"OUR STORY"

19.  The Wars of Religion
(1600s)

Who were the English "Puritans"?

  • They were the English who had taken refuge among the Calvinists in Switzerland and Germany during the reign of Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) and who returned to England when Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, ready to "purify" the English church along Calvinist lines.  Elizabeth needed their support in her struggles to keep her throne against her many Catholic enemies.  But she herself was never as radical in her religion as these very pious and demanding church reformers.
  • As with the other Calvinists, the "Puritans" wanted the removal of all "fancy" or showy features of church life, everything from the robes and adornements that the priests wore, to the paintings, statues and stain glass windows of the church, to the use of Latin, incense, chanting, and liturgical prayers performed by the priests.  Instead they proposed the simple use of English, prayers that came from the heart (not a worshipbook), hymns sung by the congregation, and sermons not written and read by professional sermonwriters in the bishop's employ but sermons crafted by the local preacher out of his deep and prayerful study of scripture (Puritans expected their pastors to be very knowledgeable about scripture, not about church liturgy and doctrine like the Catholic priests).
  • The Puritans (as with all Calvinists) wanted all the saints days or holidays (holy days) done away with and stress placed on Sunday worship instead.  Easter and Pentecost were the only special Sundays observed (not even Christmas, whose timing they knew had pagan, not Christian, origins).
  • The Puritans expected their pastors to be married men with families, familiar with the everyday matters of English life.  They thought that their pastors ought to be university graduates (especially from Cambridge, which was a key center of Puritanism)--well-read and learned about things of the world (such as business and technology) and able to relate the everyday lives of the parishioners to the will of God revealed in the study of scripture and prayer.
  • Many of the Puritans were "presbyterian" in their views on church organization:  desiring all local churches to be "connectional" with each other through the periodic meeting of higher councils (presbyteries, synods and general assemblies) attended by representatives of local churches and lower councils.  These presbyterian Puritans believed in "representative" democracy.  Other Puritans were "congregational" in their view that each local congregation should be completely able to stand on its own in governing itself--through local meetings in which matters touching on the life of the local community were decided by all the men of the congregation representing the various families who made up the membership.  These congregationalist Puritans believed in "total" democracy.
  • Elizabeth tolerated these Puritans--as long as their focus remained purely on matters of church worship and local life.  She was not keen on them however when they wanted to meddle in national policies--and when they wanted to convert the church of England from episcopalian (under the rule of bishops appointed by her) to presbyterian or congregationalist.
  • Some of the Puritans were beginning to give up hope of ever being able to "purify" the English church.  They became supporters of the idea of simply separating from the English church and worshipping on their own under their own appointed pastors.  Elizabeth detested these "Separatists" and made life as miserable for them as she could--arresting and even executing them when she caught up with them.  Many of these Separatists decided to leave England and move to the Netherlands where they would be free to worship along Calvinist lines.
  • When Elizabeth died in 1603 and James I came to rule England (1603-1625) there was much hope of the English Puritans for a final victory of their Calvinist principles.  Though he was the son of the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, as a young man he had been surrounded and taught by Scottish Presbyterian teachers and had already been ruling in Presbyterian Scotland as James VI since 1567.
  • As it turned out, he was Calvinist in basic theology, but very Episcopalian (or Anglican) in his view on church government.  He also took the view that the King was the ultimate "defender of the faith" in the land of his rule.  By Divine Right (supposedly God's will revealed in the circumstances of his birth as king) it was the King who should appoint the officers of the church (its bishops) and who should direct the theological life of the entire church under his rule.  Thus it was James who called for scholars to issue an "authorized" English version of the bible--known still today more popularly as the "King James Version" of the Bible.  It was he who called for the redrafting of the Book of Worship to be used in all English churches (which the Calvinist Puritans and Separatists were by then strongly opposed to).
  • Needless to say, his strong views on the "Divine Rights" of the English King made life miserable for the Calvinists in England and Scotland.
How does this relate to the English establishment of colonies in America (early 1600s)?
  • One of the things that helped ease tensions with these Calvinists was James' granting of rights to Separatists to settle in the English colonies in America--where they would be free to establish communities that practiced their Calvinist faith and life.  Thus in 1620 English Separatists received the right to be the first "pilgrims" to America, leaving from Holland on the Mayflower to settle at Plymouth in Massachussets.
  • Nonetheless, by the time of his death in 1625, James had succeeded not only in alienating the English Puritans but also the Scottish Presbyterians.  Bit by bit he had taken away the right of the Scottish church to elect its own members to the Scottish General Assemblies and instead had given that right to bishops appoined by him to rule over the Scottish church. When he died things were very tense in England and Scotland.
  • His son Charles I (ruled England from 1625 to 1649) proved to be no better in the eyes of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians.  In particular they hated the influence that Bishop William Laud had over him.  Laud was an Arminianist (believed in salvation by "choice" rather than "election") and was such a high-church episcopalian that he appeared to be almost a Roman Catholic at heart.  When Charles made Laud bishop of the very Puritan diocese of London, friction began to mount.
  • In part Charles bought off some of the Puritan opposition by offering them a royal charter to establish a colony in America, the Massachussetts Bay Company, where they could live under their own Calvinist (congregationalist variety) rule.  In 1628 this colony was established just to the north of the Plymouth Colony.  Soon large numbers of Puritans began to make their way to America to freely practice their "pure" religion.  In 1636 the Connecticut colony was opened up to Puritan settlement and in 1638 the New Haven colony.  "New England" was being born.
