced by the Council of Trent. The closing words of that poem would haunt the Commonwealth in its final months: "New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large."24
In the end, the Puritan Commonwealth died of exhaustion, infighting, disillusionment, and lack of vision. The decision to invite Charles
II to return from exile was ultimately a counsel of despair, reflecting a wish to avoid anarchy rather than any firm conviction that it was right in itself. The Puritans had lost any popular sympathy through their religious rigidity, most famously expressed in the banning order issued against the eating of plum pudding on Christmas Day. The restoration of the monarchy unleashed a new era of social and moral experimentation, perhaps most obviously seen in the success of the bawdy "Restoration comedy."25
Other nations might have been tempted to experiment with atheism or agnosticism in response to the religious intolerance and bigotry of the Puritan era. The English, however, decided to reinstate the Church of England instead, presumably believing that, for all intents and purposes, this amounted to more or less the same thing. Under Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685, a decidedly docile form of Anglicanism emerged as the religion of the English establishment. The Church of England would be expected to be submissive to the expectations of the people and to keep its religious beliefs to itself rather than impose them on others.
Having been suppressed for more than a decade, the Church of England was put back in place with surprising ease, not unlike that experienced by Russian Orthodoxy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everything abolished by the Long Parliament was restored. By 1662 a new prayer book was in place, and bishops, deans, and the clergy were back in their places in restored cathedrals, dioceses, and parishes.26 The King James Bible, which had languished in earlier generations on account of its associations with an unpopular monarch, became a potent symbol of a new ecclesiastical stability. Who wanted to use the Geneva Bible, with its unhappy associations with the Puritan Commonwealth? It was at this point that the King James Bible began its ascent to the religious and literary heights that would make it the most revered English translation of the Bible yet to have been made.27
Yet Puritanism left its mark on the restored church. The concept of the divine right of kings would no longer play a significant role in English religious or political life.28 Attempts to make Charles I into a religious martyr, evident in the royalist tract Eikon Basilike (1649), were subverted by Puritans. The great Puritan writer and public intellectual John Milton offered a radical deconstruction of the work to expose the vested interests of its author. The satirical writings of the Puritan poet Andrew Marvell helped shape Restoration attitudes to Charles I; by the time Marvell had finished with it, the image of Charles had been refashioned from that of "sacred icon" to "sentimental story."
Whether on account of its "precisianist" nature or through a failure to think through the practical implications of its agendas, Puritanism had failed both to uproot an older ecclesiastical system and to root itself in the hearts of the English people. Radical Protestantism would never again be a serious presence in England. Even when, for a brief period, it seemed as if Catholicism might be imposed on the nation during the short and difficult reign of James II, none seem to have entertained even the possibility of restoring Puritanism. It would, however, be permitted: the Toleration Act of 1690 gave the successors of the Puritans the right to worship, subject to certain concessions.
Yet the Toleration Act was soon seen to have an unintended consequence. Drafted to allow the English to worship in other places besides the parish churches, cathedrals, and chapels of the Church of England, it also made possible another alternative—not to worship anywhere at all.
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