Episcopalians, puritans, presbyterians and sectaries: contesting the Church of England in the mid seventeenth century

If you visualize religious history in the 1640s and 1650s as a blanket triumph of puritanism, think again. As Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section explains, the real picture was much more complex

As noted in previous blogs, the myth of tight and uniformly repressive puritan rule in the mid-seventeenth has proved hard to shift. Likewise, the blame for much iconoclasm – the destruction of church windows, statuary and other images and artefacts – continues to be laid primarily at the door of Oliver Cromwell and his austere East Anglian lieutenants when it should more often be attributed to a minority of his particularly austere contemporaries or, especially, to his distant kinsman more than a century earlier, Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell. In reality, religion in this period was a complex business. Ordinary people registered varied experiences of church and community life, while those in authority exhibited many shades of opinion. The kill-joy controversialist William Prynne was notable in this period for his extremism, while the contrasting lifestyles of the pious Sir Edward Hungerford and the adulterous Sir Edward Bayntun demonstrate that ‘puritans’ came in different shapes and sizes.

On 21 May a conference titled ‘Contesting the Church in England, 1640-1670’ will convene in Canterbury. It will bring together historians researching how various individuals and interest groups during this period of civil wars and reconstruction argued and acted for their vision of what the national church should be. The House of Commons 1640-1660 section will be represented. Since the Reformation, Parliament had been the place where religious change or religious settlements had been enacted, as well as the location of influential preaching. But in the 1640s it also became the place where policy was formulated. It abolished the bishops and their ecclesiastical courts. Its committees adjudicated on petitions from congregations, dismissed and appointed clergy, and launched preaching campaigns. It continued to debate religious questions, despite apparently delegating this function to its own creation, a synod of clergy meeting from 1643 as the Westminster Assembly. It outlawed use of the Book of Common Prayer and authorized the Assembly’s Directory for Worship (1645), only to turn a blind eye to some contraventions of the former and ignore the latter.

Title page of Directory for Public Worship, 1644/5

So who were the movers and shakers of religious policy in Parliament and what exactly were their views? For some of the just over 1,800 men who sat in the 1640s and 1650s, we have very little evidence: they made no revealing speeches, or are not visible in local church activities, or left no private papers or clue in their wills. At the other end of the scale were identifiable activists. For example, over his years as an MP the ubiquitous Francis Rous, scholar and Speaker of the Nominated Parliament, was a lay member of the Westminster Assembly, a member of the key central executive Committee for Preaching Ministers, a ‘trier and ejector’ regulating ministers in the localities, a commissioner for excluding unworthy persons from taking the sacrament of Holy Communion and a participant in preparing legislation for the selling off of bishops’ lands. Sir Henry Vane the elder, a former courtier and a leading figure at the fashionable church of St Martin in the Fields, had a similar profile, as did William Wheler, his equivalent at St Margaret’s, Westminster, in charge of arrangements for parliamentary fast days. But men of humbler origins were also prominent. Nathaniel Hallowes, a woollen draper and grandson of a labourer, was a churchwarden in his native Derby thirty years before he appeared on religious committees at Westminster, including for the regulation of universities. George Thomson, similarly high-profile, was an international merchant and disabled army veteran, who had spent his youth in Massachusetts.

Unsurprisingly, men of such different backgrounds had divergent perspectives on the church. In late 1640 and 1641, widespread resentment against the perceived encroachment of bishops into the realm of secular power swept MPs down the path of abolishing them altogether. Soon enough, however, some began to regret the sanctions and the popular unrest that had been unleashed. One such was Sir Edward Dering, who was excluded from Parliament early in 1642 for breaching privilege by printing his speech calling for a compromise position of ‘modified episcopacy’. In contrast stood the godly Herefordshire MP Sir Robert Harley, supporter of a firm alliance with the Presbyterian Scots, a keen iconoclast and, as time went on, an enthusiastic promoter of the Directory for Worship. But in 1648 his willingness to make peace with the king ensured he fell victim to the army’s purge of Parliament.

A Pious and Seasonable Perswasive to the Sonnes of Zion (1647)

There was no religious unanimity among those who survived it, however – except inasmuch as many shared a distaste for a church still run by clergy. The Presbyterians, as John Milton put it, had simply proved to be ‘old priests writ large’ – worse than those who preceded them. A taste for ‘Erastianism’ or lay control was general, but differently interpreted. Some MPs, like veteran lawyer John Selden, appear to have had very little interest in the detail of theology and devotion. Others, like lawyer and memorialist Bulstrode Whitelocke and Speaker William Lenthall, quietly encouraged a reversion to earlier forms of worship. On the other hand, Miles Corbet and Oliver Cromwell were among those who moved towards a model of loosely-federated but largely autonomous congregational churches, while the Parliaments of the 1650s also recruited men like Samuel Hyland who belonged to sectarian groups and repudiated the notion of a national church.

The evolution of religious ideas and the context of experiment tested parliamentary control of the church in the later 1650s. MPs debated hotly, and concluded variously, how far they were authorised or competent to judge and punish the alleged blasphemy of James Naylor, the Quaker who rode into Bristol in what seemed like a parody of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, or the ‘Socianian’ heresy of John Biddle, who denied the Trinity. The limits of toleration were also challenged in differing views on the readmission of the Jews to England. In practice, diversity was the default, with Oliver Cromwell at the vanguard of those prepared to give almost everyone the benefit of the doubt – a disinclination to open a window into men’s souls that put him squarely in the tradition of Elizabeth I’s Church of England.


Further reading:

A. Milton, England’s Second Reformation: The Battle for the Church of England 1625-1662 (2021)

Biographies or further biographies of all the 17th-century MPs mentioned in this blog are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s