  • To the south of New England in America was "Virginia," founded in 1607 basically as a commercial--not a religious--colony (though it too during its early years had a very Puritan governor).  The idea in Virginia was for settlers to send back the wealth of America to England.  No gold was found--but tobacco was.  The Indians showed the Virginia settlers how to raise this cash crop--and Virginia finally had an economic purpose.  Religion-wise, the workers were mostly gentry and peasants with little or no interest in theology.  They were interested in the land and the money it could produce--not religion.  Anyway the King took back the charter of the Virginia Company, making it into a royal colony -- with an episcopalian religious structure.  The Church of England ruled over by kings and bishops was satisfactory to the Virginians.
What was happening in the meantime on the European continent between the Catholics and Protestants (first half of the 1600s)?
  • War--big time.  Behind the religious issues of course were always the political issues of whose will it was that ruled in a particular land or kingdom.  Thus Protestant Princes and Kings gathered armies to fight against Catholic Princes and Kings (also Bishops with armies).
  • The religious issue often got lost in the larger political question:  thus the very Catholic king of France, Louis XIII and his very able advisor, Catholic Cardinal Richelieu, sided with the Protestant princes and Kings of Germany and Scandinavia--only because the French were afraid of how a victory of the armies of the Catholic Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs might do serious harm to French power and influence in Europe!
  • The saddest feature of this long drawn-out struggle was what it did to the people of Germany.  For 30 years (1618 to 1648) the battles between Spanish, French, Polish, Danish and Swedish kings and local German princes raged back and forth across Germany.  The poor peasants caught in the middle lost their crops, their farms and their lives through slaughter and starvation.  As a result, the population of Germany fell from 16 million to 6 million people over that time period.
  • Finally in 1648 a truce was declared in the Treaty of Westphalia between all the parties fighting in this war.  Basically the Treaty promised that the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist division of central Europe as of 1624 would be restored and guaranteed by all the pinces and kings.  Some areas would be Catholic; some Lutheran and some Calvinist.
  • No one expected that the Treaty would last.  But everyone was so exhausted that they couldn't bring themselves to go to war again.  The Treaty of Westphalia in fact marked a rather permanent division of Central Europe among these three religious groups.
Why does the English civil war now take up at this point (1640)?
  • Meanwhile back in England tensions were only growing worse between Charles and the Anglicans on one side and the Puritans on the other.  Tensions tended to play themselves out most fiercely within the English Parliament (national legislature--like our Congress) especially in the House of Commons where the prosperous Puritan merchants, industrialists and agriculturalists were the largest group.  In a sense the religious struggle became one of a struggle between the King and Parliament.
  • Actually the explosion came first in Scotland when Charles (with Laud's encouragement) tried to impose the Anglican worship form on the Scottish church.  This was the last straw for the Scottish who in 1637 began to resist and then rebel against royal control of the Scottish (Presbyterian) church.
  • When in 1640 Charles tried to raise an army to crush the rebellion, he had to turn to English Parliament for the money necessary to equip and pay that army.  That proved to be a fatal mistake to a King who had tried to rule England without Parliament for many years.  Once Parliament was called into session, the Puritan demands for reform began to gush forth.  The situation grew worse for Charles as the Scots now were invading England with their Presbyterian armies.
  • Parliament now began to act on its own.  It had Laud arrested (and in 1645 executed).  It passed a law abolishing episcopal church government and replacing it with a Presbyterian form for England.  In 1643 it convened an Assemby at Westminster of Puritan theologians to write a new religious confession (the Westminster Confession of Faith) and a new worship formula (the Directory) for all of England, based on Puritan or Calvinist principles.
  • By early 1642 Charles was trying to fight back with armies of his own (drawn mostly from the West and North of England) against the armies of Parliament (drawn mostly from the South and East of England).  The English Civil War was thus underway.
  • By 1645, the Parliamentary and thus Puritan "New Model" army under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell had completely destroyed Charles' royal army.  Charles was arrested and imprisoned.
  • Charles then tried to split the Scottish Presbyterians from Cromwell's Puritans, because the latter were becoming less interested in the rigors of ultra-Calvinism and more interested in establishing an atmosphere of religious freedom for spiritual pilgrims to follow out their consciences before God.  Thus Charles persuaded the Scottish Presbyterians to attack the"revisionist" Cromwellians--a disaster for the Scots and the cause of death of Charles--who was executed for his "treasonous" behavior in 1649.
  • This left England under the leadership of Cromwell--for Charles' son, the future king Charles II, had fled to France for protection.  But Cromwell, the "Great Protector" was not desirous of this job.  He took it up nonetheless, and began to put into place the full Puritan reform of England--and Ireland.
  • Needless to say, his military style of governing began to rub English the wrong way (much less the Irish who grew to hate him for the highhanded way he tried to impose Puritanism on very Catholic Ireland).
  • And the petty bickerings that began to break forth among the English Protestant leaders did nothing to endear their rule to the English.
  • When in 1658, upon Cromwell's death, his rule was taken up by his son, Richard, things began to turn against the Puritan "Commonwealth."  Richard was not a capable leader.  Dissatisfaction against the Commonwealth began to spread rapidly.
  • In 1660 Parliament voted to restore the monarchy and invite Charles II to return from France and take the throne left vacant in England since his father's execution.
  • But Charles returned to an England just as suspicious of royal authority as it was tired of Puritan strictness.  Charles was relatively aware of the limits to his position--and held a horrible memory of his father's undoing.  Thus Charles, though profoundly Catholic in spirit, kept his religious views largely to himself and suffered himself to be surrounded by Protestant advisors.

Charles II /  James II / William III / Mary II
  • Nonetheless Charles moved cautiously but surely against the Puritans, restoring Anglican order in the church and forcing the English clergy to agree to Episcopalian forms of church government.  1680 Puritan pastors gave up their positions rather than to agree to these changes--thus becoming part of the Dissenters.  Worship of the Dissenters was made illegal and subject to heavy fines.  But Charles was not able to force the English into total compliance with the restoration of episcopalianism or Anglicanism in the church.
  • .When he died in 1685 his brother James II became king.  James was proud and vain and totally undiplomatic in his relations with the people he ruled over.  He ignored the laws of England when it pleased him to do so.  He surrounded himself with "Cavaliers" who were openly Catholic in their loyalties--as part of his determination to restore England to the Catholic church.
  • The effort backfired.  In 1688 Parliament rose up in rebellion and called on the Protestant Dutch leader of the Netherlands, William of Orange, and his wife Mary (daughter of James II!) to lead a Parliamentary army in the overthrow of James II.  James soon had to flee to France.  William and Mary were asked by Parliament to become together the king and queen of England (William III and Mary II)
  • From 1689 on, it was definitely Parliament, not the king, who ruled England.  Anglicanism remained the "established" form of church life in England.  But Protestant Dissenters were tolerated.  Indeed, from this point on, religious toleration now begins its path to becoming one of the highest principles of English life and culture.

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Miles H. Hodges